Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Altered photos as modern art

I was looking today at the FATESCAPES / Osudové krajiny project by Czech photographer Pavel Maria Smejkal when I discovered another shockingly powerful feature of Google's Search by Image facility.

Pavel's images are created by taking famous historical photographs of war and removing all human elements from the images. While some of the image sources were immediately obvious to me, such as Robert Capa's 'The Falling Soldier':

Yevgeny Khaldei's 'Soviet Flag over the Reichstag':

and Stuart Franklin's 'Tiananmen Square':

...there were others which felt familiar but which I couldn't quite place:

So I wondered if Google's Search by Image could match photos when the most important feature was missing. In this case I was impressed that it could, showing that the source image was Joe Rosenthal's 'Iwo Jima':

However, in other cases it failed, as with John Filo's image of an anti-Vietnam war protester gunned down outside Kent State University:

In this case, for a human viewer who knows the history of the original, the source is clear as the image has become as (in)famous for the poles as it is for the human content:

.. but as extraordinary as Search by Image is at matching images, in cases like this the altered image is just missing too much of the original content.

As someone with a reasonable knowledge of the history of photography, I certainly find Pavel Maria Smejkal's work interesting and intriguing. It demonstrates that with modern art, as with many things, the simplest ideas are often the best. Artist Craig Damrauer has expressed this perfectly, and on more than one level:

... but for viewers without that knowledge of the original historical images, I suspect that Smejkal's images will be pretty meaningless. Using Search by Image provides a useful way for the viewer to find the source material, and information about the history of the original images. If modern art can be used in this way to help people gain an interest in and learn about important historical events, I feel that can only be a good thing.

I have seen a lot of discussion recently about the differences between 'derivative' and 'transformative' work in art, and the copyright implications. Personally I think that Smejkal's work, for all its simplicity, has a far better case for originality than a lot of controversial works by some other very famous and successful modern artists.

Also, the ability of Google's Search by Image function to spot heavily altered or cropped images will certainly be useful for photographers trying to track down unauthorised uses of their own images, and I am sure that over time Search by Image's matching ability will only improve.

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