Altered Images

Pedro Meyer Wants to Undermine Your Trust in Photos

August 18, 1994

By Scott Rosenberg

Pedro Meyer points to one of his photographs and says, "Tell me what's been altered in this picture."

The photo shows a huge wooden chair on a pedestal - a Brobdingnagian seat that looms over the buildings in the background with the displaced mystery of an Easter Island sculpture.

It's difficult to say what's going on here: A trompe l'oeil perspective trick? Or the product of digital special effects?

Meyer is a serious artist and philosopher of technology, but today he's playing a little game of "what's wrong with this picture?" He's trying to illustrate the same point he makes, more elaborately, in both his current exhibit at the Mexican Museum and his new CD-ROM from the Voyager Company - both titled "Truths and Fictions/Verdades y Ficciones."

The truth about the chair photo is that it's a "straight" image: It's just a really big chair.

Meyer says he took the shot outside an old furniture factory in Washington, D.C. But the self-evidently transformed pictures that surround it in his exhibit - like that of a pint-sized old woman on a checkerboard table carrying a torch toward an angelic girl many times her size - call its accuracy into question. We stare and distrust our eyes.

So is Pedro Meyer, who started out as a traditional documentary photographer, out to subvert our faith in the photographic image, our notion that "pictures never lie"? You better believe it.

"I think it's very important for people to realize that images are not a representation of reality," Meyer says. "The sooner that myth is destroyed and buried, the better for society all around."

Certainly, Meyer isn't making the case in a vacuum. The public seems to be growing savvier by the minute about how the media manipulate images. Witness the flap over Time magazine's not-so-subtly altered cover art of O.J. Simpson, which had the bad luck to run opposite a Newsweek cover that featured the same photo unretouched.

If photographic images don't represent reality, what do they represent? The perspective of their creator, Meyer says - just as in any other creative medium. "I'm not suggesting that a photograph cannot be trustworthy. But it isn't trustworthy merely because it's a picture. It's trustworthy because somebody who we trust made it.

"We don't trust words because they're words, but we trust pictures because they're pictures. That's crazy - it takes away our responsibility to investigate the truth for ourselves, to approach images with care and with caution."

Doesn't this undercut the authority of photographers and their work? Meyer, a shortish man with a pensive-looking gray beard and eyes that occasionally hint at vague mischief, gestures at my notebook and tape recorder. "You're interviewing me right now. Later you'll sit down and edit. You won't put in everything we talk about, and you'll highlight some things over others." (This is undeniably true.)

"Somebody reading your column will understand that your own value judgments shape it. And after reading a number of your columns, if that person sees that the way you write is worthy of their trust, then what you write increasingly becomes something they don't question. But that's because it's you - not because they're words.

"OK: Turn it around, let me take a portrait of you. I take a picture, put it in the column next to your words - and people say, that's the way he was. In the future, I hope, they will think, what did he highlight, what did he edit - and attribute to me, the photographer, the same ability to make judgments as you. That enhances my position from being just a button-pusher to being a creator."

"And that," Meyer adds happily, "is one of the things that happens with this exhibition: For the first time in my life, people think that every one of the images has an intention. How people approach the work changes once they are conscious I can change the image."

"Truths and Fictions" - both the show and the CD, which serves in part as its catalog - is full of altered images, photos that have been created out of other photos using Macintosh computers. Meyer's body of work turns a critical sensibility on the contemporary United States and a more fanciful eye on the native culture of Oaxaca, Mexico. The photographer, who now lives in Los Angeles, was born in Spain but grew up in Mexico.

The "Truths and Fictions" CD includes all the photos in the exhibit, behind-the-scenes explanations of how Meyer created them, and a fascinating international symposium. The photographer wrote 150 of his friends and colleagues, asking them how the digital revolution had affected their work, and invited them to respond in any medium. The CD compiles their responses as submitted - in every medium from handwriting to hypertext. (Ironically, one response is a sound recording; the respondent, suffering from RSI, couldn't type.)

The result is an extraordinary snapshot of state-of-the-art thinking, vintage 1994, about the future of image-making. If people 10 or 100 years from now want to understand the context in which his photos were created, Meyer says, it's all here.

His first CD-ROM, "I Photograph to Remember," now a classic of the infant medium, was a stark, moving story-in-photos of the deaths of his parents. When I say to Meyer that the old CD was simpler than the new one, he bridles a bit - arguing that the new multimedia industry has created a wrongheaded hierarchy that values complex but pointless "bells and whistles" and overlooks the virtues of simplicity.

"If we eliminate the patronizing view of simplicity, then a lot of people would make better choices and not be dragged into these huge budgets and elitist structures. I hear things like, oh, this disk cost $500,000 - and far from empowering people to do new interesting things, that's just creating a new set of Hollywood-type projects."

Because producing CD-ROMs is far cheaper than publishing a photo book, Mayer sees greater opportunities for photographers to publish their work. "I'm trying to encourage young people to use these tools because they can do some fantastic work with them for a pittance. Photographers have always complained about the difficulty of publishing their work."

Computers have made it possible and necessary for artists to rethink their medium from the ground up, Meyer suggests. For instance, he thinks photographers today need to learn about sound. "Rather than learning about all kinds of new gadgets, we should actually be becoming conscious of hearing sound, using sound, exploring its contributions with something as modest as a little tape recorder" - like the one he used in his living room for the intimate narration of "I Photograph to Remember."

Meyer sees the photographer of the future as a kind of digital Renaissance man - an artist and storyteller and technologist rolled into one. In one of the how-I-did-it explanations on the new disk, he describes his exhilaration at the potential of the new tools he's using, saying he feels less like a photographer, or even a painter, than a theater director. The computer he works on, in other words, "is not a canvas - it's a stage."

"Truths and Fictions" is at the Mexican Museum, Fort Mason Center (415-441-0404), through Oct. 2.

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