August 23, 2019

“I’ve Never Misfiled Anything”

In a recent interview, Nicolas Cage defended his approach to acting, suggesting that a performance made more memorable through a stylistic tic or a definitive line reading is more  “truthful” than performances that try for naturalism, that disavow the fact that they are performances:

Look at James Cagney in White Heat. “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” That’s not “real.” But is it fun to watch? Is it exciting? Is it truthful? Yeah, and to me, that is great acting.

“Real acting” is already oxymoronic, so why not embrace the paradox? A performance that aspires to disappear is as much a gimmick or a trick as acting that calls attention to itself. “I have gone out of my way not to be ironic and — with the risk of looking ridiculous — to be genuinely emotionally naked,” Cage claims in regard to his over-the-top scenes. But that “nakedness” is not a matter of the performance referring to some prior reality, some “real feeling,” that it is trying to faithfully mimic (or satirically mock). Acting becomes “real” by exceeding representation. It’s naked because there is no hiding in rote mimicry of what is on the surface of perception — it is not an illusion or a facsimile, but a crystallization.

This reminded me of how historian Miles Orvell, in his 1989 book The Real Thing, described the pictorialist movement in 19th century photography: These photographers aimed to represent “reality” not by simply capturing what was in front of the lens with as little manipulation as possible but by staging shots that distilled the essence of what they believed they were seeing. He quotes from a 1869 photography textbook: “A great deal can be done and beautiful pictures made, by the mixture of the real and artificial in a picture. It is not the fact of reality that is required, but the truth of imitation that constitutes a veracious picture. Cultivated minds do not require to believe that they are deceived, and that they look on actual nature, when they behold a pictorial representation of it.” Orvell adds that “sophisticated viewers … savored precisely the ontological ambiguity of the resulting image” — much as sophisticated viewers now may savor the ambiguity of a Nicolas Cage performance. (“I’ve never misfiled anything!”)

Photography did not immediately aspire to documentary facticity; it was too arduous and novel a process to seem anything but deliberate — for the elisions and manipulations required to make an image to disappear. Framing some segment of reality is always manipulative, always distorting, always rhetorical, always a claim. “Cultivated” 19th century minds presumably took this for granted; they didn’t expect to be tricked into seeing a photo as the thing itself rather than a contrived production. There was no question of passively recording reality as a pretense of objectively capturing “truth.” More important than some spurious fidelity to actuality was the achievement of, as Orvell notes, a “rhetorically convincing effect,” which revolved around deliberate alterations and condensations, the palpable effort to capture something beyond the surface. “Even while the image was presented as a ‘document,’ the photographer was constructing a general representation, a simulacrum of the real thing,” Orvell writes. “Once again, verisimilitude was the goal, though verity was the claim.” This is basically Plato for photographers: What appears true aspires to depict the ideal forms behind the happenstance reality, the shadows on the cave wall. A snapshot is likely to capture only the veil over reality. A more deliberately staged image could augment what we see — allow us to grasp something deeper, something quintessential. As Orvell notes about early portrait photography, “the instantaneous moment was more likely to result in a distorted expression, rather than the more typical truth of individuality aimed at.”

This rationale was driven in part by image scarcity. Photography was cumbersome and expensive, as was reproducing and distributing prints. One image had to do a lot of condensing work to become representative in a general sense. Now images are plentiful, and it seems almost counterintuitive to reject the veracity of a offhand snapshot. The anchoring expectation now is to believe that there is more rather than less truth in the spontaneous, undoctored image — that no slice of life captured with a camera can be a lie, and that doctored or staged photos are intrinsically false. Orvell quotes Walter Lippmann’s assertion in Public Opinion that “photographs have the kind of authority over imagination today which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before that. They seem utterly real. They come, we imagine, directly to us without human meddling, and they are the most effortless food for the mind conceivable.” I interpret that as suggesting that images seem true to the degree that they are effortless to consume.

Contrary to what Lippmann seems to claim, the “effortlessness” of images is constructed, or willed — they appear effortless because their immediacy is presumed as precondition of their being noticed at all. The effects of “human meddling” — i.e., the idea that images need to be interpreted or situated rhetorically — are ruled out beforehand so that the images can be absorbed without effort, and that effortlessness is then taken as proof of the image’s self-evident veracity.

It’s conventional now to accept, through a kind of suspension of disbelief, a certain style of documentary photography as unmediated, so we can enjoy the pretense of seeing something “real” rather than strategic. To put that another way, amid the contemporary surfeit of images, everything in our lives is so mediated, so saturated in constructed images, that we have made a fetish of the “unmediated” and the “authentic.” Everyone too has firsthand experience of producing media themselves, and we understand the distortions inherent in that, but this doesn’t necessarily yield a universal cynicism but a collective effort at building and sustaining the norms and structures necessary for belief. These conventions of what can be construed as real or unmediated are always being negotiated, marketed, challenged, and upended.

Mediating the idea of “unmediated” is a bit like “real acting.” It is the art of producing disavowal in audiences, of making the formula for “realism” disappear through strict adherence to it. Nicolas Cage’s performances tend to defy or foreground these formulas; they propose that we can remember them and surrender to them simultaneously. But more conventionally, we tend to insist on a “reality” that depends on the trick of disavowal, on the fantasy of a pure copy of the real that allows us to deny mediation. We are no longer “cultivated minds” who revel in “ontological ambiguity” but instead expect technology to resolve the mysteries of being into objective facts.

But something of the 19th century attitude to photography persists in the idea of a “deepfake” — a fake that is regarded as somehow more fake than an ordinary fake. That we need for a special word for it suggests our ambivalence, the suspicion that it is presenting something “deeper,” something that exceeds the contingent and incidental. Often, the perceived problem with deepfakes is that they might be used as evidence of something that never happened — that they might convince people of something that they are otherwise skeptical of. Yet it seems that they are not produced to change minds but to confirm already existing general impressions. As with the ideal for 19th century photos, a deepfake is an image doctored for a “rhetorically convincing effect,” only now it is ratified by whether it gets circulated or not. If it goes viral, it is “true.” If it doesn’t, it wasn’t convincing enough.

As many have pointed out, deepfakes aren’t dangerous because they will be erroneously treated as factual, but rather because they cast more doubt on the facticity of any image. That is, they threaten the ease with which we disavow all media’s constructedness. This in turn raises the question of what sorts of truths we demand images for, and whether any of these “truths” are ever truly surprising. Our sense of the “real” is preconditioned to ignore or take for granted a lot of what we experience; we open ourselves to be surprised by what there is to see only in carefully structured situations. Yet we are continually bombarded by images that purport to be speaking some truth, that are effectively propaganda for themselves, their own reality. This is especially true of ads, which Orvell describes as “a paradise in which things were more real than in our everyday world, yet that ‘reality’ had to be guaranteed over and over again.”

Taking a certain proportion of these images at face value, as being simply “objective,” may be a necessary defense mechanism or coping strategy. If we tried to savor the ontological ambiguity of all the images we are confronted with, we’d spiral into in a nihilistic vortex. Instead, we are primed by experience and norms to recognize certain things as real and to ignore or cut from the frame everything else that doesn’t conform. This doesn’t require the coordinated inauthentic behavior of any malevolent actors or any savvy AI-driven postproduction effects. The deepest fake is our imaginary relationship to the real conditions of our existence, and that starts at the level of our own perception.

The expectation that images are spontaneously true or real — that is, that they signify their own “trueness” —is a kind of projection of our lived experience of ideology as an intuitive truth that resists or impedes reflection. We want “factual” images that are as immediate as our own prejudices, to reinforce the delusion that they are factual as well.


A corollary to locating the “real” in pseudo-spontaneous images is the attempt to make things feel more real by taking pictures of them. In a piece for the Guardian, Tom Emery defended the practice of taking pictures at an art museum, pushing back against the “snobbery” of those who want to prescribe a particular kind of presence there. “Phones are an easy target,” he writes. “The criticism of their use in galleries seems rooted in an elitist perception of who art is for and how it should be experienced.”

Drawing on his own experience, he argues that taking a picture of an artwork can be a way to force oneself into a more active engagement with the art rather than falling back into a state of passive appreciation. “The only time I take no photos is when an exhibition has had no effect on me,” he writes.

I feel the same way, pretty much. If looking at a work makes me have a discrete thought, I’ll usually sanctify the moment by taking a picture, as if I were trying to index that thought, preserve it hieroglyphically. It’s a faith-based mnemonic practice — I hope I will remember later why I took the picture. Usually I don’t. (I should take more notes.) My hope is that the effort of photographing the work can somehow imprint the chain of associations on my memory, but more often the photo is a ritual that gives me permission to move on. I’ve filed my reaction and can move on to the next one.

I used to think that when people took pictures of art, it was in lieu of looking at them; I’d imagine they were telling themselves that they would examine these photos carefully later after they rushed through the galleries to see everything. I thought they were trying to replace understanding or responding with the mere act of annexing the works to their phone photo roll. I collected them all!

But any attempt to engage with a work is going to be an act of mental appropriation. Taking a photo literalizes this, concretizes it. In place of the ersatz objectivity of the artwork as a force capable of obliterating subjectivity and constituting some universal portal to Truth, the viewer asserts a subjective view on a contingent thing: This is how I saw it, this is how I want to remember seeing it, this is my framing of what I was thinking at the time. It’s not that taking pictures of art is a way to possess the art; it’s more a way to render in a photo an image of our effort to focus in itself. My photos from art museums document my effort to concentrate; they remind me that it possible — they serve as proof that my attention was real. They don’t capture the artwork but my epistemology.

In describing Apple’s augmented reality art commissions — in which you look at your phone to see cartoons superimposed over your surrounding physical environment, Ben Davis argues that “the toll the technology extracts is that you are a bit distracted by its niftiness. You are constantly thinking about aligning your real space with the illusion, adjusting, moving your phone in and out to see how whatever you are looking at holds up from different angles.” That is, it turns the phone from being a tool of focus on what is there into a source of interactive distraction.

“Augmented” seems like the wrong word for this technology, because it often amounts to subtraction through addition. Like photography in the 19th century it can only call attention to its own novelty; we can’t yet disavow how it is mediating reality. It is not yet a new way of seeing that we can take for granted. When we can, it will not “augment” ordinary seeing but supplant it. The layers it reveals will simply seem to be there, and reality will seem fake without them.