MotherJones ND93: Truth & fiction

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The revolution is at hand, and it’s one that Marx could have envisioned only had he dropped acid: faxes and modems, cellular phones and pagers, interactive video and virtual reality–the digital revolution.

One of the most dramatic consequences of this revolution is the rapid disappearance of borders between our precious genres. The writer and the photographer and the performance artist and the film director will soon inhabit one mega-genre, crossbreeding their sensibilities; we have entered the Age of Synthesis. Space and time are rippling before our eyes, constantly changing our psychic landscape. What was once a surrealistic technique–simultaneity–has become the common currency of human communication. Everything is happening at once, everywhere, involving everyone.

At the forefront of the revolution is Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer. He recently invited me to participate in his “Truth and Fictions/Verdades y Ficciones” exhibit, which is running at the California Museum of Photography in Riverside until November 28. To accompany his photos, Meyer was creating a CD-ROM disc that would include commentaries by some ninety artists from eighteen countries on how the digital revolution has affected their lives and work. The photos, such as “Temptation of the Angel,” would illustrate his technique of merging separate images that had no connection into a single, simultaneous, real event.

I was already familiar with Meyer’s former work as a photojournalist, since we’d collaborated on a number of projects. Although I hadn’t known it at the time, he’d been feeling increasingly disillusioned. Documentary photography “always fell short of what I was really wanting to convey,” he told me in an interview. After nearly four decades snapping his shutter around the world, he’d reached a dead end. The digital revolution would offer him a way out.

My first encounter with the digital world was in Meyer’s West L.A. apartment two years ago. I was looking for a cover image for my book, and Meyer offered to help. In the apartment I was greeted by the warmth and hum of dozens of gadgets–large color monitors, scanners, video cameras, printers. I left an hour later with the book cover in my hands. We had scanned two photographs into the computer–one of a Mexico City rock band seated on the roof of an apartment building, surrounded by natural-gas tanks, and the other of a graffiti piece depicting a crucified spray can. The former was in black-and-white and the latter in color, but no matter: we simply plugged into Adobe Photoshop and Paintbox and sculpted the shapes, airbrushing here and there. It didn’t occur to me then that Meyer’s endeavor was to become the center of an acrimonious debate over the essence of the photographic genre.

Now, he is well into his second career as a photojournalist. This time around, however, all the usual assumptions–that photography is somehow the most honest of forms (i.e., “the camera doesn’t lie”)– have been turned upside down. Indeed, purists insist that Meyer’s work is a heretical act. By manipulating photos (changing shapes, colors, the field of focus), isn’t he making the camera lie?

“Documentary photography, photojournalism as we know it, is also a fiction,” Meyer pronounces. “The photograph as an objective representation of reality simply does not exist. The photograph does not explain to you what is going on to the left or to the right or above or below the frame. Oftentimes, it doesn’t even explain to you what is going on inside the frame.”

Meyer argues that photographs have always been manipulated. Working in Nicaragua during the contra war, he recalls gringo journalists trying to get the shot their editors back home were clamoring for. “They’d get a bunch of Sandinistas together, ask them to put the right expression on their faces, have them point the rifle just so,” recalls Meyer. Was that image true? If a story on the front page of the New York Times posits that Clinton is experiencing trouble with Congress, then the photo must be of a weary or pensive leader. But is the image that conveys that emotion real, or is it merely one millisecond in which the photographer caught his subject rubbing dust out of his eyes? “If you look at a film clip of someone’s face, frame by frame, you’ll see hundreds of facial expressions in just a few moments,” Meyer says. “That’s the way the human eye sees: it is an accumulation of moments, not just one isolated moment taken out of context.

“Merging photographs can be more real than the isolated image,” he insists, “because reality is so much more rich than just an isolated moment.”

Meyer’s work is a merging not just of images, but also of sensibilities, those of the North and the South. If the process is American, the soul of the work is Mexican. “The U.S. needs to learn from Mexico, and Mexico from the U.S.,” says Meyer, who was born in Madrid. “The magic of the U.S. is a technological one, but it winds up being artificial, because human relationships are dehumanized. In Mexico, the magic is human.”

Whether he is manipulating images into a “real” scene or exploring more surreal territory, Meyer’s photographs tap into our own “fictions”–our points of view. The magic of his work is that it merges wonder with knowledge, erasing, perhaps forever, the artificial separations between genres that have compartmentalized our perception of the world.

Ruben Martinez is an editor at Pacific News Service.


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