Dalton Delan | The Unspin Room: When a picture is worth a thousand spins


WESTPORT, Conn. — "Every picture tells a story," sang Rod Stewart in 1971, well into the electronic media age. At its dawning, in 1918, the San Antonio Light first touted "One picture is worth a thousand words," advertising its coverage of World War I. In the century since, we have come to believe implicitly in the veracity of photography and videography — the eye doesn't lie. But with dramatic advances wrought by artificial intelligence technology, that credulity is a cultural artifact that is shattering into dangerous shards. We are through the looking glass, Alice.

It started with the paintbrush. One of the hallmarks of the Baroque period in art was so-called trompe l'oeil — fool the eye — in which the illusion of three dimensions was achieved on a flat surface. These tricks of the trade were actually in practice under the Roman Empire, and one such mural stood in the ruins of Pompeii. It was said in ancient Greece that a still life by Zeuxis was so realistic that birds tried to peck at its grapes. In the 1960s, the art world discovered the illusory work of Dutch artist M. C. Escher, whose circular stairways to nowhere spoke to a generation experimenting pharmaceutically with altered perceptions of reality.


More recently, videography built on a foundation laid in the days of celluloid. One of my first assignments at Time Inc. was to deconstruct and describe a famous newsreel, in which Adolf Hitler was seen to be dancing a jig as he stepped off a train in 1940. In reality, Scottish filmmaker John Grierson had taken frames depicting the Nazi despot taking a big step, reprinted the film strip and spliced it in backwards; rinse and repeat, "looping" it, and we laugh as Hitler dances a silly jig. Perhaps we should have known there was poison at the root of the film tree in the garden of news, for it was that same Grierson who in 1955 coined the term "documentary," a craft that supposedly gave us the real world on film, and subsequently video.

Last year, experts and advocates of every stripe, in the wash of the midterms, argued over whether video footage of CNN reporter Jim Acosta in a press conference, provided by the press secretary, had been "doctored" by an editor at the far-right website Infowars to exaggerate Acosta's brief physical contact with a White House intern. What has mattered more than any frame-by-frame analysis is the emerging realization that when Shakespeare introduced the truism "Mine eyes deceive me" in "The Comedy of Errors," the Bard knew whereof he spoke. In an age of "virtual reality" headsets and series such as "Black Mirror" on Netflix and "Westworld" on HBO, the marriage of computers to cameras completes a circuit calling reality into question.

It isn't only what we see. The President has taken advantage of our suspicion that sound waves may also be snipped and altered, asserting that the telltale Access Hollywood recording was not necessarily his voice. After all, in his former life, the real estate magnate had frequently impersonated his own press agent in telephone calls to the press. Is it live, or is it Memorex?

Article Continues After These Ads

Slippery slopes are notoriously indiscriminate. In "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," it was super-cool that we could still see Princess Leia, at least as synthesized from footage of recently deceased actress Carrie Fisher. But when so-called "deepfakes" call into question the news, it becomes a mean trick, and we rend further the fraying fabric of journalistic credibility.


Joshua Rothman, writing recently in the New Yorker, captures the realization that lens-based media have always been subjective when he quotes Berkeley computer scientist Alexei A. Efros: "Whom you photograph, how you frame it — it's all choices. So we've been fooling ourselves. Historically, it will turn out that there was this weird time when people just assumed that photography and videography were true. And now that very short little period is fading."

As a documentary filmmaker, I was constantly aware of the ways in which perspective, lighting and editing alter our perception of reality. What made the finished film and what hit the "cutting room" floor defined the story we were telling. In "Rashomon," director Akira Kurosawa dramatized four witnesses providing differing accounts of a rape and murder. That title has come to sum up in a word that if every picture tells a story, four pictures of the same event may tell four stories.

Heaven help a prosecutor in the courtrooms of tomorrow. Forensic computer analysts will have a field day debating if the supposed video capture, with its own inherent subjectivity, is even true to its actual moment or a Frankenstein birthed in a laptop.

Will we be better off with our newfound skepticism, or will it herald the end of electronic journalism as we know it?

Dalton Delan has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions