A freelance photographer, Edgar Martins, was hired by The New York Times to travel around the USA shooting photos of actual construction sites. The blogger unixrat’s discovery that Martins’ work composed of Photoshopped images resulted in their quick removal from The Times’ web site after being published July 5 in a Sunday magazine photo essay and an online photo gallery. See here and here for details.
It seems peculiar. Why did Edgar Martins risk his and the newspaper’s reputations to cut photographs bilaterally in half, eliminate one side, then flip the remaining side over to create a two-sided image using only one half of the original? Bloggasm summarizes; “Essentially, the photographer had taken half a shot of the house and then mirrored it to make it look as if he had taken a shot of the entire frame. To try to cover up his work, he added in some features to try to mask the fact that both sides were basically the same.”
Going to such lengths to create mirror symmetry falls outside our normal expectations for how and why photo fakery is usually done. Making celebrities thinner or political enemies appear compromised or foolish are the usual fare.
Commenters on Photo District News were “baffled by the manipulations.” Sam Pratt found the Photoshopped alterations “silly” and “pointless.” “What exactly did the photographer gain through these changes?” he asked. “I don’t get it.” Pratt continued. “Likewise the half-built hotel photo — duplicating that fence really doesn’t make the photo better or worse; nor does it meaningfully alter the essential reality of the problem depicted.”
When the children’s book President George W. Bush is reading to kids is turned upside-down we know it is alleging Bush’s stupidity, and we realize why, politically, such a prank is done. But half houses made into symmetrical wholes, what’s the point?
Brain science and studies in perception likely offer a key. Scientists who study symmetry know the deep significance, and more importantly, the deep appeal of symmetry in our human perceptual system. This appeal is not even limited to people but includes animals and surprisingly, insects.
The abstract of a paper published in Nature, “Symmetry perception in an insect” states (emphasis original): “SYMMETRICAL visual patterns have a salient status in human perception, as evinced by their prevalent occurrence in art, and also in animal perception…Symmetry perception has been demonstrated in humans, birds, dolphins and apes.”
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The paper describes how bees are able to recognize “bilaterally symmetrical from non-symmetrical patterns…Bees show a predisposition for learning and generalizing symmetry because, if trained to it, they choose it more frequently, come closer to and hover longer in front of the novel symmetrical stimuli than the bees trained for asymmetry do for the novel asymmetrical stimuli. Thus, even organisms with comparatively small nervous systems can generalize about symmetry, and favor symmetrical over asymmetrical patterns.”
Many experiments show that insects as well as humans prefer symmetry and exhibit a powerful attraction to it, even affecting selections of who to mate.
With all of this said, Martins’ approach of creating symmetries that don’t exist is like adding a powerful and unconscious elixir into his photographs. It is a rather brilliant stratagem, if disclosed and rather scary when it is not, due to its power. With it, Martins could take the most average or even boring scene and make that image have something that one feels is special–but can’t quite consciously place why. Embedding bilateral symmetry creates an appeal for us that we inherently like, but more significantly, can not resist as it is hard-wired in our brains.
My favorite example of hard-wiring and our literal inability to resist or override a response, is a smiley face. See the image above. The remarkable thing about seeing those few punctuation marks (colon, dash and single parenthesis) is our inability to not see them as a face. As little information as two dots and a line is a face. No mater what we do, we simply can not see anything but a face when shapes are combined into certain ratios that cue our deep wiring response: “this a face.”
Symmetry is a close second in perceptual power to faces, that we find irresistable, compelling and pleasing.
What we find in this case of Martins’ use of Photoshop for creating non-existent symmetries in his images is something new, and not previously discussed in the field of forensic photography. Rather than silly or pointless, Martins has figured out a way to embed catnip into his images. Because he did not say these were artworks, we are misled into believing they were documentatary photos. What was worse, Martins is widely quoted as stating that he used no digital alterations. The poet William Blake famously wrote about “fearful symmetry.” Martins in this Times debacle has given this term new meaning for all concerned.