Studio of (Un)truth

Photographer Pedro Meyer Journeys to Film's End

by Laxman Gani

If there's a second revolution that has followed hot on the heels of the personal computer, it is the ability to digitize (translate into binary digits) sounds and images. Already it has revolutionized the publishing, audio recording, and broadcasting industries. Now, it's transforming the world of the fine arts. An accomplished Mexican photographer with work in the permanent collections of major international museums, Pedro Meyer's first venture into CD-ROM publishing was with his 1992 title I Photograph to Remember, a collection of stills of his parents in their last years of life. "I never took those images for any such purpose," says Meyer, "I printed them only for myself." After the photos had a successful showing in New York, Meyer was convinced by Voyager publisher Bob Stein to release the collection on CD-ROM. It has become a best seller and is now widely regarded as one of the first "classics" in this nascent medium.

This first CD-ROM fêted the notion that traditional, unaltered photographs could successfully be distributed via a digital medium. His latest work blows the door into the digital domain wide open. While I Photograph to Remember caused some to speculate whether it was appropriate for a photographer to capture images of a private family's pain, his latest CD-ROM is controversial almost by design.

At home in both Mexico City and Los Angeles, Pedro Meyer's newest work, Truths and Fictions, is an examination of the mythical and popular traditions in the cultures of both Mexico and the United States. But these works have a bite that goes beyond traditional photography: Saints stroll tirelessly through thin air and elderly women become pint-sized witches. Popular icons such as billboards become dislocated within fields of migrant workers. Indeed, most of the images on the disc would be impossible if not for Meyer's clever manipulation of photographic truth -- manipulation he has performed within the realm of the computer. His unabashed altering of photographic-quality images juxtaposes different geographies, times, and cultures -- and is raising more than a few eyebrows.

Clearly, this is no mere experiment for Meyer, who began dabbling in digital imaging over 11 years ago. Today, his wife will take his undeveloped rolls of film to the market, drop them off, then pick them up when she's done shopping. Though it seems surprising that a professional photographer would trust a supermarket developer to print his work, to Meyer it's just a small part of the process -- he hasn't kept a darkroom for over six years now. By digitizing the negatives or slides, he can use his computer to adjust and compensate for any possible problems in developing. "I haven't had a single image from the supermarket which wasn't usable," he says. "I shoot everything in color, then I decide if I want the image to be in black and white or color -- I can go in any direction I please. I have absolutely no need to ever go into the darkroom again."

Meyer plies his trade largely from his desktop. Aside from his standard 35mm camera, his tools include a powerful Apple Macintosh system equipped with color scanner, imaging software such as Adobe Photoshop and Fractal Design's Painter, and a laser printer. Similar setups are now common on the desks of many artists, art directors, and graphic designers. This is cause for concern on the bit-frontier: While altering photographic reality is a time-honored art, the ease with which such alterations can be made is considerably enhanced with these new desktop tools. Consider the subtle, unannounced alterations of truth which have appeared on mass-market publications such as National Geographic (shifting the position of a Great Pyramid to fit onto a cover), Time magazine (darkening the skin tones in O.J. Simpson's mug shot), and the not-so-delicate satirical covers of Spy.

Clearly the ethics of digital manipulation is a prescient issue for a news photojournalist, but how do they affect the photographer-as-artist? This is the central question behind Truths and Fictions.

"There's a common misunderstanding about the word `manipulation,'" Meyer says, leading us into the debate. "Photography, when you think about it, is manipulation. The moment you decide what film you're going to use -- the world isn't exactly black-and-white -- or choose a wide-angle or a telephoto lens, or throw one part of the frame out of focus... All these steps are manipulations. What you do in the darkroom is also a set of controls: the chemical elements of the process. It isn't like, `Now we have manipulation, before we did not.'"

Pedro Meyer's creations are always skillful. He explains the difficulties of adjusting lighting, shadows, and perspective to maintain an atmosphere -- even if a fantastic one. Describing his role, he likens it to that of a stage director rather than a painter. In many of his images, he's carefully chosen the players and assigns meaningful roles to them by transforming and positioning them onto his digital stage. The results range from the jarringly abstract to the deceptively lifelike.

In "The Arrival of White Man," for instance, Meyer has combined images of a dry landscape in southern Oaxaca, Mexico, with a weathered old woman, then tinted the sky dark green to give her the appearance of the figure of Mother Earth. Next, he expands upon his own appearance as "the white man" taking the woman's photograph, and positions a white saint idol into the background -- thereby constructing a visual metaphor for the destructive changes modern civilizations have brought upon native lands.

Other manipulations are more subtle. In "Scarves in the Market," he combines three images at a bazaar -- brightly colored fabric wares, a deep blue sky, and a man wearing a colored scarf -- to overcome the limitations of his film, which could not have captured the textures of all three because of their different exposure requirements. In this case, his computer helps him pull together objects that are already present in reality, but could not be captured together in a single shot. In so doing, he creates a "manipulation" that is perhaps a truer representation of the event than would be possible with film alone.

Beyond the artistic liberties offered by an electronic palette, having his images pressed onto CD-ROM has brought Meyer a large worldwide audience. It has simply made it easier for him to distribute his photographs, both alongside his gallery shows and as separate items for purchase. "I would venture to say at least half a million people have seen my work," he notes, "if not more."

Meyer also points out that the notion of an audiovisual presentation of photographic work is nothing new. (Before it became a newmedia buzzword, "multimedia" used to refer to presentations of multiple slide projectors synchronized with audiotape soundtracks.) What's changed is that the ascension of CD-ROM discs as a low-cost medium has multiplied the audience for artwork that engages the visual and aural senses.

If his digital images are often complex and painstakingly constructed, Pedro Meyer's annotations are disarmingly simple. His voice is gentle and his words, while well-considered, are casual. The minimalist narrative for I Photograph to Remember was recorded with a rudimentary microphone in his living room. Amazingly, this demo was recorded in a single take, and eventually became the final narrative track for the disc. Combined with tastefully sparse music accompaniment, his CD-ROMs evoke a mood that goes beyond a quiet gallery showing, yet keep the focus where it should be: on the photographic images themselves.

This absolute attitude towards CD-ROM production flies in the face of most titles being marketed today. Many are over-glitzed, interactive cacophonies of light and sound. Regardless of content, a common expectation is that CD-ROMs need be flashy affairs of elaborate content hierarchies and a plethora of (often unnecessary) "hot" buttons. Meyer compares this period of CD-ROM development to when the music industry introduced stereo recording. Then, sound engineers often abused the ability to split sounds into left- and right-channels, producing many recordings that sound amateurish today. "A lot of the discs that are coming out are just about showing off the possibilities of the equipment," he says. "There's no content in them."

While Meyer embraces his new digital toolbox, he realizes that not everyone is ready to infuse photorealism with the ideologies of Picasso or Méliès. With this in mind, he has solicited and published the letters and opinions of over 100 artists worldwide along with his works in Truths and Fictions. After all, this is the debate in which we are being invited -- if not forced -- to participate.

Above all else, Pedro Meyer suggests that his digital works should heighten our awareness of the photographer as someone who is always trying to create an image, not merely record one; of the photographer as an author. Though the tools may have changed, he says, "It's not any different than it's always been."

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