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A stubbornness in the face of fact that is unbecoming of an academic.

July 12, 2009, 2:54 pm

(Before I get started, I want to acknowledge that I know Ann Althouse is an attention fiend, and as such revels in any that comes her way. Furthermore, I know that giving her the attention she craves will only embolden her to spout even more outrageous nonsense in the future. However, the white-hotness of her intellectual dishonesty here compels me to consider it a vacuity of historical import. Future scholars will read this post and realize that this was the moment crypto-conservatives discovered the fact that no matter how shallow their waters were, Zeno and his paradox prevented them from ever being emptied altogether.)

It may not be breaking new that the President copped a glance at a young Mayara Rodrigues Tavare last week:

forced01

But I want to call your attention to Ann Althouse’s “close-reading” of the photograph:

Obama’s arms hang free, emphasizing the tilt, and either gravity or will causes the left arm to hang inches away from the torso. See how much lower the right hand is than the left? His neck is craned out and around so that the line of sight is directly at the ass. His mouth is open as if to say: That’s what I want.

When presented with video evidence to the contrary, she curtly replied:

I have seen the video, and I stand by my analysis of the still photograph.

She watched video evidence that refutes her analysis and stands by it anyway. But I believe she can be forgiven for insisting, essentially, that photograph is what it is, because she knows nothing about photography. A competent photographer would know, for example, what forced perspective is, and that the effect sometimes occurs accidentally, such that a child innocently swatting an insect might appear to be brutalizing a baby (Exhibit 1). This occurs is because both subjects are within the depth of field:

depthoffield01

The Batman who is too close the camera is as blurry as the one too far away. Only the Batman within the depth of field is in focus. Accidental forced perspective happens because auto-focusing cameras increase the depth of field and flatten the picture. Objects both near and far remain in focus, such that when you innocently shoot this:

depthoffield02

You end up with this. Modern cameras flatten images by making it appear as if everything within the depth of field is the same distance from the photographer. The effect can be exaggerated by having one object both further away and occupying higher ground (Exhibit 2, Exhibit 3, Exhibit 4, Exhibit 5), but the general principle remains: so long as both objects are in focus, they will appear to be the same distance from the photographer.

The video of Obama clearly shows that not only is he moving toward the camera as Ms. Tavare walks away from it, he is also moving from a higher position to a lower one relative to the photographer. In short, anyone with any knowledge of photography would know that Obama looks to a right that is three feet in front of Ms. Tavare, but that because of a perfect storm of aperture and architecture, the flattened image gives the impression that he is scoping out the underage Brazilian.

Only it doesn’t even do that.

A competent judge of images would notice that Obama is not entirely in focus, meaning that he is only entering the depth of field; whereas Ms. Tavare is crisply focused, meaning that she is currently within the depth of field. That bears repeating: she is within the depth of field that Obama is just entering, and must therefore be closer to the photographer than he is.

Given that Obama cannot be both closer to and further away from the photographer than Ms. Tavare, anyone with any photographic expertise would recognize that Obama can’t possibly be, as Althouse in her ignorance observes, “caught [in a] moment of as-yet-unconstrained pursuit,” because he can’t see her behind when he’s in front of her.

If Althouse knew anything about photography, she would know this. But because she doesn’t, we can forgive her for—what’s that you say? She considers herself something an expert on the subject? Quit pulling my leg. No one who regularly shoots anything could not notice that Obama’s only just coming into focus—she posts photographs to her blog daily? Really? You mean to tell me that someone who knows about photography and has seen the video insists that Obama shot Ms. Vasare a lascivious glance?

Maybe we ought to forgive her anyway, because it’s difficult to tell from low-resolution versions of that photograph like the one she posted that the high-resolution version on which it’s based has been digitally manipulated to make Obama look sharper. What do I mean? Sharpening tools increase the contrast between pixels. Say I take a picture of a President with a blurry hand:

bushhandblurry

I can sharpen that hand so it looks less blurry:

bushhandsharp

But because that hand was so blurry, I couldn’t sharpen it without creating digital artifacts. The area I sharpened is a clearly-defined box in which the altered pixels are more distinct from their neighbors than those elsewhere in the picture are from theirs. Even the seemingly uniform blue background bears evidence of my sharpening.

Increasing the contrast between adjacent pixels also makes it appear as if there are more pixels in one area of the photograph than another.  So when you encounter an image in which there appear to be more pixels in one clearly-demarcated area than another, you know that you are looking at an image that has been digitally sharpened. For example, compare the black hem and pantyhose adjacent to the hand in this random photograph:

hand03

See the box? Now compare the neckline of this black shirt to the shirt itself in the same photograph:

headandneckline

Now try and find the the contours of the sharpening box in this:

skirt

That was a trick question, as there are a couple of them in there. Here’s one:

skirt2

Now, do I think these were deliberately nefarious edits—that is, do I believe Reuter’s Jason Reed circulated a photograph of Obama that was touched-up so that it appeared as if the President were sinning in his heart?

No.

Digital photographs are sharpened all the time because of the limitations of digital cameras. Reed likely saw that photograph, assumed he caught Obama peeking and sharpened the President’s hand and face because that’s what you do with hands and faces.

In this case, however, his minor alterations amount to editorial decisions, because the digital artifacts that are so obvious in the high-resolution photograph disappear in the conversion to web-friendlier lower resolutions. Reed’s de rigueur sharpening demonstrably changed the meaning of the moment he photographed, in effect creating an incident that never happened.

So perhaps we should be forgiving of Althouse despite her faux-expert and incompetent analysis, because in the photograph she “analyzed” it is more difficult—though by no means impossible—to see evidence of that digital manipulation. And I would be, were it not for the fact that once she viewed the video, she knew that Obama was not in a “stance.” According to any dictionary you care to consult—I’ll go with the OED—a “stance” is a “a standing-place, station, position,” from the Italian “stanza,” meaning “stopping place.”

Had she one whit of intellectual honesty, she would have viewed that video and changed her post to indicate that Obama was not in a “stance,” because just as one cannot be simultaneously in front of and behind something, one cannot be walking and stopped at the same time. If I am walking, I am not standing; if I am standing, I am not walking. Her analysis of his “stance” is a not an interpretative error: it is a material one. Her insistence that her analysis is sound despite this error and evidence to the contrary constitutes a stubbornness in the face of fact that is unbecoming of an academic.

If you take a picture of the moon and claim that the resulting photograph is proof that the moon’s a stationary object and then someone shows you a video of it moving across the night sky, you cannot claim that your interpretation of the event depicted in the photograph is still valid. What you are effectively claiming is that the photograph is a photograph, i.e. that it is a still image captured from a moving tableau. This is not a matter of interpretation, but a description of the medium; to claim otherwise is to deny the very reality to which the photograph pertains . . .

. . .which is precisely what Althouse is doing. Her analysis of a manipulated photograph trumps reality, and she can’t be bothered to articulate why exactly that is. But that won’t stop her (or the hoard of equally incompetent illiterates who base their opinion on her photographic “expertise”) from claiming that her “interpretation” is still valid. They’ll be doing that until the moon stops dead in the sky and falls to the stage they’ve mistaken for the world. I only hope the rest of us abandoned that theater long ago (but remain primed for the inevitable disappointment).

Update. Ahistoricality asks two sharp questions: first, why a professional photographer would enhance his photograph with the rectangular marquee tool (thereby creating boxes) instead of something like the magic wand. The answer is that he didn’t have to—he could have used the more sophisticated tool—but that the evidence shows that he did.  I suspect this has something to do with how fast he wanted the photograph distributed, as well as the fact that he knew it would be reproduced at lower resolutions, thereby mitigating the visibility of his manipulation.  His second question is whether the apparent boxes are a normal effect of compression.  They could be; however, normal compression results in a more evenly distributed pixelation effect, but as you can tell from that link, the box of more highly contrasted pixels is still visible beneath his cuff.

(x-posted.)

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