Eye Witnesses

The NYT currently features a fascinating piece that documentarian Errol Morris put together about the power of images and the ease of faking them and what that might mean in the larger cultural context. It’s mostly a conversation with a couple of experts in digital photography and fakery. Here’s an excerpt from part featuring professor Hany Farid:

ERROL MORRIS: Yes. There’s a remarkable story about the forging of the Hitler diaries. The forger was so prolific, he created so many forgeries — letters, watercolors, diaries, etc. — that handwriting analysts (charged with the task of authenticating the diaries) took writing examples done by the forger thinking they were genuine examples of Hitler’s handwriting and compared them to the diaries.  They authenticated the diaries on that basis.[10]  Often we make a comparison between something that we believe is real and something that we believe is fake. I guess the moral of the story is we should always consider the possibility that we may be comparing something fake with something else that is fake.

HANY FARID: It’s sort of like Rembrandt, right? His body of work has been shrinking for decades now, right? And so what’s considered to be his body of work is completely different now, cause he was faked so heavily. It’s a good question. The reason why we believe that the one with the four missiles is fake is that there is pretty strong, at least circumstantial, evidence that the cloning was there. The plumes of smoke look very, very similar. There are a lot of little pieces. But also, when you clone with a standard clone tool, there’s like a soft cloning, so it does a little bit of like alpha matting, so that it’s not a hard edge. And you see along the rocks, there’s definitely some funny business going on. Again, visually it’s not a certainty. But it certainly looks more suspicious.

The whole piece is well worth reading. And makes me want to revisit the First Person series, which I adored when it was on. I still vividly recall the episode about the little gray man.

5 thoughts on “Eye Witnesses”

  1. That’s an interesting quote, because Rembrandt actually trained assistants to paint details and backgrounds for him, much like Warhol’s factory did most of the work Andy signed his name to. So what art historians have been doing (to my knowledge) is only attribute those things to van Rijn that they can document as being certainly his, as opposed to “from the school of” which is cropping up more and more. They aren’t so much clones or copies as they are his students doing what they were trained to do.
    The rest of it is certainly valid, especially Morris’ points regarding knowing what is real and what is fake.

  2. Smack — Dartmouth smartypants schooled by Dave Elzey! That’s particularly interesting given how painstakingly Morris annotated his own sources (the annotations themselves make very good reading), so I suppose another lesson is never be too trusting of experts?

  3. (Although I suppose the guy could argue that he’s using some hella broad definition of “faked” there to mean anything that wasn’t painted by Rembrandt’s own hand. More likely he’s only vaguely familiar with the story and remembers the outcome instead, which ties so strongly into the rest of the piece that it’s an even better spot on your part.)

  4. Gwenda: I’ve been following these Morris articles as well, and they’re remarkable for their revelations and the extent of their insights. They really make me think.

  5. He did say “sort of like Rembrandt,” which I guess gives him some wiggle room. Of course, wiggle room gets countries into wars…

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