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Mission: Impossible Photography

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Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

A co-worker recently asked me for a favor: to photograph her entire team for a memento that would be presented to a soon-to-be retiring member of that team. Having access to one of the nicer cameras in our office, I agreed and snapped a few shots that came out beautifully.

Mission accomplished. Or so I thought.

The next day I learned that two of the team members weren't present for the original shoot. In lieu of rounding up the group again, my colleague asked if I could simply photograph the others and Photoshop them into the original shot. Sure, I figured. How hard could it be?

As I dawdled in Photoshop, meticulously slicing layers and refining the edges of the two transplanted individuals, I eventually stumbled upon a realization: the challenge I had to overcome didn't lie in the software itself but rather in my own brain.

With each click of the trackpad on my three-year-old Macbook, I pursued an unmarked destination somewhere between fiction and truth where the million-year-old computer positioned between my ears would accept this visual input as valid. I fiddled with size and perspective to match the dropped-in faces to the existing ones; I tooled with light and color balance as if I were a tailor hiding the seams between two stitched garments. Suddenly, I found it - the point at which my lower brain's sensory apparatus accepted the scene as real enough, even if my higher order cognition knew it wasn't.

Erik's "impossible photography" operates within the perimeter of the same principle, in effect pushing us into that titillating gap between comfort in the lower brain and unease in the higher cortices.

In the same way we find disturbing - if not outright revolting - a robot or animation that is nearly humanlike but not quite there (the nightmare-inducing baby in Pixar's Tin Toy comes to mind - Google it, if you dare), our reaction to 'impossible' photography oscillates between unease and fascination.

Art is no stranger to subverting our expectations of reality, from the brain-tickling impossible designs of M.C. Escher to the unsettling surrealism of Salvador Dali. In fact, diversion from facsimile is arguably the basis for all art, whether the distortion is by way of style, technique, form or packaging.

The most vexing aspect of photography, as Erik alludes to, is that we inherently trust the result because of the mechanical device central to its operation. A camera, after all, cannot choose to lie or change what it sees. But can we really trust photography any more than, say, a painting or a sculpture?

After all, even a simple crop of an image can radically alter its power. Case in point: have you ever seen the wider shot of the infamous Tiananmen Square protester?

In an era when Photoshop is ubiquitous and used interchangeably as both verb and noun, our basis for accepting photography as somehow more "real" than other visual media is increasingly tenuous.

Perhaps, photography should be construed, as Erik suggests, as being "more about capturing an idea rather than capturing a moment."

Thinking back to my photo montage project, this seems to makes a lot of sense.

After all, the recipient need not believe the photograph's scene happened exactly as it appears for it to be meaningful. Its importance lies instead in the idea of what it represents: the cohesion of a team and the collective memories of working together.

Having tried my hand at a relatively simple sort of mash-up, I'm sure that Erik's svelte presentation belies the extensive labor that goes into his work, not solely in the actual photography and assembly of the images but in the design of an idea that his audience will receive.

I would encourage you to take a stab at your own "impossible photography," as I've found that the process of learning the contours of our brains' visual perception is as rewarding as the end result.

After all, as Erik put it best, "the only thing that limits us is our imagination." Indeed.

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