The Treachery of Images

What is the purpose of an image? We come into this world naked with our eyes wide open. We can hear but we cannot speak. We begin to absorb “understanding” like a sponge within the framework of images.

In 1929 the French surrealist Rene Magritte painted “The Treachery of Images”. It is more commonly known as the “The Pipe” painting. It is a simple painting of a tobacco pipe with the words, in French, “this is not a pipe.” Of course, its not a pipe, it’s a painting. Just a bunch of oily pigments on a piece of canvas arranged in a particular order which deceives the brain into thinking about a tobacco pipe. It may trigger associations with particular smells, of people we know or have seen. Strangers from books and movies spring to mind – Sherlock Holmes! Old men in overstuffed chairs sitting in a swirl of pungent smoke, or a cartoon character with anchor tattoos on his arms may also spring to mind. It depends on your own past experiences or expectations. Isn’t that the treachery of images?

All this came to mind as I read a NY Times article about the rapid development of “facial recognition” (the fancy high tech term for “Yeah, I know that guy”). That development has morphed into the ability of computers to literally “paint” perfectly looking photo quality faces, completely from scratch. The face is completely inhuman in the sense that it is not a photo of any one on earth but it is impossible to discern that. We may wonder who the Mona Lisa really was but know she is just pigments on canvas. Photo people with animation? Photo people in locations, surroundings and with real people? The treachery is real.

Our good friend Paul Gauguin painted this when we were in the Bahamas

The amazing thing with “photo people” is that they can be manipulated, simply by turning a dial. Turn the attractiveness dial slightly and the woman’s features change slightly. Maybe she becomes more or less attractive. Turn the gender dial and she looks a little less “feminine”. Turn it more and a she becomes a he. Dials for, ethnicity, age, weight, etc. are easily manipulated as well. This is not all that is new, photo filters did the same but they start with a real person. But technology marches on, ever blurring the line between what is real and what we imagine. And what we imagine starts with what we see.

Uses for such abilities abound. Models may be replaced by “photo people” who need not get paid. Your Facebook persona and your face can be whatever you desire. In this time of masks, what can go wrong? Ah! But Bill, what has this got to do with Kalunamoo and living and sail aboard in the Caribbean? Good question.

It has been almost a year since we have been back in the States to hug family and friends. Notice that I did not say “see”. We have seen and talked to them frequently. The clever machines that empower us to do this proliferate exponentially (some family members, however disappointing, refuse to participate!). And so I start to wonder about the treachery of images.

We are here in Antigua. You can trust me. Just check my IP address (or am I using a VPN?) The photos that are digitally taken record actual scenes. Or do they?  What filters were used to enhance the photo from paradise to Paradise? How much color saturation would you like with the photo of the sunset (or sunrise?). That water is crystal clear, but only if I use a polarizing filter. The adage that I learned back in the 60’s was don’t trust anyone over 30 (we were in our 20’s). Maybe that should be changed to don’t trust anyone who has been pixelized. As Jack Par always said, “I kid you not”, these are my thoughts when we start relying on those clever machines for long distance relations.

The Salty Dawg Rally boats have arrived with almost 100 cruisers some of whom we met before. None of them are pixilated, especially in their bathing suits. Other cruisers we know sailed in from other islands as the hurricane season has wound down. The pandemic certainly affected travel but the desire to gather together is hard to put aside. Six feet apart and masks are not onerous.

Hopefully we will be able to fly up to New York soon, but in no case later than next March, for my Dad’s 100 birthday! My dad was eight years old when Magritte painted The Treachery of Images. Its hard to imagine that time when photos were black and white and the world, recovered from WWI was on the road to even more disruption, chaos and calamities. The images didn’t need to be manipulated to see what was and separations could not be bridged by clever machines.

We will remain in Antigua indefinitely, enjoying the islands beauty and pleasures until a time we can sail on. Thanksgiving is this week. Our turkey dinner with other cruisers is planned but our mental images, un-pixilated, will be with those we miss the most. Those clever machines will bridge the separation.  

Dad turns 100 next March and memories of mom will always remain.

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