In a famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the writer Walter Benjamin hailed the invention of photography as herald of a new era in human history in which images would become infinitely reproducible and available to everyone.
Today we are thoroughly immersed in that ocean of imagery Benjamin foresaw; picture-making on a mass scale -- by the camera, the printing press and, more recently, the computer -- has made photographs into mass-produced objects that shape the way millions of people around the world see themselves and each other.
But the ubiquity of photographs has also complicated our relationship to reality. By creating a duplicate world of pictures that stands between us and the real world, the mechanical arts have blurred the distinction between truth and illusion. Photography can faithfully document the world, but it can also, we have learned, be made to lie magnificently.
The tension between truth and illusion is at the heart of a sweeping new exhibition at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Situated Realities: Where Technology and Imagination Intersect. The show, curated by Will Larsen, head of MICA's graduate photography department, presents 55 works by 30 contemporary artists who engage the viewer in exploring the imaginative possibilities of the computed image and the changing nature of photographic representation itself.
The exhibition reflects a defining historical moment that Larsen calls "the transition from the mechanical to the electronic production of the image and our ability to fabricate virtually anything we can imagine."
Such godlike power is made possible by machines, which can manipulate the elements of a picture -- line, color, pattern -- in ways scarcely imaginable a few decades ago. Machine-made images have given artists such freedom that the old debate over whether photography is an art or a craft -- a mere trace of nature or a transformation of it -- may well be over: Artists can now make "photographs" of virtually anything, real or imagined.
Dutch artist Margi Geerlinks, for example, imagines the human body in terms of fable and myth. In one picture, an elderly tailor reminiscent of the fairy-tale character Geppetto stitches together the body of a Pinocchio-like child. In another picture, a pregnant woman appears to knit the legs and torso of her unborn infant with a pair of darning needles.
We know children can't be stitched together on sewing machines or knitted out of thread, yet Geerlinks' images are oddly persuasive. They seem "real," even though we know we are being taken in.
These images conceivably could have been produced in an earlier era by photomechanical or chemical processes. But the computer has vastly increased artists' ability to create seamless illusions that belie the artifice of their construction.
Anthony Goicolea makes digitally manipulated photographs of identical schoolboys, in which he takes the place of each character in his tableaux as an eerie multiple image of himself. Goicolea seems to be suggesting the possibilities of some brave new world of genetic engineering and human cloning, as Larsen suggests; he may also be referring to the overwhelming peer pressure to conform experienced during (presumably his own) adolescence.
But the artist clearly is no longer an adolescent, so there is a darker implication to this work: that pressure to conform is a lifelong burden -- a prospect that lends a peculiar oppressiveness to these images.
The possibilities of computed images aren't limited to two-dimensional surfaces. New imaging technologies have made it possible to digitally scan three-dimensional objects and convert the information into data files that can be turned into objects by computer-controlled robots.
Karin Sander uses full-body, three-dimensional scans to create exact, one-tenth-scale replicas of real people, using a mechanical prototyping technology similar to that employed by industrial designers to fabricate scale models of cars, airplane parts, etc.
Sander's data files are fed directly into a digital imaging machine that reproduces the information in sculptural form. As Larsen notes, "her work is what results when a machine renders art unmediated by an artist's subjectivity."
Similarly, Robert Lazzarini makes three-dimensional scans of ordinary objects such as hammers and telephones, then distorts their shapes in virtual reality. His sculptures are actually fabricated by a robot programmed to use the same materials out of which the original objects were made.
These few examples barely scratch the surface of the seemingly unlimited potential of computed images. But they also suggest the ethical and moral dilemmas raised by the new technologies.
In the electronic age, machine images, once regarded as purveyors of impartial "truths" about the world, have become just another illusionist technique, as subject to bias and error as any other kind of image.
Yet in areas ranging from medicine to science to military planning, we still depend on photographs as documentary evidence. Though photographs are complex illusions, we act in the real world on the basis of the information they contain. That is why the history of photography encompasses not only the technical development of the medium but also the continuing process by which we learn to read and interpret images.
The ancient Greek philosophers taught that all appearances are deceiving and that sense perception is subject to error. As this show demonstrates, machines have vastly increased our ability to turn sensory perceptions into images, but it has not altered their elusive relationship to truth.
Where: Maryland Institute College of Art's Meyerhoff and Decker galleries
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday (through March 17)