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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

What the Amelia Earhart History-Changing Photograph Says about the Power of Photography

I've been thinking all day about the newly uncovered photograph of Amelia Earhart and its upending of history, telling us she indeed survived that dive her plane apparently took into the Pacific Ocean in 1937.

We're told the photograph has not been altered - was found in a long-neglected file - and it coincides with what people who live in the Marshall Islands have long believed and having been saying. Experts have said her body proportions - from shoulder to hip - match photos we already have of Earhart.  That seems like more than enough for me to think this photograph has changed history.

But we already knew what the island inhabitants believed.  So the essence of this upending is that we believe the photograph is bonafide.  Were it not, it wouldn't matter what the experts said about the body dimensions, because all of that could have been deliberately woven into the photograph.

In this day and age of fake news, photo manipulation is a fact of life and media.   But that goes back to the very origins of photograph, as I explain in Fake News in Real Context.  Lincoln was a subject of photographic manipulation, during his life and after.

But the photo of Amelia Earhart, as far the experts tell us and therefore as far as we know, has not been manipulated.   Alteration of pre-digital photographs may not be as detectible as digital fakes, but, for the time being, I'm willing to believe the experts.

I won't be shocked if the photo turns out to be bogus.  But for now, I just love that 80 years of history has been changed by one registration on a photographic plate.  I've argued for years with critics who say a photo is no more real in the objects its captures than a painting.  But it obviously is.  Though it can be altered, its very essence is a capturing of what is in front of the camera as it actually is - unlike the painter's inextricably subjective vision - just like motion pictures and videos.  (See my 1997 book, The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution, for more).   Today's news about Amelia Earhart, and the repercussions it has made for history, will from now on be the best example of this privileged relationship between photography and reality.

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