Dreamworlds Made Easy: Fantasy in the Age of Digital Photography


A new exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography explores how artists use digital techniques to create imaginary landscapes


When early techniques of photography first emerged, the marvel was how it could be both so real, and yet still a distortion, and what our imaginations could do with that distortion. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior, a Boston physician and one of The Atlantic's co-founders, wrote in the June 1859 issue about stereoscopy:

It is common to find an object in one of the twin pictures which we miss in the other; the person or the vehicle having moved in the interval of taking the two photographs. There is before us a view of the Pool of David at Hebron, in which a shadowy figure appears at the water's edge, in the right-hand farther corner of the right-hand picture only. This muffled shape stealing silently into the solemn scene has already written a hundred biographies in our imagination. In the lovely glass stereograph of the Lake of Brienz, on the left-hand side, a vaguely hinted female figure stands by the margin of the fair water; on the other side of the picture she is not seen. This is life; we seem to see her come and go. All the longings, passions, experiences, possibilities of womanhood animate that gliding shadow which has flitted through our consciousness, nameless, dateless, featureless, yet more profoundly real than the sharpest of portraits traced by a human hand. ...

We should be led on too far, if we developed our belief as to the transformations to be wrought by this greatest of human triumph over earthly conditions, the divorce of form and substance. Let our readers fill out a blank check on the future as they like,--we give our indorsement to their imaginations beforehand. 

Holmes left it to readers to imagine the reality a photograph or a stereoscope portrayed. For any person in any image, a lifetime of stories could be dreamed up and projected onto. But a new exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles returns to these same themes, but this time around, things have changed. It's not the viewers who imagine the world a photograph captures, but artists who, using digital tools such as Photoshop, can project new worlds onto the image of reality a photo captures.

Below, a gallery of images with explanations from photographer Brooke Shaden, who lives in Los Angeles. "In everything that I'm trying to do, I try to pull from my imagination, and I ask myself, where would I want to live if I could choose anywhere," Shaden said. "Often those places aren't taken from reality. I make them up in my mind and sometimes they go against the laws of our reality." 

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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