The genius of Photosynth is that it takes advantage of the psychosis of digital photography. The software collects similar pictures that, by themselves, aren't very interesting and builds an entirely new kind of image, what you might call a social photograph. Ordinary photos show you an event as one person captured it. A synth is a scene as seen by everyone. Look at this synth assembled by CNN, titled "The Moment." The network asked people to send in their snapshots of the moment Obama held up his hand and took the oath. There are now nearly 700 pictures in the synth, and together they give you an incredibly detailed picture of what took place that morning. It's not just one person's view—you can see the event as people in every part of the crowd saw it. There are sharp photos from CNN's professional photographers and blurry pictures from people using cell-phone cams, all shot from every conceivable angle around Obama—his left and right, below him, even behind him. Looking at the synth is even better than having been there live—this way you see everything.
Five years ago, I spotted a pair of images online that forever shook my faith in photographs. The pictures showed an American Marine, Lance Cpl. Ted Boudreaux, standing with two smiling Iraqi boys in the desert. The photos were identical, except for one detail. In one, the boys held up a cardboard sign on which someone had scrawled, "Lcpl Boudreaux saved my dad. then he rescued my sister!" In the other picture, the boy's sign read, "Lcpl Boudreaux killed my dad. then he knocked up my sister!" The military had investigated Boudreaux for misconduct—they suspected he'd been making fun of the kids by forcing them to hold up a sign they didn't understand—but Boudreaux proclaimed his innocence. I contacted a half-dozen photo analysts, and none could say definitively which photo was real and which was doctored.
Of course, people have been questioning the authenticity of certain photographs ever since photography began. But many professional photographers I spoke to saw the mystery of the Marine as a sign of the modern-day decline of photography as a journalistic pursuit—in the Photoshop age, you could dismiss any photo as false, which meant no photo would stand as proof that something actually occurred. Fred Ritchin, a former photo editor at the New York Times, told me at the time: "You can say Tiananmen Square happened—there was a video, there was a massacre. But if we typically disbelieve the evidence of a photograph, then when the Chinese government says there's no massacre, what are you going to hold up against that?"
But there was one person I spoke to who was more optimistic about photos entering the digital age. Pedro Meyer, a Mexican photographer who's known for his liberal use of Photoshop, pointed out that people around the world now snap billions of pictures every year. True, any single photo can be doctored—but in the future, Meyer believes, we'll get at the truth of what happened at any particular event not by looking at one photo, but by looking at the amalgam of hundreds. How will you know whether a massacre occurred if a tyrant Photoshops the evidence? Because we'll be able to combine the many undoctored pictures—even if they're all blurry cell-phone pictures—into a composite picture of the scene.
At the time, I was skeptical of Meyer's idea; it seemed a bit dreamy to think you could patch together small pictures into something resembling the truth. Now that I've seen Photosynth, I'm a believer.