Image by brokenchopstick.

A couple of nights ago I noticed that Paul Mason’s piece on the BBC’s website “In Praise of Bokeh” had earned a number of a “the medium is the message” style comments on the community blog Metafilter. One could characterize these comments as cliche, and so they arguably are – but things have a way of becoming cliche because they happen to be extremely useful frameworks for approaching the world. And I think Bokeh as an effect is worth some approaching, because it suggests some powerful things regarding how we tell stories with visual media and how that storytelling is in the process of changing in conjunction with technology.

First, some explanation. Bokeh is a visual style, and since Mason puts it very well I’ll just quote him:

Bokeh is a Japanese term used by photographers to describe that pleasing effect where the background of a photo is defocused, often into blobs or hexagons, while the subject is razor sharp. It’s what you need a real lens for, and it’s produced by the effect of the little blades that open and close the aperture, letting the light onto the sensor.

Why does Bokeh matter? First of all because there’s more of it than there used to be, in places where it did not use to be seen. As Mason points out, once upon a time you only tended to see Bokeh in particular kinds of pieces of film – film and video more focused on creating a mood or telling a story in a way that emphasizes style of telling as much as the content of the story itself. Those of us who have grown up and live in a world immersed in visual media have learned to pick up on visual cues as a means of interpreting the context and meaning of what we’re seeing; in narratological terms, they are the discourse of the story. When we see Bokeh, we tend to understand instinctively that we’re watching, for example, an art film as opposed to cable news. So if the film is a text, Bokeh – and other visual styles – are the means by which we understand what kind of story we’re reading. They are the “once upon a time” that sets up our expectations of what we’re going to see.

Bokeh, then, has traditionally not been something that one would find in news reports – until recently, when journalists began to make use of digital HD video in the field because of its portability and cheapness. “Normal TV cameras, costing maybe five times as much as a Canon 5D MkII , don’t really do Bokeh,” Mason writes. “They’re designed to keep more of the scene in focus, and to maximize clarity over moodiness.” How video documentation works has done a complete 180 in this instance: what was once reserved for more stylistic pieces of film is now increasingly prevalent in some of the most raw forms of documentary film possible – footage of war zones and protests – because of its cheapness and ease of use.

When something like this happens, it calls attention once again to how important style is for how we consume visual media. Nathan Jurgenson has already covered this extremely well in his essay on digital photography and the faux-vintage photo – how apps that allow one to artificially age one’s digital photos lend a sense of importance and authenticity to the otherwise mundane, creating a kind of “nostalgia for the present” and encouraging us “to view our present as always a potential documented past“. What these apps allow us to do is to change how we use visual documentation to tell stories about ourselves to ourselves and others. They take straightforward images and give them a “once upon a time” feel; they change how we instinctively understand the story they tell. All memory is fundamentally about storytelling; recording and documentation are the same.

So when news reports and amateur footage of political protest begin to look more like art films or slick commercials, the result can be disconcerting; the stylistic visual cues we involuntarily read no longer mean what they once did, and the result is a mismatch between what we expect the visual text to be and what it actually is. Charlie Booker of The Guardian, on first noticing this effect:

Around 2005 things start making the transition to HD – and then we get to today, and a weird new trend is emerging. I first noticed it some time around the Egyptian revolution, when I was suddenly struck by a Sky News report from Cairo that looked almost precisely like a movie. Not in terms of action (although that helped – there were people rioting on camelback), but in terms of picture quality. It seemed to be shot using fancy lenses. The depth of field was different to standard news reports, which traditionally tend to have everything in focus at once, and it appeared to be running at a filmic 24 frames per second. The end result was that it resembled a sleek advert framing the Arab Spring as a lifestyle choice. I kept expecting it to cut to a Pepsi Max pack shot.

This mismatch works both ways, too. Booker notes that some early screenings of footage from Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit drew negative reactions from test audiences because the film simply didn’t look like what they expected:

The Hobbit is shot at 48 frames per second – twice as many frames as standard films. The studio claims this gives it an unparalleled fluidity. The viewers complained it was too smooth – like raw video. Some said it looked like daytime TV. What they meant, I guess, is that it seemed too “real”, and therefore inherently underwhelming. The traditional cinematic frame rate lends everything a comforting, unreal and faintly velvety feel, whereas the crisper motion of video seems closer to reality, and therefore intrinsically more harsh and pedestrian.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is epic fantasy, and typically epic fantasy films have a stylistic look with which most of us are familiar. We expect things to look glossy and otherworldly – deep and rich but ever so slightly unreal, which serves to remind us that we’re watching a fantasy film while never shaking us out of the story itself. When that doesn’t happen – when Middle Earth looks like documentary footage – we no longer know how to read the story. The “once upon a time” is gone, hobbits and dwarves notwithstanding. The effect is more than confusing; it can be emotionally disturbing, preventing us from engaging with the visuals in a way that makes sense to us. Without visual cues that we understand, we no longer know how to respond.

Stories are at once spells, hypnosis, and telepathy – and in order to work, storyteller and audience must be speaking the same language and agree on narrative frameworks that render the story both meaningful and comprehensible to everyone involved. But these narrative frameworks are so implicit that we tend to not notice them at all unless they break down.

What digital technology is doing for news, as Mason points out, is both upsetting the existing frameworks and creating new ones that have to be made sense of. Rather than one or two kinds of documentary technology, we are now faced with a multiplicity of technologies and corresponding visual effects:

– the legacy cameras from the tape era which will always beat an SLR for long-range clarity but not rich colour, or bokeh

– iPhone footage with its unchallengeable “truth”

– SLR-shot footage, with or without a slower frame rate to make it look filmic

– live, static versions of the old TV cameras, with lighting etc in a studio or live satellite position.

– You could add, for increasingly cash strapped programmes that can’t afford satellite feeds, Skype interviews.

– And while I think about it, there is also the GoPro, an ultra-wide, ultra-sharp mini camera people use to film themselves, ski-ing, surfing and taking their dog in their kayak etc.

For some viewers, this spells confusion and trouble. But Mason holds that most viewers are pretty much fine with it, and I think I’m inclined to agree. Changes in visual technology aren’t even new, after all; as Booker points out, “Our perception of eras seems chiefly dependent on the limitations of the technology that records them. The 20s are speeded up in our heads because the cameras were cranked by hand, creating an unnaturally hasty frame-rate.” People adjust; they learn how to “read” all over again. But whenever adjustments like these need to be made, it’s a useful reminder that, as Susan Sontag famously noted, as visual documentation makes us scribes it also makes us poets; as we remember we also create. If the medium is the message, it’s also the story, and how stories are told is just as important as – and indeed, indivisible from – the stories themselves. And our stories are every bit as augmented as we are.