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ing pixels sequentially. Data are plural, but an image is singular. Chipping out a piece of film

can result in a smaller, but nonetheless complete and unitary image in its own right. 146

Descriptions are finite; visual evidence is not. A page of text can be read in its entirety, but

skilled interpreters can make significant discoveries using the same frame of film, decade

after decade (after decade). Descriptive evidence typically refers to one topic, but a frame of

film can support research into dozens of issues. To test Loch K. Johnson’s estimate that “a

professional photo-interpreter may require four hours to decipher fully a single frame of satellite

photography,” 147 the author totaled the time required to answer questions that could be

addressed by one frame, but quit after the count climbed past 1,000 hours. 148 Arthur C. Lundahl,

the first Director of the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), estimated

the Intelligence Community benefited from only 15 percent of the information potential

within even the small amount of satellite photography available in the 1960s. 149

The “process” of visual research is subjective and (ironically) invisible. Remote Sensing

specialist Robert A. Ryerson emphasizes that descriptions and definitions of image

interpretation “do not provide an explanation of the process” itself. 150 The reports of two

interpreters differ even when each studies the same image data, and while “human interpretation

contains less errors than [linear analysis], it is not reproducible.” 151

Working in the “other” dimension, professional imagery analysts often “know” but

cannot easily “say.” Former NPIC imagery analyst Kris Stevens admitted she sometimes

clearly understood an observation yet had trouble finding the words to explain

it. 152 Another former NPIC Senior Analyst was exasperated by the inability to

describe image research to nonpractitioners: “You don’t know how you do it, you just

do it.” 153 To communicate what words cannot, the NPIC Update typically filled its

pages with photographs. 154

146 Experimentally, image data may be reduced to a few hundred pixels and still trigger object perception in a

human mind. Leon D. Harmon chased the number of pixels a person required to recognize a human face down to 16

x 16, or only 256 pixels. Leon D. Harmon, “The Recognition of Faces,” Scientific American, November 1973, 74.

147 Loch K. Johnson, “Making the Intelligence ‘Cycle’ Work,” International Journal of Intelligence and

CounterIntelligence 1, no. 4 (Winter 1986-87): 10.

148 This statistic and the other Intelligence Community material in this paper was approved for public release

by Department of Defense case 98-S-1060, 16 March 1998 in Mark G. Marshall, Round Peg, Square Holes: The

Nature of Imagery Analysis (Washington, DC: JMIC, December 1997), 98-99; In Envisioning Information,

Edward Rolf Tufte writes “Same picture, but many stories...” (Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press, 1990), 108.

149 Dino A. Brugioni, “The Art and Science of Photoreconnaissance,” Scientific American, March 1996, 82.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences William J. Mitchell

writes “there is an indefinite amount of information in a continuous-tone photograph. William J. Mitchell,

The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, 1st paper ed. (Cambridge, Massachusetts:

The MIT Press, 1994), 6.

150 Robert A. Ryerson, “Image Interpretation Concerns for the 1990s and Lessons from the Past,” Photogrammetric

Engineering and Remote Sensing 55, no. 10 (October 1989): 1427.

151A. Legeley-Padovani, C. Maring, R. Guillande and D. Huaman, “Mapping of Lava Flows Through SPOT

Images—An Example of the Sabancay Volcano (Peru),” International Journal of Remote Sensing 18, no. 15

(October 1997): 3125-3126..

152 Kristina M. Stevens, Staff Officer, Central Imagery Office, interview by author, 6 May 1996.

91

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