Liz Wells (1) poses a series of questions regarding the truth of photography in the digital age. She points out that a photograph can be produced from a montage of created or appropriated images, it can be radically altered during post production and thereby radically transformed. This can be done to such an extent that it is no longer a captured image of something that exists in the world and this changes our perception of photography and of its relationship with truth.
Essays regarding the relationship of photography and truth follow a natural course, firstly the writer states that the historical perception and/or the definitions of photography promote the idea that it is, as Robert Shore (2) calls it “the medium of witness”, that it is is or was primarily concerned with recording what we loosely call reality. Gerry Badger (3) says that it is “usually assumed that photography’s purpose is to record history”. Wells uses Barthes’ definition as her base point and questions whether digital manipulation means that he is no longer correct in saying that “a photograph results from an event in the world”. It is always good to use an authoritative source like Barthes at his juncture in the essay, it adds gravitas.
The essay then progresses to point out that photography has always had an ambiguous relationship with the truth. I personally like Daguerre’s 1838 Paris Street scene as my example, partly because it is thought to be the first photograph of a person and therefore right at the beginning of the evolutionary tree and partly because the manipulation of reality was a technical practicality rather than a choice.
There are six people in this classic photograph, but all logic suggests that there were many more people on the street that day, the long exposure that was a technical requirement of early photography has air-brushed the history of that particular event so just the six people standing still are left.
The essay can then discuss whether this makes the photograph any less true. The bits we see are true but the bits we can’t see were also true but they are not there. A long philosophical argument ensues.
Having established that there is a long held perception that photography records reality but that photographers have intentionally or unintentionally been manipulating photographs since at least 1838 we reach the heart of the essay and a point at which a little individuality can enter the fray.
It is intriguing that photographers, critics, philosophers and academics have spent so much time and energy debating this topic and how the arguments nearly always treat photography as a single definable medium. Any sentence that starts “all photography is” is fatally flawed because it is grouping together every form of capturing an image via chemical, mechanical or electronic means and, now, probably also encompasses the digital creation of images where no camera has been involved. We never seem to talk of the written word in such terms, poetry, prose, fiction, screen plays, stage plays, sign writing, journalism, feature writing, opinion pieces, intra office memos, dedications on tomb stones, graffiti and every other form of writing are never bundled together into sentences that start “all writing is”. We do not judge the truth of weather forecast based on the likelihood of whether Richard III actually said “a horse a horse, my kingdom for a horse”.
The arguments about photography and truth are un-resolveable unless we separate the genres, recognise the context and understand the intent. Wells reaches her key point when she says that we might never have thought that photographs were true but we had faith in the practices around photography that allowed us to believe that it produced a truthful image. Whilst this sounds a compelling argument it stands up no better to forensic analysis than “a photograph results from an event in the world”. If we wish to test these ideas against photojournalism we do a little better but we quickly come up against the problem of staged photographs. Did the US marines take Iwo Jima ? Yes. Did they raise a flag when they took Mount Suribachi? Yes. Did Joe Rosenthal take a photograph of that historic moment? No, he took a photograph of a second flag being raised so that the Navy Secretary, James Forrestal, could have the first one as a souvenir but the World’s press picked up Rosenthal’s image and it became one of the iconic images of WWII. Where sits the truth in that example?
When we consider truth in relation to the written word we instinctively look for the context, we even label books as fiction or non-fiction, we recognise a screen play as a fiction even if the story line is a report on reality. We have a phrase, “based on a true story” that allows us to put the film into context. We understand that newspapers have political leanings and that journalists have opinions so we can therefore differentiate between a factual news story or the weather forecast and an opinion piece. In summary, we have developed a sophisticated system to help us separate clear fact from obvious fiction and know the general parameters of the grey area where they meet. Yet, we continue to try and address the same complexities in photography with broad, sweeping statements so that manipulated art photography is discussed in the same context as photojournalism or a picture of our children on the beach.
It is unrealistic to attempt to answer whether digital technology has changed how we see photography as “truth”. Photography never was true, it was just that we perceive that, once upon a time, that the majority of photographs faithfully recorded what was in front of the lens at a given moment in time. We can now manipulate an image more easily, or at least with fewer difficult, smelly and messy processes in a dark room but given the fact that, in the 21st century, millions of photographs are taken every day by people who have no intent nor the ability to digitally manipulate them before they are posted on Facebook or Instagram the percentage of manipulated photographs in existence is probably lower than it has ever been.
Which leads to different questions. Is manipulation a digital or dark room phenomenon where a captured image is adjusted in post production? Does adjusting the white balance qualify as manipulation? or is lighting and composition just as manipulative? and, is the subjective selectivity of the photographer a fundamental manipulation of a scene?
In the context of art photography Robert Shore (2) makes the valid point that post photography, the process of altering the image post capture, has become the domain of the artist and that this could have come about as a direct reaction to the plethora of factual photographs that are captured every day. There is a view that there is nothing new to photograph, we have used up the available realities, so to create art we have to create our own reality and to do this we manipulate the source image. Photography can now proudly point to how it is breaking new ground, as long as it complexly disregards the history of painted art which went down much the same road, just a few centuries earlier.
(1) Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.
(2) Shore, Robert (2014) Post Photography: The Artist With a Camera. London: Laurence King
(3) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.