Week 3 Forum – Is Every Constructed Photograph a Lie?

Are photographs in general and constructed photographs in particular “lies.”  Perhaps it is instructive to begin with the dictionary definition of ‘lie’: a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive: an intentional untruth; a falsehood.

As I wrote in a prior article, no photograph can present truth, but that does not make every photograph a lie.  A lie is predicated with intent and it does not follow that every photograph by every photographer was made with the intent to deceive.  In fact, I believe, for most the intent is exactly the opposite; that is, most desire to represent a reality as they see it.  Heavily constructed photographs quite often make it obvious that it is not intended to represent reality and therefore, in keeping with the notion of intent, it is not a lie any more than a painter creating a scene is lying.  There are inherent limitations in the medium that make it impossible to recreate exactly what was in front of the lens, but technology keeps pushing and 360-degree cameras and holography will begin to challenge traditional 2-dimensionality.  Where it gets problematic, is where the intention in capture or publication of the photograph is to deceive.

I think of heavily constructed photographs much in the same way I think of paintings.  They are intended to be artistic in many cases and they are creations from the imaginations of the photographers.  It seems that often, even though there may be a degree of indexicality, something in the photo clues the viewer to the fantasy, joke, mood, or paradox it posits, and we then treat it as an artistic expression rather than a documentary photograph. There seems in these cases to be no intent of deception. The following two photos, the first by Sherman and the second by Rosler are not photos that would fool anyone into thinking they were meant to be realistic and purely documentary.

Sherman1

Cindy Sherman

Rosler2

Martha Rosler – House Beautiful

Publications (traditionally respected and tabloid), social media and individuals and organisations have discovered it is possible to ‘weaponize’ photography to fit their desired narratives to influence their faithful and persecute their perceived enemies.  Divisive politics, tabloid journalism and an erosion of civility and humanity are both caused and furthered by the highly selective use of photographic weapons. In the example below, an editor made a conscious choice to use the top photograph which carries a very different and quite inaccurate depiction of ‘reality’ and it seems clear there was a deliberate intent to deceive. The photographs were taken as Prince William was leaving the hospital with the Duchess of Cambridge following the birth of their third child.  He is quite obviously, as shown from the perspective of the second frame, indicating the number 3, while the perspective chosen in the first frame would connote and entirely different message.  Was the first frame real?  Yes, from that photographer’s vantage point it was what was seen, but was its out of context use disingenuous, and deliberately deceptive?  I think that it was.

35-examples-of-media-manipulating-the-truth-1

Source Reuters

The problem here is not one inherent to the photographic medium, but rather the ethics of those who practice photography and users of photographs.  Photographs are just an inanimate thing.  They hold no special powers on their own. They are only useful, destructive, pleasing, horrifying when they are in the hands of humans and when they are presented in some context.  If the ethics of photographer, publisher or social media user are questionable then the photograph can be misused like any other tool. And like any other enterprise where power, money, or fame are in play photography is subject to abuse by those who would use it, or allow it to be used unethically.

Week 2 Activity – Is it Really Real?

 

This week’s activity asked us to consider the following: 

  • Post a short response below that outlines your own position regarding the nature of the photograph as ‘really real’.
  • Reflect on whether photographs are so unlike other sorts of pictures that they require unique methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation.
  • Identify and respond to key ideas raised by Snyder and Allen (1975) and in the presentations.
  • Refer to writers, theorists, and practitioners to support your views.
  • Provide visual examples to illustrate your points.
  • Reflect on any aspects of the ‘peculiar’ nature of the photograph that are important for your work.

 

Is a photograph real?  This is of course a loaded question, perfect fodder for purely academic debate (and forgive the cynic in me that thinks it in the end so moot as to be of dubious import), and which must, as with most complex questions, be answered with the response, “it depends.”  It depends on what is actually being asked.  It depends whether beneath the veil of “real” are really questions of tangibility, accuracy (factual), reality (vs. fantasy), or truth. These terms are easily and often conflated.  It is obvious even before beginning this discussion that there can be no one universal answer that covers the breadth of photographic genres and indeed the range of photographs with any genre.

A photograph whether as a print in hand or on the screen is indeed real on a physical level in the case of a print, and a virtual level in the case of on-screen.  It exists, but it is not in fact the thing depicted, merely a 2-dimensional representation.

If the question is instead,” Is what is depicted in the photograph real?” Again, by virtue of the definition of a photograph, the image authenticates the presence of something that was in front of the lens from which light reflected and was subsequently captured on the film or sensor. But, further parsing of the question is required.  Are we asking about the reality of the subject?  The photographer’s intent and distribution channel will need to be considered. If it was an image of a news event published by a generally respected news outlet, there would be both an expectation and assumption that the image was a depiction of a real event.  If it is a highly constructed set with elements we know to be unlikely to have been in the same place at the same time and seen in an art publication or on a gallery wall, we are likely to correctly conclude that while the objects did stand in front of the lens, the scene is not ‘real’, that is not naturally occurring.  This question gets somewhat more complex when one asks, “Even if the scene is substantially ‘real’ (naturally occurring), has it been manipulated or altered?”

With analogue photography, this is somewhat less problematic because, while it is possible and certainly has been done, it is much more difficult to manipulate the image to add or subtract something from that which was present in the photographed scene.  Digital photography makes it far easier and more likely that something might be different than was actually in the scene photographed and then the question arises; “Was the alteration substantive?”  It makes a difference if someone cloned out a gravy stain on the tablecloth or replaced the Christmas turkey with a hippopotamus.  The latter would lead most people to conclude the photo was altered and represented some form of fantasy.

Then arises the question of accuracy.  To extend the example of Christmas dinner, if Grandma was in hospital and I put her in this year’s photo by using an image of her from the prior year at the table it is real, in that she sat at that table with the others albeit at a different time, but it is not accurate.  Another example arises with scene compression from a telephoto lens.  Consider the following photograph of the town of Dornoch taken with a long lens from a vantage point that suggests the statue of the Duke of Sutherland which sits atop Ben Bhraggie looms directly above the town when in fact it is at least 10 miles away.  Metaphorically, it was (and perhaps is) accurate.  This Duke was largely responsible for the Highland Clearances which reshaped the population of the Scottish Highlands and whose effect is still felt today.

 

IMG_0576

Dornoch Cathedral with Ben Bhraggie – Ashley Rose

Lastly comes the question of truth.  No photograph can ever represent truth.  Firstly, the camera with all the limitations of its lens, film/sensor, program and looking at a smaller segment of a scene than that available to the eye is trying to capture a 4-dimensional event which it then translates into a 2- dimensional entity.  I believe it is clear the photograph cannot be truth.  Furthermore, aside from a very few absolute truths, e.g. we are all going to die, all other truths are conditional.  They are subject to the limits of knowledge, personal and cultural perspectives none of which can be represented in a photograph.  Even “scientific truths” are conditional as we only know what we know.  For example, humans once believed truth was that the Sun revolved around the Earth and now, we accept as truth the opposite.  Each major religion holds its own version of truth.  So, truth in a photograph even in relative terms is always going to be a matter of perspective and therefore not really truth.

I have noticed some others referring to digitally created images as photographs.  While they may appear to be photographs and may even be printed as a photograph might be, they are not photographs. They are Computer Generated Images.  They were not created by the interaction of light with a photosensitive medium and they are therefore not by definition, photographs.

I am not convinced that in general photographs are so different that they require some completely unique form of criticism.  Of course, photographs bear traits which make them inherently different than paintings or CGI, principally that they carry a degree of indexicality that is a physical manifestation of the prerequisite of a photograph; captured reflected light.  Aside from that, they are of something, they contain some intent at meaning, they have a frame that includes and excludes, they include or represent a point in time, and they have a vantage point, so it seems Szarkowski’s five elements could be applied to virtually any form of visual representation.

“Even in the realm of serious and inventive photography there is no clear-cut break with older traditions of representation.” (Snyder and Allen, 1975: 165)

The seemingly endless quest for the silver-bullet of photographic uniqueness or critique is perhaps interesting to debate (for a while), but as it is ultimately moot, does it really do anything to advance photography?  As I wrote in a prior CRJ post, does it really matter whether Photography as an entirety is considered an art or not?  Are these distinctions important? To find anything close to a unifying theory would require a common language and commonality of culture and experience.  At the denotive level photography in many cases can overcome the language and cultural barriers to arrive at a somewhat common (but not universal) visual language.  However, at the connotative level, the meaning of any photograph is intractably bound to the language and cultural perspectives of the viewer and is therefore unresolvable in the universal.  As I sit writing this, I see out my window (in my language) a snow flurry.  If an Inuit were to see this (or a photograph of it) I have no doubt one of their 50 words for snow would be used to provide a far more nuanced description and meaning to the event I am witnessing.  I would likely have no idea what their version meant, and they would think my version to be crude and uninformed, yet we are looking at the same denoted scene.  A photograph of Daesh beheading someone is to me a horrifying and unspeakable act of human cruelty, while to them it is a triumph over an infidel enemy and worthy of celebration.

ISIS Beheading

ISIS Propaganda photo

These connotations will never be resolved no matter how many critical theory books are written or read except by saying the photographer does not have much control over how a photograph is viewed or judged.  What is trash to one person is treasure to the next.  So we as photographers are left to do the best we can to satisfy ourselves that we have achieved the intent we set out to achieve and then we can hope that someone appreciates it for what it was meant to be while at the same time hoping that it is not at the same time taken so out of context that it is used in a harmful or nefarious way.

Snyder and Allen’s writing seems to support these ideas.

“Thus, to formulate a set of critical principles for photography based on what is purely or uniquely or essentially photographic is as absurd and unprofitable as would be the adoption in its place of standards taken from a mummified canon of nineteenth-century painting.” (p 165)

 “The poverty of photographic criticism is well known. It stands out against the richness of photographic production and invention, the widespread use and enjoyment of photographs, and even the popularity of photography as a hobby. To end this poverty we do not need more philosophizing about photographs and reality, or yet another (this time definitive) definition of “photographic seeing,” or yet another distillation of photography’s essence or nature. The tools for making sense of photographs lie at hand, and we can invent more if and when we really need them.” (p 169)

Photography has the ability to be uniquely indexical even if it is not always used as such.  My practice, and I suppose my worldview are largely rooted in this approach.  I honestly believe there is enough wonder, horror, and interest in what exists around me that I feel no need in my practice to invent or construct something that does not exist.  I don’t use my photography to illustrate or overcome personal issues and while I know it is impossible to completely mask insights into me as a person, I want my camera to be far more of a window than a mirror.  I also generally don’t want to “look into the souls” of other humans because frankly, I am not very interested and often find myself at loss to read people the way an accomplished portrait photographer often can.  If my work is viewed, I want people to be focusing on the work and not on me.

References

SNYDER, Joel and Neil Walsh ALLEN. n.d. ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’. Critical Inquiry 141–169.

BARTHES, Roland. 1977. Image Music Text. New York: Hill and Wang.

BARTHES, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

 

Week 2- Forum: Representation or Authentication

Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida wrote “From a phenomenological standpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.”  (Barthes 1981: 89)

The questions posed for this week’s forum were:

  • What Roland Barthes means and whether or not you agree.
  • The difference between ‘authentication’ and ‘representation’.
  • How the context in which we view photographs potentially impacts upon notions of authentication and representation.
  • How this impacts your own practice.

Last week I wrote a fairly lengthy post on Barthes’ Camera Lucida  which can be found at https://chasingthewildlife.blog/2019/02/01/key-writers-roland-barthes-camera-lucida/

I agree with Barthes on this point.  First, Barthes explains;

“I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, and without which there would be no photograph.” “…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography. What I intentionalize in a photograph is neither Art nor Communication, it is Reference, which is the founding order of Photography.” “The name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That-has-been,’ or again: the Intractable.” (Barthes 1981: 76-77)

 

I believe Barthes notion of ‘intractability’ refers to the authentication of the existence of what was once in front of the lens.  Whether it communicates or is judged to be artistic is in the power of the viewer not the photographer and that is the element of representation.

Flusser speaks of distribution channels and how they affect interpretation (representation).

“The essential thing is that the photograph, with each switch-over to another channel, takes on a new significance…  The distribution apparatuses impregnate the photograph with the decisive significance for its reception.” (Flusser, 1983: 54)

Sontag likewise points out that photographs are mere fragments, and the context in which they are viewed changes them. Each context “…suggests a different use for the photograph but none can secure their meaning- the meaning is the use…”  (Sontag: 1979: 106)

Szarkowski discusses the idea that photography is not successful at narrative and then goes on to refer to Matthew Brady’s work during the Civil War by saying: “The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, it was to make it real.” (Szarkowski, 1966: 9)  I think this relates to the discussion arguing that these photographs authenticated the horrors of the war; they were in front of the lens and the photographs brought that validation to those who viewed them.  However, how those photos were interpreted, that is what did they represent, would likely be quite different depending on whether one was from the North or the South, whether one fought in the war, or whether someone close was killed in the conflict.

Each of these suggest that representation is conditional upon who is looking and where they are looking.  However, authentication, existence at one time of what was photographed does not change even though interpretations on the significance and meaning of what was photographed will vary with every viewer.

Again Barthes; “…it is not impossible to perceive the photographic signifier, but it requires a secondary action of knowledge or of reflection.” (Barthes, 1981: 5) and “…the Photograph’s essence is to ratify what it represents. … No writing can give me this certainty.  It is the misfortune…of language not to be able to authenticate itself. …but the Photograph is indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself;…” (Barthes 1981: 85-87)

I have come to terms with the reality that I cannot control how my photographs are ultimately interpreted or judged, especially any single photograph.  I can influence a reading of a body of work to a small degree by how I choose to edit and curate a collection of work and where it is shown, but again the ultimate power to determine what that work represents lies in the hands of each and every consumer.

I am in control of what I photograph and when I photograph.  I am in control over the choices I make during that process and I can only hope that what I think and feel when taking that photograph is somehow revealed in the product in a way that it elicits a similar reaction in a viewer, but those reactions are beyond my control and therefore beyond the bounds of that which I can or should worry over.

References:

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.

SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

BARTHES, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.