The Other Reality

Photography and Truth

Posted in Annotation, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on October 5, 2008

A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum, pages 14-279, (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1997)

You have never seen a photograph and never heard of digital manipulation.  To you, painting is the ultimate in representation. Today is your birthday, lucky you, and you are given a present.  After carefully unwrapping it you remove the lid, inside is a photograph!  After the initial excitement of receiving such a unique gift subsides you take time to study the image.  An elephant balances on a striped ball.  Amazed, you continue to inspect its minute detail, “I never knew elephants could balance like that!”  Here is the irreproachable proof.  There is no way to contest this photographic evidence, you now know that pachyderms possess excellent balancing skills without ever having seen it in real life.  In today’s image-saturated environment, trying to imagine all photographic imagery away is a daunting task but a time did exist when people were seeing photographs for the first time and they had no reason to doubt what they saw.

Since the Renaissance people had been trying to represent the world as seen by the eye, using perspective and proportions to create work that would appear real.  As cultures moved from the spiritual to the scientific there was a greater need to make precise renderings. Scholars in every scientific field: anatomists, botanists, and physiologists (to name a few) wanted to portray things more accurately (15).  Even fine artists began to focus on natural elements, like landscape, and wanted to render it faithful to life. The camera obscura helped with that, of course, but what they really wanted was to let nature record itself.

When photography was announced in 1839, it was seen as a mirror of reality.  That the daguerreotype was made on highly polished silver helped with the “mirror” reference, but it was nevertheless seen to be as true as your own reflection.  Despite the lengthy process it took to obtain an image, the daguerreotype and other early photographic processes where not thought of as being handmade and the photographer was considered a mere operator of chemistry and machinery—not someone whose opinions or art could be transferred to a plate (27).

To record objectively and without sentiment was important to many early photographers because a more truthful representation could be gained of real life places (95).  The camera was thought to be an objective mediator, and because of this photography was used for recording monuments and landscapes.  “Photographic evidence was considered synonymous with truth and the image as a substitute for firsthand experience” (107).   Outside of photographing specimens in petri dishes, however, the environment influences the photographer in some way.  If a location is beautiful, wont you attempt to capture that?  If you love and admire your friend, wont you try to capture them in a positive manner?

Although retouching portraits was not an uncommon practice, the images were still thought to be accurate representations of the sitters.  In 1871, however, an event took place that clearly demonstrated that photographs could be manipulated—thus manipulating the viewer into believing something that was false.   For two months in the spring of 1871 the Paris Commune, which represented the working class, took power in France.  Celebratory photographs were taken of the victorious leaders.  Though as soon as the Commune fell these same photographs were used in montages depicting atrocities that never took place; propaganda made by the opposing forces.  “Though not the first time that photographs had been doctored, the acknowledgment that documentary images could be altered marked the end of an era that had believed that such photographs might be pardoned anything because of their redeeming merit—truth” (184).

It is ironic that even today, when we know photographers make subjective decisions about what to include or exclude in an image, and that digital manipulation is a regular occurrence, we still tend to trust photographs.  We see a magazine cover model with a superhumanly flawless complexion and think, “Gee, I wish I looked like that.”  If we really thought about it, we might realize that the model doesn’t look like that either.  Likewise, we never question a friend’s travel picture thinking, “I bet the Eiffel Tower was added in Photoshop.”

Even though technological advances teach us that it is valid to question the truth of photographs, we want to believe these “mirrors” of reality are still true because it lets us experience life vicariously.  The generations that grow up retouching their own pictures will probably think it is ridiculous to trust what photographs depict as a truthful representation.  In this way, photography loses its special power as a unique medium—a purveyor of reality—a sad truth in itself.

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