The Truth Claim of Photography in Relation to My Practice – Assignment 1 – Contextual Studies – Original

© Johnathan Hall (2019) Work in Progress - Body of Work

The Truth Claim of Photography in Relation to My Practice

There is an indexical connection between the photograph and a scene containing information the photograph captured. According to Barthes, ‘a specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent’ – (Barthes, 1984). This creates a very convincing illusion for the viewer that they were there, provided the photograph retains some visual accuracy. The factor of retaining visual accuracy is important because as Gunning suggests: ‘Our evaluation of a photograph as accurate (i.e. visually reflecting its subject) depends not simply on its indexical basis (the chemical process), but on our recognition of it as looking like its subject.’ – (Gunning, 2004). These two factors (the indexicality and iconicity of a photograph are what constitutes a photograph’s truth claim. The topic of this essay is to investigate the ‘truth claim’ of photography and then see how I’ve incorporated it into my own practice.

© Henry Peach Robinson (1858) 'Fading Away'
© Henry Peach Robinson (1858) ‘Fading Away’

In the days when film was the only medium for creating photographs, it was a lot easier to accept that the photograph was a window to the world and all photographs were ‘true’ to reality. This isn’t the case though with many (film) photographers manipulating images after they are taken in the darkroom (See Fig.1). Moreover, before the shot is taken the photographer is, intentionally or otherwise, subjective in selecting when and how they take the photograph or series of photographs. For example with Fig. 2 by Peter Emerson and Thomas Goodhall, if the photograph had been taken a second before or after it was actually taken (and many other factors), ‘these technical decisions all have creative consequences and directly affect the final result.’ – (Howells, 2011).

© Peter Emerson and Thomas Goodall (1883) 'Rowing Home the School-Stuff'
© Peter Emerson and Thomas Goodall (1883) ‘Rowing Home the School-Stuff’

However, when the digital age came about people began to question the truth status of the photograph because digital images are a lot easier to manipulate with image editing software such as Photoshop. This shouldn’t be confused with photographs losing their indexicality with the advent of digital. As Gunning (2004) points out: ‘In a digital image, however, instead of light sensitive emulsion affected by the luminous object, the image is formed through data about light that is encoded in a matrix of numbers’. I think the misunderstanding of digital not being indexical or less indexical than analog photography is a real reason why people, including myself to a degree, see analog photography as being purer than digital photography. In fact it is the ease of malleability of the resultant images that coincides with digital photography seeming more impure. 

Sarah Kember suggests that ‘the authority and integrity of photography are always going to be in question’ – (Kember, 1996). She is talking about photography in relation to the malleability of digital files but also maintains: ‘photography is clearly much more than a particular technology of image-making. It is also a social and cultural practice embedded in history and human agency.’ – (Kember, 1996). Similarly Gunning (2004) asserts: ‘Since this [truth] claim is the product of social discourses as well as the indexical quality of the camera, it seems likely means will be found to preserve it, at least in certain circumstances.’ It seems to me that despite photography’s new-found ability through digital to produce images partly or entirely simulated, photographers will always retain an element of the real (or the photograph referring to its subject). The reason behind this is two-fold; firstly to keep the historical ties with photography’s past. This is important because one of the properties of photography traditionally and that makes it unique is its verisimilitude. Also ‘even on a popular or artistic level, the sense of photography as an accurate record of the way things look will also survive, or the fun found in distortion becomes thin.’ – (Gunning, 2004). This brings up the second point that in order to play with or subvert the photorealistic expectations of photography, it is necessary to utilise the framework that analog photography so faithfully reserves. 

Although I don’t have much of an historical allegiance with photography’s analog past, I would say I have been quite conservative in terms of what a photograph should look like. This isn’t so much to do with aesthetics as it is to do with the photograph appearing photorealistic. As Cotton (2015) puts it: ‘younger practitioners … have little or no psychic baggage of allegiance to photography’s analog past.’. Here, it would seem I do indeed have ‘psychic baggage’ attached to my practice which is present even in my more creative work. As such the work I have produced so far for my body of work and the work recently leading up to it has been photorealistic. 

One way my photography goes beyond photorealism is through subjectivity. This subjectivity is not they type of subjectivity that was evident in Fig. 2 where framing and timing of the photograph was paramount to its subjectivity, although it is indeed apparent in my photorealistic images too. This type of subjectivity is in relation to the sequencing and editing of multiple images in order to create narrative: ‘It is only in a series of photographs that a photographer’s choices can be made clear.’ – (Warburton, 1996). I have attempted in Assignment 1 – Body of Work and recently in Assignment 3 – Documentary to create a subjective narrative for the viewer leading them on a journey of gentrification in Deptford. I have come to realise this is an effective way of conveying subjective information to the viewer without going past the photorealistic message I seem to want to retain.

© Peter Funch (2008) 'Memory Lane'
© Peter Funch (2008) ‘Memory Lane’

Another way my photography plays upon the photorealistic is through the use of composites in single images. While appearing photorealistic, they allow for a stronger narrative in my opinion in the single images. This directly interferes with photography’s truth claim on some levels. That is because the iconicity of the photographs remain intact while the indexicality of the photographs is changed. Photographers like Peter Funch (See Fig. 3) make a point of this change so that the iconicity too is changed through repetition of clothing or mannerisms by the people represented in the photographs. Other photographers like Chris Dorley-Brown (See Fig. 4) integrate the composites more surreptitiously and realistically. This is more troubling ethically in my opinion but also more appealing to my current practice. For example with Fig. 5, I produced a composite which appears photorealistic and could be mistaken as being entirely indexical to the scene. In fact people from different times in a short period were cut and paste into the composite to create the impression they were all there at the same time and allow for a stronger narrative.

© Chris Dorley-Brown (2009) 'Rio Cinema 2009, Corner of Sandringham Road and Kingsland Road, Hackney, London UK'
© Chris Dorley-Brown (2009) ‘Rio Cinema 2009, Corner of Sandringham Road and Kingsland Road, Hackney, London UK’

Photographs possess an intrinsic quality that they are were made by the scene and the camera was in that place in order to record that something. More often than not that something is iconic too to the scene. With the advent of digital it has become a lot easier for indexicality and iconicity to lose their intertwine within a photograph. Multiple photographs in a photo essay can provide opportunities for the photographer to show subjectivity within photorealistic images where the truth claim remains intact. Also I would argue that it is possible through manipulation of images to show subjectivity in single images where the indexicality and the iconicity unravels (See Fig. 3).

© Johnathan Hall (2019) Work in Progress - Body of Work
© Johnathan Hall (2019) Work in Progress – Body of Work

However, in a way that comes full circle, the iconicity can seem to remain intact while the indexicality changes (See Fig. 4 and Fig. 5). This changes the whole constitution of photography yet the images still appear photorealistic based on what we perceive traditionally a photograph should look like. I feel while the semiotics behind the photograph might alter, in my current practice at least I will cling on to my ‘psychic baggage’ – (Cotton, 2015) because I have a conventional idea of what a photograph should look like. 

Word Count:

1,290 (with quotes) / 1,077 (excluding quotes)

References:

Barthes, R. (1984). Camera Lucida. London: Flamingo. Wells, L. (2003). The Photography Reader. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 20. 

Cotton, C. (2015). Photography is Magic. New York: Aperture, pp. 5. 

Dorley-Brown, C. (2009). Rio Cinema 2009, Corner of Sandringham Road and Kingsland Road, Hackney, London UK. [Photograph] Retrieved from: https://www.featureshoot.com/2011/11/london-street-corners-photographed-by-chris-dorley-brown/ [Accessed 15 May 2019]. 

Emerson, P. and Goodall, T. (1883). Rowing Home the School-Stuff. [Photograph] Retrieved from: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286418 [Accessed 13 May 2019]. 

Funch, P. (2008). Memory Lane. [Photograph] Retrieved from: http://iconolo.gy/archive/babel-tales-peter-funch/2146 [Accessed 15 May 2019]. 

Gunning, T. (2004). What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs. [Online] Available at: https://www.nordicom.gu.se/sites/default/files/kapitel-pdf/157_039-050.pdf [Accessed 2 May 2019]. 

Howells, R. (2011) Visual Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 193. 

Kember, S. (1996). The Shadow of the Object: photography and realism. Wells, L. (2003). The Photography Reader. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 206. 

Robinson, H. (1858). Fading Away. [Photograph] Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Peach-Robinson#ref12957 [Accessed 15 May 2019]. 

Warburton, N. (1996). ‘Individual Style in Photographic Art’. In: The British Journal of Aesthetics 36 (4) pp. 389-397.

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