The Truth Claim of Photography in Relation to My Practice
There is an indexical connection between the photograph and a real life 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.
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, 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, 2011:193).
However, when the digital age came about people began to question and become more suspicious concerning the truth status of the photograph. This was because digital images are much 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, 1996:206). She is talking about photography in relation to the malleability of digital files. 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.’ Despite photography’s new-found ability through digital to produce images which are 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 for photography to maintain its function as a socially desirable tool with which to represent reality. This is important because one of the properties of photography traditionally that makes it unique is its verisimilitude. By retaining this verisimilitude in digital photography (with the advancements in technology), photography is able to uphold the tradition of faithful representation. This brings up the second point that in order to play with or subvert the realistic expectations of photography, it is necessary to utilise the framework that analog photography so faithfully reserves.
I don’t have an historical allegiance with photography’s analog past but my use of photography is quite conservative in terms of what a photograph should represent. This is to do with aesthetics as much as it is to do with the photograph representing a clear reflection of reality. As such the work I have produced so far for my body of work and the work recently leading up to it has been realistic.
One way my photography plays with the real is through the use of composites in single images. While appearing realistic, 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 verisimilitude of the photographs remain intact while the faithfulness of the photographs to the scene is changed. Photographers like Peter Funch (See Fig. 3) make a point of this change so that the realism 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 realistic and could be mistaken as being entirely faithful 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.
Photographs possess an intrinsic truth quality that they were made at the scene and the camera was in that place in order to record that something. More often than not that something is true too to the scene. With the advent of digital (and the coincidental ease of malleability of the images), there is more room for the photographer to play around with the faithfulness of the photograph, while still appearing to retain verisimilitude. Also I would argue that it is possible through manipulation of images to show subjectivity in single images where the realistic appearance of the image unravels (See Fig. 3).
However, in a way that comes full circle, the photograph’s verisimilitude can seem to remain intact while the truth claim changes (See Fig. 4 and Fig. 5). This changes the whole constitution of photography yet the images still appear realistic 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, 2015:5) because I have a conventional idea of what a photograph should look like.
1,060 (with quotes)
924 (excluding quotes)
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.
Dorley-Brown, C. (2009) Rio Cinema 2009, Corner of Sandringham Road and Kingsland Road, Hackney, London UK. [Photograph] At: https://www.featureshoot.com/2011/11/london-street-corners-photographed-by-chris-dorley-brown/ (Accessed on 15.05.2019)
Emerson, P. and Goodall, T. (1883) Rowing Home the School-Stuff. [Photograph] At: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286418 (Accessed on 13.05.2019)
Funch, P. (2008) Memory Lane. [Photograph] At: http://iconolo.gy/archive/babel-tales-peter-funch/2146 (Accessed on 15.05.2019)
Gunning, T. (2004) What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs. At: https://www.nordicom.gu.se/sites/default/files/kapitel-pdf/157_039-050.pdf (Accessed 02.05.2019)
Howells, R. (2011) Visual Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kember, S. (1996) The Shadow of the Object: photography and realism. Wells, L. (2003) The Photography Reader. Oxon: Routledge.
Robinson, H. (1858) Fading Away. [Photograph] At: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Peach-Robinson#ref12957 (Accessed on 15.05.2019)