What sort of truth does photography offer and how does this differ from other forms of visual or written representations ?
Because there is a physical link between the captured image and the photograph we have an expectation that photography is the truest form of representation. Of course this comes with a wealth of caveats depending upon which genre of photography is being discussed. From medical and forensic photography (where we expect absolute truth and accuracy) through to art photography (where we expect some degree of discussion as to where the truth lies (if any)). The arguments seem to be centred around the news, fashion, advertising and documentary genres where we expect a certain level of truth yet these areas are often laden with propaganda, spin & embellishments.
Is this contextually specific?
We keep coming back to the ‘C’ word – context is key when it comes to how any image is read. A vernacular image on Flikr may be passed over as worthless, yet the same image placed on a gallery wall and we expect to read it with more care to find its meaning. Images removed from their original context and placed in another run the risk of having their meanings lost at best or completely misinterpreted at worst
What does Barthes mean by “power of authentication exceeds the power of representation”?
How I read this and what Barthes means may be different things. I read it as the authentication cannot be questioned as the camera can only record what is in front of it and the camera is the proof of truth. The representation however is where the waters become muddied as this is down to the control of the photographer, but also the use to which the resulting image may be used and the context. Here there are numerous factors that can be introduced which may dilute the veracity of the image. But I think maybe Barthes was alluding to the fact that we have an expectation of photography to show us the truth and we feel that it’s capacity to record makes it far more authentic a means of representation.
What is the difference between ‘authentication’ and ‘representation’
I consider ‘representation’ to allow itself open to all kinds of interpretation’s – firstly from the photographer themselves in how they have set-up and captured any shot, secondly from the context in which it may be shown and lastly how it may be read by the viewer so the chances of an image being truly ‘authentic’ can potentially be rare – yet we still look upon photography to provide us with the most ‘authentic’ and therefore truthful from of representation. Not only is context key, but genre pays a large part too. For scientific or factual photography we can rightly look at photography to authenticate the subject. When it comes to documentary we expect images to have a basis in truth. Unfortunately here is where most arguments lie as it also has an extremely powerful ability to be used for propaganda or mis-practice therefore showing only what the photographer or end-client wishes us to be told. Finally we have fine-art photography where we can expect to see a far greater degree of fantasy and indeed many artists exploit the photographic truth in their practice.
What points did I pick up from Snyder & Allen?
Photography can be roughly split into two camps – the scientific and the artistic; from one we expect photography’s authenticity but from the other we are more forgiving in its capacity to lie.
If photography is the most truthful of the forms of representation is it fair to call the other arts less truthful? Is there less truth in a Manet painting or a Lucien Freud; less truth in Michelangelo’s David or Tracy Emin’s Unmade Bed. It has been said that the invention of photography freed the other arts to explore a wider truth and at the same time photography took up the same mantle by becoming more broadscope in it’s depictions of truth.
Is photography like Schrödinger’s cat? Does it change the object or event being photographed?
Does photography actually stultify the artist by being too accurate?
Is photography a unique medium or does it have shared conventions with other forms of representation?
Because photography is a comparatively new form of representation we have come to apply many conventions we already know, from classical art for example, in order to read it and allow it to slot into our understanding of culture. Some of these conventions can be hijacked in order to create a different message. And of course photography has created it’s own conventions in the meantime – so powerful is it’s ‘voice’ in the world we have come to view our world photographically – I am thinking here of image-blur as a referent for motion or a sepia-tint to indicate something old.
How important is indexicality to photography
Without something to photograph a photograph could not exist – therefore as Sadowski points out photography is in itself indexical – whether the representation is true and accurate is another point altogether. But as Barthes points out – the camera has the capacity to provide proof that that thing existed.
Are all photographs constructions?
Photographs are constructed to do one thing and that is to provide information – whether that is essential to fact (as in X-Ray or forensic photography) or purely entertainment. It is the grey area of documentary again where most arguments exists – here is where we expect a truth and a truth that corresponds to our view of the world, yet when we find this not to be the case we are often rightly angered. Here is where the most insidious of constructions can be found – take for example the recent furore over how many people were present at Donald Trump’s inauguration party; an argument that coined the phrase “Alternative Facts”. It could be argued that photography itself has been creating alternative facts for the majority of it’s history. Fred Ritchin would ask us to consider the truth in each and every image and Francis Hodgson infers that when something matters to us we take more care to read it – is this because we are so used to the double-edged sword that is photography? Where we see the truth yet are quite used to it’s capacity to lie.
And surely just the very act of what you select to place within the frame constitutes a construction – added to that simple things like shutter speed and f-stop which alters the depth-of-field are just as much constructs.
In what ways, might you or do you construct within your own practice?
I think it fair to say all of my work is constructed to a greater or lesser degree – whether this be through simple flattery when capturing portraits or a more structured approach when creating a narrative or exploring an emotional response. According to Jeff Wall’s two camps of photographers I am definitely a ‘Farmer’
How do these concepts inform your position of a presumed photographic veracity?
Being by nature a cynic I often find myself questioning the truth especially when something appears too good to be true. I know the old adage “The Camera Never Lies” could not be further from the truth. And as I utilise constructed artifice within my own practise I seek out and enjoy artifice in others. Advertising does not work on me (I think I fall into the advertising group that marketing strategists ignore) but still I can be ‘fooled’ by some documentary or factual imagery. Whether I am offended by this depends to a large degree on the subject matter; if it involves animals then I care..if it involves rich people then I care a lot less.
(Batchen quote “Artifice … is … an inescapable part of photographic life”) Is the photograph really ‘REAL’?
Throughout this discussion it seems to boil down to which type of photography is under the spotlight. Is the Polaroid I hold in my hand really ‘real’? Well yes – it is a physical object, but whether it is a true representation could be open to debate. Is the jpeg file that sits on a memory stick real? When you have to invoke a piece of software to translate it into a visual form is it a photograph or merely a set of electronic switches – does that impact on its realness? Is this even a question that matters? Should we instead be asking does the photograph successfully do the job for which it was taken – be that getting a message across about some natural disaster or invoking a memory of a loved-ones face. Photography has the capacity to be potentially more real than reality in some instances – if you have tunnel vision and take a photograph then the photograph could be said to be more accurate than our own sight. Yes the photograph could be considered real – but first we must define where we measure the level of ‘real’.
Do photographs require specific standards of evaluation and interpretation?
Different genres within photography require different standards of evaluating and interpreting. Some of these can be brought across from other forms of representation, but some are distinctly unique to photography and some unique to each sub-genre within photography. You cannot compare a dental X-Ray with Helmut Newton nude except possibly that they are both monochrome.
Photography has created its own set of conventions which have become ingrained into our culture so that we have probably now arrived at the stage whereby we evaluate and interpret photographs on an almost instinctual level.
How does context affect how my work is viewed?
As mentioned before – context is key to how any piece of work is read. At the moment I tend to release my images into an environment where they are likely to be best received. But part of the ethos of my Major Project is a desire to prick the conscious of the general public at large. Therefore it will be my intention to place my project where it will cause some discomfort in those that see it. There is little point preaching to the converted so I will be seeking an outlet that suits. If I can make some of the readers stop and think then I have changed the world; only in a minuscule way, but sometimes the gentle approach can be as effective.
Barthes, R (1981) Camera Lucida (New York, Hill & Wang)
Hodgson, F (2012) Fotoboekenmarathon online available at https://vimeo.com/56563758 [accessed 29th Jan 2017]
Ritchie, F (2009) After Photography (New York, WW Norton & Co)