A Question of Authenticity

‘In the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation’

– Roland Barthes

In deciphering what Barthes is trying to say, it is pertinent first to explore the meaning of the terms “authenticity” and “representation”.

Authentication is the term used to denote that an image is trace evidence of a subject having existed.  This equates to the “certificate of presence” referred to by Barthes (Barthes, 1980).

Scruton helps clarify the situation when he writes: “In other words, if a photograph is a photograph of a subject, it follows that the subject exists” (Scruton, 1981, p. 579).

Further clarification is provided by Tagg who writes: “What the photograph asserts is the overwhelming truth that ‘the thing has been there’: this was a reality which once existed, though it is ‘a reality one can no longer touch’.” (Tagg, 1988).

Authenticity, then, in a photographic context, deals with issues surrounding the integrity of an image, that is to say, how much faith we can place in an image.

As Price sums up for us: “perhaps the simplest and most obvious test of authenticity is to ask whether what is in front of the lens to be photographed has been tampered with, set up, or altered by the photographer” (Price, 2015, p.90).

Given that we now exist in a digital age where it is easy to manipulate images in an unprecedented way, how much faith can we place in the images that we see?

The fact that digital images, by their very nature, can be so easily manipulated – deconstructed and reconstructed even – raises questions as to the degree that what we are seeing is “authentic” or indeed “real” in anyway.

I think what we “see” in an image in terms of how truthfully it reflects a moment in time is very much context dependent.

There are some genres of photography where integrity is of the utmost importance, photojournalism being one example. Some genres of photography, on the other hand, lend themselves more readily to images which are not just manipulated but constructed purely for artistic purposes, fine art being an appropriate example.

Price informs us that it is the trace that is “considered to give photographs their special relationship to the real” (Price, 2015, p. 93).

So, what then of representation?

Representation deals with the particular way that subjects – whether they are individuals, groups or ideas – are portrayed by such visual modes of communication as painting and photography.

The term implies that images are not “innocent” but instead have their own ideological foundations and consequently “representation” is open to interpretation, both by the photographer at the time the photograph is taken and also by the viewer when looking at the image.

Just how open to interpretation “representation” is, just how ambiguous it can be, is highlighted by the following:

“The idea that the more transformed or ‘aetheticized’ an image is, the less ‘authentic’ or politically valuable it becomes, is one that needs to be seriously questioned …. To represent is to aestheticize: that is, to transform. It presents a vast field of choices but it does not include the choice not to transform, not to change or alter whatever is being represented. It cannot be a pure process in practice. This goes for photography as well as for any other means of representation”. (Strauss, 2003 as cited in Price, 2015, pp. 88-89).

So, what does Barthes mean by stating that the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation?

My interpretation is that Barthes is suggesting that whilst the reality regarding a subject can be misrepresented, the fact that the subject existed is undeniable.

But I think it goes beyond that. I think Barthes is trying to express that there is a form of hierarchy existing between authenticity and representation, with authenticity taking precedence over representation. After all, what is representation if that which is being represented is false? For the representation to have any meaning there has to be some authentication.

Do I agree with Barthes?

Well, yes and no.

Again, this comes down to the context in which any given image is viewed, and what expectations we associate with that context. When we look to be informed about world events, we expect the images that we view to have integrity which is beyond any form of doubt. Alternatively, we expect some images to distort an existing reality, or even to create a reality all of their own – fantasy art images meet this expectation.

How does this impact on my photographic practice?

I think it is important to operate within a framework of professional standards. Analysing “authenticity” and “representation” has highlighted the need to be aware of the appropriate time and place to offer work having the highest possible value as a documentary source and to be aware of the equally appropriate time and place to offer work that is, by design, fantasy. That is not to suggest that “constructed” images are made without integrity. The integrity of images, and hence the integrity of the photographer and the wider photographic “establishment”, is brought into question when “constructed” images are passed off, or “represented” as being authentic.

In summary, then, whilst recognising the need for artistic licence in some contexts, there is a direct link between “authenticity”, “representation” and the audience: horses for courses.

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang

Price, D. (2015) ‘Surveyors and Surveyed’, in WELLS, L. (ed) Photography – A Critical Introduction, Oxon: Routledge, 90-93

Scruton, R. (1981) ‘Photography and Representation’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 577-603 [Online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343119 (Accessed 29 January 2017)

Tagg, J. (1988) ‘The Burden of Representation’ PhotoPedagogy [Online]. Available at: http//www.photopedagogy.com/john-tagg.html (Accessed 30 January 2017)

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