Subjective Traces, Spaces, Faces, Places

Are constructed images a “lie”?

The following still is taken from an episode of One Foot in the Grave entitled “The Futility of the Fly” (Series 6, Episode 3).

victor-meldrew

The Futility of the Fly” – One Foot in the Grave: Series 6, Episode 3

In this episode, the main characters Victor and his wife Margaret receive a mystery parcel. The mystery deepens when, upon opening the parcel, Victor finds the contents to be a giant plastic fly. In an attempt to find out why they have received the parcel, Margaret searches for a letter in the box. When she finds nothing, Victor looks more closely at the contents:

Oh, hang on. There’s something written underneath here

What does it say?

It says ”Best before January 2001””.

This is relevant because would we, the audience, find this situation humorous if we had never experienced the over-zealous, perhaps officious manner in which nutrition and allergen labels are sometimes used on food packaging?

peanut-label

“May Contain Nuts” – Where else would you expect to find nuts, if not in a jar of peanut butter?

We find comedy situations humorous because they have a foundation in reality, we can relate to them.

This basis in reality is the “uncanny”, the “unheimlich”, the “nagging feeling of familiarity”, where fact is balanced with fiction.

There’s the thing you see, it’s about balancing.

Let’s revisit our original question “are constructed images a “lie”?

Perhaps a more pertinent question would be to ask: “was this image ever proclaimed as being a truthful representation?”

I think in answering this question we have to look to the context in which the images are viewed, and balance it with the intent of the photographer in taking the image.

For example, it is generally expected that documentary photographs will be taken with a significantly high level of integrity. It is also generally expected that they will be used in the same manner.

The following image demonstrates how a seemingly innocuous series of elements can be brought together to produce a final, constructed image.

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Vaccines: Weapons of Mass Destruction” (Author unknown)

We are, of course, all familiar with the following image …

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Jeff Mitchell (2015)

And it’s subsequent, controversial and out-of-context use …

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UKIP EU Referendum Campaign Poster (2016)

And so, to revisit our re-phrased question: “was this image ever proclaimed to be a truthful representation?”

A photograph, as an entity, can never lie. It is the purpose to which that photograph is put that dictates whether or not a lie is told. Passing off an image as being a truthful representation of an event when the image has been staged, arguably, constitutes a lie. As does using an image which is a true depiction of events but placing it in a context different to the original.

To re-quote Hine: “While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph” (Hine 1909: 111).

What, then, of the fictionality of images?

American born Lewis Hine used photography as a means of social reform and his work was instrumental in modernising America’s child labour laws. Having placed Hine’s work into context, then, why would he seek to “construct” an image? If his goal was to highlight the poor working conditions of young children working in factories, would it not have been the case that he would attempt to photograph the worst possible conditions to which employees were subjected in order for factory owners to make a profit? If social reform was needed, wouldn’t those poor conditions have existed anyway?

girl-worker

Lewis Hine, 1908. Girl Worker in a Carolina Cotton Mill

This seems at odds with the image “Girl Worker in a Carolina Cotton Mill” in which the conditions seem quite fair, especially for the time. The only injustice in this image seems to be that a young child is operating machinery in a factory. The environment seems to be quite clean, with large windows providing a light and “airy” working space – a far cry from the “dark Satanic mills” of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, many of which were still in operation in 1908.

In terms of my personal practice, I draw upon several areas as frames of reference.

Contemporary context is provided by the analysis of images produced by photographers who practice today.

I find the work of the great masters very inspirational and draw much historical contextualisation from their work.

The following image, “Autumn Harvest”, shows strong use of chiaroscuro to achieve a sense of moodiness. Shot in colour, this image is heavily edited in order to portray a sense of the timelessness of the harvest: the subjects themselves bring a sense of the familiar, the post-processing adds a feeling of nostalgia.

autumn-harvest-nostalgia-web

Autumn Harvest” (Morris, 2016)

Are the subjects any less real because of the post-processing?

Critical analysis is something I haven’t always found easy. That applies equally to my own work and the work of others. Identifying exactly what elements of an image I find appealing, and those which I don’t, and then articulating those thoughts isn’t a natural process for me.

Criticism can take two forms: constructive and destructive.

I think we find it very easy to “pull apart” someone else’s work, be critical about it but in a negative way (even if we rarely vocalise our internal dialogue). Being critical and constructive is an art form in itself.

So, learning to tease out the positive and negative aspects of a photograph and present them in a way that is helpful, informative and insightful is something I have had to learn … it’s a work in progress.

I also find inspiration in quotes, especially those that make me question my photography and the manner in which I practice it.

The opening line to a 40-second-long Vision Express advertisement, presented by Sir Trevor McDonald, informs us:

We are defined by what we have seen.”

This is a very thought provoking statement for me.

I like the following quote by David Bailey a lot, for me, it has an enormous amount of meaning:

Photography – like painting, is all about looking. You have to keep looking until you see.

On Reflection … Week 2, Module Two

Wading through treacle … …

This week has, in no uncertain terms, been hard.

Issues of time management, or more correctly “life getting in the way”, have compounded the difficulties of dealing with some complex philosophical concepts.

Theorists such as Pierce, Barthes, Sontag, Snyder and Allen (and many more) have all been thrown into the conceptual melting pot together with terms like “authenticity”, “representation”, “semiotics” and “indexical” (to mention only a few).

Evaluating the “peculiar” nature of photography and whether this, should it exist, warrants photography having its own methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation has not been a straightforward journey.

At times it has seemingly been a case of two steps forward and three backwards, and at other times it has appeared to be a case of going around in circles (wonder if the circles are “ever decreasing”?)

I am not alone in such a convoluted journey … …

The exploration made by Barthes in his book “Camera Lucida” is subject to a hiatus in which we see him first of all question the existential nature of photography, at times applying semiotics as a means of interpreting photography and photographs, before pausing only to commence again but this time also to question his own, earlier work.

Whilst none of this may lead to a clear-cut and conclusive answer to the question “what is a photograph?”, it does undoubtedly increase the breadth and depth of our knowledge as photographers. Having an in-depth awareness of semiotics and associated terminology, such as icon, index and symbol, further helps us to understand the different contexts in which our work may be viewed, and correspondingly match intent with end requirement.

So, how are such terms relevant in any whatsoever to photography?

Icon – refers to the resemblance a photograph has to its subject, index – is trace evidence of the existence of a subject once photographed, and symbol – an agreed, standardised point of reference which can be used as a basis upon which to form discussions that are inclusive (e.g. a car is a car because that is what we are taught, and it is universally accepted that a “car” will have a chassis, four wheels, an engine, etc.).

In order to gain greater understanding, not only of what photography “is”, but also myself as a photographer and my photographic practice, I should first try and appreciate these terms in terms of their relevance to me. Something for further investigation.

Real world examples provided much clarification as to how relevant such terminology, and its use in trying to evaluate photography and photographs, may or may not be. For example, the authorities governing our passports dictate that the picture in our passport has to be a photograph – this prompted David Hockney to protest that a drawing should be an equally acceptable form of “portrait” (Sylvester, 2002, p. 384).

Frustrating as it has been at times, this week has, in reflection, been useful, informative and interesting. I have taken much away from this week … …

The stand out thing for me, however, has been this. There is much debate about “what is a photograph?”, does photography have a “peculiar” nature? How “authentic” or “real” are the images we make? … …

But the question which never seems to be asked is this, “how real do we want our images to be?”

I think this question, or at least phrasing the question in this particular manner, is highly relevant.

Why?

Because to do so forces us to produce context-driven images.

Asking “what is a photograph?” is rather a “shooting the stable door” type of interrogation. Asking “how real do we want our images to be?” causes us to address such issues as who will view the work, when, where and why, and then make our images accordingly … …

Suffice to say, all this has left precious little time for project related work.

As interesting and useful as all this theorising might be, I am eager to crack on with the practical aspect of my research project. This is a sentiment I know is widely shared by my fellow students.

Notwithstanding the intensive week of theoretical work, it has been a useful week in terms of the research project – the limited amount of work carried out in this area has provided a high yield. More specifically it has been a week of sourcing props for photographs – with, I am pleased to say, considerable success. There is still some way to go, but, things have started to come together quite nicely … …

 

Sylvester, D. (2002) About Modern Art. London: Pimlico

Further Questions of Authenticity

Should a “peculiar” nature of photography exist, does it influence how we view and subsequently interpret photographs?

In their 1975 article “Photography, Vision and Representation”, Snyder and Allen question whether photography is so different from other forms of visual art, with particular reference to painting, as to require its own unique methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation.

Certainly photography is unique in having the ability, once the correct camera and lenses have been chosen and appropriate settings made, to record a scene “as is”, an ability that is not available to painting where everything is dependent upon the knowledge and skill of the artist – assuming that he or she wishes to record the scene faithfully and not be “creative”.

“Most people, if asked, would no doubt say that, whereas the painter can paint whatever he wants, the photographer must depict “what is there.”” (Snyder and Allen, 1975, p. 148).

Arnheim suggests that the “mechanical” nature of photography confers upon photographs “an authenticity from which painting is barred from birth”: “All I have said derives ultimately from the fundamental peculiarity of the photographic medium: the physical objects themselves print their image by means of the optical and chemical action of light”. (Arnheim as cited in Snyder and Allen, 1975, p. 146).

Cavell suggests that the photographic process: “does not so much defeat the act of painting as escape it altogether: by automatism, by removing the human agent from the act of reproduction.” (Cavell as cited in Snyder and Allen, 1975, p. 145).

An interesting view is being put forward by Cavell, but it is a point of view with which I cannot agree.

A camera will always record exactly what is presented before the lens. What is presented and how is a matter of choice on the part of the photographer. A brush will only ever paint what is present in front of the artist as it is perceived by the artist.

Price seems to write in support of Cavell: “We speak of taking photographs rather than making them, because the marks of their construction are not immediately visible” (Price, 2015, p. 123).

But what might these “marks” be, and how visible are they?

In real-terms, the very act of taking a photograph leads to a distorted reality: the overall mood of an image can be influenced by choices concerning lighting or whether to shoot in colour or black and white, the choice of perspective can determine, as Snyder and Allen suggest, whether the same subject dominates or is dominated by its environment. Choices over which film to use or how to post-process digital images can lead to artefacts which may add an aesthetic quality to an image but may also detract from fidelity: a colour-cast or graininess which is peculiar to a particular brand of film or post-processing method.

There are, then, restrictions to how accurately a photograph can capture “reality” which arise from the photographic process.

All this, then, leads to a question which I feel is often overlooked: how real do we want photographs to be?

Snyder and Allen inform us that there are two discrete schools of thought: the “scientific division”, and the “art division” (Snyder and Allen, 1975, p. 144).

Price et al discuss important movements with origins contemporaneous with the formative years of photography: “straight photography” (akin to naturalism or realism), and pictorialism (Price et al, 2015, pp.  15 – 17).

I think how real we wish the images we make (as photographers) and view (as an audience) is very much context dependent.

Photojournalism is a genre where integrity is paramount and today we might place this type of photography into the “straight photography” camp.

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, for example, which might fit the pictorialist ideology.

In order for audiences to maintain faith in the photographic establishment, it is of vital importance for photographers to appreciate their intended audience and supply the kind of images that the audience expects – being clear as to whether the context demands the provision of images with a high level of authenticity, or with a high level or creativity.

So then, are there any characteristics of photography which make it deserving of unique methods of interpretation, standards of evaluation all of its own?

Arguably not, because surely the rules of interpretation are universal across all forms of art. Whilst that may be the case in terms of visual appearance, what of the technical nature of photographs.

Other forms of art have their own technical terms, for example, paintings imprimatura and grisaille terminology. And so exists terminology to describe, in standard terms, the way photographs are taken in the same way that we might analyse the brush strokes of an artist in order to understand the techniques he or she applied in the painting of a piece of art.

Whilst a unique system of interpretation may not be necessary, several attempts have been made to develop a universal method of evaluation: semiotics, for example, has been and continues to be applied equally well to the analysis of photographs as it has and does to paintings.

Pierce introduced the philosophical system of semiotics in his book “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” (1910), a discourse on the theory of language and reasoning. This system has since been utilised widely in attempts to establish the nature of photography and photographs.

Barthes, Sontag, and Snyder and Allen have all referred to terminology introduced by Pierce in his system of semiotics in their attempts to qualify how photography “exists”, such terminology as: icon – the resemblance a photograph has to its subject, index – trace evidence of the existence of a subject once photographed, and symbol – an agreed, standardised point of reference which can be used as a basis upon which to form discussions that are inclusive (e.g. a car is a car because that is what we are taught, and it is universally accepted that a “car” will have a chassis, four wheels, an engine, etc.).

panzani

“Panzani” Advert used by Barthes to explore the “rhetoric of the image”

Moving on, my photographic practice is currently split into two areas. Firstly, the commercial photography where images might be sold to food retailers and caterers. This is an area where a relatively high degree of reality is expected on the part of clients and the final audience. Images which are created can quite often be a new take on already established idea – letting the client and the final audience see something old in a new way. The purpose of such work is to highlight the appeal of food or drink and establish in customers a desire to purchase.

This is in contrast to my second area of work, that which is related to my project. Here images are created to have aesthetic appeal whilst conveying a message associated with our relationship with food. These images are “constructed”, in real life the images do not exist – whilst individually the subjects are tangible objects, they are brought together and arranged in an appealing manner purely for the purposes of making the image.

For these two areas, the context is different – requiring different things – and so the intent is different. The output in each case, however, is true to the intent.

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Morris, 2016. Oatcakes

tomato-soup

Morris, 2016. Tomato Soup

It is this dichotomy, being able to produce images that are true to the real world on one hand, whilst creating images which are only representations of the real world on the other – the difference between a found image and a made image – that is the “peculiar” nature of photography.

What photography and painting share is that whether reality or fiction is portrayed comes down to choice on the part of the artist. This choice is very much dependent upon context, i.e. who will view the work, when, where and why. Where they differ is that in photography it is in the nature of photographic equipment to reproduce images with a high degree of fidelity to the original, in painting the degree of fidelity to the original is down to the ability of the painter in the use of brushes and paint.

 

Price, D. (2015) ‘Surveyors and Surveyed’, in WELLS, L. (ed) Photography – A Critical Introduction, Oxon: Routledge, 123

Price, D. et al (2015) ‘Thinking about Photography’, in WELLS, L. (ed) Photography – A Critical Introduction, Oxon: Routledge, 15-17

Snyder, J. and Allen, N. (1975) ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’, Critical Inquiry, vol 2, No. 1 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 143-169 [Online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342806 (Accessed 03 February 2017)

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)