Here’s a shot of one of the wonderful Dali sculptures that I came across in Barcelona, and that seem to be dotted throughout Spain at large. I’m often struck when travelling by how incomparably more interesting European public art is compared to the predictable statues of politicians and exiled writers that we Irish seem to enjoy erecting so very much.
And since I’m thinking about Dali today, I thought that I’d share one of my favourite photos ever. This is Dali’s “atomicus”. This amazing shot apparently took 28 attempts to get right, and as a result probably isn’t also going to be a cat lover’s favourite photograph. However, one can’t help but admire the bravado of Dali and the ingenuity of the photographer Philippe Halsman in nailing such a busy shot with so many elements to get just right.
The real magic of this shot for me is that it is a record of a specific moment in time back in 1948, in which 3 cats and a bucket of water were flying through the air, whilst Salvador Dali was jumping and his assistant held up a chair at the edge of the frame. This photo therefore has value as a document of a moment in time. This makes it an indexical photo that refers to a specific historical event. In modern times it’s hard to imagine anybody taking the time to create and execute such a shot instead of just designing it on a computer screen through Photoshop.
Photoshop creates iconic images that can represent a cat flying through the air, but because these images are created on a computer screen and are only a representation of an image that occurred in an artist’s mind rather than a record of an actual event in time, these are not photographs, but pieces of digital art.
So please do enjoy one of the greatest photographs ever created and ask yourself if such a photo was created in post production on an image processing programme could it ever possibly have the same impact?
Seeing as I’ve been a university student for longer than I’ve been a photographer having spent 5 years in various academic institutions, I thought that I should start posting some of the essays that I’ve formulated over this extended period of study. To start things off, here’s a research essay that I did last year on photography, and its status as a conveyor of truth, which I see as being under threat in the modern age as a result of the ubiquity of photo editing software; predominately Photoshop. I find it increasingly difficult to enjoy other photographers’ work because photographic postprocessing has become such a dominant force that it’s often hard to imagine what it was that the photographer originally chanced upon with their lens that they wished to record for posterity. Rather than recorders of a transient moment of life, I now see most photographers as digital artists, as a result of this embracement of modern image altering technologies, in opposition to traditional image capturing techniques. Because of these views, you will find that none of the pictures on my blog have ever been, nor ever will be, manipulated in post production using such outre technology as Photoshop. Anyhow, I hope that my views don’t come off as being too polemical and I don’t appear too much of a luddite, but there’s room for lots of viewpoints on what constitues true photography, and I simply thought that it was about time that I put my own out there. I hope that you find it of some value. My views chime with those of my favourite photographer Henri Cartier Bresson who certainly summates things better than I can-
“Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes a precise moment in time. We play with subjects that disappear; and when they’re gone, it’s impossible to bring them back to life. We can’t alter our subject afterward…. Writers can reflect before they put words on paper…. As photographers, we don’t have the luxury of this reflective time….We can’t redo our shoot once we’re back at the hotel. Our job consists of observing reality with help of our camera (which serves as a kind of sketchbook), of fixing reality in a moment, but not manipulating it, neither during the shoot nor in the darkroom later on. These types of manipulation are always noticed by anyone with a good eye.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson – “American Photo”, September/October 1997, page: 76
“The truth of the photographic image in the digital age”
Perceived truth has been integral to Photography since its inception. We are very much an image based culture, and photographic practices provide society with a means of recording itself. Surveillance cameras keep watch over our cities; social networking sites bombard people with images of themselves and their friends, and 24 hour rolling news stations relaying images from around the world are usurping the place of newspaper text in bringing us current affairs. We need images to allow us to feel we have a record of reality that can historicize events. Photography differs from other forms of art because we look to it as an objective means of capturing reality in a way that an art form such as painting could never accomplish. “Photography’s noeme has nothing to do with analogy” rather, it is “an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art” (Barthes 1981 p.11) This “magic” of photography that allows it to claim an objective view of the reality of the world is central to how we define it, but through advancements in digital technology and its subsequent ubiquity at the expense of analogue photography; these claims to objectivity are under attack. I will argue for the necessity of clarifying what we mean by a photograph, and in doing so, tightening the restrictions on what can be classified as photography; in order to retain our belief in its power to capture reality.
We look to photography to give meaning to our existence and provide a means of recording the transient passage of lives. I argue that without the perception of photographs as a record of an object that existed in a certain place at a certain time that passed before a lens, our image based society loses an important aspect of defining itself. Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt seems to be proven when we’re shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates.” (Sontag 1978 p.4) Sontag brings attention to the fact that a photograph’s impact lies in our perception of its objective nature. Her views are worth revisiting in the age of digital photography to remind ourselves of the privileged position that photographs once held as purveyors of truth, but which now increasingly finds itself under threat. Photography differentiates itself from other means of recording the world by seeming to deny the personality of the photographer, who seems absent from the photograph, apart from deciding where to point the lens and when to release the shutter. “All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.” (Bazin 1960 p.7) This unique aspect of photography, which Bazin rightly celebrates; came to be what defined it to the public. “The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making. In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced.” (Bazin 1960 p.9) The certainty that Bazin held about what made photography unique and powerful is now in the process of being destroyed by the new possibilities offered by advancements in computer technology, which can create photographs that appear to represent the world, but instead only ever existed within the imagination of a digital artist’s mind. With the proliferation of digital editing programs such as Photoshop, our ability to believe in images has been seriously eroded. “The arrival of the digital threshold has ensured that photo-realism finds itself in increasing dispute, especially with regard to the extravagant claims of “objectivity” once made in its name.” (Mc Guire 1998 p.15) I see this dispute, which Mc Guire highlights with regard to the malleability of digital images; as a demonstration of the increasing doubts with which we read the truth of a photograph. The objectivity that a photograph seemed to offer in the past is no longer so convincing. “Despite 160 years of photographic manipulation, the relationship between the photograph and the object photographed remains fundamental to our conception of the medium, supported by a critical commentary from scholars such as Andre Bazin, and even strengthened by the apparent superficiality of the digital image“. (Willet and Bailey 2007 p.139) I deny this assertion that our understanding of the relationship between the photograph and the photographed is in any way strengthened by digital photography. Instead I suggest that our understanding of this fundamental relationship is now in a state of upheaval because of the increasing power of digital technology to retouch images; which can create an alternate view of reality that may successfully convince the public of their authenticity. “Retouching is also employed for the more objectionable embellishment of portraits or landscapes to obtain cheap effects of prettiness and false perfection.” (Arnhiem 1997 p. 54) Arnhiem’s dismissal of the “cheap effects” of computer manipulation acts as a voice of dissent that is becoming increasingly scarce in the modern age; the general public and the majority of the photographic and artistic community have unfortunately come to accept the unreal perfection of manipulated images as the norm. The increasing ease with which we can familiarise ourselves with a computer program and retouch reality, and the increasing abundance of these altered images in the mass media; means that there is a need to further clarify what a photograph is, and we must decide whether these falsified images are true to our original conceptions of photography.
The digital image has been assimilated into our culture, but the increasing difficulty in ascertaining the authenticity of digital photography provides innumerable challenges to our traditional appreciation of the truth of straight photography, inherited from its analogue format. “Whereas alteration is the exception for traditional photography, alterability and manipulability can be seen as a defining characteristic of digital imagery.” (Savedoff 1997 p.211) In the intervening years since Savedoff set out her worries about what direction digital image making’s ability to lie may take us, the use of digital manipulation has increased explosively, and justified her fears for the medium. I share Savedoff’s concerns about the destructive influence that digital photography exerts, when manipulation is allowed to go unchecked. Alterability as a defining characteristic of photography is for me a very troubling aspect of the digital format: “As it becomes more common to digitize photographs and to use digital cameras, and as it becomes easier to alter these digital images to reflect whatever scenarios we might dream up, the documentary usefulness of news and feature photographs is severely diminished. (Savedoff 1997 p.211) Savedoff thus elucidates why the stakes are so high when it comes to being able to verify the truth of an image; to retain photography’s documentary value, and it is for this reason that I discuss the ramifications of the possible loss of our belief in the verisimilitude of photographs. Arnhiem also reinforces the same threat; “The more the photochemical material of photography and films becomes subject to surreptitious modification the more its consumers will learn to be on their guard” (Arnhiem 1997 p.55)
The extent to which the term photography has grown in its application is dizzying, as can be discerned by looking at the views expressed by Lev Mavonich; he professes that- “Rather than using the lens to focus the image of actual reality on film and then digitising the film image (or directly using an array of electronic sensors) we can try to construct three dimensional reality inside a computer and then take a picture of this reality using a virtual camera also inside a computer.” (Manovich 2003 p.246) This modern definition of the photograph obliterates past conceptions. As such ideas become more widespread, the sprawling use of the term photography increases its scope to a profane degree, and its power to convince; that it derives through our belief in its objective nature, is lost. For this reason, I think that we must define more closely what constitutes a photographic document, so that we preserve its indexical value and it may continue to provide insights into the reality of the world.
“Photography is a visible intervention of technology and the discourses of science in the relation of real to reality”. (Willet and Bailey 2007 p.139) The intertwinement of a creative process and cutting edge technology, has always been a central component of what bestows upon photography its peculiar charms, which Willet and Bailey rightly draw our attention to; especially regarding the speed at which photographic technology currently develops in the digital age. Throughout its history, photography has relied on advancements in technology to allow a photographer to capture a scene by releasing the camera’s shutter at a decisive moment, with increasing ease. Though, in modern times, technological advancement has put an emphasis on post production techniques to create an image. Susan Kirchman outlines the danger I see as inherent in the proliferation of these manipulated images; “The veracity of the photographic image is undermined immediately and completely by our awareness of the computer’s capability to fictionalise seamlessly even the most official documentary photographic data” (Kirchman 1993 p.31) There is an enormous array of software out there today that can create realistic emulations of reality without any tangible event or object ever having been placed in front of a lens; “All of these and many other recently emerged technologies of image – making, image manipulation, and vision, depend on digital computers. All of them, as a whole, allow photographs to perform new, unprecedented, and still poorly understood functions. All of them radically change what a photograph is. (Manovich 2003 p.240) Manovich’s radical reanalysis of what may constitute a photograph in the digital age contrasts sharply with the ideas of photography put forth by Susan Sontag in what seems like a more innocent pre-digital age. Her vision of a photograph is that of an; “experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” (Sontag 1978 p.4) I think that the chasm that has opened up between these interpretations of what a photograph is, demands to be traversed. In order to make sense of the multitude of images that bombard almost every waking minute of an ordinary person’s life in today’s technologically invasive society, we must decide whether we should have any faith in any reality that can possibly be portrayed by the photographic image. To do this we must define more explicitly what an authentic photographic image consists of.
The absolute saturation of photographic images within society due to advancements in technology demands that we remind ourselves what role they play: “The subsequent industrialisation of camera technology only carried out a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning; to democratise all experiences by translating them into images. (Sontag 1978 p.7) This perceived “democracy” of images is an integral part of why we look to photos to convey truths. As amateur images have become more widespread in recent times with the advent of technology that allows a huge amount of citizens to walk around each day armed with miniature digital cameras imbedded in their phones or contained within pocket sized devices; we increasingly look towards images made by the public to show us the reality of the world or current events. Through photography, a heightened sense of the reality of events is captured; “in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision.” (Baudrillard 1997 p. 2) Baudrillard’s ideas concerning the hyper-reality of images are substantiated through our own experiences of many aspects of modern living as we are led to consume large amounts of information through photographic reproductions of events. News stations and newspapers can reproduce events with the use of certain processes and the overlay of graphics that give the public the sense that they have experienced, and can now understand the world, through events captured photographically. This democratisation of the news through images is welcomed by free societies, though through an embracement of digital photography; which has manipulability at its core, the truth-telling aspect of photography and the benefits it can bring to society will be lost. “The current media explosion, especially the advent of digital media and the internet, has eroded the old certainties attending the idea of the camera as witness. Photojournalists – and more pertinently their viewers – are much more aware of the ambiguities, moral or otherwise, in reporting on the world. (Badger 2007 p.8) Photography’s “democratic” images may lose their ability to impact culture positively because the public may stop believing in their power to record truth: “News organisations are ever more susceptible to the danger of publishing doctored images, or visual fiction , particularly from unvested sources in the field. Here is where technology poses the greatest challenge to the integrity of photojournalism.” (Mc Guire 1998 p.123)
Most of the images that we are bombarded with relate to advertising. In today’s aspirational society, the power of digitally manipulated images does much to sell products to the public. The move to digital in advertising and in popular use, coupled to the congruent growth in the use of manipulation techniques, leaves us doubting the reality of photographs in a way that we have never been forced to confront before. “Manipulated digital photography, plays up iconicity at the expense of indexical”. (Iverson 2007 p.93) The iconical aspect of manipulated photography is what makes it such a powerful technique for creating brand images to sell to consumers. It allows advertisers to offer much more enticing alternate realities to consumers in trying to ply their wares. “The use of photographic images in twentieth century advertising and publicity design (…) does not make any attempt to claim that a photographic image is a witness testifying about the unique event which took place in a distinct moment of time…. Instead, a photograph becomes just one graphic element among many”. (Manovich 2003 p.245) This signals a descent of the value that we place in images. There is a dangerous paradox inherent in how images are used to sell products; advertisers wish to create a more alluring “reality” to sell to consumers, though in doing so they destroy our belief in photographic reality. Digital technology makes this deception more convincing. A disconcerting example is that of the French model Filippa Hamilton’s head appearing greater that her waist, but; “fortunately it was soon revealed that it was a simple matter of overzealous digital alteration of the model’s picture.” (Mangan 2010) This exemplifies the recklessness of the fashion industry in using manipulation techniques to sell unrealistic ideas about what a body could or should look like to impressionable people. This has led to some to call for the inclusion of some kind of stamp to let people know when a photo has been manipulated: “The Royal College of Psychiatrists said a kite mark on digitally enhanced photographs would raise awareness of how often such manipulation takes place and help stop people trying to achieve “unattainable physical perfection”. (PA Independent 2010) The scandals that often arise when images that have been misleadingly altered, are exposed, highlights the importance that the public attributes to a degree of truth being portrayed in images. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to discern this elusive line in the sand that shows how much of a departure from reality is acceptable. I think that the idea of a stamp that lets the viewer of a photograph know that what they are seeing is a departure from reality would be a worthwhile initiative if we are to retain any sense of photos as harbingers of truth.
Barthes speaks of a photograph‘s essence as that of its objective relationship to what it portrays; “What I intentionalise in a photograph (we are not yet speaking of fill) is neither art nor communication, it is reference, which is the founding order of photography. (Barthes 1981 p.76) Digital manipulation can destroy our belief in this fundamental aspect of photography’s power; that a photograph refers to a real thing. This challenges the fundamentals of photography, and for this reason; what photographic practice is, must be more clearly defined and adhered to. Photoshop can claim the dubious accolade of being one of an elite group of tech programme names that have been assimilated into our vocabulary as a verb; such as to “Google” a word. To “Photoshop” something has invariably got bad connotations associated with it;. “That picture was Photoshopped” has become a shorthand way of saying it is untrustworthy and misleading (Arthur 2010)
As technologies of image manipulation continue to develop and multiply; our ability to differentiate between a fleeting moment of reality captured through a lens, and a sophisticated wielding of digital tools to emulate a moment of reality, disintegrates. In 10 years time perhaps, Abu Graib wouldn’t be such a scandal, if those in power can claim that such images are doctored. “The camera is to representation what parliament is to representative democracy; the idealisation of neutrality itself.” (Mc Guire 1998 p.3) By obtaining photographic evidence of an event, individuals can challenge the accounts of those in power; thereby returning power to the people. Though as digital technology advances, the authenticity of any photograph could be challenged, and have its impact subsequently reduced. “There is not necessarily anything about the digitally altered image to alert us to the fact that there has been manipulation, and in a world where manipulation is on the rise, all images encountered become suspect.” (Savedoff 1997 p.211) This shows how the digital age exacerbates classic problems faced by the public in believing in the authentic reality depicted in a photograph. “A convincing photographic alteration requires the skilful and painstaking manipulation of fragile surfaces. Digital images, however, can be electronically altered with relative speed and ease. The range of digital alteration also greatly exceeds that of conventional photographic alteration. (Savedoff 1997 p.210) With the advent of the digital age, the ability to expose trickery could eventually be lost. “In recent years, the boundaries between fact and interpretation have become increasingly porous, and the bedrock of truth on which the photojournalistic image resides is less secure today than it has ever been (Mc Guire 1998 p.123) How different will our world look when we no longer look to a photograph as capable of representing its facts: “The achievement of realism is the main goal of research in the 3 d computer graphics field. The field defines realism as the ability to simulate any object in such a way that its computer image is indistinguishable from its photograph.” (Manovich 2003 p.246) If such a sense of realism is ever achieved by computer graphics researchers, as Manovich hopes, our ability to gain insight into the world through consuming the reality of its photographic representations, could be utterly lost, which I think would be a tragic occurrence. “A photograph is the end result of a series of cause and effect operations performed upon “physical reality” that inclines us to impute a special sort of veracity to photographs… a photograph can be used to settle matters of fact and establish scientific truth.” (Snyder and Walsh 1975 p.157) When digital editing programs interfere in the established causal pattern that bequeaths any truth to photography, its value in helping to establish scientific truths is also going to suffer. In a conceivable future in which people can create altered images of themselves for passport photos without enforcement agencies being able to discern their trickery; the value in carrying these forms of identification will be lost. “Computers make it easier to “revise” a photograph. And when something is easier to do, people do it with more frequency and less thought. One can easily imagine the vain routinely doctoring their photographs to take a few inches off their waists and add a few hairs to their heads.” (Savedoff 1997 212) In the foreseeable future, biometric data due to its unalterable nature could be the reality that we carry in our pockets as we travel, usurping the archaic, easily disguised, photographic identity.
Social networking sites point to the future of how people may interact with each other. Their main selling point is their ability to help their members communicate with friends and family and to share images of themselves and their lives. This can be seen as; “a way of certifying experience, (but) taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. (Sontag 1978 p.9) I agree with Sontag’s analysis of the dangers inherent in limiting experience to that which can be photographed. In the modern digital age her concerns are proven to be ever more well founded as these “souvenirs” of experience take on a life of their own when uploaded to personal web pages, on sites such as; Facebook, Myspace, or Twitter. People frivolously submit their personal lives to the scrutiny of the world at large, and as a result they try to create as interesting a tableau of their lives as they can muster using images: “Each photograph is read as the private appearance of its referent; the age of photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public. Or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such, publicly” (Barthes 1981 p.88) Both Barthes and Sontag, despite talking about photography pre- the digital revolution, perceive the elements of photography that separate it from the other arts in having the capacity to change the nature of existence, which the internet now accelerates. The accumulation of images that denote experiences gained helps to build a sense of self, though whether it is in any way a true representation of actual lives lived is dubious. “We have become snappers on autopilot, slaves to our machines, clogging up cyberspace with billions of images that nobody in their right minds – not even the person who sent them – thinks are worthwhile.” (Jefferies 2010) Jefferies here highlights the problems of the digital age’s accumulation of images; that has led to an overabundance of information without any perceptible worth. This trend will continue through the enlargement of the databases of people’s lives as digital technology progresses. Whether future generations will be able to look back on all this information and grasp a true picture of what these lives consisted of is worth pondering. “Rapid circulation of people and products is today counter pointed by the rapid circulation of images and representations. Like the proliferation of new vehicles of transportation the new vectors of communication have redefined the entres of lived existence.” (Mc Guire 1998 p.6) The disposable nature of the information that is proliferated and distributed could in the future lead to a crisis of existence for people whose life stories have been lost through the malfunction of a website’s memory archives, or the collapse of a computer‘s hard drive. Photography as a lasting record of a fleeting moment of reality is therefore undermined, not only because of challenges to its reality because of digital manipulation, but also because of the fragility of digital memory, which as a means of helping to preserve an object against the degradation of time, comes up short.
Throughout my essay I have discussed how photography’s ability to make an impact in the digital age has suffered due to newly discovered difficulties in establishing the reality of a photograph because of the advancement of manipulation technologies. Bazin spoke of “The objective nature of photography (which) confers on it a credibility absent from all other picture making.” (Bazin 1960 p.8) This idea of the objective nature of a photograph has now been almost completely lost due to the ability that digital technology offers a photographer to alter photographic reality through post production on a computer. Barbara Savedoff warns us that; “If we reach a point where photographs are as commonly digitized and altered as not, our faith in the credibility of photographs will inevitably, if slowly and painfully, be weakened, and one of the major differences in our conceptions of paintings and photographs could all but disappear. (Savedoff 1997 p.212) I think that this vision of our future, communicates clearly the perils that we as an image based society face, if we allow our definitions of what constitutes a photograph to be decimated by an all too eager embracement of technologies of image manipulation. I argue that society should outline anew what exactly constitutes a photographic image in the digital age in order to differentiate photography from other art forms. In doing so we should be able to reinforce photography’s original conception as a means of taking an objective look at the world. The significant place that photographs occupy in helping us to understand the world must be restored and maintained, so that we protect our perception of the photographic method as a gateway to truth, in the face of digital technology’s inherent proclivity to create untruths.
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