Photography confounds us in its split identity: it originated as a device to represent reality literally, yet quickly people started to manipulate the images into an interpretation. Each identity is compounded by the other: by toying with people’s expectations and trust, illusions are made more powerful by the assumption that it’s real, and reality can be called into question by arousing scepticism that it could be false.
Let’s start with the most basic element of photography: a photograph captures something which existed in a certain time and place. There are many things about a photograph that can be manipulated, but the fact that some object in the photograph existed at the moment the photograph was taken is something which we take as fact – otherwise, it’s probably a different medium, a painting, for example. This inherent anchor in reality is something that connects us with photography, trusting in it as a medium which communicates one form of reality, however untenable.
there is no such thing as an image that is free of manipulation, because photographs are taken by people
Yet photographers are people; they choose which photographs to take, from what perspective, and what elements to include or exclude. What’s critical about this to realize is there is no such thing as an image that is free of manipulation, because photographs are taken by people. Even photographs taken by machinated processes (e.g. security cameras or satellites) only exist because a person has placed that photographic device in a location and has given it parameters of time and space to focus its photographic efforts. As Richard Avedon said, “There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” (1986)
What I find personally the most interesting aspect of truth and lies in photography is portraiture, because we innately read people’s faces to interpret emotion and thought behind their expressions. Our empathy projects our own experiences onto the face of a person we view in an image, and draws conclusions, none of which need have any base in reality. I was particularly struck by the meaning of this when looking at David Armstrong’s book 615 Jefferson Ave. It’s a collection of young pretty boys, most of whom are dressed up and giving pretty solid come-hither eyes while looking into the camera. It’s easy to project speculations about whether or not they went to bed with the photographer based on their expressions, even though the photograph is showing evidence of the opposite: at the time of the photograph, they were not in bed with the photographer, they were posing for a photograph. Yet, it’s not the moment of the photograph that is always the most interesting, it’s the way our imagination fills in the before and after.
In this example, David Armstrong had a great interview with Ryan McGinley, describing the emotional distance that is necessary to take a portrait and how, in many ways, these photographs are evidence of what did not happen.
Photographs are evidence of time and space, and in this regard, they can serve as evidence of all the places a photographer has been, and all the people he has met. And yet, he did not see those places, he did not meet those people. Instead, he photographed them.