Camera Work: Lies, Damned Lies and Photographs
Do photographs lie? Do they tell the truth? Are they proof of truth?
Photographers wrestle with this subject, and have done so almost from the beginning. In the very early days there was almost a giddiness in the sudden realization that here, before me on paper, is what the world is. No brush strokes, no laborious building of likenesses. The photograph is not just a likeness, it is reality! Or so it seemed. Well, except for that fussiness about color. There is none. And the print. The camera generates negatives. Have to reverse that by printing.
The print is technically a copy. The negative is the original. In my many years of photographing, I have to confess that I cannot “read’ a negative. Some claim they can. I can look at a neg and tell what my gross printing problems will be. But to pick a frame from, say, a portrait shoot and convincingly choose the right pose, smile, look in the eye etc, just from the neg, good luck!
The image at the top is just such a negative. It is a color neg, as you might conclude. It actually possesses it’s own beauty, and represents the intersection between “Beauty” and “Truth”. This is but one of the problems about truth in photographs. Here is a link to the “real” photo. Do you have a preference? If so, which and why?
Photojournalists wrestle mightily with this concept, made crucial because of digital editing. Photographs submitted for journalistic awards have been pulled when it was discovered that editing was employed, even when such editing was done to make the image a better image by moving where an element was placed in the frame so that it was balanced. A no-no for that photographer, but for someone like myself, where I am attempting to express a beautiful concept, where the truth lies in the beauty and not exactly where the objects were positioned when the shutter was released. A still life composition, for instance. Or maybe it is a discordant object spoiling the composition, like a wind catching some leaves moving, making a blur, so I “clone” in the same leaf from a different frame (I have done exactly that!).
Another important at many levels is where are the edges with respect to the original scene? What did I include and what did I leave out? Ansel Adams mentioned this in the sense that he judged an image by not only what was in the frame, but what is left out? Exactly where does the frame cut into a continuous whole?
Grappling with this problem is a continuous process. Of course, in my quest for image making, I am less concerned with journalistic truth. Not at all. Well, maybe somewhat! After all, when an opportunity to make an image presents itself, as in the example here, the truth is there, in front of my eyes. Hey! Look at that! Back on screen, something didn’t work. It’s there, but it’s not. The camera saw it without prejudice, I didn’t. Yet the prejudice gave rise to my response to the scene in the first place. Sometimes, enthusiasm veils a clear concept of the result. Enter Photoshop. Exit, well, maybe the magic didn’t work at all!
So far as proof, that is another element. So where can we look for examples of truth through proof? Mathematics. Mathematicians offer rigorous proofs of their theorems, unassailable proofs.. Yet even there, we find that undecidability enters into proofs (Godel, for those interested in following this line). We are left with Truth is stronger than Proof. If we cannot prove truth in arithmetic (Godel), we all use it, no one challenges making change, for instance, yet it cannot be proven as truth! (The little devil in my psyche is delighted!)
I leave journalism alone. I tried it for a short while, and when I received an assignment for a cover page for a Sunday Supplement about a school lunch story, the editor assigned me the task of making it look unappetizing. It was the most difficult assignment ever, and I did make it look so. Frankly, there was nothing wrong with the lunch ingredients that turned me off from a visual point of view, but no one wanted to eat it, or at least, had the photo been used on a menu, no one would likely order it. So, is it truth? Proof of inedibility?
It’s easy to get tied up in knots over this stuff. Greater minds than mine grapple with it and come up “Undecidable”. So I see truth as something to be pointed to, and my photographs, through various means, attempt to get to connecting truth with beauty.
Or maybe not.
You probably noticed my change in ID here. I’ve decided to run under my given name, and retire Starbuck.
Photo©2015 Lawrence Hudetz All Rights Reserved