« The Death of the Sunpak | Main | Hollywood Glamor, Contemporary Style »

Tuesday, 14 August 2007


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The truth is we don't know anything.

Paul: prove it.


You need to have a lie down in a darkened room. Oh, and keep taking the tablets. ;-)


I'm shocked! Do you hear, SHOCKED! I think we need a senate investigation of this tomfoolery. There outta be a law! Hey, lets call NYC. Now theres a town what knows how to control photographers.

well, that's one reasonably narrow track through one portion of the history of photographic images.

Over the same time period you could equally have chosen the common distrust of photographs in the Soviet Union due to their regular manipulation by the Kremlin

Or the common and wide acceptance of heavily (and often seamlessly) manipulated advertising, fashion and other photographs during the heyday of the illustrated American magazine - Life, Harpers Bazaar, Colliers and so on - when such magazine employed whole departments of airbrushers and compositers to accomplish this. Photographs which people didn't think twice about.

I saw this photo on The Guardian website yesterday...


It reminded me of Fay Godwins photograph of the dog jumping the fence...only, this time, no wires.

Are you pulling our legs? This is the story of Karsh's portrait of Churchill as I've always heard it: http://www.cbc.ca/news/obit/karsh/.

I'd hate to think that your version is true . . .

Truth is always constructed. Evidence is always subjective. And reality is a figment of our imagination.

But what does that have to do with photography? Whatever we want it to, effendi.

You are exactly correct that a photograph is never proof, only evidence. And the veracity of the evidence depends on many things, chiefly among them the intention of the photographer, and the viewer's faith in the photographer's honesty in conveying that intention.

In other words, we can be reasonably (but never entirely) sure that a photojournalist's photograph is more truthful than an advertising photographer's photograph. We generally have more faith in the direct "truth" of a documentary photographer's work than that of a surrealist photographer.

But even then we get into the sticky quagmire of defining "truth." As a creative art, photography has the latitude to reach for so-called "higher" truths, the way fiction writing can over non-fiction. But again, it depends on the photographer's intent.

Finally, I would ask "who cares?" Anyone who is only content with purely literal "truth" is someone I don't want to talk to, so why should we even talk about them. The human mind is capable of so much more than pure reason and logic, and that's where art comes in.

It's like scientific claims: if it's mundane and unsurprising - just confirmation of something you already thought to be so - you need little in the way of evidence. If the claim is highly controversial or goes against a lot of common wisdom you need a substantial amount of corroborating proof for anybody to believe you. If I say my observations show that the moon is round and rather big you'll be unlikely to ask me for all my observational data. If I say the earth is hollow and we're actually living on the inside you'll want to have a lot of evidence before you'd be inclined to believe me.

And that is a reason this "hard to manipulate/easy to manipulate" distinction in a sense is beside the point. Everybody has seen the photographs of Stalin where Trotsky was edited out. It was done on film, and it was not actually very well done. If you know to look for it, it's not that difficult to see that something's happened. But a picture of Stalin where Trotsky did not happen to be in the picture would be perfectly normal, so nobody would have a reason to suspect anything wrong. The absolute level to which you can manipulate a picture really isn't a limit on what you can do; it's just a rough framework for how you can do it.

And as Mike illustrates above, perhaps the most effective manipulation does not involve the image itself at all, but only placing it in a context different from reality. In a joke scientific paper many years ago the authors proposed a revolutionary money-saving technology for electron microscopy (can't find it online, sorry): nobody can really see what the EM images depict anyway, so why not just use the same single image over and over with different captions? The illustrations they had were uncanny, with the same image claiming to be anything from metamorph rock sample at 100x magnification to black ant antenna hair at 8000x magnification (or words to that effect). I could not tell which was the real caption.

Take any image - manipulated or not - put a reasonable caption on it, and you can probably get away with it. Conversely, no matter how real that silver halide photograph of Elvis riding the Loch Ness monster is, you're going to be out of luck getting it accepted without lots of other evidence.

Ja. Gotit right, now.

Surprisingly, (1) eyewitness accounts are the least reliable, and (2) circumstantial evidence is the most reliable.

Or so they told me on my way into the witness protection program. Sorry I can't tell you who I am right now.

All writing is fiction. The camera always lies. Photographs used as evidence are always suspect, which is yet another reason to be playful and irresponsible and try to make art. Not to be confused, of course, with either of my two uncles who went by that name. (Ja, OK, maybe I shouldn't have gone there then.)

What the heck.

Yours very truly,
Anonymous Bosch,
the world's most famous unknown artist

Ooooh, Marty's gonna be amused!

"Are you pulling our legs?"

I promise you, I'm pulling your leg.


I've thought about it and I don't think this debate is half so interesting as whether digital capture can actually capture anything realistic at all.

My experience is that it is good for things that fill the frame - such as portraits - but it starts to creak with subjects with lots of small detail - an avenue of trees for example. It just starts to look - digital.

Looking at the portrait of Churchill has anyone noticed that babys all look like Churchill in the first few months of their life. Especially when they scrunch up their faces.

Well done Mike. It is an interesting topic but some people are taking it way too seriously. It was good to step back & have a laugh. You should do more of these.

So what form of human expression is not potentially a lie? The question is about trust; in the author, not the medium.

LOL, I totally fell for all of the stories. I did stopped to think about the people in the 'miniature railroad' photo, though.

Curious as to where you came up with the name of the model railroader -- in any event, "Martin McGuirk" was an outstanding modeler and the photo proves it . . .


Martin McGuirk

"Curious as to where you came up with the name of the model railroader"

Sad story, that. McGuirk would have been the editor of the leading model railroading journal of that day, except that the pinhead publishers had no capacity to recognize talent.

I believe he disappeared into the wilds of Colorado never to be heard from again, a legend not unlike that of B. Traven....


Super semi-satire!

But your serious point at the end is very serious. Some years ago I took part in a debate on a topic something like 'a picture can never be the last word', and the audience took the view on that occasion that pictures were somehow *better* than words. The direction the arguments took was essentially that visual evidence is much richer, juicier, more packed with information than verbal evidence.

But the truth is that any picture needs a lot of words, starting at very least a caption, and then hopefully some more pictures and more words, before anything like confidence, much less certainty, can emerge.

We are never satisfied with reality, are we? Joe Rosenthal wasn't. Yousuf Karsh made the record, but before he took Churchill's cigar.

So perhaps it is just a game. We try to get famous from the most dramatic angle, pushing a little the border of ethics.

There's an interesting, and extremely parallel, conversation on the NY Times website. Filmmaker Erroll Morris (Dr. Death, Thin Blue Line, etc.) is blogging this month, and had a post questioning exactly the truth-telling power of photographs, illustrated, with emphasis on how providing context through captions changes one's experience of pictures, etc.. For me the most interesting comment came from a reader who wrote, echoing Mike:

"When I was a photography student, our teachers went on and on about this: the fact that the supposedly factual photograph is not really "true". It was held to be terribly naive to think that a photograph was in any sense true. I am a little tired of hearing that: it's a cliche in postmodern discourse.

What I am interested in now is the fact that the photograph does in fact register something that was in front of the lens at a certain fraction of a second, or several seconds. This is what Barthes was getting at in Camera Lucida: that the "œreferent adheres," that is, there is no getting around the miraculous fact that a photograph records the light that fell on the film (or digital recording back) was reflecting off some object or person that was in fact in front of the camera at one time. Barthes thinks about that in connection with a photograph of his mother as a young person. His mother is dead, and this remnant of her existence is precious and miraculous, in a way that a painting or drawing of her would not be.

This is what enthralled 19th century people when they looked at a photograph, and it still has the capacity to amaze those of us who are not totally jaded about photographs. I am still not over the wonder of this. I photograph almost every day, on film, and I still am fascinated by the ability of film to permanently record the fleeting qualities of light; or people who will be dead in some years; or a flower that will be gone tomorrow. Photography is about death, as Sontag and Barthes both noted. And it's also about memory. Yes, sometimes photographs need some text to make their meaning complete. But that's ok. Many photographers are inveterate archivists at heart, making photographs and written records together, for future generations to pore over. Even the most casual snapshot will be precious in fifty years, whether it has a caption or not.

My father and his sister love to look at the photo albums that my grandfather made in the twenties and thirties. He carefully captioned all of them, but sometimes there are people in the photographs that they can't identify or remember. They spend a lot of time debating who these people might be and trying to remember them, or figure out why they are in the photograph. Sometimes I wonder why it seems to important to be able to identify these people. I think it is because it seems awful to us that some person might be completely lost to memory and future generations.

Before there were photographs or writing, griots and seanachies memorized geneologies so that ancestors would not be forgotten. Photographers and family archivists and photojournalists and documentarians are the griots and seanachies of the present, recording ancestors and the daily life of the ancestors for the descendants."

Posted by shannon

Morris's piece is here (You need to subscribe to Times Select, unfortunately, a premium service; subscribers to the paper get this for free, and you can sign up for a free trial):


Comments are here


I had heard that Karsh showed Churchill the photo on the back of his M8, but at an angle so the image wasn't good and Churchill was pissed for the next round of photos. But that could be wrong.


Should I read into the fact that two of your photos above are of men who spent their time manipulating reality with oil paints and canvas? Should we call Oliver Stone?


I would like info on Photographer (iwo Jima flag)Joe Rosenthal's ancestry, Ukraine? My grandmother is a Rosenthal from Odessa Ukraine.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007