Jessica Helfand | Essays

Regarding the Photography of Others

In an interview published in yesterday's Guardian, David Hockney makes a case for the implausibility of photographic truth: asserting that photography is as fictional as painting, his argument is an odd sort of inversion of Susan Sontag's more complex (and arguably, more compelling) observations about the visual depiction of war, cruelty and disaster. Hockney raises serious questions about photography as evidence, no longer the barometer of truth it once was. Sontag's analysis operates from a decidedly more humanitarian premise: here, the photographic lens is a palpable reminder of the basic obligations of conscience. "'We' should be taken for granted." writes Sontag, "when the subject is looking at other people's pain." Yet in spite of their polarized perspectives, both Hockney and Sontag cite Goya.

Here's progress for you: from the Spanish insurrection to the Cambodian invasion, the horrors of war endure.

Posted in: Photography, Politics, Theory + Criticism

Comments [12]

I think the same can be said of any image at all.

Someone once said that there is no such thing as history - there are only historians, and I reckon that's true.

"If photography is no longer blunt fact, why not accept that painting has equal status?"
Is this the 'case for implausibility'?
Can we compare contemporary (gallery)painting, which I see as retail, to editorial photography?
Perception is a dependent of context.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

David, I actually disagree. While the argument about technology-threatened reality (image doctoring and so on) is not a new one, the threat to authenticity where war is concerned is, I think, quite unique. And, given the current state of war, terrorism and its attendant atrocities, quite serious. To me the idea that someone like Hockney--who by the way has always used photography as an integral component in his process -- would question photographic authenticity in wartime suggests that we are not so far away from widespread public skepticism: if he's right, and the power of (photographic) images can unwittingly turn truth into fiction, then what's to prevent us from doubting everything?
Jessica Helfand

Popular culture abounds with arguments that challenge our ability to believe. Remember the controversey over the famous "doctored" photo of Lee Harvey Oswald? Has anyone seen the biting satire, Wag the Dog, lately? (Talk about skepticism and sarcasm). Then there's David King's amazing document of Stalinist truth alteration - "The Commisar Vanishes. "

Yet I always felt (and working on a newspaper I have been conditioned to believe) that photographs are inherently truthful (at least the ones that get published). But truth is not absolute. Croping alters the most vivid truth. And even vivid photographic evidence is challenged by those whose agenda is to propose alternative truths. How, for example, can holocaust deniers spew their malicious messages in the face of so many still and motion pictures (not to mention real survivors)?

I don't have an answer. But there must be some standard or measure of visible truth on which belief can rest. If we cannot believe photographs, we certainly can't believe drawings, paintings, and other more subjective media (even though many are eyewitness accounts*)

*By the way, most battlefield artists of old were in the service of their respective governments, which colors their work. Conversely, the greatest "anti-war" artists may have experienced the cruelty of war (i.e. Otto Dix); they did not produce "journalistic" images, but rather reflections of what they or their comrades experienced. Even Daumier's masterpiece indictment against the barbarity of French police, "Rue Transnonain" was a transcription of an account of a masacre rather than his eyewitness account.
Steven Heller

The question of photography as 'barometer of truth' is implicit. It always has been. Still, photography's competence of rendering details and the insistence with which light through a lens becomes a document remains to be viewed with compassion for these details (real or manipulated).

From Roger Fenton's (he studied painting with Paul Delaroche) Crimean War photographs in the wet collodion process, Matthew Brady and his photographers' daguerreotypes of the Civil War, and to Alexander Gardner's "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter", Gettysburg, 1863, it was common knowledge the photograph may have been constructed. (With slow emulsion speed & the slow, laborious process, they did their best to represent battle after the fact through portraiture, architecture, destruction that carried a melancholy record.) As Beaumont Newhall wrote in The History of Photography: "But Gardner's dead sharpshooter, his long rifle gleaming by his side, is not imagined. This man lived; this is the spot where he fell; this is how he looked in death. There lies the great psychological difference between photography and the other graphic arts; this is the quality which photography can impart more strongly than other picture making. As Oliver Wendell Holms put it: The very things which an artist would leave out, or render imperfectly, the photograph takes infinite care with, and so renders its illusions perfect." http://www.rleggat.com/photohistory/history/gardner.htm

This viewing moment has always included the presence of the maker/ the photographer/ the illustrator/ the process, and hand behind the image, no matter the wet-plate process complete with covered wagon and crew, or range-finder Lieca -- opportunities of misrepresentation, distortion, any question of 'reality' continues to meet and challenge the viewers conscience.
Margo Halverson

My point is that every image has someone shaping it. Even if a photo isn't doctored digitally - what lies just outside the frame?

Or what images has a picture editor chosen above others to represent a story?

Everything is subjective. Any painting is the same. What has the artist left out, what has he embellished?

If you watch the news do you really think you are witness to truth? What truth do you chose? Sky, Fox News, Al-Jezira?

Good points, Margo and Steve, and examples. And yes, David, I would of course agree that everything is subjective, but as emissaries of communication in the broadest sense, the question of accountability is rarely raised for designers. On one hand, I suppose it is possible--perhaps even desireable--to subscribe to the theory that the dual objectives of truthful representation and personal/artistic interpretation might be said to chatacterize the ideal approach. (In other words, you do your job and then some.) But then I wonder: how is it possible that the lens can lie, that our emotions are so governed by pessimism and doubt that we can throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater? How far is it from Hockney dismissing photographic authenticity to Hutton Gibson (father of Mel) dismissing the Holocaust?
Jessica Helfand

Actually I think Gibson's dad doesn't dispute the Holocaust, but disputes the 6 million number. But of course doubtless there are those that do dispute it happened, as do those who dispute that Armstrong ever walked on the moon - an event even more strongly balanced on the 'truth' of the image than most.

There is an interesting relationship between this and graphic design I think when it comes to the area of stock photography. Do we really accept the photo of the big mac in the poster as opposed to the limp one we hold in out hands? Has the half and half photo of the face showing one side that used no-wrinkle cream and the other side that didn't really been 'untouched' up? Do business men really jump over running track hurdles fully suited and carrying a briefcase?

Perhaps subconsciously we have long accepted that images lie but in the end accept it as part of the game. We have been programmed from such an early age to get over the fact that image/design/ and news are not neccessarily bedfellows of 'truth'.


How far is it from Hockney dismissing photographic authenticity to Hutton Gibson (father of Mel) dismissing the Holocaust?

Thank goodness, it's a long distance. Jessica, following your line of thinking, every historical event prior to the advent of photography is open for dispute.

Hockney is only repeating a long existent view that photography is not as objective as it seems. I think is a widely accepted idea in the art photography community, maybe less so in photojournalist circles (thought they should know better.) The the camera lies was probably more apparent in the early years of photography when the image fidelity was lower. We seem to be getting a dose of that same experience now, as the technology changes over from chemical processes to digital ones. However, just because photography is not a 100% accurate representation of reality as it exists does not make it a 100% lie. There is always, as Roland Barthes pointed out, the "there" in the picture, the original object that was captured as reflections of light. This is what makes Edvard Munch's quote true, at least until an intrepid photographer makes the arduous return from "the other side."
Todd W.

I think one question to ask is "What is Truth?" I don't hear either Sonntag or Hockney asking this question. To understand any flat image that replicates space is to privilege sight over sound, smell, taste touch or opinion. Suppose we could create a holographic room that would replicate all of the components of a murder like that pictured above. Would that be more truthful? What if I have no knowledge of Cambodia or the killing fields or the Vietnam conflict or the Spanish Civil War? Maybe I would think these were images of mass murderers being executed after a trial. If that is what I thought then I could address the question, "Is execution acceptable in the system of law?"

There are massive assumptions about images like this that we all know the back-story and that the image will complete a line of thinking. What if I were a sick twisted person? I might think, "Woo hoo! Look at these worthless people getting what they deserve." Sonntag for example assumes that the viewer will respond against suffering when they see a photograph like this.

Take for example the murder of Kitty Genovese. A whole neighborhood, a total of 38 people, heard her scream "He stabbed me" and "I'm dying," or saw one of three attacks against her, and yet they did not get involved or call police until after she was dead. Maybe if they had only had a picture of a bloody corpse they would have had the compassion to get involved... Where is the logic in that?

When people speak of the truth-value of a photograph in its ability to transport the viewer into the thick of the milieu, give the person the true experience of the event. If the truth-value of an experience is more than that of a photograph and a photograph more than that of an essay, how does one qualify a murder such as that of Genovese?

"if he's right, and the power of (photographic) images can unwittingly turn truth into fiction, then what's to prevent us from doubting everything?"

I think the thing that can keep us from doubting everything is also related to the question "What is Truth?" If a student turns in a research paper with only one source it is expected that the student will receive a failing grade. It is in the student's ability to interweave pieces of information from many texts, combining fact and informed opinion in support of a unique thesis that earns the student an A. We might even all agree to consider an effective paper to be "leaning toward the truth" instead of containing "Truth" itself.

An image can present a piece of information, but it alone cannot construct truth. If we look at it this way then we don't have to fall into destructive doubt, but can maintain a constructive kind of doubt that relies on checks and balances. Images can be seen as one piece of information among many.

I think when we look at painting we can see the issue in the battle between Romantic, Realist, and Neoclassic art. At the time all three called on truth and authenticity - Neoclassicists and Romantics toward a "sublime" truth and Realists toward the "authenticity" of the everyday. In retrospect we can see the idealism in each movement, even in Courbet's Realism. When we look at documentary photographs like Alfred Eisenstaedt's The Kiss we see the same combination of realism and fantasy, even though he believed in the single image presenting a distillation of an event (in this instance Victory Day.)

Images such as Eisenstaedt's and Eddie Adams, Vietnamese General Executing Vietcong, 1968 pictured in the post don't give answers, but they may open up very interesting questions about what we value or despise, love or hate. This is very distant from giving "Truths," but that doesn't mean the images aren't compelling and extremely powerful.

It is an interesting question "what is truth in a photograph".

I would say that if philosophers and scientists can only give us glimpses into "the truth" I don't see why a photojournalist would be any different. But I think we can fairly say that an unedited photograph is "more true" than a "highly edited one".

In regard to Sontag I think she may have missed the mark when she says "basic obligations of conscience. 'We' should be taken for granted." writes Sontag, "when the subject is looking at other people's pain."

By "We" she is talking about the observer and she feels it is somehow a moral obligation to ignore the observer.

By the same token would it be a "basic obligation of conscience" for this 'We' to be "taken for granted" if they are viewing somebody else's boredom.

Personally, I enjoy my own suffering more than I enjoy my own boredom. When I am suffering, at least I know I am alive.

In any event it appears to me that Sontag attempts to put a rather heavy, abstract, and arbitrary thing around peoples necks and call it a "basic obligation of conscience". I think the best that even a Christian or Buddist Saint (a real one) would hope for is to evoke compassion in the observer.

Jobs | July 15