Thursday, January 12, 2012

Photography and reality

Photography.  No other medium crosses so many boundaries.  Photography has been used to (among other things):

*make art
*document sociological, anthropological, medical "truths"
*report about current news
*capture the image of a loved one for all eternity
*advertise and propagandize

This versatility makes it one of the most exciting media to think about in all of art history.  In all these uses however, we often think of photography as a document, capturing a moment in time.  And photographers who recognize this psychology, can have a lot of fun.

Gregory Crewdson, Ophelia, digial C-print, 2001 (more info about Crewdson)

We are used to thinking of photography as capturing an image of reality.  Crewdson uses this assumption to his advantage, and surprises us by using the photograph to lie.  He has directed this photo like a movie or a play; he staged and set up every intricate detail and prop.  The reality his photos represent comes entirely out of his imagination.  

Imagine if this scene were in any other medium: if it was a scene on your TV screen when you pressed pause while watching a movie, or if it were painted on a large canvas in oils.  The composition would still be interesting, but it's essence would be lost, because this image is about the jarring juxtaposition of seeing something so unreal done with a camera, that is supposed to show only what is real.  

Crewdson is an extreme example, but he follows a long and noble tradition of photographing the unreal.  One of the earliest photographers, Hippolyte Bayard, also used photography to make a joke about reality.  
Hippolyte Bayard, Portrait of the Artist as a Drowned Man, 1840

In this photo, Bayard took clever advantage of one of the weaknesses of the early technology.  In early photographs, sun-browned faces and hands appeared very dark, so Bayard emphasized his blackening face and hands in the composition to make it look as if he could have drowned a couple of days ago and is already starting to decay.  Yuck!  (Art historians know from the note he wrote on the photo that Bayard made this photo faking his suicide by drowning to protest how little recognition and money he got from the government of France for his photographic inventions.)  

We expect truth with a photo, and yet often get only partial truth, edited truth or no truth at all.  Photographers can choose their lighting, their angle, their props, when they snap the shot, and where they crop.  The subjects can choose to smile even if they are not happy, or play dead, even if they are very much alive.  Even though we all know this to some extent, we still associate photography with truth and this is why the photographic fake still has such great power.  

Researching for this post I came across a fun website: The Hoax Photo Database.  Not only is there interesting information about the Bayard photo above, they have a whole index of staged and edited photos, from the 1840s to today.  

How do the photos you've come across in your daily life (news, facebook, ads etc.) manipulate the truth?


  1. I love photography/ photoshop for this reason. Photographs have a great power over people. Everyone needs an image attached to their cause (think polar bear on the small iceberg for global warming, or the cute Panda Bear for the WWF, while these images hardly encapsulate what the cause represents the images are rallying points that can spur people into action).

    1. Do you think the power of the photograph to convince people is ever used in sinister ways?