Featured today is a guest blog post by photographer and friend Guy Tal. Guy has long been an inspiration in both his photography and writing. Our blog post exchange today touches on a subject discussed in an essay “This Photo Is Lying to You” by Rob Haggart in Outside Magazine that resonated with both Guy and I separately. After a brief exchange via email we decided to share our views on the subject with you, our readers, in the hope of generating a healthy debate within the photography community. Enjoy! We look forward to your comments.
What would you think of someone claiming to be an art connoisseur berating and disparaging the validity of paintings by Van Gogh, Dali, or Monet? How about a self-described classical music buff proclaiming that symphonies by Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart are detrimental to the social value of all music? Such statements would likely be met with scorn and ridicule. And yet, a piece in a recent edition of Outside Magazine makes similarly outlandish statements against photographic artists, accusing them of damage to the practice of photography in all its genres.
In fact, the argument made in the article dismisses the philosophy and life works of giants from Alfred Stieglitz to Ansel Adams, not to mention countless contemporary photographers, as “lies” and “fakery”.
There’s a lot in the article that I disagree with, but one statement in particular is bothersome to me:
“No matter how forthright one is about alterations, fake photos cause collateral damage. They devalue the work of photographers with the skill and patience to capture awing images in real time.”
No they don’t. Do fiction writers devalue the work of investigative reporters? Do fantasy movies diminish the accomplishment of documentary filmmakers? Does science fiction cause damage to science? Further, is the implication that those who create art in the medium of photography are somehow less skilled or patient than their editorial counterparts? How insulting.
It is worth mentioning that the same issue of Outside features black-and -white images, images showing motion blur and lens distortion, and any number of other creative techniques making them what Ansel Adams would call “departures from reality.” And, of course, glamorized photographs featured in paid advertisements seem altogether exempt from criticism.
In a previous essay Idealizing the Landscape, I wrote: “Honesty is not a quality of images but rather of people; and comes into play in how the work is presented.” One would do well to avoid assigning moral values to inanimate creations. Images don’t lie. They can’t. For the same reason, images don’t tell the truth either. The only way to assess the documentary veracity of an image is by the trustworthiness of the people behind it: the photographer and the publication. When an image is misrepresented, the photographer is lying – not the image.
While one could plausibly make the argument for honesty in reportage, Haggart goes beyond the editorial and openly criticizes an art photographer (Ed Freeman) who fully acknowledges his methods and had never tried to pass his work as anything other than creative interpretations (and I may add – stunningly beautiful work of great skill and patience.) This is where the noble pursuit of “truth” ends for me, and prejudice rears its ugly head.
Photographic tools and images are every bit as versatile as paintbrushes and writing instruments. Just like one would not expect all written words to be indisputable truth, they can’t and should not expect every product of a camera to represent reality. In fact, as Mr. Haggart himself admits: “truth in photography has always been fuzzy (…) the camera always lies.”
The article states that “There’s a growing hunger for the truth.” Indeed. But what is the truth? Is it the misguided belief that all photographs represent reality? Is it not far better for consumers of imagery to become educated and to realize that the camera, like the pen or the chisel or the word processor, is an expressive medium and their trust in photograph may in fact be misinformed? Like it or not: that is the truth.
Rather than promote the Orwellian persecution of those whose photography ventures into creative expression, let this be the dawn of a new age of enlightenment. Consumers of photographic images must realize that while some are meant to represent true events, others are intended as works of visual art and symbolic metaphors. Failure to acknowledge the difference is simply embracing ignorance rather than trying to remedy it.
For us in the know – whether photographers, editors, curators, reporters or artists – the goal should not be to impose draconian limitations on personal expression (need we mention dark periods in human history where this was the case?) Instead, it is our duty to educate and inform.
Nobody expects to find accounts of actual events when reading fantasy novels, nor literal representations of real subjects in abstract art. People can be taught to distinguish between the documentary, the fictional, and the symbolic. Rather than assume our audience is ignorant or uncaring, we should earn their trust and faithfully represent our work for what it is – editorial or otherwise. Our mission should be to help deepen understanding, broaden horizons, and foster appreciation for a variety of expressive media. To assume that all people expect the same thing from photographs and can’t be bothered to learn the difference between reportage and creative expression is an insult to our audience.
If you enjoyed this be sure to read my writing on Guy’s blog:
Photography’s Eternal Identity Struggle
[tags]Photography, Philosophy, Digital Editing, Photo, Manipulation, Art, Photoshop[/tags]