Rethinking Photographic Truth in the Digital Age

In her catalog essay for The Memory of Time: Contemporary Photographs at the National Gallery of Art, the curator Sarah Greenough makes some bold statements about fundamental changes that she thinks have transformed photography over the last 25 years.

One of her assertions is that the widespread adoption of digital information technology has fatally altered our belief in the photograph as an accurate record of events or things in the world.

“The invention of digital photography forever shattered the medium’s hold on truth,” she writes. It has “undermined its supposed objectivity, and decimated its evidentiary status.” The fact that a photographs “could be fabricated” means that “nothing in a photograph need be real.”

Greenough’s view is surprisingly widespread. In a recent interview with the Guardian, photographer Don McCullin lamented that photography had been “hijacked”… “digital cameras are extraordinary…. digital photography can be a totally lying kind of experience, you can move anything you want … the whole thing can’t be trusted really.”

When I first heard this statement, about 15 years ago, it even came with a prediction. During an NPR program, the writer Lawrence Weschler told the interviewer Kurt Anderson that photographs would soon be obsolete in courts of law. People were becoming so savvy about tricking out snapshots with Photoshop that it wouldn’t be long, Weschler promised, before no jury would accept them as supportive testimony.

While this prophesy wasn’t illogical at the time, it has proven to be, nonetheless, wildly wrong.

Police forces around the U.S. began to document crime scenes with digital cameras in the 1990s. By 1997, their acceptance by judges, district attorneys, and defense counsels was so uniform that the International Association for Identification recognized in an official declaration that “electronic/digital imaging is a scientifically valid and proven technology for recording, enhancing, and printing images . . . .”

Or, to quote from just one of many websites for legal services that currently advertise how digital photo-graphs can improve your chances of winning in court today, here is the text from a company called Vogel in Canada:

“Photographs have been used as a component in courtroom evidence for ages, and digital cameras are bringing the tracking capabilities of photo-graphs to a new level. Traditional photographs were seen as a snapshot of one moment in time. Digital photographs are different in that they can document a series of moments with an accurate date and time.”

In other words, what has happened is exactly the opposite of what Weschler foresaw: digital technology, with its integrated time signatures and GPS coordinates, has increased the veracity of photographic testimony, not destroyed it.

Part of Greenough’s anxiety may be due to her belief that in the digital era “faith in a photograph as a picture of something that actually existed” has vanished.

McCullin would no doubt concur, although this obscures the nefarious history of the pre-digital era, which was no more (or less) upright and principled. Photographers have been liars since Hippolyte Bayard faked his own drowning in 1840, and numerous con artists have used the camera to deceive a gullible public since then. The “spirit” photographs of William Mumler in the 1860s—fantastic pictures of dead figures hovering around the living—were nothing but crude double exposures. (The hokum was denounced at a sensational New York trial in 1869 by none other than the grandmaster of hokum himself, P.T. Barnum.)

Intellectuals have been easy marks for photographic trumpery, too. Arthur Conan Doyle, the pen behind crime fiction’s most observant detective and trained as a doctor, believed tiny “fairies” existed in his garden at Cottingley on the basis of photographs that two of his cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, claimed to have taken of the creatures in 1917. (The girls later admitted that their risibly inexpert composites were made with cardboard cut-outs from a children’s book.)

The duplicity of photographs has been celebrated on postcards of jackalopes and in Pop Art. No super-market tabloid would dare publish an issue these days without at least one blurry photograph that offers “proof” of UFOs and Bigfoot, or that the ghosts of Jesus, JFK, Marilyn, Elvis, Princess Diana, and Michael Jackson have visited from beyond the grave. The game of trying to fool picture editors with bogus documents, a constant danger today, has been going on a long time.

So, a bedrock faith in photography as an indisputable record of “something real” did not end with digital. If anything, rather than fracturing “the medium’s hold on truth,” it has multiplied ways of capturing it with a camera. If Greenough’s claims were true, NASA and the Pentagon—and the drone-crazed public—wouldn’t be attaching digital devices to anything that can fly; and engineers at tech start ups wouldn’t be miniaturizing them to probe recesses of the body inaccessible in the analog era. Citizen groups now routinely monitor the police with phone cameras, and the proposed solution to eliminating acts of abuse or misconduct is more digital cameras, worn by the police. Everyone is watching everyone. This isn’t the reaction of a public that has lost trust in the evidentiary value of photography.

I’m not dismissing the nervousness about digital expressed by Wechsler, McCullin, and Greenough. All of us are anxious about the aftershocks of the information revolution and what will be left standing. Many of us share the feeling that reality is less stable and concrete than in the past even if we can’t say exactly why.

Some of the distrust comes from the astounding volume of images flowing across screens, seen or unseen, every day. Even though the sense of being overwhelmed by the number of photographs goes back at least to the introduction of cartes-de-visites in the 1860s, daily postings on Facebook and Instagram are by now in the tens of millions. The value of individual photographs feels debased, like currency during the Weimar Republic when citizens needed wheelbarrows of Marks to buy a loaf of bread.

Any sophisticated teenager today knows that a selfie is a performance and not necessarily a fixed or even a faithful likeness. Dozens of apps advertise that their software can help “improve” or “perfect” your online presentation. While it’s true that anyone with an Instamatic or Polaroid Swinger in the 1960s knew that snapshots could exaggerate the reality of a bad haircut or skin condition, we are given so many more fingertip controls now to correct potential flaws that the final result is not as spontaneous and so may not feel as “real.” (Of course, this is a subjective reaction based in historical biography: anyone under 30 has grown up knowing only digital and so reverting to analog might feel equally unreal.)

The art world in the last 5 years has embraced the unreality and possibilities of the new technology and been awash in photographic images manufactured on computer screens and printers rather than focused on a ground glass and developed in a darkroom. Many of the younger artists featured in recent group exhibitions—What Is a Photograph? (ICP, 2014), Light Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography (Getty, 2015), Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015 (MoMA, 2015-2016) and Photo-Poetics: An Anthology (Guggenheim, 2015-2016)—are making images that abandon the tenets of photojournalism and street photography, both of which maintained a more-or-less factual relationship with things in the material world.

The things that interest the post-Internet generation are mainly ones they can manufacture and play with in their digital files. Artists and writers are always urged to deal with their own experience, and the primary experience for many of us is what we see and interact with on a daily basis through our phones and screens. Work about the process of mediation that goes into viewing, selecting, making, and presenting images has become the main (or only) content of this new work.

But it’s not clear to me why abstract photographs fabricated in camera or with digital editing programs by, say, Hannah Whitaker, Thomas Ruff, Bianca Brunner, James Welling and Lucas Blalock, should be considered ontologically less truthful than fabricated abstract photographs by, say, Man Ray, György Kepes, Edward Quigley, and Henry Holmes Smith.

William Larson’s electronic fax collages in the 1970s are not “pictures of reality.” Is a digital video by Elad Lassry less real than videos on tape or films on celluloid from the 1960s and ‘70s by Skip Arnold, Erika Suderberg, and Tony Labat?

There is more continuity between the eras than is commonly supposed. Mia Fineman’s superb catalog essay for her 2012 Met exhibition, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, questioned how much of what is regarded as “straight photography” was a product of filters, cropping, and darkroom magic. Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is thus as in some ways as compromised by technology as any wartime report or celebrity portrait where smokestacks or wrinkles are removed in Paintbox or Scitex.

Which is not to say that lines don’t exist between reality and fabrication. Even if viewers and readers may not know where they are, artists and journalists do. (If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have so much fun confusing the two or trespassing across the borders.) Photography’s relationship with tangible reality is being stress-tested in the widespread adoption of digital editing programs. It’s not so much a question of the evidentiary value of the image, however, as it is the loss of a more direct response from the audience which, when artists are allied with the self-reflexive impulses of Conceptual art, is forced back on its heels.

When you have to question everything about the truth of an image, you’re less inclined to accept the sincerity of anything, lest you turn out to be duped. Irony is a tonic in combating earnest propaganda, but it can also be a tiresome and enervating reflex and should be used sparingly. Worries that our digital universe is increasingly fencing us off from ourselves and from Nature won’t be mended by further alienating potential viewers who aren’t as well-schooled in theory (or Photoshop) as a typical MFA grad.

My chief complaint about the younger generation of digital artists who are currently everywhere in New York and Los Angeles galleries is not that their photographs aren’t as “real” and “truthful” as in days of yore, but that many of those ensorcelled by the wizardry of the technology love it and the riddles it can pose more than they love the world.

(To be continued.)


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