Truth in Contemporary Photography

1 January 2017

Truth in Contemporary Photography Assessment Item: Major Essay Susan Sontag defined the photograph as a ‘trace’ directly stencilled off reality, like a footprint or a death mask. Every photograph is in some sense a document of something else, therefore giving it truthful merit. Photography is seen as a record, a piece of evidence that something happened at some point somewhere, in that time or place in front of the camera, holding its moments in stillness. 1] The photograph seeks to achieve information, truth, acceptance, evidence and existence, which then provides society with a history and individuals with memories and a proof of existence. Putting aside the notion of a photograph never lies, photography has an amazing power to provoke realism from a subject and although in a photograph we may see and know that an image has been constructed, the use of stereotypes, generalisations and the idealisms of a society may be the most influential element of an image, therefore granting it gratification as a reality.

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There are many different types of photographers throughout the world. In their work most photographers have different goals or have a different purpose or seek achievement depending on their points of view and beliefs on the overall outlook on photography. In this essay I will answer the question is there any need for ‘truth’ in contemporary photography? By looking at three very different photographers. The first Zoriah, an American born documentary photographer. The second Australian photographic Artist, Bill Henson.

And finally Persian born fashion and celebrity portrait photographer Mario Testino. When looking at documentary photography as a genre, it is clear that the documentary photograph does more than simply display information. It allows the viewer to be instructed to some aspects in which truth is revealed, thus allowing a document (the photograph) to be evidence or proof. Documentary photography tells us something about the world, allowing us to think about people and their environment and how they live. According to Arthur Rothstein, the word document is derived from the Latin docere meaning to teach.

Rothstein also believed that: “Photography can provide the most precious documents existing”. [2] Rothstein makes a valid point that documentary photography allows us to observe other cultures and environments around the world. It informs us as well as gives us an insight. When looking at a documentary photograph we rarely question it’s truthfulness because of the subject matter and the traditions of the genre. I also agree with Rothstein in his comment – photography can provide the most precious documents existing, as the photograph can be used as proof, showing a person’s innocence or conviction.

Also a photograph can be seen as documenting history to show future generations, helping them understand events that play a significant role in previous generations, or simply as proof of human existence. Zoriah is an award winning documentary photographer. His work has been seen in some of the world Humanitarian Aid to Developing Countries, he has worked for international aid organisations such as the Red Cross before returning to photography after a long absence. With his background in disaster management and humanitarian aid, Zoriah specialises in documenting humanitarian crises in third world countries.

He has covered disasters, critical social issues and conflict in over forty countries around the world. Although photos can act as explicate evidence I believe that at this time we should never trust the photograph as pure evidence. The photograph records or documents objectively; there are ideas that suggest that all documentation is regarded as the truth and evidence. J. Snyder and N. W. Allen explained that we expect to find a certain “documentary” value in photographs and we ask certain “documentary questions”: “Is it authentic? “Is it correct” and “Is it true”[3] When we observe this point by Snyder and Allen about questioning documents and their authenticity we see the argument that can be put forward. How do we know photos have not been manipulated in some way? Are they a true document and representation of the event? R. Martin and J. Spence state, “Whilst we know, intellectually, that photographs aren’t ‘real’, do not ‘tell the truth’, but are specific choices, constructions, frozen moments, edited out of time, we still invest meaning in them. [4] Similar to the point Snyder and Allen put forward, we often come across photographs that could be categorised as documentary images, and subsequently we question whether they are real, due to their unrealistic content. Being an unfamiliar subject that didn’t seem possible in the first place, we do put some faith in the image and its authenticity due to the proof of the image. Within Zoriah’s documentary work we only see the world through the lens of his camera. If another photographer were at the same location at the same time we would see a completely different set of images.

In this sense the work of any photographer is similar. Photographers such as Bill Henson, although his location maybe a studio is very different to a war-zone, he still has to compose an image – selecting what he wants us the viewer to see and more so what he wants to leave out. Therefore in this respect all photography cannot give a truthful representation of what is real, it is simply a perspective of what is real. While photography depends on reality, it also loves to take a holiday from it.

Viewed less as documents corresponding with reality, photographs can be seen as artificial forms of construction. For this reason the practice is less about picture-taking than picture-making. [5] Bill Henson is one of Australia’s leading contemporary Photographic artists. His work comprises of painterly and cinematic styled photographs. These photographs embody a pervasive sense of stillness, which it is suggested, is suspended somewhere between recognition and memory. For Henson’s photography to work successfully it must contain some element of truth so that it speaks to the viewer.

These elements may merely be a road, or lights in the distance, but they give his images a location and setting and therefore grant it a form of reality. In his work he is often influenced by external day-to-day experiences. This in turn makes his photographs a representation of his own personal past and history. Henson states; The work might begin with a fleeting impression from first-hand experience or in a piece of music I am always drawn back to, or perhaps in a paragraph of writing I cannot forget – and then it takes its own course. I become like a participant in some larger process I happen to be fascinated by. 6] Within his photography Henson sets up tensions by colliding opposites: beauty and squalor, the ordinary reality that a camera captures and something uncanny or otherworldly. Fashion is an evolution, a reinvention, a constant cycle of ideas, influences, trends, social and cultural demands. Fashion “matures and dies with the era and is once again reborn in partnership with the new rhythm of the succeeding era”[7] Some photography is used for public exposure of personalities and for advertising, often found everywhere that we look, whether it be in magazines.

The exact purpose of tabloids and exposure is evident when we look at the photographer Mario Testino. Testino stated that: “I belong to a time which many women and even men are obsessed with looking like models. In my work portraiture has a wider function beyond simply making someone look beautiful. It is a matter of identity. The identity of a fashion company has become like the identity of a living person in the modern world, or at least real as a person in a novel or film. These images can seem as familiar as some one you know. These people also need to be inverted. [8] This statement by Testino explains how he goes about photographing his subjects. He captures parts of the subject’s personality and through tabloids and exposure through such avenues as journalism, it allows him to become a major photographer/icon therefore creating a celebrity status for himself. Although many images displayed in magazines are behind the scenes, of famous celebrities and their everyday lives, we discover that it is not only the photographs of these exclusive people that draws the readers attention into the magazine and image in the first place.

It is also the words that are associated with the image and the interaction that they make. By photographers capturing images of celebrities behind the scenes, it established the photograph as privileged and worthy of something. [9] Roland Barthes suggests: “Since the photo is pure contingency and can be nothing else (it is always something that is represented) – contrary to the text which, by the sudden action of a single word, can shift sentence from description to reflection. ”[10]

All three photographers need to provide some element of truth, as no image can work effectively without the viewer having prior knowledge or recollection of a similar content. Through mechanical advancements associated with contemporary photography, the question has risen whether we can rely on photographs as a key piece of evidence or proof. We can be confident in saying that photographs allow us to have proof of memories and existence. We can identify through different artists such as Zoriah, Bill Henson and Mario Testino that each photographer needs to depict a certain amount of truth depending on the genre and their point of view.

Whether it be seeking realism, fictional realities or aesthetic exposure for publicity, and promotional purposes, within the work of these three photographers there needs to be elements of truth. At the same time that contemporary photography needs to contain some element of truth in order to speak to the viewer. I don’t believe that within all photography the content itself needs to be a truthful representation of an event. I believe that if contemporary photography is to ‘work’ successfully it needs to comprise of truths, but depending on the genre of photography there is a greater or lesser need for truth, within representing reality.

For example; A documentary photographer should comprise his images with more truths than a fashion photographer, or a fictional reality photographer, as documentary photography is a genre which relies on truths and reality. It is seen as evidence or proof. Whereas fashion photography though used as a historical reference for the fashion trends and of a particular era, it is a creative, commercial genre, which can rely on less truths, as the general public does not see fashion photography as reality. It holds the main purpose of selling a garment of clothing. It then can also sell a brand, and in some cases sell a ‘lifestyle’.

In fictional reality photography there is very little need for truth as long as the viewer has some connection to the content, through their personal experiences, then there is little need for reality or truth to be portrayed in these images. Photography needs some truth in order to work successfully, but it does not need to represent reality, and it cannot represent reality fully. I conclude with a quote from Sarah Kember, who sates; “How can we panic about the loss of the real when we know (tacitly or otherwise) that the real is always already lost in the act of representation?

Any representation, even a photographic one only constructs an image-idea of the real; it dos not capture it, even though it might seem to do so. A photograph of the pyramids is an image-idea of the pyramids, it is not the pyramids. ”[11] Bibliography Alexander, G. Tableaux-menento mori-screen culture. In Photography; Art Gallery of NSW Collection 2007 Barthes, R. Camera Lucinda: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard. London: Fontana, 1980 Bright, Susan. Art Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2005 Cotton, Charlotte. The Photograph As Contemporary Art.

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