The Camera Never Lies?

In his feedback to my first assignment, my tutor commented on this image:

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Look at the graphic simplicity of the image, a slight rotation anti-clockwise would straighten the verticals and straighten the pavement line but you may lose the straight line along your top of frame, this may be due to the way the building is constructed but could be due to viewpoint and camera angle / precision. This correction could be achieved in post-production by using transform tools in Photoshop but then issues may be raised concerning truth in photography! Where documentary photography is concerned should we be altering images? research and comment in your blog!

There is something about a photograph. Unlike a painting, which is obviously man-made, a photograph by its nature is nature reproducing herself [i]. Oliver Wendell Holmes thought that truth should be as much inherent in God’s photography as it is in his other works [ii]. In this short discussion I am going to look at what we mean by the truth, what truth can mean in photographic terms (in particular documentary photography) and the ethical issues surrounding the subject.

According the Oxford Dictionaries online: [iii]

Definition of truth

noun (plural truths /truːðz, truːθs/)

[mass noun]

· the quality or state of being true:

Definition of true

adjective (truer, truest)

1 in accordance with fact or reality:

2 accurate or exact

A witness in court swears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Without wishing to go too deeply into concepts of absolute truth, when talking about the whole truth I am reminded of the story of the blind men and the elephant:[iv]

Once upon a time, five blind men came upon an elephant.

"What is this?!" asked the first one, who had run headlong into its side.

"It’s an Elephant." said the elephant’s keeper, who was sitting on a stool, cleaning the elephant’s harness.

"Wow! So this is an Elephant! I’ve always wondered what Elephants are like!" said the man, running his hands as far as he could reach up and down the elephant’s side. "Why, it’s just like a wall! A large, warm wall!"

"What do you mean, a wall?" said the second man, wrapping his arms around the elephant’s leg. "This is nothing like a wall. You can’t reach around a wall! This is more like a pillar. Yeah, that’s it! An Elephant is exactly like a pillar!"

"A pillar? Strange kind of pillar!" said the third man, stroking the elephant’s trunk. "It’s too thin, for one thing, and it’s too flexible for another. If you think this is a pillar, I don’t want to go to your house! This is more like a snake. See, it’s wrapping around my arm! An Elephant is just like a snake!"

"Snakes don’t have hair!" said the fourth man in disgust, pulling the elephant’s tail. "You are closer than the others, but I’m surprised that you missed the hair. This isn’t a snake, it’s a rope. Elephants are exactly like ropes."

"I don’t know what you guys are on!" the fifth man cried, waving the elephant’s ear back and forth. "It’s as large as a wall, all right, but thin as a leaf, and no more flexible than any piece of cloth this size should be. I don’t know what’s wrong with all of you, but no one except a complete idiot could mistake an Elephant for anything except a sail!!!"

And as the elephant stepped aside, they tramped off down the road, arguing more loudly and violently as they went, each sure that he, and he alone, was right; and all the others were wrong.

The Elephant keeper sighed, and went back to polishing the harness, while the elephant winked solemnly at him

This story has its roots in an old Indian poem and it calls into question the concept of the “whole truth”. It points out very succinctly how we can only tell the truth as we see it from our own perspective. Each of the blind men was telling the truth as he understood it and they all thought they had the whole truth and argued accordingly. Yet each told just part of the story and even assembled together, the whole was not described.

When we see a photograph we do not see reality, we see a flat representation of it bounded by the edges of the image. The photographer has made a selection when he framed the piece; he decided what to include and what to leave out, he decided what part of the elephant to show us. We see the part of the truth that the photographer wants us to see.

If the picture does not show us the whole truth, does it portray nothing but the truth. Consider the Boy with the Toy Grenade by Dianne Arbus.

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We see a skinny child, one of his straps is hanging off his shoulder, his face carries a distorted expression, his hands are held in a tense grip. This picture is untouched, it’s obviously true. It’s obviously a picture of a child showing some kind of distress or derangement. Or is it? Here is the contact sheet where this picture came from:

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Apart from the one, now famous image, and another family scene, there are ten pictures of a happy, normal young boy. The one the artist wanted us to see is just one aspect of this boy’s personality.

Perhaps Dianne Arbus never intended to show us the whole truth and nothing but the truth, perhaps the misrepresentation lies with the viewer in assuming that Daguerre was right, that the photograph can only be a true portrayal.

To consider the situation with documentary photography, we need to start with a definition of documentary. Again referring to the Oxford dictionary:

Definition of documentary

adjective

1 consisting of or based on official documents:documentary evidence of regular payments from the company

2 using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject:a documentary programme about Manchester United

Definition 2 places a clear responsibility on the documentary photographer to “provide a factual report”.

One of the great feats of documentary photography was the Farm Security Administration’s cataloguing of the depression in 1930’s America. An enduring image of this collection is this one from Dorothea Lange:

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A desparate mother, a sickly child, a family losing their dignity in the struggle for survival. Another one in the same series was taken after the father took a damp towel and cleaned his child’s face, specially for the photographer:

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Which of these is the “factual report”? John Edwin Mason claims that between them the photographer and the father created a lie[v]. Did they? Isn’t it natural for the father to want to show the world that his family is happy and clean despite their hardships? Surely both pictures represent parts of the truth but it is the former that helps tell the story the FSA wanted; it is the former that triggers the emotional response in the viewer. “Perception is reality,” American political consultant Lee Atwater is reported to have said, a conception the FSA exploited to show this family how they wanted them to be perceived.

James Curtis’ essay “Making Sense of Documentary Photography” [vi] contains other examples of this selection process. He also points out some early examples of more blatant image manipulation. For this picture by Alexander Gardner of the American civil war, he had the body dragged forty yards to get the picture he wanted.

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William Henry Jackson had to wait for the spring thaw before he could get his bulky camera equipment into position for this 1873 picture of the Mount of the Holy Cross. Unfortunately by this time, one of the arms of the cross had melted. He replaced it in the darkroom later!

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More blatant still, yet not claiming to be documentary photography is this seagull by Bill Brandt. In the first picture, the seagull was added to the image of London docks in the fog. Later, Brandt made a second version, reversing the image and adding the sun.

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This historical context illustrates two ideas. Firstly. image manipulation is not new and is not an invention of Photoshop. The software is responsible for making it easier and put it into the hands of more photographers but it has been going on since the dawn of photography. Secondly, I think it shows that what the photographer needs to be aware of is not how he manipulates his images, but how his images manipulate the viewer. It is natural and right to use pictures to tell a story and the story being told needs to be truthful. However, the story being told can only be part of the truth, just as it was beyond the skill of the blind men to be able to describe the whole animal individually. The storyteller needs to be aware of this and this should be the guiding foundation for his ethical standards.

Equally the viewer needs to aware that he is only seeing the part of the truth the photographer intends him to see. Part of the burden of responsibility of faithful imaging lies in how the viewer sees and interprets the picture.


[i] Louis Daguerre in a notice circulated to attract investors 1938, taken from Gunnar Swanson “On Notions of Truth in Photography: Semiotics and the Stereograph”

[ii] Oliver Wendell Holmes “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” taken from Gunnar Swanson “On Notions of Truth in Photography: Semiotics and the Stereograph”

[iii] http://oxforddictionaries.com/

[iv] http://www.robinwood.com/LivingtreeGrove/Stories/StoryPages/Elephant.html

[v] http://johnedwinmason.typepad.com/john_edwin_mason_photogra/2010/03/how_photography_lies.html

[vi] http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/photos/intro.html

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Landmark: The Fields of Photography

I can’t imagine anyone with a camera in their hand and confronted with one of nature’s majestic vistas, hasn’t wanted to capture it for posterity. This is the traditional notion of landscape photography; the style for which Ansel Adams is so well-known. This exhibition at Somerset House showed that landscape photography today means so much more. In the words of curator, William Ewing: “Landscape photographers have exposed the wounds and scars of the world, or shown regions that have so far escaped the heavy hand of man. Some photographers seek out the remotest parts of the world in search of the vanishing sublime, others travel to the most trodden and abused zones in search of the ridiculous. Some are content with the pastoral and the picturesque; others share nightmarish visions of a degraded and violated earth.” This, even without mentioning the photography of outer space, sums up the broad sweep of the exhibition’s intentions.

With 170 photographs from 70 photographers, the exhibition was big; too big to do justice to in a single visit and certainly too wide ranging to describe effectively here. But I can give a few short notes on the pieces and artists that had the most impact on me.

One photographer that stood out for me was Simon Roberts. His series, “We English” was the result of a journey across England in a motorhome with a pregnant wife and a two-year-old daughter. He favoured an elevated position, often using the roof of the motorhome to seek out the vantage point. These three examples can almost be considered Landscapes in the traditional sense. but they all contain people as significant compositional elements; they portray the people interacting with the landscape.

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South Downs Way, West Sussex, 8th October 2007

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Camel Estuary, Padstow, Cornwall, 27th September 2007

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Amerta Movement Workshop, Avebury Henge, Wiltshire, 2nd June 2008

This image, taken from “XXX Olympiad” seems to stretch the definition of landscape somewhat. Apart from the sky, there is nothing of nature here, everything is man-made.

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These two by Harry Cory Wright would rightly be called seascapes. They are from his series “A Place in Mind” which also includes more traditional landscapes, church interiors, cities, even the cockpit of Concorde.

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Lands End, 2010

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English Channel, 2010

There were some examples of more classic approach to landscape, one of which is “Trees-Clouds” by Mitch Dobrowner

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Trees-Clouds, 2009

One of the values of visiting exhibitions is seeing the prints as the artist intended. Colour and tonality in a printed book or the internet are only an approximation to the real picture. Size is also important. The pieces from Simon Roberts above lose a lot of their impact being reduced in size. Amrut Nagar #2 by Robert Polidori is another. This photograph of a ramshackle shanty town so typical of Mumbai is detailed enough to take the viewer into the lives of its inhabitants.

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Amrut Nagar #2, Mumbai,

Environmental damage is an important issue in today’s society so it is not surprising many photographers have turned their lenses towards it and it was an important topic in the exhibition. In some pictures, the message is obvious. Tailings is a series of pictures by Edward Burtinsky portraying the damage caused by uncontrolled effluents from industrial processes. This pair of nickel tailings pollution in Ontario is an attractive diptych, a photographically pleasing pair and their message is obvious.

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Nickel Tailings No 34 and 35, 1996

The message in the two examples from David Maisal’s Lake Project is not so obvious. Faced with this picture alone, you would wonder what it was; a martian landscape, an elaborately conceived abstract, an extreme magnification of some human tissue? It needs words alongside it to explain and to elaborate the meaning.

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The Lake Project, 2001

The exhibition also took a look at how photographers manipulate reality. Nasdaq 80-09 by Michael Najjar is a photograph of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina which has been digitally altered to mimic how stock markets move over time.

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Nasdaq 80-09, 2009

The last image in this short account brings me back almost to where I started. Ansel Adams is the icon of landscape photography and he created a lot of his work in Yosemite National Park. El Capitan is one of the park’s iconic peaks.

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El Capitan, 1999

This picture of it by German photographer, Thomas Struth, differs from something by Ansel Adams in two important respects. The mountain is overexposed (the highlights are blown) and there are cars and people in the foreground. Overexposing the mountain, the very subject of the picture, focusses our attention on the people.

At the exit of the exhibition is a quote from Guillaume Apollinaire: “Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature’s monotony. The sublime idea men have of the universe would collapse with dizzying speed. The order which we find in nature, and which is only an effect of art, would at once vanish. Everything would break up in chaos. There would be no seasons, no civilization, no thought, no humanity; even life would give way, and the impotent void would reign everywhere.”

This says two things; mankind needs artists to interpret nature and without mankind (and by inference the interpreting artists) there will be no nature.

Somerset House have produced an education pack which points out that a major shift in landscape photography is to include people in the imagery and asks why this shift has occurred. Much of the thrust of the exhibtion was not so much about landscape photography but about the photography of man’s interaction with the environment.

Pictures of environmental damage are a way of feeding our collective guilty conscience, a kind of self-abasement. Pictures focussing on our interaction with the environment are a way of saying that the environment only exists for our enjoyment. Either way, we are giving the message that the only important thing in the environment is mankind. We can do as much damage as we like and if we wiped ourselves off the planet tomorrow, the world would go on turning, life would continue. The damage we have done can be measured against the damage nature inflicts on herself; tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, even the ice ages. But mankind only measures all of this with respect to its impact on mankind.

I have been considering a project based on this for a few months now. This exhibition has given me considerable food for thought as I continue to plan it.

Project: Noise

For the purposes of this exercise, I chose a scene with some detail, an (almost) textureless surface in shadow and in light and a surface in between. (more…)

Assignment One – Tutor Feedback and Response

New course, new tutor, same anticipation.

I submitted what I thought was a good set of images, backed up by a thorough workflow and some thoughtful reflection and I was, as always, keen to hear the opinion of someone who knows what he is talking about.

His feedback is here:

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Overall, I was pleased with what he said. The opening paragraph is very rewarding: “You have submitted a very good assignment, meticulously recorded workflow, a set of very good quality prints well-presented and a thoughtful and insightful reflection, well done.”

I have done some work to improve my printing, but I am still working with an uncalibrated monitor, using generic Canon ICC profiles on a fairly cheap and far from state-of-art printer so to receive a comment like “very good quality prints” is very satisfying.

This is the first time I have used any sort of cataloguing software and never used keywords (except for the few images I have put on stock agency sites) so his comments about adding metadata and keywords are relevant and timely. I will need to consider how I am going to incorporate this into my workflow.

There are also useful comments about sharpening. I have read in the past how repeated and excessive sharpening can have a damaging effect on an image; a magazine that I have worked for has asked that I do not sharpen images at all as they do it as preparation for printing. Jpegs apply sharpening in camera so to shoot raw will give me greater control over the process. I have looked at sharpening on dpbestflow as suggested. There was some good information which will be subject to later study. This dip into it led me off onto a tangent towards parametric image editing (must try to keep focus better) but that seemed to fit in well with his recommendation of Peter Krogh’s book an Digital Asset Management so maybe not a bad thing.

Regarding the image set, I can relate to most of his comments on the images. There are a lot of comments about depth of field, precision of framing etc. This was a weakness of mine all through the Art of Photography and I have worked hard on this. This submission is much better in this respect but the comments show that I still have some way to go.
Similarly with the coherence of the set; I thought I had submitted a well connected set of images and this was acknowledged “…In terms of submitting a coherent set of images you achieve this in terms of presentation but on content this is let down somewhat.” The connection was the images were all about people living and working in London and I think this is what he refers to as the “presentation” but stylistically they are disparate.

There’s a lot to absorb in this feedback so I need to distil some key points from it:

1. One thing I need to take on board to improve my technical ability I have already mentioned, more accurate framing and better control over depth of field.
2. Workflow needs to take account of adding metadata and keywords.
3. Work on my raw image processing, including sharpening
4. Research the background to the next assignment including photographers.

The Photograph as Contemporary Art

Charlotte Cotton has an impeccable CV. She was the curator and head of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum (1992-2004), the head of programming at The Photographers Gallery (2004-2005) in London. More lately she was the founding creative director for Media Space, the National Media Museum upcoming London photographic gallery. (more…)

Reflection on Part One

This introductory unit to Digital Photographic Practise introduced concepts of workflow, histogram and editing. I found it all fairly straightforward, in the most part an extension of what I am currently doing. (more…)

Fred Herzog

clip_image002I’ve got a cupboard in my living room packed full of photographs that I have taken over the years. Many are of family, still more were taken on holidays, a few may have artistic value. Fred Herzog had a cellar full. More than 100,000 Kodachrome colour slides were boxed up waiting for technology and an opportunity. (more…)

Project: Highlight Clipping

With the sensor output using just a limited number of bits to represent the intensity of light falling on it, it is inevitable that there comes a point when the light is too great to be properly represented. Film and our eyes have a natural roll-off in their response so that the progress to extreme brightness is gradual and not easily noticed. Digital sensors have a linear response. This makes the transition abrupt. The purpose of this exercise is to investigate this effect by taking a series of pictures of the same scene at different exposures and comparing the area where highlight clipping occurred. (more…)

Project: Linear Response

The idea behind this exercise was to simulate the response of the sensor to light. Unlike the human eye, the sensor’s response is linear, doubling the light falling on it will double its output. The eye on the other hand is more sensitive at low light intensities, with the response rolling off as the light level increases. The exercise involved working with a single jpeg image and reversing the processing the camera applies to attempt to show what comes off the sensor. (more…)