“The shadow of the object”

Wells, L. (ed.) (2002) The Photography Reader. (1 edition) (s.l.): Routledge.

Wikipedia contributors (2019) Cottingley Fairies. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cottingley_Fairies&oldid=904957519 (Accessed on 6 August 2019)

Swaine, J. (2018) ‘Trump inauguration crowd photos were edited after he intervened’ In: The Guardian 6 September 2018 [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/06/donald-trump-inauguration-crowd-size-photos-edited (Accessed on 6 August 2019)

In her essay “The shadow of the object” (Wells,2002:370) Sarah Kember discusses how our propensity to believe or disbelieve photographs is affected by the introduction of digital technology. Since her essay dates from 1996 it is fair to say that digital technology has moved on enormously since it was written. Has this altered the way we view images even ore so than she anticipated?

I found some of her essay hard to follow, as a lot of it is tied into philosophical concepts that I am unfamiliar with (to say the least). However she uses Roland Barthes’ exploration of an old photograph of his mother to investigate how we regard photographs as true because we experience a particular emotion suggested by the image. This she links to the concept of Positivism, which says that truth is only what we can determine immediately from our own senses. This then leads us to invest more in a perceived “truth” in a photograph than is really there.

The problem of what is truth in photography has been around for much longer than digital photography, perhaps since the beginning of photography itself. One only has to think of the famous “Cottingley Fairies” photographs from 1917. Several – otherwise intelligent – famous people became convinced that these were genuine, because they confirmed what they wanted to believe anyway. Expert opinion at the time suggested either that there was no evidence of faking, or that fakery could not be ruled out, to mean that they were genuine. The images coincided with his own beliefs in the spiritual world that he declined to consider the obvious fact that they were fakes.

With the ubiquity of Photoshop and other photo-editing software, we are much more likely to question the authenticity of photographs nowadays. I would suggest that familiarity with “Photoshopping” as a term gives us license to believe or disbelieve a photograph far more than in the past. There have been several well-known instances of situations where a photograph has not represented the intended “truth” so has to be edited to show the desired truth. As an example, in September 2016 the Guardian reported how members of the Trump administration had altered images of Donald Trump’s inauguration to disguise the number of people in attendance.

The distinction between perceived and actual truth applies to art photography but the difference is largely irrelevant. An artificially constructed image and a genuine real world scene can both supply “truth” in the sense of what the artist’s intentions are. This “irrelevant distinction” can get tested at times, such as Sherrie Levine’s repurposing of others’ works, but it is not the intention of true art to mislead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.