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Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth?

On one level photographs should be independent of the technology used to produce them. Thus in general every camera has a lens, an aperture, a shutter and a sensor sensitive to light. Using these components the camera records the reality that is focused by the lens. However, it has long been recognised that the creation of an image through a camera lens always involves some degree of subjective choice through the personal selection and framing of the field of view by the photographer (Rosler, 1981; Sekula, 1982). Thus the question is: has digital technology upset the balance in the mix between on the one hand, the mechanical objective ‘trace’ stencilled off the real (Sontag, 1977:154) and on the other, the subjective witness (Sekula, 1982: 108)?

This question can be refined further if it is accepted that in the past:

The authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of the discursive, social and professional practice which constituted photography. Any radical transformation in this structure makes us uneasy about the status of the photograph (Price, 2004:74).

The question now becomes whether digital photography has introduced a radical transformation in the ‘structure of the discursive, social and professional practice which constituted photography’ (above). The critic Jonathan Jones writing in the ‘Guardian’ newspaper on the effect of the social media photography-sharing site ‘Instagram’ is certain that digital photography has brought radical change in its wake:

Digital photography is a degradation of private life, as Instagram’s world of micro trivia shows. Photo albums or family slideshows were once special, treasured, unique documents or events. Now the aura of seriousness that once attended the taking of a photograph – not in some remote Victorian epoch but in the 1970s, when my parents’ photograph albums were like household bibles – has given way to constant, impulsive and yet strangely pointless image-taking (Jones, 2012).

 In professional practice there are constant attempts to ‘hold the line’ against the ease and speed of digital manipulation, especially in reportage/documentary photography. For example, in 2003 a photographer was dismissed from the Los Angeles Times newspaper for digitally altering a photograph of the Iraq war in violation of Times policy (Los Angeles Times, 2003). In 2014 the Associated Press severed ties with a freelance photographer who it says violated its ethical standards by altering a photo he took while covering the war in Syria in 2013; the photographer had manipulated a digital picture of a Syrian rebel fighter using software to remove a colleague’s video camera from the lower left corner of the frame (AP, 2014).

But did digital photography (‘Photoshop’) bring an era of photography to an end or did it simply give a ‘new lease of life to photography’s phantoms’ (Jones, 2012).  In 2013 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York held the first major exhibition devoted to history of manipulated photography before the digital age (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013). The exhibition was divided into seven sections, each focusing on a different set of motivations for manipulating the camera image. For example the section ‘Pictures in Print’:

reveals the ways in which newspapers, magazines, and advertisers have altered, improved, and sometimes fabricated images in their entirety to depict events that never occurred—such as the docking of a zeppelin on the tip of the Empire State Building. Highlights include Erwin Blumenfeld’s famous “Doe Eye” Vogue cover from 1950 and Richard Avedon’s multiple portrait of Audrey Hepburn from 1967. “Mind’s Eye” features works from the 1920s through 1940s by such artists as Herbert Bayer, Maurice Tabard, Dora Maar, Clarence John Laughlin, and Grete Stern, who have used photography to evoke subjective states of mind, conjuring dreamlike scenarios and surreal imaginary worlds (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013).

The works on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art combined to persuade Jonathan Jones (above) that digital photography was not as radical a departure as it at first appears and it has merely given a ‘new lease of life to photography’s phantoms’.  But even this in itself is a radical departure of sorts.

References

AP (2014) AP severs ties with photographer who altered work [online] At: http://www.ap.org/Content/AP-In-The-News/2014/AP-severs-ties-with-photographer-who-altered-work (Accessed on 05.10.14)

Jones, Jonathan (2012) The fake photographs that predate Photoshop [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/aug/29/fake-photography-before-photoshop (Accessed on 05.10.14)

Jones, Jonathan (2012) Join Instagram, join a collective act of self-delusion [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/19/instagram-collective-act-self-delusion (Accessed 05.10.14)

Los Angeles Times (2003) Editor’s Note [online] At: http://articles.latimes.com/2003/apr/02/news/war-1walski2 (Accessed on 05.10.14)

Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013) First Major Exhibition Devoted to History of Manipulated Photography Before Digital Age Opens at Metropolitan Museum October 11 [online] At: http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/press-room/exhibitions/2012/faking-it (Accessed 05.10.14)

Price, Derrick (2004) ‘Surveyors and surveyed: photography out and about’ In: Wells (ed.) Photography: A Critical Introduction Third edition. Oxon: Routledge

Rosler, M (1981) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ In: Bolton, R. (ed.) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 303-340

Sekula, Allan (1982) ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ In: Burgin (ed.) Thinking Photography. London: MacMillan. pp. 84-109

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