The Index and the Icon
This week’s reading, presentations and discussions have centred on authenticity and representation, and what a conundrum of thoughts it has initiated.
With such varying opinions on these topics, my mind has felt somewhat like a pinball machine with my inclinations to agree or disagree ricocheting around my mind.
Is photography a trace of the real world? Is it representational at all? What makes it authentic? And why do we care so much?
John Berger has said: “No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its subject in the way a photograph does”, while Roger Scruton chose words such as lacking and polluting in his arguments about whether a photograph can be representational as a painting is in his work, Photography and Representation.
In theory, a uniqueness of photography is its ability to show what is there, to be ‘really real’ yet at the same time offer room for manipulation. The Photo Secessionists grew out of a desire to show it wasn’t what was in front of the camera that was so important but how the photograph could be manipulated, bringing it into the realm of fine art.
So photography can wear two faces. It can satisfy a call for authenticity through literal interpretation of recording the actual thing in front of the lens (although Szarkowski in The Photographer’s Eye suggests it is an image and not the real thing – a trace) but it can play with the truth through the photographer’s visual choices and pre/post production techniques.
Geoffrey Batchen has pointed out that the indexicality of photography to world it captures is essential to its role in representation, and a photograph of something proves its existence even if not of its truth. For example, war photographs have been ‘set up’ – they are not actual records of the moment but a ‘representation’ of what happened such as Alexander Gardner and his well-known ‘attended to’ photograph of a dead soldier.
For me, when it comes to truth in photography there are probably certain contexts where I would want to feel as though the image is a replica of the fact – as a former medical photographer I needed to record patients’ conditions as close to the real as possible. As a former journalist, I’d like to think that photojournalism held integrity close to its chest (although former discussion relating to Dan Winter’s use of the Hipstamatic app spring to mind – the images were ‘real’ but the style was different to the expected). But as a ‘photo-artist’ – a term I now use to try to simply explain that my work is not just tied to commercial,weddings, portraiture etc. that many people surmise if you say you are a photographer – work that is made through historic processes such as mine or via digital capture and manipulation, I have no concern in its ‘truth’. I have similar expectations when it comes to the written and spoken word. I want factual news stories and honest interviews, although this is possibly wishful thinking so I have to accept that in many forms of communication what you see or hear is not always what you think you see and hear.
In my practice, I tend to make my images from found items, from nature and maybe combing negatives or instant films. My current project is a reaction to, and interpretation of, human impact on the environment and although I do not create images in a documentary style that perhaps have more of an expectation of truth, my results are authentic to my mindset at that time and to the story I am trying to depict. As to whether or not photographs are more truthful than paintings I would argue that they have the capacity to be so but paintings are surely the truth as envisioned by the painter. If I took a photo of say my dog and my friend painted him, is there not a truth in both? He will look in the photo more ‘real’ but is he anymore or less authentic?
Berger J, 1978, Uses on Photography essay, sites.uni.edu [online]. p50. Available at: https://sites.uni.edu/fabos/seminar/readings/berger.pdf [accessed February 3, 2017]
Scruton. R, Photography and Representation. Critical Inquiry Vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 577-603