PetaPixel

Truth, Lies and Deception in Photography

The debate regarding what makes a photograph “truthful” or not is probably as old as the art of photography itself. By sheer coincidence, there were a couple interesting articles published today on this issue, and written from two different points-of-view.

Mark Schacter over at Luminous Landscape wrote up a piece titled “Am I a Photographic Cheat?” in which he argues from an artistic perspective,

The dishonesty/deception argument assumes that the untouched image is a faithful copy of reality. But we know this isn’t so. Even the best digital sensors don’t have the capacity to render shadow and highlight detail in the same scene the way the human eye does. And lenses introduce pincushion distortion, barrel distortion, chromatic aberration, and the like. The irony is that if the goal is to produce a faithful copy of reality, the image must be manipulated!

As for “breaking-the-rules,” where is it written that the landscape photographer’s role is to produce a carbon-copy of reality? Who says we shouldn’t manipulate an image to make it as powerful as possible? And, by the way, what would the no-manipulation “rule” mean for black and white photography which, after all, presents a radically altered image of the real world?

Benjamin Secher at The Telegraph offers a photojournalistic point of view in his piece on the work of Martin Parr, titled “The foibles of the world“:

‘Most of the photographs in your paper, unless they are hard news, are lies,” says Martin Parr. “Fashion pictures show people looking glamorous. Travel pictures show a place looking at its best, nothing to do with the reality. In the cookery pages, the food always looks amazing, right? Most of the pictures we consume are propaganda.”

[There is an] appalled expression on Parr’s face when I suggest that sometimes, regardless of their truthfulness, pictures of things looking their best might be exactly what people want to see. “Of course,” he says, “but what people want…” He hits that last word with the force of a punch, then lapses into silence, as if the very thought of taking a photograph that perpetuates a fantasy disgusts him beyond words.

“If you go to the supermarket and buy a package of food and look at the photo on the front, the food never looks like that inside, does it? That is a fundamental lie we are sold every day. Part of the role of photography is to exaggerate, and that is an aspect that I have to puncture. I do that by showing the world as I really find it.”

It’s a question that can never be answered once and for all, simply because there’s so many different forms of photography and goals that photographers pursue. Even when considering a single genre of photography, such as photojournalism, the line between truthfulness and deception is anything but clear — just look at the debate caused by the AP’s policy on red-eye removal!

(via A Photo Editor)


Image credit: Pinocchio by The Wolf


 
  • Nick

    I’d refer to the David duChemin stuff here and say it all about recreating the vision you had when you took the photo. Sometimes this might be rigorously realistic. Other times it might be trying to convey more a feeling about the the moment. The experience.

    As such I disagree with Parr (who I personally think is overhyped anyway). Mark Schacter’s piece is far more realistic.

  • Nick

    I’d refer to the David duChemin stuff here and say it all about recreating the vision you had when you took the photo. Sometimes this might be rigorously realistic. Other times it might be trying to convey more a feeling about the the moment. The experience.

    As such I disagree with Parr (who I personally think is overhyped anyway). Mark Schacter’s piece is far more realistic.

  • Nick

    I’d refer to the David duChemin stuff here and say it all about recreating the vision you had when you took the photo. Sometimes this might be rigorously realistic. Other times it might be trying to convey more a feeling about the the moment. The experience.

    As such I disagree with Parr (who I personally think is overhyped anyway). Mark Schacter’s piece is far more realistic.

  • Pete

    I think things would be much easier if there were two types of photography. Photojournalism, in which the image coming from the camera is unretouched in post and then Photography, which allows for anything.

    Obviously there is a lot to be “determined” for “unretouched in post”, but that’s the general idea.

    –Pete

  • Pete

    I think things would be much easier if there were two types of photography. Photojournalism, in which the image coming from the camera is unretouched in post and then Photography, which allows for anything.

    Obviously there is a lot to be “determined” for “unretouched in post”, but that’s the general idea.

    –Pete

  • Seriesrover

    The problem with “unretouched” is that the image is retouched, either optically, mechanically or through software, before it even touches a disk drive or is shown on screen.

    So why make the dividing line of being acceptable that what a human does manually [moves a slider to sharpen for example] or whether its automatically done in software?  Mark Schater makes an excellent point – heck we could go further by saying that our eyes are taking in two pictures from different angles [stereo] and creating yet another  image of what really exists.
    The point I think, is how is the image is representative of what we’re trying to do, rather than some pixel perfect accurate image that can never be achieved.  In the case of Mark, he’s try to convey a feeling or a story about where he was and manipulates the image accordingly.  In the case of Martin, he’s talking about selling a product that isn’t representative of what you’d get if you bought it [fashion, travel, food etc.]

  • John Purlia

    This is all actually quite simple and comes down to two things:  1) What is the goal of the image?  2) How is the creation of this represented?  That’s it.  The term “photography” is rather pointless; a camera is a tool used in a process to generate an image. I really wish people (especially “photographers” and the “photography” establishment) would quit trying to pigeon hole the use of something that is, to an artist, little more than a hammer (albeit one that is very complex and sophisticated).

    If the goal of the person creating the image (I’m not going to use “photographer” as it is as pointless a term as “photography”) is to create achieve a certain look or feel, it’s us to that person to use whatever means necessary to generate that image. This might mean using a photo straight out of the camera, using one that’s greatly retouched, or using one that is painted over with acrylics and glitter. In each case, the use of a camera is merely a means to an ends.That said, I think it is important that the person creating the image be open and truthful in disclosing the conditions under which the image was created. It would be silly, of course, to label every image with a list of how it’s been manipulated, and I’m not suggesting that as a means of “solving” the problem (if such a problem actually exists). Once an attempt is made to pass off an image as something it is not, the person who created the image loses all credibility.

  • John Purlia

    This is all actually quite simple and comes down to two things:  1) What is the goal of the image?  2) How is the creation of this represented?  That’s it.  The term “photography” is rather pointless; a camera is a tool used in a process to generate an image. I really wish people (especially “photographers” and the “photography” establishment) would quit trying to pigeon hole the use of something that is, to an artist, little more than a hammer (albeit one that is very complex and sophisticated).

    If the goal of the person creating the image (I’m not going to use “photographer” as it is as pointless a term as “photography”) is to create achieve a certain look or feel, it’s us to that person to use whatever means necessary to generate that image. This might mean using a photo straight out of the camera, using one that’s greatly retouched, or using one that is painted over with acrylics and glitter. In each case, the use of a camera is merely a means to an ends.That said, I think it is important that the person creating the image be open and truthful in disclosing the conditions under which the image was created. It would be silly, of course, to label every image with a list of how it’s been manipulated, and I’m not suggesting that as a means of “solving” the problem (if such a problem actually exists). Once an attempt is made to pass off an image as something it is not, the person who created the image loses all credibility.

  • Anonymous

    Arguing that photographs should always be untouched is like arguing that movie makers shouldn’t use artificial lighting or do colour grades on the film or add CGI. Human vision far exceeds that of any camera.

  • Anonymous

    Arguing that photographs should always be untouched is like arguing that movie makers shouldn’t use artificial lighting or do colour grades on the film or add CGI. Human vision far exceeds that of any camera.

  • Dave

    Photography as an art form should have no limits. Do you think anyone told Dali that clocks don’t melt? Picasso that her eye is higher on the right than the one on the left? Some of the only areas where photography should be a facsimile are: passport photos, crime scene photos, strict documentary or scientific photos…..I’m running out of example here……

  • http://twitter.com/DoctorTom Tom Grier

    I find it ironic that immediately below this article is an ad for “Portrait Professional photo editing software” including the before and after image that show how a person can easily manipulate a portrait of a woman from something real and human into something fake and plastic. 

  • Robbie McCarthy

    I would state my opinions here, but I think Errol Morris describes it better than I could:

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/07/10/pictures-are-supposed-to-be-worth-a-thousand-words/

    (It’s been a few months since I’ve read it, and I don’t remember the kind of background he gives himself in the article; Mr. Morris is a documentary film maker who produces his films out of pocket, with the revenue he makes from shooting commercials. Ever seen a commercial of a human being against a white scrim talking to the camera? Thank Mr. Morris.)

  • http://www.flickr.com/avaviel Avaviel

    F reality.

    The painters figured this out in the 1890’s: Maurice Denis said this, “It is well to
    remember that a picture – before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order”

    It’s the same with photography, digital or film. Take your pixels and flip them how you like.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.kantor John Kantor

    Parr is a fool if the thinks “hard news” is anything but lies. Fashion and Travel don’t hide the fact that they are fantasies. The news always tries to hide the evidence of its manipulation.

  • Alan Dove

    The fundamental problem is really not about photography at all, but in defining reality. Is what your eye sees real? Absolutely not. Look at a book of “optical illusions” sometime. The eye – or really the brain – is incredibly easy to fool, and constructs a version of reality that is often extremely misleading. That’s why scientists expend enormous effort on controlling their experiments, even to the extent of “blinding” their samples so they can’t introduce their own subconscious biases. It’s also why people have often been convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony, only to be exonerated years later when new physical evidence proves definitively that the eyewitnesses were wrong. All a camera does is offer us a way of automatically creating an image. Any resemblance between that image and what your eye/brain saw in the same place and time is largely coincidental.

    As with so many ethical and philosophical discussions, the real issue comes down to intent. If a photographer is presenting an image as a realistic representation, in effect saying “if you’d been there, this is what you would have seen,” then he or she has an obligation to keep the image as close as possible to what he or she actually saw. It should be as unbiased an account as the photographer can muster, just as a text journalist’s copy should be. Under those conditions, it’s no fair cutting and pasting a lynx from a stock image into your wilderness scene, to cite one recent example. That’s as wrong as making up sources or quotes for an article. The reader or viewer expects the journalist or photojournalist to make a serious and transparent effort at unbiased reporting. Doing otherwise is dishonest and wrong.

    However, if there is an implicit or explicit understanding between the photographer and viewer that the image is a fantasy, then all bets are off. I’d argue that this covers not only art, but also advertising and advertorial photography. Anyone who expects a travel or fashion article and its accompanying photos to be unbiased is delusional. We all know it’s really an ad, don’t we?