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FORUMS Photography Talk by Genre General Photography Talk 
Thread started 19 Jan 2020 (Sunday) 13:27
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The Truth in Photography

 
Tronhard
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Post edited over 1 year ago by Tronhard.
     
Jan 19, 2020 13:27 |  #1

Recently I attended some lectures on photography history at university, and the discussion evolved from the controversy from the start as to whether photography was an art or a mechanical process. Early reviews of the first photos (in this case Daguerreotypes) marveled at the incredible detail and accuracy rendered by the images. So we asked ourselves does a photo tell the truth?

The first question to address was obvious: What is Truth?
Part of that answer has to lie with differences of how we see and how the camera sees.

So, immediately there differences:

  • We correct distortion & colour shift, the camera does not
  • Our eyes adapt to tonal differences, the camera less so
  • Our eyes scan continuously, a camera does not
  • The camera has no emotional attachments, we do
  • We see what we expect to see and ignore things we take for granted, the camera does not
  • We see in 3D, the camera captures in 2D – we need to create the illusion of depth with composition or by using dual cameras
  • Our brains isolate, the camera does not

How we isolate
We have evolved as part of our survival and social demands to be selective in we observe:
  • The brightest element - particularly useful for finding food
  • The strongest, most saturated, and warmest colours
  • Sharp or well-defined or well-contrasted areas
  • Texture – hard light vs. soft light and back light
  • Contrasting movement and stillness
  • The largest element
  • Leading Curves and perspective lines – frame placement
  • People (esp. children, faces, eyes) or animals
  • Patterns
  • We read text!

So, in the end the issue of rendering a "true" image is fraught with differences between our optical characteristics and the human intelligence and socials programming that bias and filter what our eyes present to us.

For a long time photography was held to be truly honest, yet almost immediately photographers played with images to fool us and make a point.

Henry Peach Robinson in 1858, Image Fading Away
Source: The Met

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Robinson seamlessly combined five separate negatives to produce this intimate narrative of family tragedy. The scene centers on a bedridden young woman dying of tuberculosis—or possibly of a broken heart, as suggested by the Shakespearean title of a preliminary study, “She Never Told Her Love”. The picture was notorious both for maudlin theme and the “artificiality” of its technique. To us it is obvious that the lighting is wrong, yet Prince Albert bought copies and issued a standing order for any of Robinson's further works.

During the American Civil War photographers capturing the battlefield scenes had, by necessity, to work after the conflict, (both from a safety perspective and because their shutter speeds were too slow) so they were prone to arranging the bodies of dead combatants for effect. Photos of the living were posed for the same reasons.

"All the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow", Leo Tolstoy;
"Skill in photography is acquired by practice and not by purchase" Percy W. Harris
We aren't remembered for the gear we use, rather the quality of the images we create. Me...
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Tronhard
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Post edited over 1 year ago by Tronhard. (7 edits in all)
     
Jan 19, 2020 13:32 |  #2

The Australian photographer Frank Hurley was very prone to merging and editing his images to get what he felt was a sense of his subject rather than the actual scene.

He went on several voyages to the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic, during which his photographic talents created an invaluable archive of two expeditions on the frozen continent: the Nimrod Expedition (1911-14) and Shackleton's (1914-16).

The latter was to become the most famous, because of its glorious failure, resulting from the crushing of the expedition's ship, Endurance and the long and arduous effort to return to safety over a year in which (amazingly) none of the expedition died. Hurley's images were uniquely able to capture this dramatic saga, but one of the most famous was contrived: that of the whaler James Caird, initally accompanied by cutter Stancomb Wills that had helped transfer supplies to it, was being farewelled by the survivors on Elephant Island to find rescue over an 800 mile voyage and crossing of the mountains of South Georgia.

In the first image a boat is seen being waved at by the marooned expedition members in an image that expresses the smallness and loneliness of craft and its crew on their epic voyage.


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In fact, Hurley butchered his unique image to remove the James Caird, the larger boat that was actually departing on its journey, leaving the much smaller Stancomb Wills rowing to shore. In a stroke he turned the unique farewell into a lesser welcome by adding this title: "the scene, Elephant Island... on August 30, 1916... A small boat, to which the men are waving, can be seen in the middle distance rowing to shore".

This was found out later when the original glass plate was examined, and caused some consternation among those who felt they had been manipulated.


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"All the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow", Leo Tolstoy;
"Skill in photography is acquired by practice and not by purchase" Percy W. Harris
We aren't remembered for the gear we use, rather the quality of the images we create. Me...
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Tronhard
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Post edited over 1 year ago by Tronhard. (2 edits in all)
     
Jan 19, 2020 13:40 |  #3

After his return to civilization, Hurley was inducted into the army as an official photographer on the western front. In keeping with his adventurous spirit, he took considerable risks to photograph his subjects, also producing many rare panoramic and colour photographs of the conflict.


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He fell foul of the authorities when he created an image from several others to depict what he felt was the sense of the fight on the western front. He described his commitment "to illustrate to the public the things our fellows do and how war is conducted", but this was unacceptable to the army as they expected a photograph to be an exact depiction of what was seen at the moment of exposure. Interestingly, they were quite happy to accept similar images from official artists' paintings, because they felt that a painting conveyed emotion, whereas the photograph had to be the truth, and nothing but the truth.

He was encouraged to resign but went to the Palestine front where the authorities were less picky and created many heavily staged images glorifying the Australian army.

"All the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow", Leo Tolstoy;
"Skill in photography is acquired by practice and not by purchase" Percy W. Harris
We aren't remembered for the gear we use, rather the quality of the images we create. Me...
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airfrogusmc
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Jan 19, 2020 14:32 |  #4

And a bit more recent there is Jerry Uelsmann
https://media.mutualar​t.com …4-51a6d84c7310_g_570.Jpe​g (external link)

A few other thoughts on the matter.
An interesting thought by John Szarkowski.
"What the photographer taking the picture and the historian viewing it must understand is that while the camera deals with recording factual things and events that form the subject of the photograph, it only produces a perceived reality that is remembered after the thing or event has passed. While people believe that photographs do not lie, this is an illusion caused by the mistaken belief that the subject and the picture of the subject is the same thing."- John Szarkowski

"Because we see reality in different ways, we must understand that we are looking at different truths rather than the truth and that, therefore, all photographs lie in one way or another. Today's technological advances in digital manipulation of images that the public sees regularly in photographs and films now only makes it easier to understand what has always been true."- John Szarkowski

"All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth." - Richard Avedon

Garry Winogrand 2min 24 sec is
https://www.youtube.co​m/watch?v=Tl4f-QFCUek (external link)




  
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Tronhard
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Jan 19, 2020 16:23 as a reply to  @ airfrogusmc's post |  #5

Hi Airfrogusmc! :-)

First of all I like your signature... I chimp too. I recently went back to film for a while and instantly missed the ability to immediately assess the quality of my images.

These contributions are excellent!


"All the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow", Leo Tolstoy;
"Skill in photography is acquired by practice and not by purchase" Percy W. Harris
We aren't remembered for the gear we use, rather the quality of the images we create. Me...
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sjones
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Jan 19, 2020 17:32 |  #6

Well, in a broader sense, what is “truth” presents one of those monstrous philosophical questions that has stirred debate for a few millenniums now. Answer still pending, especially as the concerted delegitimization of fact has become all the rage over the past decade or so.

And the concept of truth remains a particularly shifty subject in photography, with obfuscation stemming not just from photographic manipulation, whether due to photography’s inherent limitations or intentional alteration, but also from the viewer’s subjective interpretation, even if the photo, itself, passes journalistic standards.

One example illustrating the controversies that can arise from such subjectivity was a Thomas Hoepke photo taken September 11 depicting young adults conversing on the Brooklyn side while the Twin Towers burned in the background. Editorialist Frank Rich used the photo to comment on the disaffected if not nonchalant nature of today’s youth. This was not received well:

https://slate.com …that-9-11-photograph.html (external link)

https://www.bjp-online.com …-thomas-hoepker-new-york/ (external link)

This leads us to question photography's ability to tell a story given its gossamer narrative and scant context (unless accompanied by text). And what story can be told if truth remains so ambiguous, so underdeveloped, so malleable to personal perception? The story is more likely to be drafted in the viewer’s mind than within the photograph’s image.

And of course, this is not a new phenomenon, as much as people like to condemn Photoshop as some sinister techno-propogandist solely responsible for excising reality from photography. The Robinson photo (a favorite of mine) clearly shows that intentional manipulation has traced photography since its earliest days, as also demonstrated by Oscar Gustav Rejlander’s ambitious “Two Ways of Life” (1857):

https://en.wikipedia.o​rg …s_of_life_(HR,_​sepia).jpg (external link)

I largely follow Garry Winogrand’s contention that photography does not tell a story, and I’m more comfortable saying that photography is more prone to lying (or misleading) than revealing the eternal truth unless accompanied by external explanation.


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Jan 19, 2020 17:45 |  #7

Tronhard wrote in post #18994704 (external link)
Recently I attended some lectures on photography history at university, and the discussion evolved from the controversy from the start as to whether photography was an art or a mechanical process. ...

I believe that this argument still exists, even 190+ years after the invention of photography, because many still want to pigeonhole photography into one category or the other and are unable to accept that it can live in both spaces equally and at the same time.

It sounds like what Frank Hurley was doing was lying, claiming that a photo is a true depiction of an event when he knew that it was doctored. Doctor a photo all you want to create the image you are looking for, just don't claim it's undoctored and a true representation of that instant in time.


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Jan 19, 2020 17:46 |  #8

People went on the Moon and took pictures, but were are still naysayers.
Similar group takes Nessie photo seriously.


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Tronhard
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Jan 19, 2020 18:05 |  #9

gjl711 wrote in post #18994852 (external link)
I believe that this argument still exists, even 190+ years after the invention of photography, because many still want to pigeonhole photography into one category or the other and are unable to accept that it can live in both spaces equally and at the same time.

It sounds like what Frank Hurley was doing was lying, claiming that a photo is a true depiction of an event when he knew that it was doctored. Doctor a photo all you want to create the image you are looking for, just don't claim it's undoctored and a true representation of that instant in time.

Hurley was incredibly talented and industrious, but he certainly had a penchant for bending the truth. He was always into any activity for the money and played fast and loose with those who trusted him and to whom he made commitments.


"All the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow", Leo Tolstoy;
"Skill in photography is acquired by practice and not by purchase" Percy W. Harris
We aren't remembered for the gear we use, rather the quality of the images we create. Me...
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Jan 19, 2020 18:16 |  #10

sjones wrote in post #18994845 (external link)
I largely follow Garry Winogrand’s contention that photography does not tell a story, and I’m more comfortable saying that photography is more prone to lying (or misleading) than revealing the eternal truth unless accompanied by external explanation.

Even the most celebrated photographers, including Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange used creative technique for their images. Adams always said that his images were meant to represent the emotions he experienced when looking at a vista rather than their literal reality. The famous image Monolith was as striking as it was because he dramatically darkened the sky with a red filter. Similarly Moonrise Hernandez, New Mexico was heavily manipulated after the shot was taken. He was an artist and less of a documentarian.

Dorothea Lange's famous photo of the Migrant Mother was posed and selected from several such shots, and even her notes about the woman and her situation were disputed by the subject years later. That woman gained no benefit but donations poured in for those in her situation. Considering the plight of those who benefited one could forgive her creativity.


"All the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow", Leo Tolstoy;
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Jan 19, 2020 20:05 as a reply to  @ Tronhard's post |  #11

Yeah, Adams’s “Moonrise Over Hernandez” is a textbook lesson on post processing’s significant if not crucial contribution to creativity and the aesthetic:

https://whitherthebook​.wordpress.com …ography-before-photoshop/ (external link)

Contravening boasts of ‘getting it right in camera’ fail to recognize that Adams was technically meticulous (more so than most humans ever) when tacking the photo. Yet, he realized the negative’s full potential in the darkroom, where he could best express his ‘vision’. And, using his technological knowledge, he ensured the proper latitude existed beforehand to facilitate further manipulation.

We’re not necessarily deceived by any of this, particularly as high-contrast monochrome isn’t exactly inconspicuous in a world of color. The artistic rendering was overt by design and not corrective subterfuge.

Of course, things get a lot messier when we assume a journalistic or documentarian intent, with the Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ photo being a good example. It should also be noted that the Lange photograph focuses on the woman’s blouse, not her face, which brings up a whole other topic regarding the relevance of technical perfection.

Lange’s photo, along with Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’ and W Eugene Smith’s “Spanish Wake”, continue to generate debate regarding their veracity. However, as you also noted, perhaps a greater cause was fulfilled that justifies the means; even if it brings up “slippery slope” contentions. In any event, all of these photos have managed to push their way into iconic status.

http://www.alteredimag​esbdc.org/eugene-smith-spanish-wake (external link)

More recently, Steve McCurry sparked considerable backlash after revelations surfaced that he substantially manipulated some photographs (subtracting humans among other modifications). Again, this falls more on pretense than allowability, since anything is allowed in photography. But many people rightfully viewed McCurry’s photographs along journalistic standards; their anger understandable. After all, this wasn’t simply a matter of tweaked contrast or color correction.

I personally argue that perhaps what might seem the most petty of concerns is actually one of the most potentially deceitful; that being the common snapshot. When we see our neighbor’s vacation photos, we assume that if the lovely little imps in the photo are standing next to, say, a llama, they were actually standing next to a llama. Oh sure, the photograph might have gone through some type of artsy Instagram filter from here to eternity, but we are still largely wired to believe that the kids and llama were in close proximity. But maybe the llama wasn’t really there.

Again, all of this underscores truth’s elusiveness in photography, as well as where it may or may not matter. This is not to say that maintaining a certain ‘truth’ within the limits of photography is futile, with fact inevitably drowning in subjectivity and manipulation. We can interpret and view within a degree of reason, such that journalistic standards retain an important value. So, if I might somewhat glibly say that photography is a lie, it’s not necessarily said as a pejorative by any means, and it is certainly not to suggest that the objects we see in a photograph are all fabricated or duplicitously rendered…or are they (eyeballs quickly shifting left to right).


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Jan 19, 2020 20:26 |  #12

Sometimes, to quote from A Few Good Men, people "can't handle the truth". In this case I am thinking of the video shot for the Netflix Our Planet series. In the second episode, and in the making of, video was shot of Walruses climbing cliffs to a great height and falling to their deaths. This was because the ice they should have taken shelter on was melted and the beaches were too over-crowded for them. It was a heart-rending thing to see, but it was the truth. Yet some criticized the filming as "disaster porn" or similar. Sometimes a truth is a thing we would like to have manipulated to a more muted form...

There was an interesting image of a starving baby crawling with a vulture standing nearby. It featured among Time's 100 most influential photographs of all time. Rather than post the image I shall reference the Time page that focuses on it. http://100photos.time.​com …-child-vulture#photograph (external link). The commentary is worth reading...

At the other end of the scale videographers filming in the Antarctic first filmed a number of penguins, blown into fairly deep depression in the snow by the winds. They watched and filmed as the penguins struggled to climb up to safety with their young, and failed. Some adults abandoned their young and got to safety. Many died. Eventually they could stand it no longer and they cut a path that allowed the rest of the penguins living to make it to safety. They were criticized for getting involved.

The photographer is always in a moral dilemma in such situations. Many say that they are there to document and not to get involved, but that approach taxes their sense of humanity, sometimes to destruction.


"All the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow", Leo Tolstoy;
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airfrogusmc
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Jan 19, 2020 22:12 |  #13

Adams referred to taking the image and processing the negative as writing the score and making the print as preforming the piece. He was an accomplished pianist thus the music analogy.

There is a story Adams told about Moon Rise over Hernandez. I believe IIRC he and his son were driving back from Ghost Ranch and he was passing the village of Hernandez. It was near sunset and as he saw the the crosses in the grave yard were brilliantly lit but the setting sun and the moon was rising. He had a station wagon, A Pontiac if I'm not mistaken with a platform welded to the top so he could set up his view camera to photograph from.

He saw the light and stopped the car. Climbed up on top with his Deardorff and tripod and set up his camera. He realized he had forgotten his meter in the car. But he remembered how many foot candles the moon had when ut was 3/4s full so as not to burn out the detail in the moon he set his exposure on that information. He made his exposure slipped the dark slide back in the film holder. Flipped the film hold over to make another exposure but the sun slipped behind the mountains behind him to the west and the light on the crosses died. He said he didn't make another exposure because without the light on the crosses there was no photograph.

I had a chance to see an exhibit of his work here in Chicago at the Art Institute some years back They had three Moonrise prints in the exhibit hanging next to each other. They were from printed from three different time periods in his career. The first print was printed with the sky lighter than the second print. The third print printed late in his life was the sky was the darkest and made for a much more dramatic photograph.
"Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships!" - Ansel Adams

Rarely the did the scenes that Adams photograph look as they actually were in his photographs.
"In my mind's eye, I visualize how a particular . . . sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph." - Ansel Adams




  
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Jan 19, 2020 22:22 as a reply to  @ airfrogusmc's post |  #14

Airfrogusmc:

Well expressed and completely agree. :-)


"All the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow", Leo Tolstoy;
"Skill in photography is acquired by practice and not by purchase" Percy W. Harris
We aren't remembered for the gear we use, rather the quality of the images we create. Me...
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Jan 19, 2020 23:02 |  #15

The truth, however we define it, is always a product of the photographer, not the photograph.

Photographs entered as evidence to a court of law must be accompanied by the photographer's deposition, swearing that the photograph represents the truth as the photographer knows it. The photograph is merely testimony by image rather than in words said in oral testimony. It's not the photograph that counts, it's the photographer.

In all cases, we should realize that it's always the photographer, not the photograph. The photographer is giving us his perception of truth just as a literary journalist might do so. We understand that a journalist from Fox and a journalist from CNN is going to tell us different stories of the same event. We should not expect it to be any different for photographers.

And we know this. I recall an article in Popular Photography back in the 70s recounting how two photojoournalists images from a single speech by Nixon told two entirely different stories about Nixon. We have known it all along, from the very beginning of photography.

Why all the recent feigned surprise and clutching of pearls?


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