Friday, June 6, 2008

Truth and Ubiquity

Joel Sternfeld
Attorney with laundry, corner Bank and West 41 street, NYC 1988
Museum Folkwang, Essen © Joel Sternfeld courtesy Pace/Mac Gill Gallery, New YorkC-Print138 x 111 cm

“Photography is truth.” once said the French director Jean-Luch Godard , but who owns this truth? The photographer? The subject? The image itself? Why have we come to expect truth from photography in the first place? Staging Authenticity. Photographic Stories from the Street and the Studio, the course led by artist and lecturer Joy Gregory aims to explore these questions.

The emergence of photography revolutionized our way of seeing the world. Actual events could be represented with a device that allowed for a recording of the refraction of light, we could literally write with light. The fact that the image was framed and exposed in a certain way by the photographer did little to deter the people who attributed the unquestionable veracity of the image to the optical device. Doesn't that amount to saying that the brush did the painting rather than the painter? Although that awry reasoning has long since been deconstructed and invalidated, it still has a recalcitrant hold on the people's imagination.

Documentary photography is the genre that might be the most problematic with regards to questions of truth. Street & Studio. An Urban History of Photography, the current exhibition at Tate Modern (22 May until 31 August 2008) testifies to the overlap between a documentary function, requiring some notion of truth, and an aesthetic one, privileging form. The juxtaposition of images originally meant to record facts and events with slickly composed portraits also raises the following questions: what is the difference between art and document? Do these genres have a different visual language? Should they be displayed and used differently? Needless to say that Staging Authenticity will address these interrogations over the next few weeks.

In order to anchor our thoughts about truth and photography with examples, we moved from the seminar room to the gallery in order to take a good look at the images of the pioneers of documentary photography: Lewis Hine who documented child labour; Arnold Genthe who took a particular interest in San Francisco's Chinatown before the earthquake of 1908; Paul Strand who developed his practice around the candid image. Encouraged to comment on the images, one person noted that the titles of the works in Genthe's Chinatown series had a racist connotation. Although, admittedly, the portrait of a reclining oriental man bearing the title Dead to the World. Opium Fiend was not exactly an example of subtlety, this comment appeared to generate a flurry of discomfort. The “truth” that Genthe chose to represent was very much of its time, not burdened by political correctness, and resonated quite differently in the current context.

So truth in photography requires a certain exercise in constructivism (or reconstructivism if such a thing existed) in that not only do you have to consider the point of view of the photographer, but that of the subject, the context in which it was taken and the time in which you are encountering the image are just as important. In other words, forget the 1000 words that a photograph can apparently summon. If truth is what you are looking for, you might have to think in terms of a 1000 points of view. And even then you might be surprised: we encountered a portrait of Arnold Genthe holding his camera... and the photograph was attributed to him. Perhaps next week we will talk about ubiquity.

1 comment:

Miranda Gavin said...

There is also the question of the use of the term documentary photography as opposed to reportage or photojournalism.

Documentary photography
Documentary photography"

These terms are all variously nuanced and the choice of words is, in itself, highly revealing.

Documentary and reportage photography are variously used interchangeably. Interestingly, this can be seen in the trend in wedding photography for reportage or documentary style images. This implies a fly-on-the-wall approach with the photographer hovering on the periphery covering the event with little intrusion or intervention, and to various degrees also posing or staging some of the images, with a higher level of intervention.

When is the work documentary or reportage photography and what are the parameters which define and contain each? What do we mean when we use these words? How do they relate to a particular moment? Is documentary more about a longer term process, to soft news stories rather than hard news Photojournalism with the idea of images telling a story is another genre all together. Furthermore, it is seen by some to be in crisis.

How are we to understand these terms in the context of the 21st century where there is increasing media convergence and the use of new technologies, for example, mobile phones (used in citizen journalism) and High Definition video, as well as the collapsing of traditional demarcations? There is an increasing move towards what could be loosely termed art documentary photography - a hybrid form which pairs aesthetics, for example, the deadpan aesthetic played out within a documentary sensibility. Another consideration is the importance of text whether it is in the form of a caption, a news report accompanying an image, or an essay.

Then there is the question of to what extent the image replicates the reality, or truth of a situation or an event? Is this what is meant by truth and if it is, there is the need to consider the point of view of the photographer and with this the framing, choice of angle, cropping of the image later, and whether it is in black and white or colour. Furthermore, in the quest for truth, do we not look to photographs to provide some kind of objective truth, or is everything a construction, to a greater or lesser degree, and by virtue of this, a subjective viewpoint.

For an exploration of the veracity of the photograph and its use as evidence, see Taryn Simon’s remarkable project The Innocents.

“I began to investigate photography's role in the criminal justice system. I traveled across the United States photographing and interviewing men and women convicted of crimes they did not commit. In these cases, photography offered the criminal justice system a tool that transformed innocent citizens into criminals, assisted officers in obtaining erroneous eyewitness identifications, and aided prosecutors in securing convictions. The criminal justice system had failed to recognize the limitations of relying on photographic images…

"Photography's ability to blur truth and fiction is one of its most compelling qualities. But when misused as part of a prosecutor's arsenal, this ambiguity can have severe, even lethal consequences. Photographs in the criminal justice system, and elsewhere, can turn fiction into fact. As I got to know the men and women in this book, I saw that photography's ambiguity, beautiful in one context, can be devastating in another.” Taryn Simon

Your point about the ‘context in which (the photograph) is taken’ is important as is the context in which they are viewed. Was the image intended to be reproduced in the context of a newspaper, a magazine, in a book, or even on the art gallery wall? What’s more, images are often re-appropriated, especially by visual artists, and can also be taken out of context, thus becoming de-contextualised. This is of paramount importance in understanding how images are seen, understood and read.

The question I would like to raise is how are these images re-presented in the light of the exhibition? Is the original context shown alongside the art exhibition context? How does the institutional context of the Tate Modern and the curating of the show create further layers of meaning for the audience to negotiate? How far in fact, is the exhibition itself creating or perpetuating certain viewpoints and mythologies?

“The most political decision you make is where you direct people’ eyes”. Wim Wenders, The Act of Seeing, Faber & Faber 1997