April 22, 2000
1:10 PM   Subscribe

This is one for discussion. Last week, I read an article debating whether or not photography was a true art form like painting or drawing, or if instead it was merely a reflection of reality and not artistic. With that in mind, when we see photos like this one, this one, and this one, why do we assume that any part of what was captured was the truth? Is the camera an impartial observer, or is the photographer staging these images as a painter would? Do you think a photograph has enough reality to be considered the truth, or is a photograph a miniaturized view of reality, depending on what you point a camera at? I'm curious to hear people's thoughts, as I see groups on every side of the issue spinning these photos to support their cause.
posted by mathowie (26 comments total)
I agree with you completely, Matt. Working in the photo industry, people I work with everyday do things to photos that make me ashamed and embarrassed.
That being said, I think that we're still at a point where we can generally trust pool photos from the major wire services (so the picture of the federal agent, the fisherman, and Elian sits in this group) -- and having seen how the wire service photographers in the field do their thing, the speed that that hit the wires means that there was no time to do anything to it.
Now, in terms of manipulating the scene and the circumstances to get a specific message across with the media, we know from Salon that the people in the house helped get Alan Diaz (the photographer) into the right place to capture the image of federal marshals taking Elian away; methinks that they are as guilty as anyone of using the media to get what they want.
posted by delfuego at 1:16 PM on April 22, 2000

I studied photography in college for a few years, and have always had an interest in it. It's really interesting, then, that this is a constant source of discussion and debate in the community: is photography an artform?

I would argue that it is. It's true that anyone can take a picture, sure. But that doesn't necessarily mean that your picture of, say, a fire hydrant will be the same as my picture of a fire hydrant even though the item is the exact same in reality. Technical things that can vary include lighting, depth of field, development chemicals, development time, and a slew of other things. On the artistic side, the emotions can (and often do) vary. And those emotions *can* come through on paper.

Is photography truth? There is no simple answer to that. Photography that serves the news industry, example, tends to eliminate creative expression in order to serve up what is "really there". But, thanks to photo editing tools, anything can be "really there".

With that noted, the Elian pictures look extremely artificial to me. Someone involved in getting these photos taken is pretty good at PR.
posted by hijinx at 1:27 PM on April 22, 2000

Now that I have friends who work in newspapers, my concept of "the truth" and even "the news" has taken a bit of a beating. Even the agencies are in it for the money. The AP photographer probably shot a few rolls of film, and it was up to the agency's picture editor to select the one which "illustrated" the story. Or rather, the one that all the other news organisations would want to buy. Same with the photos of Elian and his dad.

The adage that film is "truth 25 times a second" is all very well, but the truth of 1/25th of a second isn't the whole truth.
posted by holgate at 1:29 PM on April 22, 2000

Remember that Cartier-Bresson's famed "candid" shots on the streets of Paris were often staged: often the best way to convey "reality" is to fake it.

Is news photography an accidental art? I think of it, when at its most effective, in the same terms as the Soviet propaganda posters of the early century: a tool of communication that is capable of conveying more than it "reports".
posted by holgate at 1:35 PM on April 22, 2000

I doubt if Alan Diaz had rolls of film from which an editor chose the picture; these days, all of the wire news shooters shoot digital, and they pre-edit the images on the back of the camera (if they have an LCD) or on a laptop, and transmit only around 10% of the images back to the agency.
I do like the statement "the truth of 1/25th of a second isn't the whole truth" though -- what has become clear in all this is that no matter how various and sundry media outlets want to present the Diaz picture, the truth of the matter is that federal agents went in and did what they had to do to protect themselves and Elian, and kept the use of force and police power to a minimum. They are all public servants, and they all were heading into a completely unknown environment, and if it was any of us or the people we love, we'd want them to exercise the same precautions.
posted by delfuego at 2:11 PM on April 22, 2000

The Atlantic covered these questions brilliantly a while back: Photography in the Age of Falsification.

I think it's important in this case to be aware that Diaz wasn't some pool photog along on the raid -- he was a reporting photographer who had worked with the family closely and ran into the house by himself when he realized the raid was going to happen, the better to record it. Inserting yourself into the story like this is the kind of thing that journalists have long debated.
posted by dhartung at 3:26 PM on April 22, 2000

Perhaps this takes the subject a bit off topic, but of note is a recent Adbusters article about CBS' New Year's Eve coverage. It was said that they digitally replaced competetior's billboards with their own, as the footage was being displayed (almost) live on 7 second delay. In this instance CBS indeed did change reality for many of the viewers, one presumes that most never knew the difference.

This also brings to mind FOX's coverage of the superbowl last year (I didn't see the same technology being used this year). At one point there was a shot of the goalpost (that isn't what it's called, is it?) which seemed normal, until the end of the field opened up and a seemingly 200ft tall screen rose out of the gaping hole. At first I was quite surprised: it looked real! Only after a slight slip up where the angle of the screen didn't match the angle of the ground did I realize it was fake.

How long until CBS controls ad sales, television and physical? How long until FOX digitally alters the appearance of sports matches to make the stadiums look more attractive or the audience more full?

I'm probably a bit more fringe than most when it comes to this subject, but I also ask how much this sort of alteration differs from simple color correction or editing? What is acceptable alteration?
posted by bryanboyer at 3:27 PM on April 22, 2000

Didn't Newsweek get in hot water a couple of years ago over doctoring its photos? I can't remember what it was, does anyone else?
posted by Dean_Paxton at 3:34 PM on April 22, 2000

There was the matter of the shade of O J Simpson's skin, and also I think they cleaned up the appearance of the octuplet-mother's teeth.
posted by EngineBeak at 3:45 PM on April 22, 2000

Did I mean septuplets?
posted by EngineBeak at 3:47 PM on April 22, 2000

An interesting but very old topic for discussion. At the early part of last century the art world rejected photog as an art medium, but you can see its influence in many paintings--so obvious it was used due to the blurring of the background etc.. The issue was a lot bigger and had to do with the Arts and Crafts versus the Futurists/Da Da and later movements of the late 1800's/early part of the century. Because it was a new technology associated with lots of other dramatic changes occurring in tech/industry/social/political areas around the world it was either lumped together with the dehumanizing/negative aspects or embraced along with other new and progressive ideas which included everything from the auto to sociopolitical issues. Photog was married with progressive design/political movements, then went on to become part of magazine design--all very modern progressive things for the first half of the century. I don't really see how you can distinguish anymore without looking at a very specific body of work. The modern media machine is more of a tabloid than fact, and every individual is going to have some bias reflected at least a little in their work. Ansel Adams represents technological mastery in photog, while other people are less craft, more design/art oriented like Rochenko (sp?) and Westin. I guess it starts to come down to your definition and understanding of truth, art, design, and how personal belief/perception becomes all mixed up in the lot. Certainly it becomes an issue of documentation because nude art photos become so much more pornographic and less art since someone can look and say I know her/him. Photos become more familiar, but there is so much potential for composition and personal expression that to make a distinction (documentation/design/art) across the board seems a little too limiting.
posted by greyscale at 4:04 PM on April 22, 2000

I can't say that I understand what anyone could possibly mean when they say that photography is or is not truth. That just doesn't make any sense to me -- one is an activity, the other is an adjective.
It does bring to mind of my favorite anecdotes -- you know the one about Picasso on the train? Some guy recognizes him, walks about and says Aren't you Pablo Picasso? Yes. Ah, wonderful. I've always wanted to ask -- why do you distort reality so? Why can't you just paint a picture of a person which looks like the person? Do you have a wife or mistress? Why, yes. Here, I even have a picture.
The man pulls out his wallet and hands a small snapshot over to Picasso, who looks at it for a while, hands it back and remarks: "Oh, she is beautiful, but so very, very small."
As to the question of whether photography is an art form (more precisely, whether individual photographs can be considered examples of "art") -- of course. Not all drawings are art, not all paintings are art (think of technical illustrations, sign painters, etc.) and not all photographs are art.
posted by sylloge at 4:23 PM on April 22, 2000

"All photography is accurate - none of it is truth."
-Richard Avedon

posted by faisal at 4:51 PM on April 22, 2000

Oops. Did I say "adjective"? I meant something else . . .
posted by sylloge at 4:52 PM on April 22, 2000

I think it's self-defeating to label photography, or for that matter any genre, to a singular understanding. So I won't get involved there, but going along the lines of altering public perception with images, I'll pull a line from a CNN story: "But the Cuban government issued a statement urging Cubans to remain calm. The radio report said the government did not want to see any celebrations because those images might be transmitted by to the United States and negatively affect the ongoing legal proceedings over Elian." - from CNN.
posted by bluechief at 5:15 PM on April 22, 2000

I think the intention of photography in this case is journalism and news reporting. Therefore the question is are these photos unbiased representations of news?
posted by Dean_Paxton at 5:31 PM on April 22, 2000

I think photography is only art if it's manipulated some how. Either the set before hand, or the image after the shutter clicks. Otherwise it's just journalism. But the line is so thin that it's still open to interpretation. Waiting for just the right light, just the right angle. that would be manipulating the set.

But being in the right place at the right time, and then taking pictures as fast as you can..... Sorry, that's journalism. This person got a great photo, but it was luck, not art.
posted by y6y6y6 at 6:24 PM on April 22, 2000

"Otherwise it's just journalism."

Hey, journalism can be art! Grr!
posted by luke at 7:12 PM on April 22, 2000

Matt Drudge is slinging some mighty big accusations. Could this be more "cut and past" than actual photos?
posted by webshaping at 1:26 AM on April 23, 2000

"Hey, journalism can be art! Grr!"

No. If journalism is art then what is it worth? I want a journalist to be impartial. I don't want them to be creative. I don't want them to be trying to illicit an emotion or an opinion.

If you want to editorialize or write non-fiction, then call it that. One of the problems I have with too many news stories is that they are trying to be cleaver or interesting instead of factual. If I read a news story I want to read the truth, not your creative take on the truth.

Stop thinking that journalism is art and start taking responsibility for the crap you feed into people's heads as "news".
posted by y6y6y6 at 6:50 AM on April 23, 2000

I thought the Elian photos look extremely fake and have probably been doctored in some way. Do you honestly think that federal agents would have allowed any photography? Give me a break! Let's remember, journalists usually have an agenda and so do editors. Images do lie because they are so easy to manipulate, as anyone who has done any darkroom work can tell you. Seeing is not believing!!!!
posted by alienation at 10:55 AM on April 23, 2000

There seem to be three different questions at issue here, to me:

1) Are the photos doctored, or are they accurate representations of what was going on at the time.

2) Did the photographers have any impact on what went on, either by posing people, or because their presence caused things to happen which would not otherwise have happened.

3) If the answer to either of the above questions is yes, is that bad?

From my point of view, I think the first unlikely, but if it were true, it would be an egregious miscarriage of what we customarily think of as journalism, which is how those 3 images are being presented (journalism: accurate portrayal of what is 'just going on' in the world).

On the second point, Heisenberg reminds us that you cannot, as a news photographer, avoid influencing the world you shoot to some degree, but the explanations of how the photog came to be in position to make the closet shot ring true to me... and let's remember: unless we posit that the GWTG was an actor, the people in this picture are on opposite sides of the issue.

That being the case, while the picture does serve the uncle's interest, there's very little chance it could have been staged -- and therefore, it's probably safe to treat it as journalism.

But then, maybe it's just me.

So many things are just me.
posted by baylink at 11:57 AM on April 23, 2000

I was dinking around yahoo.de earlier today, and I found this photo, from Friday, and his hair in this one looks just the same as the reunion photo. It seems to be a matter of lighting and camera angle. Plus I can't stand Mr Drudge. A few months ago he was making a big stink about the NYT posting his "obituary", which actually turned out to be an op-ed piece about his fall from fame. I'm not fond of hysterical behavior.
posted by EngineBeak at 12:32 PM on April 23, 2000

People tend to discount photography as an art simply because "anyone can do it." And if you haven't developed your own film and printed your own photos, it's hard to understand why photography would ever be considered an art form -- but can YOU tell the difference between a snapshot taken by an amatuer and a portrait taken by an artist? Probably so.

Art Photography, like painting, is a thoughtful framing of time, space, and perspective. It is a physical expression of the artist's mind and soul. And like painting, it results in the creation of an image that did not exist before.  

Photography, like paint, can be used in many ways, but when the heart and soul of an artist is behind the work, it is most definitely an art.
posted by Cecily at 12:54 PM on April 23, 2000

I never understood our fascination with discussing whether something is art or not. Who gives a crap? Does it really bother you when something gets acclaim that you feel you could create? You didn't. Tough luck. Put more stuff out.

I mean, let's face it, most of what people consider high art these days is junk made to make the uneducated feel stupid. Congratulations Mr Artist!

Just do what you like. If other people like it, hooray - if not, oh well, keep doing what you like.
posted by jbeaumont at 9:47 PM on April 23, 2000

A good source for information on this topic is "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reprodiction" - obviously where The Atlantic got their title - by Walter Benjamin and "Ways of Seeing" by John Berger. Both look at art and they it can be manipulated. Not suprisingly both lead to a discussion of advertising. The quick tutorial is also helpful.
posted by birgitte at 3:14 PM on April 25, 2000

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