Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The photograph: A lie that masquerades as truth

It is a difficult concept to get across, that a photograph is not equivalent to reality, despite the long history of visual art down through the centuries that has presented ideas dressed in visual form. There is something so mind bending about the product of the camera, that supposedly truthful, unbiased, machine-produced reportage of the reality of the world.

If we see an old painting of Napoleon, atop his rearing white horse, nobly pointing toward the foe, we can, from our present place in history, recognise a piece of propaganda. We 'know' he was a 'nasty dictator' and that the image was painted to influence the French people to follow his lead. We do not know however, the mindset of the artist: whether he was consciously making propaganda or if he believed in the cause and the person; his personal point of view. The wartime posters of the past century that said in pictures and words that your country needed YOU, were images intended to influence how we thought and how we acted: consciously propaganda.

We are presented nightly on the television with photographic images of the atrocities committed during the present struggles in Syria. There is the evidence, the photos show us, and this is used to control how we feel and could be influenced to act as individuals and as nations. The 'story' is massaged by interested parties to promote a point of view. Even those images from other wars of injured children, sad soldiers, and blasted cities were created by human minds controlling what the camera recorded and ultimately what the publisher wanted to put across to the public. Truth is the first casualty of war, that has long been established, but every photograph is subject to individual control and the individual swims within the mind set of his times. Our point of view creates the reality we see and photograph. The photograph is no more truthful in an ultimate sense than that painting of Napoleon.

It is not just what we choose to take a photograph of that is subject to manipulation, but how we design it in the viewfinder, what is in and what is left out, the proportions of the various elements, the amount of exposure; in fact all the elements of design, - colour, line, texture, rhythm and so on -, are orchestrated to deliver a specific message. Every designer in advertising knows this. The photographer, of even a gentle landscape scene, has a point of view and is composing his image, consciously or otherwise, to put it across. If we think about it, this is the common knowledge of our consumer society but one that many people do not think about when they press the camera to their faces for that snapshot of 'reality'.

This image of Katie at the beach is a companion piece, in terms of the point of view of the photographer, with the earlier image of her within the bars of the playground. Here though, I have manipulated the design to place her in a low corner of the frame, overshadowed by the black tree. She stands on the rock by the sea, a small, off center part of the overall image and yet the point of interest. A psychological composition, this is a real scene but I have shot it in such a way as to convey a particular point of view of mine about her place in the world. Almost, you could say I am creating a piece of propaganda designed to influence others to see my point of view about childhood development and the isolation that individuals of all ages feel within the larger society. It is real from my point of view, but only that; it is also a crafted image that is presented as a truth. It is also integral to the tradition of art down through the ages.

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