From the course text: Read the section entitled ‘The Real and the Digital’ in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75. You’ll find this on the student website.*

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth? Consider both sides of the argument and make some notes in your learning log.


Every photograph is a fiction with pretensions to truth. Despite everything that we have been inculcated, all that we believe, photography always lies; it lies instinctively, lies because its nature does not allow it to do anything else.” – Joan Fontcuberta

Wells says that digital technology does change how we see photography as truth. “Images with all the appearance of ‘real’ photographs may have been created from scratch on a computer” (1, p74) and that “the main constituents of the picture (can be) rearranged to suggest new relationships or bizarre conjunctions. Does all this not destroy the claim of photography to have a special ability to show things as they are…”

Photographs have alway been manipulated. Long before digital technology, photographic plates of Queen Victoria were corrected with ink. The spirit photography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries now appears irrational, and it seems inconceivable that anyone could have believed it. But at that time, as now, people see a photograph as a true, objective representation of reality.

charles_l._tweedale
William Hope [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At the time of its invention there was a clear idea about the scientific origins of photography. Photography was invented in a period that viewed itself as an age of absolute knowledge. The camera was seen as an extension to the eye, a tool to record images and to see what the eye could not. It was used extensively to illustrate science (e.g Fox Talbot’s ‘The Pencil of Nature’), and when photography was exhibited in the Crystal Palace in 1851 it was presented as a scientific achievement rather than an artistic one.So an idea was formed in the very origins of the medium, about light being used to create the image in such a way that the lens and camera were viewed as unbiased. The relationship between light and photographic process gave a clear idea in the minds of the public about the objectivity of photography. These ongoing assumptions about truthfulness, along with context, are a technique that artists such as Joan Fontcuberta use so successfully to produce fictional knowledge in works that mix fact, fiction, science and art, such as Herbarium. 

bayard,_hippolyte_-_selbstporträt_bayards_als_ertrunkener_(zeno_fotografie)
Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, Bayard, Hippolyte 1840 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Right from the start photographers have used photography’s scientific origins and the view of objectivity that provides, as a way to manipulate, deceive, humour or comment on injustice. Hippolyte Bayard in his ‘Self Portrait as a Drowned Man,’ taken in 1840, was quick to recognise the opportunity to create a constructed image, which is a fiction.James Nasmyth and James Carpenter created images of lunar craters in a studio.

normal_lunar_crater_-_j._nasmyth._lccn2001700463
Normal Lunar Crater, Nasmyth, James, 1808-1890, photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photographs were being combined and manipulated as early as 1857:
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Two Ways of Life, Oscar Gustave Rejlander 1857 [Public domain]
1024px-fading_away
Fading Away, Henry Peach Robinson 1858 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The problem is that many people have not really grown out of that original, erroneous thinking about the objectivity of photography. Many still see a photograph as absolute evidence of what was presented to the photographer at a certain point in time. The trace of an event on the photograph is another aspect that gives it a “special relationship to the real.” There is a link between what was in front of the lens and the image captured by the camera; photographs are indexical signifiers. As a footprint is produced by the person who made it, a photograph is produced by light from a scene.However, the lens and camera equipment by themselves – by framing, cropping, focus, depth of field, point of view,  including or excluding certain elements, without any manipulation by digital technology, can rearrange and “suggest new relationships or bizarre conjunctions” that simply do not exist in reality. That might suggest part of the reason why casual phone photographs today are seen as more authentic; some of those techniques that can be used to create relationships between disparate elements can’t be achieved on a phone camera.

The original article the course text asks me to work from is from the fourth edition of the book, but I have the fifth. It’s interesting that this updated text adds a lot more to the argument. The new version of this text makes the point that ‘pictures… returned from a simple camera or mobile phone may imprint the notion of the authentic more securely than the sophisticated images presented by a professional photographer’(2, p95). That suggests that we see certain aspects of digital culture as more truthful or authentic. I think it is true, but is something we need to be cautious of as image consumers.

“Before, the myth of “photography doesn’t lie” was used in order to cover up tricks. If I [make a] portrait [of] you, accommodate you, illuminate you, put make up on you or use a filter, am I not manipulating reality? The only difference is that now I can do it from the computer in the postclick instead of the preclick. If I decide to photograph something instead of something else, I also manipulate reality. Of course a photograph can lie or commit abuse, but it always could.” – Pedro Meyer

Perhaps it is no longer only the trace of an event that produces a photograph, but I would argue that an image that is created from scratch is not really a photograph at all anyway. There is a growing understand that images can be manipulated, if not the prevalence of that manipulation.

“After months of controversy about unacceptable manipulation of news images that were presented as “evidence”, new rules and guidelines have been announced by World Press Photo Foundation.”(3)

In his essay, Ethics for a 21st Century Photojournalism, David Campany says

“The burden of photography is that its relationship with the world, especially when we think of it as a reflection of the world, is often in tension with its status as a creative interpretation. Finding ways to navigate this tension is one of the challenges for how we understand the purpose of photography, particularly when we are thinking about how photojournalism and documentary photography reports on the world.” – David Campany(3)

Photography has never been truthful. If digital photography does change how we see the truthfulness of it, I think that can only be a positive thing. We are now forced to question the veracity of the images we see, and we should be in the habit of doing that no matter what equipment is used.

Bibliography and References
Some of this information is in my notebook from History of Photography lectures I attended at Arts University Bournemouth given by Jelena Stojković, and was part of discussions during the lectures. There are no direct quotes used.
1. ‘The Real and the Digital’ in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75. as given in course materials.
2. Wells, L. (2015). Photography. 5th ed. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp.92-95.
3. LensCulture, D. (2019). Securing the Credibility of Photojournalism: New Rules from World Press Photo – Analysis and text by David Campbell | LensCulture. [online] LensCulture. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/david-campbell-securing-the-credibility-of-photojournalism-new-rules-from-world-press-photo [Accessed 25 Jan. 2019].