A Response to Mike Johnston's Fakery, Actual and Conceptual

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by fricc, Jul 9, 2004.

  1. Hi,

    I would like to disagree with some of the "conclusions" of Mike's excellent sunday article.

    While I agree that in photojournalism some degree of truthness is definitively desirable, I
    am one of those who sees photography as a way to express something which is not
    necessairly directly related to the framed picture itself. Meaning can be introduced into an
    image by carefully choosing what we put into the picture and living with the result (do I lie
    if I leave something out?) or by interpreting the picture itself "the way _I_ saw the image,
    not the camera's".

    I remember Andy Wahrol saying that in his pictures he would remove people's blemishes,
    since they are only a temporary accidental feature of the subject, and that he was
    interested in portraying the essence of the person instead. Something durable even if
    somewhat abstracted out.

    Also I have read somewhere that photography is different from painting because in
    painting you have to choose what to put in the picture and in photography what you leave
    out instead...

    - Fabio
  2. I'm not trying to be a smartass, but who is Mike Johnston?
  3. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    The article referenced can be found here.
  4. Photography is the broadest and most inclusive visual medium available. You can do this and you can do that. Just like music ... ta da da, dah.
  5. j_a


    I?m not sure I fully understand Mike's points in his essay, "Comparisons and the Odious: Fakery, Actual and Conceptual'. He argues, "I think all pictures ought to be as true as possible, and that the only excuse for manipulation, beyond "fixing" the photograph technically, are changes meant to make it subjectively more truthful to the photographer's perception of the subject." Yet I see several problems with this summation. First, what exactly does "true as possible" mean?

    Is it true as possible when a photographer uses special camera techniques to alter what he sees? Any number of special effects would qualify as manipulation, long-exposure shots, Multiple exposure, shallow DoF, graduated filters, polarizing filters, warming and cooling filters and the list goes on.

    Or does Mike's definition of manipulation mean only post exposure work. In which case does simply cropping a frame to a tighter image violate the true test? He seems to suggest it does with the O.J. example. And that says nothing of any number of well-established digital and traditional darkroom effects.

    Certainly some photography should strive to be as "true as possible," photojournalism being the classic example. But, just how far does that go nowadays. Should a PJ be concerned with the truest shot if it for a feature and not hard news? Does it make a photo untrue if a PJ asks the subject to do something he normally does, but isn't currently doing? Photojournalists have been disciplined for such breeches of so-called ethics and the debate in newsrooms continue.

    But I digress.

    Not all photography should be about "truth". To make it so limits the value of the medium itself, not to mention the photographer. If it works the photographer who doesn't have to worry about the accuracy of a photo should be free to experiment. Sometimes it's about the subject and other times it's about the image. In other words, they're those who record, and they're those who create, and sometimes they're those that do both.

    I could be wrong in my interpretation of Mike?s essay. To me he seems to want to reduce photography to its most basic element, which is to record things. But the medium itself screams for a larger role in the world. It doesn't want to be a simple scribe, it wants to be an artist.
  6. In news editorial work anything beyond cropping; sizing; adjusting contrast and image density and the minimum colour adjustment necessary to translate image colour to the printed page is ethically questionable. But it is often NOT the photographer doing it.

    For non-news editorial there may be a bit more, but not much more, latitude in what you do with an image.

    There raged an almighty argument about just such an image taken during a near riot in Seattle in 2002. When taken it "supposedly" depicted a woman being "apparently" assaulted in the street by a group of men. When published by the Seattle P-I it had the woman's face pixelated out. Then the damn thing was awarded a "news photo of the year" award, or some such, by a committee looking at the original unaltered image but they, too, declined to publish the unaltered image in the awards announcement. The gist of the argument circulated around the impact or lack of impact that the alteration made to the image's depiction of the reality of the event. It was argued that in altered form you couldn't tell if the woman was smiling and enjoying herself or severely distressed. Editorially, if it couldn't be published unaltered, it should not have been published at all. If it were not published it would not have been eligible for, or would it have received, the award.
  7. The Post-Intelligencer shunned the photograph then, invoking its "rape
    shield" policy, and instead ran a page 1 story describing the incident
    without the gruesome photograph.
  8. By Ellen Sung
    Poynter.org Reporter

    The National Press Photographers Association gave a top award to a previously
    unpublished, highly sensitive photograph last week, setting off a controversy
    over publishing standards on various platforms.
  9. You may be entirely correct there PD. I posted, above, what I recalled of the incident from memory. If the P-I never did publish the image - and I somehow believed they did at some point but in it's altered form - I stand corrected. I recall also a long, long thread of messages on the Poynter.org forum pages on that as well, and, there, a great controversy about several contributors who posted links to the unaltered image which links were then removed from their messages by the Poynter moderator. My opinion on that forum at the time was "publish and be damned" - or, alternatively - don't publish at all if you can't do it without alteration of the image. Frankly, I still don't believe that the WA state rape shield law was correctly applied to that image, not the least of which reasoning was that there was no rape and even some doubt about the element of sexual assault short of rape. The woman was assumed, by others, to be a "victim" but as far as I know she was never identified and never filed a complaint.

    In the UK even with strict sub-judice rules anything recorded and reported before complaints are made, suspects arrested and charges actually brought, or if no complaint is ever made in the first instance, is generally fair game. Once a complaint is made, and a culprit is identified, arrested and charged then the rules change on further publication and reportage.

    There is an even more recent example of altered news images from the Iraq war (last year) that resulted in the photographer, in that case, getting the boot. He was <photoshopping> in the field before transmission of his images and got caught at it when his images were compared to others by another photographer covering the same story. Ooops!
  10. Who was it - perhaps Gary Winogrand? - who stated (paraphrasing) "I photograph to see what things look like when photographed".

    Although Mike's article didn't adequately articulate this for me, the thought that emerged from my first read was that the power of photography is in its illusion of reality. After all, its just an optical projection onto a light-recording medium (silicon or gelatin).

    Its a "graven image".

    Its not reality, in itself. Or rather, the reality of the photographic image has everything to do with the negative or print as a physical object unto itself, and has little to do with the scene used to make the image.

    Its not a picture of a lake. Its an image in silver gelatin that was initiated by exposure to light reflected from a real lake. But the photograph, its not the lake. Its paper, gelatin and silver. Or dots of ink.

    The only true objectivity in photography is the physical medium itself.

    Even so, I do think there's a place where we can define a photographic image as being SYMBOLIC of representational reality. And an approach replete with clarity and honesty would dictate a minimum of manipulation to the light medium between object and print.
  11. Great point - except for that last statement, which is a non sequitur. I'd say the only correspondence between a photograph and any type of reality is based on an arbitrary (to use a non-postmodern term) interpretation being imposed on an optical illusion.

    Pretty much the same opinion for Johnston's article: some interesting (and some obvious) points, but where the hell did his conclusion come from?
  12. John Kantor wrote: "... I'd say the only correspondence between a photograph and any type of reality is based on an arbitrary ... interpretation being imposed on an optical illusion."

    I do not consider myself an artist, fine or otherwise, so I am always amazed at the quantity and quality of arguments that get spawned when the terms "truth", "reality" and "photograph" occur in close proximity. However, I have been trained in our society's fact finding and truth determination mechanisms. So when I put these three terms in my mental "view finder" what I think of is something like the "Rodney King" tape. If you don't remember the details of this incident check the online encyclopedia at ...


    Did this tape show 3 officers unmercifully beat a suspect lying on the ground while 24 other officers stood around alternatively watching or standing on the suspect?? Apparantly not, since all were acquitted. Did this tape show that King's civil rights were violated? Apparently so, since two were convicted and sentanced to 30 months. In reality, what was relationship between the tape, the findings of fact, and the LA riots? Exactly how important was it for this bystander's tape to be "true and accurate" given the interpretation of the tape to illustrate how no officer had used impermissible force? Yet a good portion of Los Angeles was burned down.

    In any event, Truth is relative and certainly belongs to the victor. How then does Art hold up to Truth? Is the artist any more truthful than the journalist or the juryman or the rioter? Is the artist's version of the truth more valuable? If the artist is a photographer what is the standard for understanding his truth or reality: what the artist/photographer saw? felt? understood? hoped for? some combination? If the artist is not a photographer is the standard different? Why?

    I think there are two parts to this issue, like Yin and Yang, separate but always joined. First there is the artist/photographer who does what he does for his own reasons and within his own version of reality which can range from total fantasy to rigorous realism. Then there is a viewer, always separated from the artist/photographer in time and space. This viewer creates his own alternate view of truth/reality etc based partially on the artist/photographer's creation and partially on lots of other things. And then, quit separately from any of this, there is Society and the way Society can set its own values and determinations regarding truth and reality as in its newsrooms, its jury verdicts and/or its riots.
  13. Here is an interesting question - especialy about a case such as the Rodney King video...

    Does the perceptive reality change if:

    You see that video in isolation without additional words or commentary and only with the event time sound recording such as it was? - OR - You read the Rodney King story or only hear verbal commentary but without seeing the pictures?

    Would subsequent events have played out differently in either case?
    Would a jury have found differently?

Share This Page