Photography has a unique relationship to “truth.” This is the point of much of the philosophical discourse that’s grown up around the medium. It’s, at bottom, what thinkers diverse as Wittgenstein, Satre, Sontag, Barthes, and Baudrillard were exploring. A painter is unlikely to ever experience the same philosophical angst because a painting is a creation in the way that photography is not. From a truth perspective, photos are different than paintings…or any other works of “Art” for that matter. While you can take a photograph that is a complete artifact, (actually, as semiotic philosopher Jean Baudrillard claims, in the digital age all photographs are complete artifacts) to the uneducated eye it can appear as an objective depiction of whatever was presumably in front of the camera’s lens. We naively assume it tells the truth (although this has become increasingly problematic in the digital age – witness the “deepfakes” discussed here and how seductive they are to the untrained eye, or more precisely, the unenlightened, naive viewer).
There’s also a more fundamental argument, over and above issues of process (i.e. is the truth value of digital different than that of analog?) taken up by Austrian-British Analytic Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, about the inherent truth value of photography itself. The naive view would be this: a camera is a machine that faithfully records what is in front of it and then displays just that. If this is so, then any problems with it “telling the truth” are the consequence of some sort of manipulation by the photographer. The more nuanced view, the view shared by those of us with experience and knowledge of the process, is that a camera is not an objective recording machine. It never truly objectively records what is in front of it, given both the decisions made before and the steps that lie between, tripping the shutter and the resulting image. What we get is, at most, someone’s version of the truth. Wittgenstein calls it a “glimpse” not a full view.
Photographs don’t lie per se. To believe so would be to deny any truthfulness to photographs. Photographs do present a truth – the photographer’s truth. A photographer’s truth is what the photographer wants us to see. The issue is not whether that truth has any relation to the Truth, but rather how the viewer relates it to his truth (as I discussed here).
If photography presents the photographer’s truth, what is his responsibility, if any, to the viewer? To a large extent, a photographer’s responsibility will derive from his understanding of how the medium operates. If you’re a “documentary photographer” you believe the camera to be a tool that will faithfully record what is in front of it, and, as such, you’ll put it out that way and expect viewers to demand the same. If, however, you believe your work has a creative dimension, is your interpretation of reality and not a depiction, then it’s about being truthful to your intentions, which are also based on a certain understanding of what your camera does, the creative possibilities it affords you. While the photographer needs to understand and master his intent, he also needs to master the process he chooses to employ – whether a view camera, a digital camera, a film Leica or an iPhone – much like a painter has to understand and master how to put pigments to canvas. A requirement of an effective presentation is that it be competently made. But, and this is what the hacks don’t get, it’s not just about technical competency.**
I love the photo above. It says so many things to me, stories about desire, age, what we dream about, how the everyday doings of life can blind us to the beauty around us. To say that it represents some objective truth – about a well-dressed older woman looking at a poster on the streets of Paris – would be to miss the whole truth I want it to convey to you. While the photograph is taken from the world, it is not identical with the world. It is the product of my world, of what is embedded in my mind, my “truth.” All good photography is a viewpoint, and that is what we as viewers must engage with if we are to understand it.
The best photographs present a truth that challenges the viewer’s truth, gives the viewer a different way to see things. My responsibility is to present you with a truth to challenge your own. This is how photography becomes Art. If it sufficiently challenges you, its “Art,” even if the challenge results in you deciding it isn’t. Think of Gary Winogrand and his wonky, off-kilter photos; they’re “Art,” not because they adhere to some preconceived aesthetic, but because they force the viewer into Winogrand’s world. The creativity that creates Art is singular, and many people to this day think Winogrand is a joke. But Winogrand didn’t sit around looking at Cartier-Bresson’s photos, trying to ape his style; rather he discovered his own way of seeing things, his own truth, and he put it out there for others to see. He didn’t put it out there for others to critique, or to get advice on how to do it better. That’s for rule-bound hacks. “Fuck em,” was what he said. “That’s how I see.”
That’s where you should be going with your photography – not to please the rule-bound or appeal to the sentiments of others. And while technical competence is a necessary prerequisite, it’s not about that. Don’t confuse the two. It’s about presenting what you see in the manner you see it. Only then will your photography be true, and only then will you have said anything meaningful.
My advice: Stop worrying what other people think. Worry instead about what you want to say and how you want to say it. And stop obsessing about technical solutions to creative problems. All the expensive gear – the M10 with the latest aspherical lens in the elephant skin bag – means nothing and will get you nowhere, no matter how technically competent you are, if you have nothing to say. If you have questions, go look at the usual suspects, the guys pimping themselves as “Leica Photographers,” with their simplistic conflation of technology with creativity, their aesthetic stuck at the level of technical competence, all show, little substance. They have nothing to teach you because they have nothing to say. Ignore them. Stay completely out of their orbit for fear of internalizing their banality. Better an old beater Leica with a $20 Industar in a paper bag….and a head full of ideas.
**This justifies the role of criticism. The critic is someone who considers if the work is done well, meaning done, both technically and according to the parameters of the context in which the artist places his work. Those parameters are different for different types of photography – is it a document or an expression? – and this can make it hard for viewers who aren’t privy to the context to understand it. The idea that “I could do that” originates from this contextual confusion, the mistake of conflating simple form with simple art.