Peddling The TruthTuesday, November 20, 2012
“The credibility of a photograph does not lie on the publisher of a book, magazine or newspaper. It lies on the photographer. If you know and trust the photographer you can believe in the picture. “Nick Didlick, Vancouver photojournalist.
|Daguerre - Boulevard du Temple - 1838|
There is a dispute as to which may have been the earliest photograph of a human being. In both cases the photographer was Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. One is M Huet, 1837, which has been recently attributed to Daguerre. The other (more famous one) is Boulevard du Temple, 1838. Consider that this daguerreotype shows a sweeping vista of a Paris boulevard (taken from a high window) on a sunny day. The scene is empty of carts, horses and people, except for one or maybe two. A man appears to be having his shoes shined. A statue or a dead tree blocks the shoeshine man. The exposure may have run in the tens of minutes so the movement of people did not leave an impression on the sensitized plate.
While Timothy O’Sullivan may not have been deliberately dishonest in his effort to “improve” his photograph, nonetheless the photograph is not all true. Daguerre’s picture, while not intentionally dishonest (it has been suggested that Daguerre may have paid the two men not to move), cannot be considered to be a snapshot of reality. From its very beginnings photography was supposed to be a manifestation of reality - a reality that could never be equaled by painting. Instead, it has proven to be a shaky purveyor of truth.
|German Soldier - August Sander -1945|
I never did believe the somewhat crude pictures of aliens in the pre-PhotoShop National Enquirer. Curators of reputable museums consider Stalin’s sometimes not so skillful scissor-manipulated propaganda as high art. There now seems to be a consensus that photography, the digital variety in particular, is suspect. The perpetrator of our mistrust, formerly the airbrush artist, is now PhotoShop. Yet any skillful darkroom printer can transform the reality of a landscape, or the perceived beauty of a portrait subject, and few viewers would ever suspect the manipulation. PhotoShop has just made all this easier.
Back in my Catholic boarding school theology class we would try to lay mine fields on our Jesuit teacher by asking precisely where (in dollars and cents) stealing money went from being a venial sin, to a mortal sin. Determining where a photograph begins to lie is a similar - equally challenging - distinction to make. Our teacher’s answer then, “It depends,” must also apply to photography. A photograph’s limitation of compressing the reality of three dimensions into two already puts it at a disadvantage.
But there are more subtle ways of bending the truth that do not involve scissors, airbrushes or computer programs. With knowledge of light and shadow, photographer George Hurrell converted plain Jane actress Norma Shearer into a star of the 30s and 40s. But for me the best example of the manipulation of truth can be found in one of the most important photography books of the 20th century, August Sander: Citizens of the Twentieth Century- Portrait Photographs 1892-1952, Edited by Gunther Sander. This book has extraordinary portraits of the professions (from the beggars and engineers to mayors) of the people of Germany.
For me one photo stands out. It is in b+w (like all the rest in the book) but I have always seen it in colour in my mind. The young helmeted German soldier poses with a tiny smile, an enigmatic combination of contentment and peace, and stares at Sander’s camera. I can guess the soldier may be anywhere from 16 to 18. I am almost certain he has blue eyes and blonde hair. You know he could have been a model for the prototype of Hitler’s Aryan master race. It is the date, 1945, which tells you that the Russian army may be around the corner or a few blocks away. Unless the soldier is superhuman, his fear must have been skillfully hidden by the calming words of August Sander. This photograph is a wonderful lie.
|Iggy Pop - 1989|
In 1989 I faced a drug-free Iggy Pop in his hotel room. He was sitting and I told him, “You almost remind me of that famous portrait of Goebbels. Iggy, told me, “Yes I know. I am dressed in black. When I was in Geneva I located the exact spot where he sat for Aisenstaedt,” scowling he looked at my camera and I snapped the shutter.
So much in a portrait depends on a subject’s relationship to the photographer and how the photographer manipulates light and camera position. How these factors are combined will determine in the end what the photograph “says”. Our only guide, besides a knowledge of photography, is to take Nick Didlick’s advice and find out a bit more about the photographers who are peddling the truth.