You know, I really dont care how a photograph was made, whether by construction, or by suggestion or by intervention or even by photoshop. I am interested in what a photograph can do, can it transcend its inherent ‘factness’ , can it say the unsayable?
I don’t understand what the fuss is about Steve McCurry’s photos. By removing a lamp-post or adding one, the meaning of his images does not change. It’s not as though they somehow become more contemplative . They are magazine photos meant to grab your attention – and so they remain as they were- exotic India images. In fact, I doubt whether he would himself have wanted to make those changes, for they hardly alter his image anyway. Perhaps they were done by an eager lab assistant, or someone showing him what Photoshop could do and then just remained on the file. His gaze was the classic National Geographic gaze, the india of Taj Mahals and Steam trains, of women in dust storms all perfectly aligned, of young boys with painted faces, India reduced to blobs of highly saturated color. The viewer is the fool if they take this to be any kind of reality, other than the photographers. Which is really the point of photographing, you present your version of reality. Steve Mc Curry presented his vision, with the means he saw fit, from his point of view.
Photography is fiction in the guise of Non fiction and we all know the allure and dangers of that combination.
.At its very core Photography is a lie, you make an image to hold onto something, like a note to yourself, a memory of a place or an emotion etc etc but that thing you want to hold onto, has gone, is past. So deception is at the very heart of photography, and the first victim of that deception is the photographer herself, for presuming to have captured that which is gone……its a continuous Go Away Closer.
Now everyone with a mobile phone has access to this world of language and ofcourse it is wonderful that photography is now truly democratised. But, I also see great danger there. While we all celebrating that we have one common visual language in photography, beyond literacy and beyond geography, photography is also so open to miscommunication, as it relies not just on the photographer’s interpretation, but equally on the viewer’s.
I am truly sorry for Steve McCurry, but it could be his big gift to the photo world in forcing us to see how photography might tell lies. Photographers always knew this without saying so in so many words, just that now it’s in the mainstream.?
For me, photography is most magical when it says the unsayable, when it goes where there is no vocabulary.
The portrait I made of you, or more likely of your mother, is not really a portrait of her. It’s a portrait of how she responded to me. So, in a sense, it is as much my portrait. But because you recognise her features, you believe it’s entirely her photo.
Photography uses the real information to build its constructed narrative. You trust it because you recognise the specific elements, but that is where the “truth” of the image ends. If there is any truth, it’s in the fact that that it was the photographer’s truth, at that particular time, in those particular inner and outer circumstances. And we think that is “evidence” enough.
The lie starts with where you place the frame, what you include and what you leave out. Some would say this is the skill of photographers, to edit out from the world what they do not want to show to the viewer. I call this making ‘one’s own voice’ – precisely with what one chooses to leave out of the frame. I would even push further what Roland Barthes says about the punctum, and say that the punctum is not in the frame but outside it. When so much depends on where you place the frame, what truth can the photograph offer?
Then there is the next level of ‘deception’, if you like, where you can turn day into night and add clouds to a clear sky, all in the darkroom of the past. You decide what you darken, and where you highlight. And what you crop. As photographers have always known, photographs were “made” in the darkroom. Now Photoshop has replaced the darkroom.
The third level of deception is just by virtue of your presence as the photographer. That changes the situation because somehow people behave differently when there is a camera around. We see this again and again in conflict situations like wars, riots and even natural disasters.
I wonder which photojournalist will tell us about how their arriving on the scene of violence actually created more violence, the strikers need their images to go out. The photojournalist is complicit in this aspect. So whose truth are we talking about?
Once we accept that photography’s truth is just the photographer’s truth, and accept that the photographer is a storyteller, then why would we object to how best he can tell his story? There is the manipulation of the image, and there is also the constructed image, where you have missed the scene of crime and “recreated” it. Photographic history has many examples of this, including Felice Beato possibly digging out people’s bones to scatter them for a a photo he made six months after a massacre, to give us the image we all know so well of the mutiny in Lucknow.?
At the very beginning of photography, there is a photograph, by Hippolyte Bayard of his own fake suicide in response to Louis Daguerre getting all the glory and wealth for the invention of the photographic process.
Robert Doisneau confessed in 1993 that he used paid models to make the 1950 photograph of the kissing couple, one of the world’s most famous images.
So, if the photographer is a storyteller, he must use whatever means he finds suitable to best tell the story he wants you to hear. What is the problem there? As long as you understand that the only “reality” is the photographer’s. It is in this “fiction’ of photography that its magical power lies, otherwise one may as well be a photocopy machine. When photography says the unsayable, goes where there are no words.
PS- Time flies, Photography lies and there in lies the magic.