The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s own.
WINTER EDITION, 2021 by Chris Boot, Executive Director, Aperture Foundation
Truth in photography is a myth. Photography is a fictive medium. My training in photography, under Victor Burgin and Simon Watney, at Polytechnic of Central London in the 1980s, presumed all photographs (or more particularly, every use of a photograph within its context) to be an act of rhetoric, or viewer manipulation. That’s regardless of whether the intention of the photographer or picture user was good or bad, honest or devious, and regardless of whether a given photograph might succeed or fail as evidence in court. The most “truthful” photographs, by court standards, might simultaneously be the worst lies. Photography’s power surely rests not on some literal relation to thing observed, but rather, in how it triggers our imaginations, and shapes our perceptions and points of view. Like other fictive mediums - films, poems, or novels - photographs bear truth, but that may be tangential to their faithfulness of record. And especially so, in the age of Instagram, where every picture publicly posted intentionally projects an idealized reality, or its opposite. Truth may be in there, but the picture is deployed to serve an idea – an argument, or a desired outcome (envy for instance), or an ideal. Almost every ‘family’ photograph ever taken sets out to project a desirable fiction. Which is not to say that photography may not still stun us with something factual it reveals. The video that recorded the manner of the death of George Floyd, made by a bystander, enraged the world and inspired a cultural revolution. That footage is arguably the most consequential “photography” made this century so far. Early in the era of Photoshop, National Geographic magazine got into trouble for digitally manipulating a photograph of the pyramids in Egypt, for a 1982 cover, where two of the pyramids were moved closer together, in the crop of a landscape picture, for the purpose of making a striking upright image. (A picture that might easily have been made without the need for Photoshop, if the photographer had set out to make an upright format picture in the first place, and if the featured camel train riders in the foreground had obliged him… which they probably would have, because my cynical assumption from looking at the picture is that the camel drivers were on the payroll). National Geographic’s embarrassment over being caught out led them in turn to implement new standards in their processes and practices, so that a viewer might believe every picture in National Geographic to be reliably true.