I miss the time when photographs were literally true.
Part one: theory
Truth is the greatest and thorniest issue in philosophy. There is not enough paper in the world to hold all the things that have been, will be, should be and will have been written about truth. It’s an issue that concerns everyone and applies to everything, including photographers and photographs. Since I am a photographer, in the sense that I make photographs and in the sense that I aspire to make a living off it, I’ve thought long and hard about this shit, but I never did write that one definite essay on the subject. Which is probably for the best, since that’s an impossible task. Recently, the little corner of the internet I pay attention to has been buzzing about Errol Morris’s truths about truth and photography. The list is a fitting starting point, since a bunch of people I respect have expressed their agreement with it. I haven’t read Morris’s new book about the subject, but I’ve read and enjoyed some of the blog posts it’s based on.
The thing I take issue with is this: Photographs are neither true nor false. (They have no truth-value.) That’s just… I’m having a hard time conceiving of a civil way to express how much I disagree with that statement.
I used to read a lot of analytic philosophy, because I had a very pressing concern: I doubted that it was true that murder is wrong, and it made me very uneasy and sad to think that I live in a world where it isn’t wrong to murder and rape and beat people up. Now, the reason for my doubt was a little arcane for an existential crisis: I had come to doubt that morality was objective, and I had certain intuitive beliefs about the way “truth” works that seemed to preclude the possibility that moral beliefs could be true or false if they were just the subjective judgments of fallible humans. To solve this problem, I turned to metaethics, the branch of philosophy that studies such things as the foundations of ethics.
In the history of metaethics, I found a partial solution to my conundrum: a theory called moral expressionism, or, popularly, the “yay-boo!” theory of morality. It states that morality is indeed subjective, and that when we say things like “Murder is wrong”, that’s sort of like if we’d said “Boo! to murder” (or perhaps “I think people should not murder!” in a particularly agitated and intense voice). That sounded kind of right, but it still meant that moral statements were neither true nor false (that they had no truth-value). This was still very upsetting to me. I hope you can see the parallel to Morris’s statement.
It was upsetting to think of morality as more or less meaningless, since we place such importance on it, and it seemed like if morality wasn’t what we thought it was, we had better get rid of it altogether, and I don’t know about you, but that prospect terrifies me. As it turns out, in metaethics, there is a solution that concedes that morality is subjective but still preserves the truth or falsehood of moral statements. It depends on the popular Duck postulate: If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a duck. In the case of morality, if we observe people discussing ethics, we’ll find that they talk about moral issues as if there is a truth of the matter. And what is the meaning of a word if not the way we use it, the things we use it to mean? If we talk as if moral statements have a truth-value, that means either the philosophers are wrong about moral statements, or that we, as native speakers of our language, are wrong about the way we use words. It seems more likely that the former is true: the philosophers’ view of truth was too restrictive. Better get on that. Moral statements are true or false, but they are not true or false in the same way as statements like “The Earth circles the Sun” are. Truth is not a monolithic thing.
I rehearse this argument about ethics because it works exactly the same when applied to photographs. We talk as if photographs have a truth-value. We talk of real and fake images, we talk about true and false depictions, we talk about misrepresentations and accurate portrayals. It’s blatantly obvious that in the situation where a person is looking at a photograph, there’s something there that’s a representation of reality, and which obeys all the laws and conventions that things that have a truth-value do. Identifying whether or not the photograph or something else in that situation is the truth-bearer is academic. It has no bearing on the question of whether a particular picture, or a particular way of making a picture, is a true and accurate representation of reality. That is the question we should be talking about.
It may be that the real truth-bearer in that situation is not the photo itself, and great conceptual photography ideas, but something like “the facts about the world that a rational person would infer from the photo given knowledge of the culture within which the photo was made.” But that is overly pedantic and shifts the discussion from the interesting heart of the matter out into the academic periphery. Here, I’ll give an academic philosophical reason why Morris is right: Tarski’s T-schema. It says that “T” is true if and only if T. Obvious, huh? But see what happens when you put a picture in for the T: “☺” is true if and only if ☺. We can ask whether snow is white, and so verify that “snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. But we can’t ask if ☺? ☺ is meaningless by itself. So pictures have no truth-value. But ☺ is quite obviously not meaningless, so this argument is kind of useless.
I bet that most of the photographers who agreed with Morris didn’t do so because they were thinking about Tarski’s T-schema. Most photographers, me included, do not really care for such matters. We care about actual images, rather than theoretical epistemology. In fact, it doesn’t matter at all whether or not photographs are truth-bearers (an academic question if there ever was one) if all you want to do is discuss whether or not photographs are accurate representations of reality. Just like science goes on irrespective of what philosophers of science think. Around 1920-40, a philosophy of science called logical positivism was in vogue. Logical positivism is big on saying things like “X is neither true nor false; X has no truth-value.” Very few things have truth-value according to logical positivism. But positivism isn’t so hot anymore. If you examine the history of science between 1920 and, say, 1970 (after positivism went out of vogue), you wouldn’t find any fundamental methodological break after positivism was largely abandoned. Science goes on, whatever philosophers say about it.
I think it’s disingenuous of Morris to say that photos have no truth-value, because I know he spends a lot of ink in his book discussing the truth-value of photos. I don’t know what he hopes to achieve by contradicting himself in this way.
The rest of this post will not dwell on theoretical issues which have little relevance and hold little interest to most people, and will instead focus on practical stuff.
Part two: practice
What makes a photo an accurate representation of reality? I think we have at least three criteria: the accuracy with which the photo represents the light that fell upon its (analog or digital) sensor, given a reasonably conventional sensor; the photo’s fidelity to the reality that would have existed if the camera had not intruded upon the scene; and a series of conventions regarding various types of photos, such as portraits, that tell us how to interpret a picture and what facts about the world to infer from them.
Here’s an example of the first criterion. Here, what purports to be a straight photo of a conflict zone has been photoshopped to add more smoke. This photo, clearly, is not an accurate representation either of the photons that originally hit the camera sensor or what the photographer’s eyes would have seen. It also fails test number two: it isn’t what you’d see if you could somehow observe the seen from a vantage point where your observation had absolutely no effect on the scene in question. And it fails criterion three: it presents itself as following the conventions of photojournalism, but blatantly fails to do so.
Here’s another example. This is a photo I took, and I would argue that it is an accurate representation of reality. It’s a photo of a neighbor in his kitchen that I took for this series. Now, it clearly passes test one: it is not photoshopped. Although it has been edited, as all RAW images must to become JPEGs suitable for viewing on the web, it has not been substantially altered from what the sensor saw. The most important thing I’ve done is crop square, but the cropped-out areas do not contain anything that substantially alters the meaning of the picture. As for criterion two, this is not a fly-on-the-wall kind of picture. You could argue that, because I asked the subject to sit where he sits, I’ve failed to be true to what would have happened if the camera didn’t intrude. But it’s also safe to say that, although the subject would likely not have sat there at that exact moment if not for the photo, he has sat there many times before and since. (Other than asking the person to sit there, I did not give any directions, arrange any clothes or put any of the things in the picture where they are.)
In addition, this is a portrait, and people who have seen a portrait before will know that they are not meant to be read as fly-on-the-wall photos.
The above is a group portrait from the photographer Oddleiv Apneseth’s series on Jølster, a small municipality in Norway. While I agree with Errol Morris that “
the intentions of the photographer are not recorded in a photographic image”, I have some idea of this particular photographer’s intentions, because I’ve heard him speak at length about this series.
Criterion one: this is not manipulated. It’s pretty much straight out of Apneseth’s medium format panoramic camera. Criterion two: is this arranged for the camera, or is it pretty much what would have happened if the camera wasn’t there? Quite obviously, this is posed and arranged. So does that mean this is not a true representation of reality? Well, for one thing, this is a group portait of a bunch of workers. They wouldn’t normally line up all at once like this—in fact, the photographer spent almost a year convincing them to move all those excavators in the background, at considerable expense, to a single location—but they are in a place where probably all of them have at one time or another been working in those clothes and with that equipment—doesn’t seem too dishonest to line ‘em all up like that.
And once again, it is pretty clear to anyone who’s ever seen a group portrait that this is a situation contrived for the camera, but one that is meant to represent something more general that isn’t contrived for the camera. I don’t know if the above is a true photograph, but it’s certainly an honest one, and that is all I ask for.
The above is another group portrait from the Jølster series. These guys are, if I recall correctly, the local weightlifting club. Now, the photographer has clearly placed them somewhere they wouldn’t be if not for the photo shoot. But this photo, as all of us who have seen portraits before can easily deduce, is not meant to show a typical day in the lives of the local weightlifting club. It’s meant to testify to the existence of the local weightlifting club and who’s in it. It would be a fake if there were no weightlifting club, or if these guys weren’t in the club, but as is, this is as true and as honest as anyone can demand.
Clearly, images are not true or false in a vacuum: the external information given out about the photos and the context in which they’re displayed also play a role.
There is another aspect to the idea that a picture is true to the photons that hit the sensor. I have a theoretical and a practical example here. Theory first:
Consider the well-known case of barn-facades: Henry drives through a rural area in which what appear to be barns are, with the exception of just one, mere barn facades. From the road Henry is driving on, these facades look exactly like real barns. Henry happens to be looking at the one and only real barn in the area and believes that there’s a barn over there. Henry’s belief is justified, according to TK, because Henry’s visual experience justifies his belief. According to NTK, his belief is justified because Henry’s belief originates in a reliable cognitive process: vision. Yet Henry’s belief is plausibly viewed as being true merely because of luck. Had Henry noticed one of the barn-facades instead, he would also have believed that there’s a barn over there. There is, therefore, broad agreement among epistemologists that Henry’s belief does not qualify as knowledge.
To state conditions that are jointly sufficient for knowledge, what further element must be added to [Justified True Belief]? This is known as the Gettier problem. According to TK, solving the problem requires a fourth condition. According to some NTK theorists, it calls for refining the concept of reliability.
It seems that if the process of knowledge is not reliable, it’s hard to say that someone knows something. And similarly, if the process by which a photo is made does not reliably represent what the eye sees, or would see, it’s hard to trust it. I have a practical example of this.
This is generally considered to be the world’s first color photograph, made by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861. The problem is that, although this picture happens to be a reasonably accurate representation of the ribbon’s colors, the process is unreliable. It was made with a process that, unbeknownst to the photographer, actually picked up light from outside the visible spectrum. That this light happened to result in an accurate photo this time was coincidence. If Maxwell had photographed something else, the colors may have come out all wrong. The process was unreliable, and this is, in a sense, a false color picture.
The above is a photo by Mando Alvarez. It’s a night photograph, but due to the long exposure, it looks like day. This photo is not what you’d see with your eyes if you’d stood where Mando stood. It does, however, have the look of a night photo, and if you’ve seen a few of those, you’ll catch on and understand that you’re not meant to read the photo as a record of what the eyes saw. Armed with this knowledge, we can interpret it as a pretty straight photograph.
Need inspiration for your new self portrait? Check these photography ideas.
There never was a time when photographs were literally true. All theory aside, trickery, manipulation and deceit have always existed in photography. It has become easier and more prevalent with the advent of digital technology, of course. And I still think that it’s a little ridiculous to categorically deny the truth or accuracy of all photographs just because some are fakes. The vast majority of photographs are true, if only because no one’s bothered to manipulate them out of laziness or incompetence. (I know a lot of people would manipulate quite a few Facebook albums if they only knew how and could be bothered.)
The most fundamental prerequisite of truth in photography, though, is not among my three technical criteria above. It’s honesty. It’s easy to create a dishonest photograph that is nevertheless both produced via a reliable process, true to the photons that hit the sensor, and which does not depict a situation that wouldn’t have existed if not for the camera. Maybe this is what Morris means by “every photograph is posed”: whatever we do, we choose to leave some things in the frame and leave out other things, we choose one angle and one lens and one aperture and one shutter speed to the exclusion of others, and so on. It’s easy to create false impressions of reality given these tools, even if Photoshop isn’t involved.
This post has gone on long enough. Perhaps the most important question we can ask is not “is this true?” but “is this honest?”