A window on the world -- or an interpretation?

Manipulation of war photographs illustrates conflict between art, reality


April 13, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

The picture, which appeared in this newspaper and others, seemed to depict a British soldier and Iraqi civilians during fighting in Basra. Taken by a Los Angeles Times photographer, the image turned out to be a composite of two photographs that had been digitally spliced together. When the deception was discovered, the Times published a correction, citing its policy against altering the contents of news photographs, and fired the photographer.

The incident was mainly seen and discussed as a matter of journalistic ethics. But it also highlights what long has been recognized as photography's dual character: A photograph may look real but it is not reality. It is an image that, unlike other kinds of images, possesses the unique ability to compel belief in the truthfulness of what it represents.

Photography's ability to look real, even when it isn't, can be a photojournalist's downfall. But, for artists, the same duality has been a great wellspring of creativity.

From Cindy Sherman's fake film stills to the fantastic photo collages of Margi Geerlinks and Anthony Goicolea, one of the persistent themes of contemporary art photography has been an insistence on the absolute unreliability of photographs as measures of truth.

Indeed, much contemporary art photography deliberately sets out to convince viewers that the images it presents have only the most tenuous relationship to reality.

Yet, in the world of journalism -- as in many other fields -- photography retains the authority of the truthful eyewitness report. It is considered as highly credible evidence, and news organizations go to great lengths to protect the integrity of the images they publish. For journalists, altering or manipulating a news photograph is tantamount to fabricating reality and is regarded as a kind of fraud.

Surrounded by images

These two ways of thinking about photography -- as illusionistic images and as credible evidence -- co-exist today in the globalized ocean of imagery. Simply in order to understand what is going on, people constantly make instant decisions about which images to regard as "real" and which not.

Controversy over the reality of images long predates the invention of photography, of course. The biblical account of the ancient Hebrews' worship of the golden calf is one of earliest recorded instances of people confusing images with reality -- and probably led to later prohibitions against graven images in both Judaism and Islam.

Christian religious imagery was tolerated by the early church as a way of communicating the faith to a largely illiterate populace. Even so, Medieval Christian imagery was deliberately otherworldly and abstract.

But with the rise of a new pictorial naturalism during the Renaissance, the distinction between "real" and "unreal" images again became a matter of some importance.

In 1573, for example, the Venetian painter Paulo Vero-nese was hauled before the Inquisition on charges of heresy arising from certain figures he had included in a monumental painting of the Last Supper.

The inquisitors complained that in this holiest of scenes, the painter -- famous for his inventiveness in portraying biblical personages as brilliantly costumed contemporary Venetians -- had dared depict such questionable characters as "buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and similar vulgarities."

The authorities, mindful of the Protestant threat from Germany and of church efforts to purge the faith through the Counter-Reformation, feared such figures would distract from the painting's religious message.

(Veronese replied that his figures were merely "decorative." Eventually, he succeeded in appeasing the judges by changing the painting's title to The Supper in the House of Levi, a much less important event in the life of Christ.)

'The pencil of nature'

With the invention of photography, camera images replaced paint and canvas as the primary medium for recording optical reality. Early practitioners described the new medium as the "pencil of nature" and the "mirror with a memory." Such metaphors expressed the widely held view that photography was an objective medium whose images were produced "automatically," independent of human subjectivity.

(The idea of photography's "objectivity" was also one cause of the resistance to its acceptance as art, since, unlike painting, sculpture and drawing, its effects were thought not to depend on the creative vision of the artist.)

Though American artists like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and others had long championed photography as art, the widespread view of photography as a mere transcription of reality only began to change in the 1970s, with the appearance of a new generation of postmodern photographers.

Artists like Sherman, whose Untitled Film Stills represented a bridge between traditional photography and the new conceptual art, deliberately set out to subvert photography's claim to truthfulness.

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