We’re prone to ask serious art to do the impossible–to be beautiful, original, profound, informative and relevant to our everyday lives, all at the same time. With photography, we up the ante to include something called “truth.” That is, while painters create their images stroke by stroke, photographers select a chunk of the visible world and document it via a machine whose capacity for objectivity far surpasses the painter’s hand. With almost any photograph, the operative assumption is that what we’re seeing did, in fact, exist in front of the lens at the moment the shutter was snapped. (That’s why pornographic or courtroom photographs are so much more galvanizing than drawings of sexual couplings or murder trials.)
Edward Weston said that a photograph is “not an interpretation, a biased opinion of what nature should be, but a revelation–an absolute, impersonal recognition of the significance of facts.” Bill Brandt went even further, arguing that photographic portraits should contain, he thought, “a profound likeness, which physically and morally predicts the subject’s entire future.” To Brandt, photography’s power to tell the truth is apparently so great it can in social effect overturn Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that we cannot know both the position and velocity of subatomic particles and therefore cannot predict the future nanomillisecond’s “snapshot” of it.
Not long after the invention of photography circa 1835 (the exact date and individual inventor credit are still up for grabs), Gustave Le Gray printed one photograph from two negatives–the second taken at a different exposure to make the sky look better. About a century later O. Winston Link tweaked his famous plane-train-and-automobiles drive-in-movie photograph by using a separate negative of the same scene to get a sufficiently clear image of an airplane onto the drive-in’s screen. In the intervening years, an untold number of photographers created an untold number of deliberately untruthful photographs, via multiple negatives, darkroom high jinks and retouching. Today, digital cameras forgo continuous-tone film and produce their pictures directly in electronic dots called pixels. (Indeed, every photograph you see in a newspaper, magazine or book has been translated into an array of tiny ink dots very similar to pixels.) Since readily available computer programs such as Photoshop manipulate pixels with the same license for fiction enjoyed by painters, photography’s claim to any inherent “truth” has just about flown the coop.
But the fictive possibilities of photography have been present from the birth of the medium. Distortions of truth occur not only mechanically (in lens, shutter speed and aperture) and in printing (choice of chemicals and paper, time in the “bath” and the photographer’s taste for darkness and fuzziness) but are integral to the very idea of photographers being stylistically different from one another. In other words, you can’t have artistically original photographers without giving up, to some extent, the idea that photographs tell the truth. Dorothea Lange asserted that every photograph is a self-portrait of the photographer. Her photograph of a Dust Bowl émigré to California is better than yours or mine would have been–even if we’d taken it at the same instant, with the same camera and film, from the same position–because her “self-portrait” as a photographer is a hell of a lot richer than ours. Even when a photographer’s work exudes a “this is simply the way it is” quality, it still exudes biography. To take an example all the more relevant for its being offered in jest, “[William] Eggleston’s photographs look like they were taken by a Martian who lost the ticket for his flight home and ended up working at a gun shop in a small town near Memphis.”