Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Story of the Picture

Reading recent remarks here one might get the idea that I am obsessed with literal truth in photographs, and that's not quite right. Authenticity isn't truth, at least not the way I'm using it (never mind the dictionary, like Humpty Dumpty, I am the master here, I am not to be bossed around by words). I don't actually think there's a need for literal truth in a photograph. Literal truth-telling is not a requirement to making a good picture, or a good picture essay.

Respect for what's in front of the camera is. An understanding that photography is rooted in the direct connection between the picture and the thing itself, an understanding that the thing photography does best is to minimize that distance between the picture and the thing itself, these are really necessary. Probably some sort of authentic presentation of your own ideas of the thing itself is, if not necessary, at least a good idea.

Let's step back one degree. For some reason we seem to love the story behind the picture.

For some weird reason, people (including me, I am after all a people) seem to have some fascination with the Truth Behind The Picture, the story of how the picture was made. Even, I suspect, people who insist that any and all photoshopping and manipulation is OK, because Art, will become angry and upset if they learn you have lied about how you took the photo. So much for consistency.

This came to my attention because some cow on some gossip web site is bitching about how Tyler Shields basically copying all his photos from other people's work and lying about it. Setting aside the issue of whether there is anything new under the sun, ultimately, why do we care if Tyler makes up a story about how he was inspired, or if he he actually is just lifting ideas wholesale? Tyler isn't a photographer, anyways. He's a performance artist playing the role of a photographer, and anyone with a clue can see this. Why on earth would we expect the tales he tells in his fictional role as a photographer to be non-fiction?

I've never heard of Tyler, but it's still interesting that it matters. I felt the rage myself, but even so I can't work out why it matters.

Alain Briot has mentioned that the process of selling a print is often intimately wrapped up in the story of how the picture was made.

There has long been quite the little cottage industry in "discrediting" various famous pictures "blah blah staged, blah blah, modified" and so on, apparently because, even outside the world of journalism, the truth of the story somehow has some bearing on the value of the picture. If you poke around you'll learn that Migrant Mother was "staged", just as a for instance, and you'll probably hear breathlessly described as a Terrible Secret that a fuzzy thumb in the foreground got erased. Yawn.

This is, somehow, related to my earlier remarks on authenticity.

You'd think that think that some chappie with an obsession with "authenticity" in a photography would find it difficult to maintain this dismissive attitude, eh? But I do, and I can, because authenticity is not literal truth-telling, and as a second order issue, the story you tell about the picture isn't the picture, it's a story.

It is not necessary to tell the absolute truth about your influences (what would that even look like?), and I'm not sure it's a problem to simply trot out a complete fiction. Your story is not the picture, after all. If you ask your subject to turn a little to the left, that does not ruin the authenticity of the shot (although it might, it need not).

I'm sure someone's done a show in which the captions are all lies.

You could just steal someone else's show of reportage, and change all the captions to bullshit. Art!

1 comment:

  1. If Tyler Shields was an art school student, would anybody care about his plagiarism? Probabaly not, though some prominent people in Europe and the Far East were obliged to fall on their swords over this concept (zu Gutenberg springs to mind, over his Ph.D dissertation).
    The reason for the bitching IMHO is because Shields has the temerity to MAKE MONEY from his "art".
    And is that not the whole issue at stake here?
    I studiously ignored ETTR philosophies when I bought my first DSLR, because I was happier to shoot jpegs and control the shadow blocking through my own developed skills, however badly I did it.
    But did I complain when others appropriated MY technique?
    Did I demand monetary compensation?
    The whole question of copyright/authenticity has been exposed on the Internet in a way that says nothing is new under the sun.
    And if I make portraits as good as Kirk Tuck, in his style, will that be plagiarism or because I have purchased and read his books on lighting and studied all of his writing on the web?
    I guess if I was making a living from photography, I would be upset if someone blatantly copied my work.
    But, with so many people taking photographs and making photographs these days, the Laws of Probability say that, sooner or later, SOMEONE will make a direct copy of a well-known photograph from years before.
    Just my Canadian dollar (fast approaching 2 cents in value!!)