Thursday, January 31, 2019

Truth and Stories

One of my readers (if it's not you, it's the other one) pointed me to this article on the Fstoppers web site, which is essentially about the truth claim of photography, and which gives a not-bad discussion. It's a bit absolutist for my taste, but the world is large and has much room for differences.

As long time readers know, I am mildly obsessed with photography's truth claim, and spend lots of time thinking about it. I want to revisit it, thinking it through via my model of "5 stories."

To review the 5 stories about a photograph are: 1. the ground truth of what was in front of the lens, 2. the photographer's intent; then we add in a viewer and stories 3 and 4 are just the viewer's guesses/understanding of stories 1 and 2 (what you think the ground truth is, and what you think the photographer intended); story 5 is the viewer's all-up reaction to the photograph which subsumes stories 3 and 4, but also other stuff the viewer brings.

Keep in mind that stories 1 and 2 belong to the photographer, they are the photographer's beliefs. Whatever the photographer believes about 1 and 2 is true about them, because they are those beliefs, the model is set up that way. This is why 1/2 are separated from 3/4/5. Stories 3, 4, and 5 are in just the same way the viewer's beliefs.

You can argue about where the lines land between the stories or whatever, but this is just a rough framework, so let's just let that lie.

When someone like Steve McCurry photoshops a bunch of pictures and sells them, and then gets called out on it, the implied accusation is that stories 1 and 2 have too much daylight between them, they are too far apart. Obviously, "too much" is contextual. If an artist is making collages, there is supposed to be a lot of space between these two, but that's OK, and so on.

Of course this accusation, implicit though it is, isn't quite right. What's actually going on is that it's stories 3 and 4 that are too far apart for our personal taste, and our end-reaction, story 5, is excessively colored by our perception of "too much" space between the stories.

If the artist's intention is clear, and it is not to tell the ground truth, we don't mind a bit. Fashion photography has a ground truth of surly models and light stands, but the artist's intentions are completely different. We translate that, and all is well. We don't care that the gap between the ground truth and the fantasy (1 to 2, or 3 to 4, it doesn't matter) is large, because the intention is clear.

No, we run in to trouble most often when the artist believes that the gap is smaller than we believe it is. The artist might say "I photoshopped out the lamppost because it is an anachronism which distracted from the underlying truth of the scene" expressing a basic alignment between stories 1 and 2. While the photographer would agree that the ground truth is not literally present in the photograph, the photograph nonetheless represents in a meaningful way what was truly present. It is, as it were, the lamppost that was wrong, not the photographer. I think this is essentially McCurry's contention.

In this case, stories 1 and 2 are quite close, but 3 and 4 are far apart. Something happens in the translation.

What seems to piss us off is this: we feel (as I do about McCurry) that while the photographer claims that his stories (1 and 2) are the same in all the important ways, the photographer is lying about that, possibly to themselves, but definitely to us.

This, in turn, is because we are ascribing a great deal of weight to our interpretations. We construct our stories, 3 and 4, in such a way as to observe a wrong gap between them. We then conflate our stories with the photographer's stories, confusing 3 with 1 and 4 with 2, and thereby "deduce" that the photographer must have, or should have, observed the same wrong gap.

This is perfectly natural. As humans, we always assume that we understand the mind of other humans more or less perfectly. We handwave a little pretended humbleness, but at the end of the day we think we know what you really meant, you disingenuous bastard. Still, it's not true. We are remarkably, unreasonably, good guessers at this, but we ain't perfect.

This doesn't mean that there are no photographers out there who are kidding themselves, there surely are. It is a big world. And perhaps we're good enough guessers that, most of the time that we see a gap between truth and intent on our side of the divide, there was just such a gap on the artist's side. But surely not all the time, and just as surely, we don't reliably know when we've got it right and when we don't. Even wringing a confession out of the hapless artist often proves nothing, as students of the criminal justice system are all too aware.

We ought, therefore, to approach these situations with an open mind, as with all things Art. We should strive to understand the artist's point of view, to see which one of us has it right, or if indeed perhaps we both do in our own ways.

Having thought it through with some care, and spent some time with the photographs, my disagreement with McCurry (for example) has nothing to do with this bit of cloning, or that erasure. My disagreement is with McCurry's vision of Asia. His photographs are altered from ground truth, but do also reflect McCurry's notions of a larger truth. While I cannot quote him particularly, I think McCurry's position is implicit but clear, that his photographs reflect a true vision of Asia. McCurry sees his stories as pretty close together.

Because I do not believe in McCurry's vision of Asia, my stories are farther apart. There is a problem in translation here, and it is that I think McCurry has fallen in love with McCurry's Asia and therefore cannot see the ground truth in front of him. He sees a world of saturated color and glum people, and I believe that that world is untrue.


  1. Okay, now that was some crappy post-modernism by FStoppers. Choose your truth, blah blah blah. We are waking up from the bad dream of "it's all a lie" post-modernism, I think, but it comes in bits and spurts.

    1. Oh, it's not THAT bad! I recommend ignoring the subheads, which more often than not are just clickbaity nonesense that has little to do with the content.

    2. I have to agree that is a load of wank.

  2. I wonder if you've come across this quote from Tolstoy: "All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town"... Quite possibly the same event, objectively, but two perspectives. AFAIK Tolstoy had no problem with people just making stuff up, of course...


  3. What you interpret and what the photographer hoped for are two different things. McCurry is a PhotoJOURNALIST. Reality is the bedrock of the images. Setting them up and changing things from reality is lying - in this context. Yes, where one stands when taking an image can make a tremendous difference in how an image looks and the message it may impart. But changing the image itself in how it is set up or what the subject is doing - while claiming it is reality - once again - a lie. Not a good thing when one presents it as Truth. No matter how you interpret it the photographer lied in creating it.

  4. You seem to be taking the position that there is an important difference between framing/cropping, and the use of photoshop (say) to alter the picture. You're not alone here, the NYT among other august institutions argues the same.

    I am unable to discover any actual basis for this, however.

    It does come down to intent, really, and we cannot truly know another's intentions. We can only guess.

    In short, which you might take as a precis of what I said above, it's complicated, it's nuanced, and there are areas both grey and unknowable.

  5. A bit heavy-handed but, well, anyway, perhaps useful in this context:

  6. By the way, with the most recent couple articles it appears that LULA has doubled down on publishing articles designed to irritate you.

    1. Yeah ;)

      As a contributor I was gifted with a "student membership" which allowed me access to LuLa's paywalled content at no cost. That expired a few months ago, and I meant to nudge Kevin gently but my plan was to, you know, maybe contribute something before I went asking for free stuff ;)

      Now that there's new management, I am no longer much interested. I see that Josh has written something, but it's behind the paywall and based on the title, "Believing is Seeing" (he may want to check with Errol Morris on that), and what little I have observed of Josh, I suspect that I am in fact even more thoroughly uninterested.