Friday, December 18, 2020


One of the things you do when you've got a new and promising theory, or way of looking at things, or definition, or whatever, is simply to run the old stuff through the new thing to see what comes out. If garbage comes out, then maybe your new thing is not so great. If you get the same, or better, results than you used to, well, great!

Let's think about the "Truth Claim of Photography" by way of my "photographs transport you to the scene" theory of looking at photos.

As, it seems, always, let us first take a step back. Consider yourself in the real world, not transported there mystically but just, you know, there in the ordinary way.

You are aware of stuff. You have, more often than not, a pretty good notion that you know what's going on. You do know a great deal about your environment, to be sure. Still, you may not be aware of the tiger in the bushes, although your dog certainly is (mine is pretty unaware of everything, but I assume yours is more On It.) You probably have a firm but somewhat inaccurate notion of what's going on in another person's head as you converse with them. You probably think you're reading them better than you actually are.

The world as rendered through smell and sound is a little unclear to us, because we're humans. We tend to discount things going on there, and focus on vision, sight, because that's what we're good at. We know there's a chair over there, a window behind us, there's our friend, and so on. We have situational awareness. But, as anyone who has ever been surprised knows, we're often overconfident. We can be surprised to find a piece of furniture in our way, and we can be surprised when our friend says "I'm not mad, where did you get that idea?" We tend to overstate to ourselves our awareness of the world around us, and only rarely do we understate it.

So let's think about photos now. Applying my new thing: when confronted with the photo, we are metaphorically transported to the scene, and we build, we imagine, a world to contain and surround what we see in the photograph. The world we build we imagine to be reality. We're speculatively filling in what we imagine to be the actual world that the picture was drawn from.

We do this, I maintain, whether the picture is real or not. Even if we know it's faked, or the result of painting, or AI, we still respond (to a degree) as if it were real, as if we were there. This reaction is biological, somatic, subconscious. Something like that. Something that operates to a degree outside our conscious control. Something below cultural and above chemical.

We know, of course, or think we know, certain facts that are visible in the photograph. There is a bicycle, there is a tree, there is a cat. We may in fact know these things are fake, if we know intellectually that someone painted the hyper-realistic cat. We respond nevertheless, somatically, with ideas about why the cat is there, how the bicycle came to be leaning against the tree, and so on.

This irresistible tendency to expand the mere visual facts of the frame — this tendency driven by the somatic response to the photo — conflicts with the limited truth actually present in the photo (or the complete lack of this kind of truth, in a photorealistic painting.) This is, precisely, where we get into trouble with truth in photography.

Anyone with a smidge of wit can delineate precisely where the boundaries of actual verifiable truth of a photograph lie, this is not the problem. The problem is that people who don't take care look at a photo and "just know" things that are not actually present, in exactly the same you "just know" that your friend is angry. We build and read an imaginary world, and make assumptions based not on the precise contents of the frame but on the imagined world which surrounds it, and which we in a sense inhabit.

We are, it should be clear, no better at "reading" this imagined world than we are at reading the real one. We can be wrong, we can be surprised. Also, we're surprisingly right surprisingly often — there is no a priori reason to suppose we'd ever be right about anything, here, but sometimes we manage it.

Just as we overreach in the real world, we overreach in this one. Adding to the overreach problem, we find that the boundary is vague between facts we can discern in the visible frame, and "facts" which are guesses and opinions.

The "Truth Claim" is valid, as far as it goes, but being the organisms we are, we are thoroughly unsuited to correctly bounding the limits of the claim, and thus we get in to trouble. We constantly, habitually, over-extend the claim.

Even, perhaps especially, if we style ourselves "experts."


  1. By constantly belittling the Awesome Power of Photographic Maleavolence Photography, we enable the same neo-liberal economics and colonialism that bad actors in this sphere, and their name is legion (and also Martin Parr and Magnum, among many other names that shall not be named, except on Twitter by special dispensation), to play the same victim-blaming game of blame the victim.

    This is as tubular as the barrel of a lens, and just as deadly. Ever been struck by one? It leaves a tiny bruise above your eyebrow. The mark of Cain.

    Imagine pointing this potent weapon at innocents, stealing their souls as it were, then selling their souls back to them at exhorbitant rates in the form of pricey photobooks, etsy prints ... (excuse me, I just threw up in my mouth).

    Do you want to stare into the drab, hopeless gray infinity of a Berlin sky (The color of the sky in Berlin is gray. #7e7f84), lovingly reproduced on the digested remains of a dead rainforest with the most expensive and toxic substance known to man (inket ink)? Do you want to wallow helplessly transfixed in shambolic suburban backyard hells, wondering WTF how and why you got here, taking pictures of some dunce watering petunias and scraping a barbecue, forever? Or their stupid dog peeing on the roses? Or a dead possum on the highway, caught like a dead deer in the headlights of your off-camera flash rig? Don't get me started on photographic indignities to dead animals!

    Do you want to frame your Photography MFA (or God help us, PhD), as if that simulated goatskin covered in an indecipherable black letter script, like some videogame Nazi proclamation, proclaiming you, yes YOU are a CHUMP, to your everlasting and oh so public shame? Enjoy paying back your loans.

    Nobody voluntarily looks at a photograph. We are subliminally forced to, by the diabolical forces of evildeathhateforce™ (I trademarked that word, by the way). Never again suppose you are innocent, or that is even possible. Think about that. Photoland is watching.

    1. Beathe, David, breathe.

      Am I the only dweeb who thinks the "color of the sky over Berlin" twitter account needs color management information?

    2. (channeling Professor Irwin Corey, a bit ahead of your time, you callow youth!)

  2. With respect to truth and meaning and all that, has anyone ever analyzed crime scene forensic photography from that point of view?