Sunday, February 10, 2013

Truth in Digital Photography: Ervin A. Johnson

Truth in Digital Photography

Though the darkroom has faded into the background with the advancement of digital photography, there has been a resurgence of process based photography especially in the realms of "Fine Art". The truth that used to exist and was inherent to the medium has vanished.
  The birth of photography came with the daguerrotype, an image made on a silver-plated surface, named after it’s inventor Louis Jacques Mande’ Daguerre in 1839. However, this was not the only form of photography to exist at the time. Though Daguerre is generally accepted as the father of photography, he was not the only person working with light sensitive materials at the time. Two other forms of photography also came into existence in 1839 which were invented by William Henry Fox Talbot. One of which involved a camera and the use of light-sensitive paper, which is what is utilized in the photographic darkroom still to this day.  

There are a multitude of reasons why analogue photography should not be so readily dismissed. According to Matthew Biro, “Closer analysis, however, reveals that the divide between analogue and digital practices is not as strong as it initially appears, and that truth in photography depends on multitude of contingent as well as non-contingent factors.”.
 Truth as far as photography is concerned is the burden of the medium. For analogue photography, photo manipulation was nearly impossible. The truth of whatever was being shown was evident, in theory. With the coming of digital it became harder to discern where the truth was, if it existed at all, in today’s image. Unlike most other art forms the growth and expansion of photography is completely dependent upon the advancement of technology. It has become increasingly accessible to the masses simply because of its ease. Biro says that because of the “rapid adaption of digital technologies in photography since the 1990’s”, the medium of has experienced a wearing away of the “truth” that photography was once known for. The viewer must now, more than ever, be aware that what he or she may be seeing may not be based in reality at all. 
Biro goes on to cite Bernd and Hilla Becher and their use of analogue photography to show that the archival quality of analogue exists in a capacity for truth where digital never can. The Becher’s document locations before they are radically transformed or destroyed. By doing so with analogue photography they ensure the viewer that what they are seeing is indeed real. This offers a sort of redemption that digital cannot. This security that analogue photography offers it’s viewers happens because it is more readily believable than that of a digital image. Most viewers believe that silver gelatin negatives cannot be altered. At least without a helping hand from the technological advancements of today. 
According to Corey Dzenko, “Digital photography challenges the historical belief that photography is a representative of reality.” Dzenko goes on to describe the relationship that begins to form between digital photography and its loss of its inherent truth. He says that because the transformation the digital photograph loses it tangibility and therefore it’s basis in reality.
 For example, take any photo presented as an ad in a magazine and the effects they have on most consumers. If it is a beauty ad the consumers are more likely to trust the image as truth, without considering that because it has more than likely been digitally produced, it is then not based in reality. Most digital images produced for advertisement have been retouched, as that is an industry standard and those who produce those images count on the fact that the viewer believes things that they perceive in their reality. 
Dzenko talks about photography more generally and its connection to the object being photographed. He says, “Digital photography and especially its apparent invisible manipulability, destroyed the photograph’s privileged connection to the object.”
. He goes on to state that the death of the mediums inherent trust has evolved into more of a representation of what was instead of telling the absolute truth about the object recorded. Photography today exists in the metaphorical purgatory of today’s society. The public has to come to realize that the “inherent” truth once synonymous with the medium has begun to fade away with the coming of the digital age. 
Analogue photography just doesn’t seem feasible when examined from a point of efficiency. The film has to be loaded, developed, and the images then printed. The whole process takes much longer than that of digital, not to mention it is much safer. But there’s something to be said about the aura of the physical nature of analogue photography. Dzenko says, “This borrowing results from the viewers’ desire for a direct, or seemingly natural, connection between representation and reality.” Take for instance the iPhone applications that mimic the etchings and markings of process based photography. The aura of the analogue ways adds a legitimate base for reality when viewing these digitally produced photographs. A base that exists purely because the old aura is borrowed and stands as a facade for the viewer. 


  1. While reading your piece, I was reminded of the audiophile’s return to vinyl. Many argue that digital sound recordings lack the warmth and depth of their analog predecessors. It seems likely adopting digital add-on effects like the iphone filters that you reference is a response to a similar issue.

    I particularly enjoyed your discussion on truth/reality. I would argue that the digital world has created a dichotomy. As you point out, there is more power to create a false reality with advanced technology. At the same time those advances (and resulting globalization) have allowed us to strip away un-truths--it’s hard to remain anonymous with the internet.

    On a related note, How do you feel about retouching in the analog world?

  2. As you said, the act of manipulation of photographs has been so easy in the digital age, what with Photoshop and other processing software. As evidence in most, if not all, advertisements these days, models are made to look ten or fifteen pounds skinnier than they actually are to make them look "pristine" and "marketable." What about for analogue photography though? Albeit harder to stray away from the truth, there has been instances where the environment has been altered to achieve a particular look in the photograph. One example that comes to mind is Roger Fenton's photograph of the cannonballs during the Crimean War. Those cannonballs weren't laid that way when he took the picture; he purposefully rearranged them to make them look better for his photo (or whatever the case may be). Does this constitute as untruth within photography?

    Evan Jang

  3. I enjoyed that this paper delves into a truth our generation recognizes but doesn't necessarily discuss openly: we don't trust photographs anymore. As you pointed out regarding magazine ads (or worse, covers), we know that models have been thinned, lightened, darkened, polished, given limbs that aren't their own, etc. A little girl trying to see herself in a magazine covergirl might hear from her mother, "Ignore that. It's Photoshopped." More and more often, we're pushed to ignore photographs for their falsehood, or consume the false pretty ones like junk food, and we're fascinated with "celebrities without their makeup" - photographs that themselves may've been Photoshopped. This essay's discussion of the truth we originally loved in analogue photography transforming into a different perception of digital photography's honesty is an interesting picking apart of photographic history.

    Hally Joseph

  4. You might like this article I read the other day. It's about a guy who has been taking picture of the sun from his webcam at home. These's a brief discussion re: how much is too much manipulation. He mentions that NASA colorizes photos that they publish.