Photoreality, what a concept

30 Mar

Engaging in a discussion with academic colleagues on photo credibility can often feel like the intellectual equivalent of leaping into a tank of piranhas. As my verbal jousting partners prepare their irrefutable arguments against my assertion that it is possible and necessary to protect the credibility of photographs, I can almost see the “aha, got you” in their eyes.


Fading Away by Henry Peach Robinson (1830–1901) made by exposing 5 negatives for one print

“No,” they insist.  “Photos have always been manipulated. Look at Henry Peach Robinson’s photo “Fading Away” or the posed American Civil War photos of Mathew Brady.”

or “Any photograph is subjective from the moment the photographer frames it up in her viewfinder.”

or “Photographers bend our gaze to their direction, making us see what they want us to see. That is art, not reality.”

or even, “Come on Sabrina, what is reality, anyway?”

These arguments they throw at me start from a basic premise: that a photo is either real or fake.  And it seems my debaters believe that if they can muddy these distinct binary waters, my argument will collapse like a sand sculpture in a king tide.

But I have never said that a photo must be assigned to one or the other of these two categories.  In fact, I believe that the most authentic of photographs are usually just a little contrived, and the most manipulated still contain a modicum of reality. As a result, the veracity of a photograph is more a point on a continuum, rather than a true/false proposition. Despite this, I believe we can and should insist on preserving the credibility of our photos.

Let me explain why I maintain my photographical perspective in the face of the standard arguments.

The Reality, what a concept” argument

Firstly let us dispense with the question of what is reality anyway, the argument I like to refer to as the “Reality, what a concept” argument (an apt phrase borrowed from Robin Williams [1]).


Solar eclipse 16 February 1999, Canberra

While yes it is possible to agree that we live in a world governed by the laws of physics, in which a tiny amount of matter in the form of atoms is held in position by a range of forces, and that we inhabit a particular point in space/time, few of us can live our lives that way.

We all choose to believe in a world of family and home, time passing, seasons, stars, adventures and the cycle of life.  These are the real things in our world that we can see and touch and feel and ponder every day.

Most of us living on Earth choose to believe in this real world and that it matters that we explore and understand this real world as well as our place in it.  Photography is one of the ways we do this.

For the physicists amongst us, photography is a record of the light photons reflecting from the world around us and impacting on the electrons of our camera sensors. That is well within the level of reality I favour.

In this level of reality, it is possible to speak of photographs as representative of the real world.

The Photography is an art, not a science argument

Secondly, photography as ‘art vs science’ is an argument as old as photography itself. I addressed this in my PhD thesis by writing:

‘On this topic, many prominent voices have weighed in. In 1840, the year following photography’s simultaneous but independent invention by William Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, Edgar Allen Poe declared it “the most extraordinary triumph of modern science.” In 1859 … Charles Baudelaire emphatically declared photography to be a mechanical means of recording reality, a “very humble handmaid” of art and sciences, “the secretary and record-keeper of whomsoever needs absolute material accuracy for professional reasons.”

‘In the 1880s, Peter Henry Robinson notably came out in favour of photography as an art, but reversed his opinion based on the cracking of the chemical process of photographic exposure in 1890, which temporarily seemed to leave no room for artistic interpretation.  Contemporaneously, Alfred Stieglitz bolstered the perception of photography as an artistic medium … inciting the Photo-Secessionist movement.’ [2]

This back and forth continues to this day. But this either/or approach is too narrow for my liking.  I believe that photography is both an art and a science, I believe it is erroneous to assign photographs to a binary true/false system when in fact any given photo contains a proportion of truth and a proportion of artistic license, depending on the actions and intents of the photographer. I am not alone in this thinking. In 1977, despite opining that photographs always contain some art, Susan Sontag also stated in her famous treatise On Photography that “a photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture” [3].

But whatever the proportions of art and science, there is always a degree of reference to the real world in any photograph, and in fact photographers usually depend on it to provide relevance and meaning in their photographs.

The It’s all subjective anyway argument

Australian Lowline Cattle and Grazier taking some well-deserved rest Royal Canberra Show, 2006

Australian Lowline Cattle and their tired grazier
Royal Canberra Show, 2006

Thirdly, my detractors dismiss photographs as subjective. Of course they can be and often are. As an example, in the photo to the right, I chose my camera angle to emphasise the well-deservedness of the farmer’s rest: the cattle are secure and relaxed in their pavilion, the hay is fresh and clean, and the young grazier has clearly been working very hard to make it so and has earned his nap.

As I discussed in greater detail in Great Expectations and Communicating Photographically, [4] we as photographers impact upon our photographs by our choices of subjects, the angles and camera settings we choose, and how we present our images (online, in a photobook, as a print, etc.).

But regardless of these subjective subtleties, when all is said and done, a photograph is still a specific and accurate reflection of the scene in front of the lens at the time the shutter is released and the light floods the camera sensor. At that moment the photo is a real image of the real world.

Undeniably, the young farmer, pavilion, cattle, and hay were present as photographically described when I stood there and snapped their photo. Subjectivity does not equate to subject invalidity.

The Photo manipulation is nothing new argument

And lastly, there is their argument that photos have always been manipulated and there is nothing new about it. I am often told that truth in photography has always been elusive, with photographers lurking in darkrooms through the ages creating any number of creative but false images, which by virtue of association with all other contemporaneous photographs, negates the possibility of photos ever being regarded as true representations of the real world. Poppycock. Tell that to the World War II soldiers who went to war with a photo of their mum or their sweetheart in their breast pocket.

Further, there is much that is new about photo manipulation.

Digital photography and the long arm of the Internet logarithmically exacerbate the problem of photo manipulation. It was once the case that few photographers could tinker with their photos, now almost anyone can. It was also once the case that photos were physical objects that tended to remain within a relatively small circle of family and friends who knew all the people and places in the photos (or knew someone who did); now photos are electronic constructs that whip around the world at the speed of light with little context or explanation.

I took the photo below and have done nothing to it other than resizing it for webuse. I like knowing that the bill of the hummingbird below is orange, I didn’t ‘paint it’ that way. I like knowing that its feathers really are a jewel-like turquoise, cobalt and emerald.  All of these authentic details allow me and you to know that it is a Broad billed hummingbird. And that’s the way I like it. Don’t you?

Hummingbird, San Diego Zoo, 2005

Broad billed Hummingbird, Kenton C. Lint Hummingbird Aviary, San Diego Zoo, 2005

We humans have generated an inconceivably large pool of photographs, particularly over the past 15 years or so since digital photography was introduced. Why don’t we consider the benefits of instilling and bolstering the security of the meanings in this amazing resource? Think of the value such a reservoir of images is for society, archives, galleries, and knowledge production, as long as we know what we’re looking at.

Is it perhaps now time to tackle the problem of photograph credibility?

Fading Away by Henry Peach Robinson (1830–1901) (George Eastman House) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Australian Lowline Cattle and their tired grazier 2006; Solar Eclipse 16 February 1999, Broad-billed Hummingbird, San Diego Zoo 2005 by Sabrina Caldwell; other than resizing for web use, no alterations have been done to the photographs.


[1] Reality — what a concept.  Robin Williams, Casablanca Records, NBLP 7162  1979. (Won a Grammy for Best Comedy Performance Single or Album, Spoken or Musical)
[2] These two paragraphs are largely quoted directly from my PhD thesis Politics of Imagination: Richard Kelly Tipping and the Art and Technology of Words, Images and Objects. ANU 2008 p 112. This text references:
Edgar Allen Poe, “The Daguerreotype,” Classic Essays on Photography. ed. Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven: Leet’s Island Books, 1980) 37.
“Fading Away” compilation from 5 negatives was a controversial technique because it flew in the face of the photograph as a supposed mirror-like reflection of reality.
Charles Baudelaire, qtd. in Photography: A Critical Introduction second edition, ed. Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2000) 13.
[3] Susan Sontag. On Photography (New York: Penguin, 1977) 5.
[4] Great Expectations and Communicating Photographically, 10 Feb 2014

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