‘The Real and the Digital’

Read the section entitled ‘The Real and the Digital’ in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography:
A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75. You’ll find this
on the student website.

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth? Consider both
sides of the argument and make some notes in your learning log.

This is an interesting question and makes me query whether a photograph is really a definitive record of truth or just a subjective version of the truth. The editing and manipulation of photographs is nothing new, I recall reading through an excellent photo book Stonehenge:A History in Photographs by Julian Richards, which is a collection of found and archival photographs. Within the book is an old black and white photograph dated around 1910-11 of a plane flying over Stonehenge. The photograph is a composite image with the plane never really flying over Stonehenge. So even back then photographs were being creatively manipulated to produce radically false images. Also as we have seen in this part of the unit the spooky spirit photography created by the likes of William H Mumler in the 1860’s using double exposures.  It would seem therefore that there has always been an ability to manipulate a photograph and create something which wasn’t actually captured in camera.

Digital technology is a useful tool to edit photographs and create some stunning imagery, the imagination has no limits. I consider the likes of Photoshop to be just another tool and very much an element of the artistic side of photography, where you can make the image your own as an artist. I do think its important in what context the use of digital technology is used, I would be more accepting for an artistic piece of photographic work to have been manipulated than say an important part of news coverage where I would expect definitive, pure, real truth. I think that the lines have become blurred a little now and its kind of acceptable to a degree to have some creative manipulation if its for the purpose of delivering the message in a unique way. Ethically as photographers we have to tread a fine line, so I think it depends on the circumstances and context.

The camera itself can also distort reality and perspectives, regardless of the digital technology, certain lenses have the ability to appear to bring objects closer or push them further away, the wide angle lens, the telephoto lens, the fish-eye lens. Also as a photographer I can purposefully manipulate and distort ‘reality’ simply by where I stand and by what I choose to include or not include within the frame, I could turn the camera upside down if I really wanted to or stand on my head and take a photograph (but that would be truly mental and probably intensely amusing to everyone else).

When I look back at the use of photography through history I tend to think of it as a means to record history. Like a historical artefact perhaps like a piece of broken pottery. If you look up in the Oxford dictionary an artefact is defined as the following an object made by a human being, typically one of cultural or historical interest“.  That kind of sums up photography for me in many ways. I think there is a place for truth in current photography, it is important to question who is taking the photograph, why they are taking the photograph and what they are taking the photograph for. But as any good historian (or fan of Time Team!) would tell you, you don’t base your truth, your reality solely on one artefact. So if you are looking for truth about an event you need to collect multiple pieces of evidence. Having said that I do worry that today’s society would believe almost anything you put in front of them if you told them it was from a ‘credible’ source!


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