Why do people trust so many photographs they know (or at least should know) are a fiction? Because they want to. Give a tool like photography to a flawed creature like us humans, and that’s what you get: Beauty and terrifying contradictions.
In a new follow-up Edward Rozzo appears puzzled by me stating that “the vast majority of people trust photography in the vast majority of cases perfectly well” (source) and that “We all know that all photography is fiction: as a photographer you make choices, which influence the photograph enough for it to be more of a fiction than a fact.” (source) How can this be? Isn’t that a contradiction? The answer is: No, it isn’t. That’s the beauty of photography, that’s how photography works. Under most circumstances most people are perfectly happy to suspend their disbelief1 in the artifact “photograph,” to take it for what it is not, at least theoretically. (more)
As a matter of fact, people often (but not always - context matters!) trust photographs even when they know they’re very fake. A perfect example is provided by the kinds of photographs we love putting on our walls, family photographs. As much as we like to make fun of studio family photography when it’s other people’s images, we take our own very, very seriously. We really believe that what they show is nothing but reality - a happy couple, say, or a happy family, or a good time being had somewhere - even though we know that the actual reality was or is often very different: If you were to judge the state of marriages or relationships from these kinds of photographs the divorce/break-up rate would be exactly zero.
These kinds of photographs are often a total fiction. We could call them propaganda, and that’s what they are. But they’re a propaganda we actively support and believe in, knowing full well that they’re propaganda (which makes it very different from all types of other propaganda). As a matter of fact when you go to a photo studio to have your photograph taken, you actually pay for getting propaganda. You’re paying for the fact that the end result will show you in the most flattering light.
You could, conceivably, do those kinds of photographs yourself, but I think that the fact that someone else is taking the photographs plays an important role even though you know the result is just flattering. Seen in this light, the studio photographer acts like the opposite of the medieval court jester: Life does the jesting anyway, so we might as well have someone tell us that we’re queens or kings and that all is swell.
For me, this is a very, very important aspect of photography. We could have all kinds of arguments about the term “reality” here, which might or might not lead us somewhere. But when it comes to photography, we all behave much more like the so-called faith-based community than the so-called reality-based community! We accept photos of ourselves that show us in the most flattering light, while rejecting the photographs that show us exactly the way we are (passport photographs - I yet have to meet a single person who likes their passport photo).
So I am criticizing Rozzo’s statement “Everyone, or practically anyone who is visually literate, knows that they can never again trust an image in order to understand reality.” (emphases in the original) It’s incomplete. My version would be: “Everyone, or practically anyone who is visually literate, knows that they can never again trust an image in order to understand reality. But we’ll do it anyway.”
This is why I don’t focus so much on the ideas of fiction in photography or trust in photography, as important as they might be. First, as I just argued, we need to add context: We’re not going to let things slide in a news context, while happily (and knowingly!) deceiving ourselves in the photographs we produce in social contexts. Second, since most photography operates in exactly that grey, overlapping zone, trying to move things to one side risks throwing out the baby with part of the bathwater.
A lot of photographic meat can be found right there, where it seems things aren’t so easily understandable. Why do people trust so many photographs they know (or at least should know) are a fiction? Because they want to. Give a tool like photography to a flawed creature like us humans, and that’s what you get: Beauty and terrifying contradictions.
Coming back to Rozzo’s articles, as I noted earlier, he and I agree about quite a bit of things, probably the gist of what we’re talking about. This even includes my comment about the “rapid, vapid one liners our bang-bang-bang culture has come to rely on” - this, essentially, is my version of what Rozzo describes as photographers “playing in little corners in order to avoid the revolution taking place outside their world. Very often, narcissistic self-expression has taken the place of intellectual definition.” (source). When I wrote my own phrase, I thought it would be so obvious what I was referring to that I never thought about making it clearer.
There’s just one thing in Rozzo’s new follow-up that I vehemently object to (it’s a very common idea, you can hear it everywhere): “But during this linguistic evolution, the precious beauty of single images has often slipped away under a deluge of eye-catching imagery thrown upon us by more and more media.” The “often” leaves the door open for all kinds of exceptions, but I do think this is not true in general.
The magic of photography has not fallen away at all. It’s still right there, to be enjoyed by anyone. It might be not the magic you had in the 1950’s. Instead, it’s the magic of the 2010’s. The number of photographs we look at, or whether they’re printed or not, has precious little effect on the magic of photography. I think the general fallacy here is that people assume we treat all photographs as equal. We don’t. I don’t have children, but from what I can tell when it comes to photographs we treat them like parents treat their little child at a school play: There might be dozens and dozens of other children in the play, but just watch the parents once their child enters center stage! The same kind of effect can be observed in photography.
This morning, a good friend of mine (a photographer!) sent me a photograph of an ultrasound print-out, showing a twelve-week old baby in his girlfriend’s belly. There was no doubt whatsoever that right now there was nothing more precious in the world to my friend than the knowledge and this evidence (yes, evidence) that he is going to be a dad. (If you’re reading this, A., congratulations again!)
1 I want to make it very clear that the idea of photography working through people suspending their disbelief is not mine. It has been around for quite some time.