TRUST ME, I’M A PHOTOGRAPH
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE YEARS, YOU AND I HAVE SHARED MANY DISCUSSIONS on the meaning of the old saw “the camera doesn’t lie”, which just may be the most ridiculous utterance in the history of photography. So let me warm myself on a chill winter Sunday by heaping more fuel on the fire.
Whatever your concept of objective truth, it must be evident to anyone who’s ever taken pictures that there is an unbridgeable gap between what the looking-machine sees and what it is able to convey. Some of this gap is purely technical, due to the limits of the science of abstracting and stopping time and trapping it inside a box. And some of it happens because the initial narrator in a photographic tale is the photographer himself, and God knows our veracity varies wildly person-to-person.
That is, we are, to one degree or another, liars.
In the 19th-century, the “doesn’t lie” maxim was likely borne of people trying to initially champion the camera, not as a cruel assassin to painting, but as yet another proof that the industrial age, with all its new tools for measurement and calibration of all human activities, had produced yet another marvel, a miraculous device that could faithfully record any event with the precision of a seismograph or a microscope. It was an argument for welcoming the camera into the pantheon of scientific instruments. But such a boast turned a blind eye to the fact that, from day one, photographers were using images to distort and deceive, as well as to inspire or create.
Part of the photograph’s power to lie is fed by our refusal to believe that it can lie in the first place. How can this be? We logically know, centuries on, that it is, at best, a flawed arbiter of fact. We have seen how easy it can be pressed into the service of tyrants and dictators, how truth itself can become contorted into whatever contour we want to serve our needs, aided in part by the “evidence” of the camera. And yet, we emotionally invest belief in photographs, instead of seeing them as merely interpretative, like painting or music. Ironically, we even take obviously manipulated images, such as the carousel seen here (a montage of nearly a dozen separate frames, with plenty of color and texture tampering added) and grant that, by virtue of not being “real”, actually reveal something that a mere documentary picture might not. Try to figure that one out.
In an era in which truth is, as Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty said, whatever we say it is, it’s good to recall that a picture is only a picture, made by people, whose motives and agendas are inevitably part of the creative process. They can testify to both truth and lies, and we should never be passive in how we take in their information.