Indexical relationship as truth claim

In his pamphlet King Leopold’s Soliloquy, Mark Twain, assuming the voice of Leopold II of Belgium, bemoans the fact that the photograph serves as incontrovertible evidence of the atrocities that were committed in the Congo Free State, his personal colony: “the incorruptible kodak … The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe” (Twain 1905, p 40).

Marius De Zayas wrote of the difference between photography and art:

Photography is not Art. It is not even an art. Art is the expression of the conception of an idea. Photography is the plastic verification of a fact… Art presents to us what we may call the emotional or intellectual truth; photography the material truth.” (1913, pp 125-129)

In another essay on photography, De Zayas wrote what could be a distinctive manifesto of street or documentary photography:

Photography is not Art, but photographs can be made to be Art.

When man uses the camera without any preconceived idea of final results, when he uses the camera as a means to penetrate the objective reality of facts, to acquire a truth, which he tries to represent by itself and not by adapting it to any system of emotional representation, then, man is doing Photography.

Photography, pure photography, is not a new system for the representation of Form, but rather the negation of all representative systems, it is the means by which the man of instinct, reason and experience approaches nature in order to attain the evidence of reality.” (ibid, p 130)

Beaumont Newhall described the veracity of documentary photographs thus: “The quality of authenticity implicit in the sharply-focused, unretouched ‘straight’ photograph often gives it special value as evidence or proof” (Newhall 1949, p 167). Nevertheless, he also appreciated the less objective approach of the documentarian: “The documentary photographer seeks to do more than convey information through his photographs: his aim is to persuade and to convince” (ibid, p 167). In conclusion, Newhall declares that the documentarian combines a “deep respect for fact” with a “desire to create active interpretations of the world in which we live” (ibid, p 186).

Solomon-Godeau also remarked that due to its indexical nature, a photographic image is always a document of what appeared before the lens, and as such “no photograph is more or less documentary than any other” while at the same time she conceded that “the conception of photography as a faithful and unmediated transcription of physical appearances… has long since been abandoned” she goes on to state that:

While photographs remain the only form of pictorial evidence routinely admitted in the courtroom, the once universal belief in the camera’s truth has been belied by everything from outright trumperies to the poreless faces of Vogue models” (2009, p 169).

Documentary filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha wrote that provided the documentarian retains a positivistic approach, “factual truth remains the dominant criterion for evaluation and the question as to whether his/her work successfully represents the reality it claims would continue to exert its power” (1991, p 76). Basically, images that purport to tell the truth should be verified against empirical facts, which unfortunately is not always possible. Elsewhere she notes:

The unfolding scene is captured, not only by an individual, but also by a mechanical device. The mechanical bears testimony to its true existence and is a guarantee of objectivity. “Seeing is believing.”” (1991, p 54)

As Sontag claimed “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened… a photograph – any photograph – seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects” (1977, pp 5-6). James Curtis also remarked that both teachers and scholars of history are prone to believe that a photograph is a mechanical, and so faithful, reproduction of reality: “when we encounter an historical photograph, “shot for the record,” we often treat the image as the product of a machine and therefore an objective artifact” (2003, pp 1-2). Barthes wrote of the photograph as witness to reality, evoking an awareness of an object’s having-been-there: “in every photograph there is the always stupefying evidence of this is how it was giving us, by a precious miracle, a reality from which we are sheltered” while the fact that the image seems not to have been subject to codification “clearly reinforces the myth of photographic ‘naturalness’: the scene is there, captured mechanically, not humanly (the mechanical is here a guarantee of objectivity)”(1977, p 44).

As Rosalin Krauss observed, this unquestioned faith in the indexical nature of the photographic image was greatly exploited to provide scientific evidence for the grand theories of the late 19th century:

Its participation in the structure of the trace, the index, and the stencil made photography thus the theoretical object through which to explore the reinvention of nature as “myth,” the cultural production of it as a mask behind which the operations of history and of politics could be kept out of sight” (Krauss 1999, p 290)

As the photographic image was considered objective and a reflection of nature, it was used to support and promote the dominant Western metanarratives that emerged during industrialization. This institutional use of the power of photography to present seemingly objective or scientific truths while in fact pushing political agenda is something that Barthes concluded could reflect a more accurate historical definition of society; photographic connotation is constructed and propagated to ensure society’s peace of mind, “to integrate man, to reassure him” (ibid, p 31). Using the seemingly pure denotative image to naturalise symbolic messages “innocents the semantic artifice of connotation” while a “pseudo-truth is surreptitiously substituted for the simple validity of openly semantic systems” (ibid, p 45): constructed meanings are masked under what appears to be objectivity and plain truth.

As early as 1922, Walter Lippmann wrote of the apparent objectivity and lack of human agency perceived in photographs:

Photographs have the kind of authority over imagination to-day, which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before that. They seem utterly real. They come, we imagine, directly to us without human meddling, and they are the most effortless food for the mind conceivable.” (1922, p 92)

On the other hand, if as Rosler (1989) asserted, the public are becoming both more literate in reading the meanings of photographic images and more sceptical of their truth-bearing quality, why does this issue persist well into the 21st century, particularly in light of increasing photo-manipulation technology and repeated disclosed examples of deliberate deception by both media organisations and photographers alike?

“The double bind is strong: on the one hand documentary images are more powerful than ever. On the other hand, we have less and less trust in documentary representations” (Lind & Steyerl 2008, p 11)

The answer would still seem to lie in the very process of making the photographic image, the idea that something had to have been present in front of the lens for anything resembling a photographic image to have been produced. As Sontag put it, the photograph is “something stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask” and boldly states that:

a photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects)—a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be” (1977, p 154).

While Mitchell calls the photographic image “fossilized light“, and continuing Sontag’s metaphor, albeit in a more forensic way: “[a photograph] is a direct physical imprint, like a fingerprint left at the scene of a crime or lipstick traces on your collar” (1994, p 24); incriminating indeed!

Bazin, too, likened the creation of a photograph to the process of embalming, or the moulding of a death mask – a direct impression from the original, and praised its “essentially objective character” and its ability to “satisfy our obsession with realism” (1967, p 240-1). The fact that it is mechanically produced “confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture making“; the “transference of reality” from the object photographed lends the photographic image a “certain advantage“, an “irrational power” greater than any faithful drawing could hope to approximate.

John Berger takes a more ambiguous stance:

Are the appearances which a camera transports a construction, a man-made cultural artifact, or are they, like a footprint in the sand, a trace naturally left by something that has passed? The answer is, both. The photographer chooses the event he photographs. This choice can be thought of as a cultural construction. The space for this construction is, as it were, cleared by his rejection of what he did not choose to photograph. The construction is his reading of the event which is in front of his eyes… Yet at the same time, the material relation between the image and what it represents …is an immediate and unconstructed one. And is indeed like a trace” (Berger 1982, 92-93).

Gross et al (1988) observe that the introduction of photography as ‘images drawn directly from nature’ coincided with the growing ethical notion of journalistic objectivity in the press.

The “marriage of conviction” between our faith in the truthfulness of the photographic image and our belief in the possibility of objective reporting has lasted for nearly a century and a half, and has been strengthened by the invention of motion pictures and television” (Gross et al 1988, p 4).

They also note that despite increased awareness among the public of the inevitable subjectivity of both, there is still a widespread belief that somehow they represent a truth. While the powers of visual imagery, both actual and falsely ascribed, can be used to investigate and convey truthful facts, they can also be employed in the services of deception and the creation of falsehoods.

No matter how much we may feel the need for an objective witness of reality, we must face the fact that no such thing can ever exist and therefore our image-producing technologies will not provide it for us” (1988, p 18).

The promise of truth inherent in film and photography implies that image makers bear an equal responsibility to both subjects and viewers, since the former cooperate on the understanding that their particular story will be told, while the latter believe that they are witnessing real life narratives.

In discussing the realism of photographs, Kendall Walton (1984, p 258) makes the very astute observation that a photographic image of a running horse will show the horse either blurred or frozen, neither of which can be called an accurate reproduction of what the eyes actually perceived. He argues that when we regard photographs as being accurate, we are interpreting them as being close to the facts, and ignoring the actuality that they function as intermediaries between the viewer and the facts: “as things that have their own meanings which may or may not correspond to the facts and which we have to decide whether or not to trust” (ibid, 266). Thus taking photographic images at face value would be falling into the trap of assuming that they are the facts and we are seeing what actually happened, as opposed to understanding that we are perceiving a representation of someone else’s take on the facts, their
interpretation of what happened. Photography’s rightful claim to realism, Walton argues, is what he terms its ‘transparency’ – the perceptual contact photographic images afford the viewer with the world.

On the other hand, Joel Snyder wrote that this belief in the special relationship between a picture and the world is pernicious: “it holds sway over us and mocks thought with a vengeance” but that despite all logic to the contrary it is almost impossible not to feel there must be some “natural or privileged or unreasoned relation between realistic picture and world” (1980, p 502). He believes that we perceive objects in the outside world in a pictorial way and form an image in the imagination, thus the very act of seeing is the “construction of a picture out of pictorial elements… in an ordered sequence” (ibid, p 522). As such, there is little perceptual difference between seeing pictured objects and real ones; the mind mistakes the picture for the real thing.

Barthes discusses the fact that since there is no codification or transformation between the object and its image, it is this “analogical perfection which, to common sense, defines the photograph” the photograph is thus perceived as “a message without a code” (1977, p 17), although this may now be called into question, since digital photography requires the codification that analogue photography avoided. Since it claims to be a “mechanical analogue of reality“, the photograph appears to leave no room for secondary or connoted messages, although Barthes does suggest that the purely denotative nature of the photograph is most probably mythical and in his essay explores the reasons why.

Szarkowski wrote that the works of Eggleston were “irreducible surrogates for the experience they pretend to record” (2002, p 14), by which he meant that the photographs could neither replace the original experience of perception, nor be deconstructed into meanings other than what they actually showed. This is probably one of the most poetic but astute understandings of photographic imagery.

As Maren Stange observes, the first documentarians (in the guise of social reformers such as Riis or Hine) made use of the indexical relationship between the object and the photograph in making their truth claims:

in order to assert more or less explicitly that their images presented viewers with the truth, reformers relied on the photograph’s status as index – that is, as a symbol fulfilling its representative function ‘by virtue of a character which it would not have if its object did not exist’” (1989, xiii)

Tom Gunning questions the indexical quality of photographs as being the sole source of their fascination, since the photograph does not merely signify, but “opens up a passageway to its subject not as a signification but as a world, multiple and complex” (2004, p 46). He agrees with Bazin that photographs hold ontology as opposed to semiotics, and rather than simply signifying what they represent are a “means for putting us in the presence of something” (p 46). He points out that the truth claims of photography are the result of social discourse as well as the mechanical nature of the camera, and really only essential to a limited segment of photographic practice, while this very faith in photographic accuracy fuels the urge to produce fakes: “in so far as this value of visual accuracy exists, there will always be a drive to counterfeit it. The truth implies the possibility of lying, and vice versa” (ibid, p42). Since many trompe l’œil uses of photographs rely on the medium’s ability to record objects accurately, and techniques of montage and manipulation have been employed since practically the dawn of photography, Gunning doubts that our exposure to more of such imagery in the digital age will make us believe less in the photographic image as a faithful representation of the world:

since the fascination of a transformed photograph lies partly in its verisimilitude, it would seem likely that even on a popular or artistic level, the sense of photography as an accurate record of the way things look will also survive, or the fun found in distortion becomes thin” (Gunning 2004, p 48).

Mulvey (2005) wrote of the “privileged
relation to reality” accorded photography owing to the physical link between the object in front of the lens and the image created by the material reaction of film to light rays, as well as the indifference of the camera as “recording mechanism detached from the human eye” (pp 18-19). Nevertheless, he also noted that the switch from celluloid film to digital brought an end to the story of reproduced reality:

The conversion of recorded information into a numerical system broke the material connection between object and image that had defined the earlier history. No longer derived from the chemical reaction between light and photosensitive material, these images lost their ‘natural magic’” (p 19)

As such, according to Mulvey, we have witnessed a return to the age of the magic lantern, the painterly intervention of the human hand and intellect in the representation of reality.

Fred Ritchin also points out that the digital image is different from the analogue one in that it can no longer be considered a direct trace from the subject onto photosensitive material, but a digital reading which is interpreted by the pixel sensor in the camera as mediator, stored via algorithm and then reinterpreted through a computer onto a screen or monitor. As such, he maintains that digital photographs are “discrete and malleable records
of the visible” to be regarded individually as “a meta-image, a map of squares” liable to modification and fabrication (2009, p 141).

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