Do photographs tell the truth?

We’re photographers. We know images aren’t real. Don’t we?

I mean, we know the image at right by Jerry Uelsmann (Untitled, 1991) doesn’t capture “the real”… logic tells us such a bizarre and implausible juxtaposition of object and situation must be a construction, right?

But what about “straight” images? Do they capture the real?

All images, after all, are constructions resulting from a range of authorial choices – decisions about camera angle, framing, cropping, focus, film stock, lighting, background, proximity, facial expressions and clothing, for example, all add to the meaning of an image.

Yet, despite their lack of objectivity, photographs are seen to have a special connection with the real, and are the standard against which the realism of all other images is measured.

In their early years, photographs were seen to be free of the selective discriminations of the photographer’s eye, hand or visual memory because they were mechanically produced. The presumed power of accurate, dispassionate recording appeared to displace the artist’s compositional creativity, and photography was deemed by many to fall outside the realm of art.

Even though we know, intellectually, that photographs are not “real”, don’t tell “the truth”, but rather are constructions, still most of us believe photographs have the power to signify “truth” and thereby invest them with meaning.

We tend to see photographs as faithful recordings – as though something about the world has been revealed to us, that the photograph shows us the way things really look.

And we read photographs differently from paintings, as demonstrated by the fact that the most controversial works of art in recent times have been photographs, not paintings.

Sally Mann – Jessie at 5 (1987)

The Immediate Family series of photographs by Sally Mann featured her half-clothed or naked children and sparked outrage in some quarters precisely because they were photographs, because the images chronicled something that was “real”.

Similarly, a 2008 Bill Henson exhibition featuring photographs of a naked thirteen-year old girl provoked heated debate in Australia and beyond.

While some paintings have certainly shown overt sexuality in their representation of girls, we see these works as constructs by the painters concerned, rather than as records of something “real”.

The 1932 image Behind the Gare St Lazare by Henri Cartier-Bresson (at right) portrays a man leaping over a puddle, while a corresponding scene is repeated on circus posters in the background which are also reflected in the puddle. As a photograph, we’re likely to read the scene captured as a fortuitous coup of impeccable timing, but as a painting, the composition would seem contrived and much less intriguing!

While a painting delights us because we know it’s a construction of paint and a product of human artistic intervention, the distinctive detail provided by a photograph delights us because we see it as “real”.

How do you feel about photography’s special association with the real?

Related post: Is it ethical to shoot reportage images with iPhone apps?

8 thoughts on “Do photographs tell the truth?

  1. Hi Sue,

    I like this post as it sums up nicely some of the points we talked about in class about photography and portraying the ‘truth’. Perhaps the difficulty with photography is that it can be an art form, as well as a medium for recording the ‘truth’ or something as it actually appears. And the difficulty is knowing whether or not something has been constructed to be artistic, or whether it is in fact a representation of reality (and perhaps some serve both purposes). I think that a typical example would be magazine covers – we all know that the already very thin models have been made even thinner and flawless, however somehow sometimes society still has difficulty recognising that the images aren’t ‘real’. Should we classify magazine covers as ‘art’ instead of ‘truth’?

    This post is beautifully written, by the way!


    • Hi Gilda,

      I think it’s fascinating how our mind rails against the ‘knowledge’ that images are constructions, that it still insists on processing them as tangible signifiers of the real – there must be many complicated arguments going on up there amid our neurotransmitter thingies!

      And yes, I think manipulated images that ‘enhance’ already beautiful models are much closer to art than truth.

      Thank you for your thoughtful response to my post – you’ve given me some more to think about…


  2. Susie, SUCH an interesting post to read. It brings up a lot of factors to consider with photography and links in well with what we’ve learnt in journo about “semiotics” and signifiers etc, a lot of which can be observed in photos. I love your term “selective discrimination”, hits the nail on the head with the kind of controversial issues that arise when photography comes into play. I love artwork and good photography…although you do make a point about artwork being contrived, and it is a good thing to keep in mind when observing

    • Hi Renusha,
      Photography can be as simple as just clicking a button, or as complicated as we wish to make it! It’s fun to just shoot without thinking about it too much sometimes, but good too – when the mood takes you – to ponder all the elements that make photography so powerful. Either path is sure to surprise you with unexpected rewards…

    • Hello KB… thank you for dropping by. And yes, I’ve visited these seminal texts both, but not for some time… perhaps it’s time I did so again!

      • I’ve actually just begun both. I want to do a poem about ‘past light’ that ‘opalescence that fills the air in mists’ that one sees in old photographs even when it isn’t there–if that makes more than poetic sense. I know neither are great fans of photography as an art form. From Barthes I want to get that semiotic reference frame and Sontag believes they just about capture one’s soul, bith of which will serve my purpose fine. Thanks for writing back. I enjoyed your piece.>KB

        • I love the notion of “past light”.

          In another post ( I refer to the gorgeous clarity of light typical in daguerreotypes. Oliver Wendell Holmes used the evocative phrase, “the camera is a mirror with a memory” to describe daguerreotypes, which I find quite lovely…

          Good luck with your writing!


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