The Photography Blog: Can a camera ever capture a truthful image?

Alex Hare
alex hare 300x200 The Photography Blog: Can a camera ever capture a truthful image?

Careful and selective use of viewpoint, timing, lighting and camera settings can produce results which transcend our own human perception of a scene and deliver an image which, whilst familiar, is somewhat removed from how we experience the scene ourselves. (c) Alex Hare

Tom Jenkins wrote a piece recently on the timeless photography debate about editing our pictures and retaining what can loosely be described as ‘the truth’ captured by the camera. For Tom it’s a line drawn between art and truth; artistic expression in our personal work, for example, as opposed to faithful documentary work for a newspaper on behalf of its readers.

In this two part blog we’ll look at whether capturing the truth is rather nebulous in photography before we focus on the issues around post production in part two.

Whilst Tom is a documentary news photographer specialising in sport and I specialise in landscape and travel, the same issues of truth and believability will be asked of us and every other photographer when we present our photographs to our audience; is that the same as what we saw?

Whether a photograph is art or documentary, I think there is also a fundamental question here about the process by which we produce our photographs and how this impacts on the truth we expect to see in them. By this I mean; why are some forms of art afforded more latitude for the artist whereas photography is so easily derided through the involvement of darkroom techniques or computers and software even, when the photographer has clearly labelled his work as ‘art’ as opposed to ‘documentary’?

Two artists are in a field at dawn capturing the view. The painter can spice up the sunrise with a few extra dabs of yellow paint, no questions are asked. Broader artistic issues and themes are more likely to be considered rather than how close that blend of yellow paint is to the true appearance of that particular dawn sky.

The photographer on the other hand is simply not afforded the same creative licence as the painter with adjusting those colours, irrespective of whether it’s a personal, artistic shot or a documentary photo.

Alex Hare 2 300x200 The Photography Blog: Can a camera ever capture a truthful image?

The truth is this was a long, cold morning of uniform grey cloud. This burst of light was, in reality, but a few seconds. It’s still the truth of this moment in time but a lie to say it’s a fair reflection of the entire morning. (c) Alex Hare

Our work is always assessed by some reference to how close it is to the reality the human eye saw, be it the colours in that sunrise or the degree of saturation in Tom’s shot of a crumbling rugby stadium in Wales. Why do we do that and is it fair? Why can’t we just enjoy a photograph as a piece of interpretive art and read the text for the objective facts? Why does absolute veracity suddenly become an issue when it comes to photography even when it’s not a news photograph?

Perhaps it stems from a basic understanding of image production; a painting is obviously done by a human hand and therefore will have all sorts of human characteristics; it will be personal, interpretive and emotional and it may include error and we accept that at face value when we look at it.

A photograph however is half-man half-machine and maybe the involvement of the machine means we expect it to be free from human interpretation, artistic licence, emotion or errors. What the machine recorded must be objectively faithful and true. I’ve even seen a photographer claim ‘I shoot JPEGs so my photographs are true and free from manipulation’.

I find this a really unfortunate prejudice for photographers to have to try and overcome in finding acceptance of their work; as if we’re just button pushers who get a perfectly objective truth from our camera and which we then degrade with filters and fancy computer software. It ignores the human operating the machine and the huge impact we have on how a scene is portrayed through our photographs.

Personal choice of subject, timing, lighting, point of view, personal preference (prejudice too, perhaps?) and interaction with our subject are all creative decisions. They are complimented by a series of technical decisions over lens choice, aperture as well as composition, which are the myriad of initial filters through which ‘the truth’ of any given scene is distilled into a photograph, way before we even go anywhere near a computer.

Take Steve McCurry’s legendary portraits; how can these have been achieved without encouraging and posing, to some extent, his subjects and changing them from what they were doing to what will suit the purposes of his photograph? How then can this be the absolute truth of the scene? They weren’t gazing up into his camera until he asked them to, after all. Engaging his subject has led to a powerful photograph that still speaks of the truth about that individual but with a look or expression that might not have happened otherwise and which allows us to connect with the photograph is a deeper, more meaningful way than had he photographed them completely objectively and as they were.

I don’t have a problem with accepting that all photographs are, by virtue of the very medium of photography, manipulated in this fundamental way; I like the selective, personal and interpretive record of a scene photography allows us all as individuals to make and I embrace it. I don’t see any given photograph as being truthful, more a version of the same truth anyone else recording that scene will also have.

Alex Hare 3 300x205 The Photography Blog: Can a camera ever capture a truthful image?

Dunstanburgh: A long shutter speed can often create a sense of movement in a scene. Not movement in the way we actually see it with our eyes, but movement which can still reflect the truth about the scene. (c) Alex Hare

Surely it is capturing very selective moments and highlights in a creative and engaging way, often different from how we would have seen and experienced them with our own eyes, that gives photography its continuing place in contemporary art, media and culture. To criticise this form of visual media on the basis of how faithful the truth is represented seems to undermine the very basis upon which it has always engaged us and provided a source of interest.

Have your say:

If we ignore the issues around post production and ‘Photoshopping’ for now: How do you feel about what you see/the pictures you look at? Are you expecting an objective truth or are you open to the notion that there’s always a degree of manipulation, be it merely the viewpoint chosen by the photographer?

  • Marilyn Bestwick

    Perhaps reality is a better word, but people will challenge that. Reality in the sense of the physical world.

  • Marilyn Bestwick

    There was a time that photographs were used in the courtroom as evidence, but with software such as Photoshop and Corel PaintShop Pro to name only a couple, photos can no longer be relied upon to prove what was “at the scene” of an accident or anything else. I think with the more sophisticated filters, lenses, and digital cameras of today, photographer has moved far beyond the mere “snapshop” of yesterday or the professional photo of yesterday to an art form in it’s own right. As an art form, it has become a thing of greater beauty than ever before.

  • Marilyn Bestwick

    There is a difference between painting and photographing, I think.

  • Marilyn Bestwick

    The art of the technician, but not necessarily of the artist.

  • MakeMPsOwnUp

    They are simply different media just as oil and acrylic painting are different or pencil and pen-and-ink drawing or collage and appliqué. All this piece does is to repeat the snobbery of “art” toward photography. It is bogus. It is a fallacy. It is stupid. Cartier Breson, Rodchenko, Maplethorpe, Liebvitz, Goldin, Parr and hundreds of others are as much artists as those who waggle brushes.

  • MakeMPsOwnUp

    That exhibits a total lack of knowledge of the history of photo-editing. Stalin having Trotsky removed from photographs or Frank Hurley’s composite shots made during the First World War were all done before Photoshop or The GIMP or iPhoto or any other software was available.

    And before photography what was the evidential material presented in court? Police statements, artists drawing, memories … all as malleable as photos can be.

  • MakeMPsOwnUp

    And “painters” don’t have to master the technical aspects of manipulating a brush, pencil, pastel stick, pen, palette knife!

  • MakeMPsOwnUp

    Painting is equally a lie projecting a 3D object onto a 2d plane.

  • Captainllama

    (Ignoring post-production as instructed) the missing phrase here is the cliche “the camera never lies”. In a broad sense this is literally true and accounts for photography as a forensic technique. “The Truth” however is a much larger concept than the absence of a lie and is something a photographer may strive for with varying success. By arranging the variables such as exposure, film speed, viewpoint and composition, the photographer can convey more than a documentary record, can elicit a harmonic response in the viewer. A camera may never lie, but can confuse and obfuscate. It is an art to make a camera tell the truth.

  • HaggisEater

    If you accept that all ‘moments’ in time are fleeting and can never be repeated, then you must, surely, also accept the reality of that moment. From a technical point of view, the camera lens will always ’see’ whatever it is pointed at differently, because the lens construction is much different from that of the human eye. In addition, one could decide to use a long focus lens, and the perspective distortion that will induce; whereas a wide angle lens will induce a different set of distortions – neither of which are the same as the human eye. Photoshop is mentioned above, but that is only introduces another distortion of reality on top of the lens used, whether the image was made digitally or on film, and host of other human choices which take a step back from what was originally perceived by the eye.

    I say all of this as a landscape photographer of over 40 years standing. Please don’t think I am setting myself up as an expert. I am not, despite international recognition for my work, I am still learning and what I have said is only my humble opinion. If we accept that photography, in its many forms, is art, then my question would be this: what is reality? If we step back in time to the great masters of fine art, it is not secret that they distorted reality for the sake of ‘artistic expression’. The great photo-secessionist, Edward Steichen’s famous image of ‘The Pond – Moonlight’ (1904) was highly manipulated because it was shot on monochrome film. Steichen applied multiple layers of light sensitive gum bichromate and colour to achieve his interpretation of colour. All of that didn’t prevent on of the few copies he made selling for, what was then a record $2.6m in 2006. Similarly, the great Belgian photographer Leonard Misonne is renowned for his manipulation of ‘reality’. He used the Carbon Tissue printing process to induce more drama into his landscapes. Surely then, and and beauty are in the eye of the beholder? ‘Reality’, however it is portrayed, is what the artist wants to convey, through mood, atmosphere and the creation of something that stirs emotion in the eyes of the viewer.

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