Within this essay, various points covering a multitude of texts and some images will be discussed including an exploration of whether the following points are reflections of Barthes’ statement. The different aspects of photography, along with the exploration of ideas generated from the early developments of photography will be studied. Included in this is to look into the mechanical aspects of photography and how this affects images. Furthermore, investigations surrounding modern interpretations of photographic truth and the veracity of images will be included. As well as these points, the outcomes of photos and the influences behind certain images may be noted, and how these connect to Barthes’ theory that it cannot be denied that subjects were not present when the image was taken. In addition to this, the examination of how photography creates a lasting impression or representation of something or someone that no longer exists will be explored.
Many tend to consider photography a medium that is heavily focused on the final image, and rarely reflects on the production behind it. The production values of photography are interesting and have lead to numerous debates around the veracity of an image. Sontag explores this in her book On Photography stating: “that a society becomes “modern” when one of it chief activities is producing and consuming images” (Sontag 1979: 153). From this statement, it could be noted that the truth-values within photos has diminished to make way for the mass production and consumption of images. Furthermore, this may also call to question the indexical signs in photos, meaning the connection between the signifier (image) and the signified. A photograph produces a trace of the subject, meaning the subject was there, or in Barthes’ term, it is something ‘that-has-been’. However, due to the increase in post-production, veracity and the indexical nature within images can be tampered with:
“The indexical ‘naturalness’ of what-we-see is itself the core ideological feature of photography. This seeming ‘innocence’ of photography is part of its rhetorical power… that we see something apparently ‘as it is’” (Bate 2009: 17).
Being able to see something ‘as it is’ relies on an understanding of cultural events and influences; photographs offer viewers an interpretation of a ‘reality’ or something that is deemed ‘real’ and accepts it because of the knowledge they have attained through exposure. In addition to post-production, photographers have more flexibility and creative freedom when it comes to photo shoots. They impose their opinions and perceptions through using techniques that have developed over the years. It can still be distinguished that the subject was there which supports Barthes’ claims. When looking into the mechanical aspects of photography and the objectiveness a camera provides, the photographer has the ability to alter the perception drastically: “…Cameras render the world in a perspective that is detached from a subjective, particular human viewpoint because the conventions of the image are for the most part built into the apparatus.” (Sturken, Cartwright, 2009: 17). Here it can be noted that the act of photography is mechanical, exploring the veracity of the moment. It also cannot deny that the subject was present as it’s presenting the subject as it is with no influence of a biased viewpoint. Cameras could be regarded as more reliable when it comes to portraying the truth as it can produce empirical evidence unaided; the act of empiricism allows for a scientific observation to take place, with developments of knowledge about a certain subject matter. Exploring the mechanical aspects of photography further, it could lead to an open representation of what is in front of the lens, thus linking to the positivist way of thinking; cameras being perceived as machines would allow for objective viewpoints and not a subjective viewpoint designed by the photographer. Moreover, the mechanical nature of photography creates access to the indexical naturalness within photos, enabling the connection between the subject and images to remain.
“Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearance” (Berger, 2013: 52). With this assertion, Berger has touched on the style of photography that had been heavily focused on during the early years of photography: documentation. During the Victorian era of photography, many were fascinated with the ability to create a photographic document. These documents ranged from Fine Art to the classification of inmates in prisons. This obsession also carried over to a more scientific exploration. One photographer who used this idea of documentation in artistic terms was William Henry Fox Talbot. Being a respected scientist, his later developments in photography were staggering, leading to him introducing the primary elements of photography (developing, fixing and printing). Rosalind Krauss expresses her understanding of these processes:
“Every photograph is the result of a physical imprint transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface. The photograph is thus a type of icon, or visual likeness, which bears an indexical relationship to its object” (Krauss 1977: 75)
One particular image by Talbot that corresponds with Barthes’ statement is ‘A Scene in a Library’ (1843-44) (see bibliography). The use of captioning along with the image leads the viewer to believe that this was taken at a shelf within the confines of a library. Paradoxically, this photo was taken out of doors with a backdrop, as the light was much stronger, resulting in a sharper image being taken. Relating this to Bathes’ statement “I can never deny that the thing has been there” (Barthes 1993: 76), it cannot be denied that these objects were present when Talbot took the photograph, however it is difficult to accept this as a true representation of the objects. With the misguidance of the caption, viewers are being presented with an altered perception of reality. Without the additional knowledge given by the caption, many would consider this to be a generic documentation of a bookshelf. This was noted within a lecture at the university: “All photographs can be said to have an essential origin, regardless of notions of staging, faking etc: the ‘reality’ of the photographic image as a result of it being a ‘trace’ of its object” (Lindsey, 2015). The function of the caption can be just as important as the image itself. The knowledge generated through photography is disseminated across wide and diverse mediums and progresses through vast audiences. This knowledge can affect and alter audiences’ perceptions of photos. The duel use of images and text can influence any viewer to sway their opinions of the image towards the desired message created by the photographer. Furthermore, some photos may require a caption or title to aid viewers understanding of the photograph presented to them. A further development surrounding knowledge being predominantly transferred by photography is how viewers have become solely reliant on visual arts. There is the concept of ocularcentrism where viewers’ visual perceptions have increasingly become more dominant than any other senses. Through this progression, there is now an intensified amount of visual stimuli that is displayed to all audiences on a daily basis. The bombarding of images is gradually causing messages in each photograph to become limited due to continuous repetitions being presented.
Moving forward from the previously explained point, it can also be stated that the bombarding of images creates a singular ideology through vision. Mieke Bal expresses this view testifying: “Vision is an essentially unified mode of perception and interpretation” (Bal 1993: 379). From this, the viewpoint that audiences gain the same amount of knowledge, or at least similar becomes more pronounced. Moreover, this also leads on the conclusion that as a society, visual knowledge and the consumption of images has gradually developed into an obsession rather than a necessity. An example of this could be when walking past a shop window, passers by are being inundated with images within the windows, whether they’re related to that shop or not. Many may not be interested in entering the shop, but when presented with a stimulating image, they may be more inclined to enter. This theory in turn confirms the idea that as a society, viewers and various audiences are now becoming dependant on the knowledge and interest that is generated in photography. Because of this dependency, viewers are slowly losing the motivation to question these images, and whether they depict a realistic representation. This can link to Barthes’ earlier statement, it cannot be denied, but if viewers are refusing to acknowledge and question this, then what it the reason behind these images. Relating back to whether the image may be relevant to what is being advertised or documented, Liz Wells explains: “The practice of documentary was and is problematic and, over time, a number of conventions and practices evolved to mark ‘authentic documentary’ from other kinds of work” (Wells, 2009: 72). This statement questions the true term surrounding documentary photography, but can also question the veracity of images themselves. An example of documenting an event that was eventually represented differently in the media is from the politicians march in France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. The two images shown side-by-side (see bibliography) demonstrate how certain areas, marked by red circles, were edited before being broadcast across Europe in newspapers and on TV news channels. Sontag deciphers this way of photographic documentation: “Reality has always been interpreted through the reports given by images” (Sontag, 1979: 153). Within this statement, Sontag is expressing the opinion that the ‘reality’ audiences perceive is just an interpretation of what is truly there. In addition to Sontag’s view, Sturken and Cartwright have expressed their understanding, specifically targeting news images:
“Questions of the verifiability and manipulation of images takes on particular importance… high stakes in the news industry in certain ethical codes of truth telling… the idea that photographic news images are realistic and unmanipulated” (Sturken, Cartwright, 2009: 217).
The photograph that was eventually distributed had been edited to fit a certain version of the truth that had been deemed suitable. With the before and after images being shown together, it’s clear to all viewers how the female politicians were edited out of the final photo. In some cultures, women in tabloids and news images are frowned upon so this may explain the edit. However, it approaches the position of women being in power and disqualifies them as people of importance and influence. It can’t be denied that these events happened, but because the original photograph surfaced, viewers are offered a more truthful representation of the events the occurred. Furthermore, due to the release of the unprecedented image, viewers receive more knowledge behind the event, the veracity of the original photograph; this enables them to make their own opinions on the event and not be forced to accept one that was created and broadcast in the media.
From the aforementioned points, it can affirmed that photography as a medium is making an object, or event, present that is now considered absent. John Berger explains this by declaring: “A photograph arrests the flow of time in which the event photographed once existed” (Berger 2013: 62). When exploring this statement, it is possible to link this to the idea of photography making past events present. Documentary photography and street photography explore this heavily. Director and photographer Larry Clark completed a photographic series, eventually creating his book Tulsa, a compiling of images taken between 1963 and 1971. Clark’s chilling image ‘Accidental Gunshot Wound’ (see bibliography) from the series delves into the realms of capturing a prominent moment in someone’s past and having the opportunity to exhibit it to other audiences. Through the authentic aesthetic created in this series, and this particular photo, the visual aids form pieces of information about the subject, which equates to knowledge for the viewers. The referents within each photo, in Barthes’ terms are as follows, “I call “photographic referent”… the necessarily real thing which has been places before the lens, without which there would be no photograph” (Barthes 1993: 76). From here it can be determined that without the subject, which cannot be displaced, the photograph would hold no knowledge for a viewer to interpret. Through their personal access of cultural references, viewers generate an individual interpretation. Another aspect of viewers gaining knowledge through visual stimuli is that it ultimately creates the impression to a viewer that they know all the information provided. This could contribute to the term panoptic, or the phrase all-seeing-eye. The term panoptic derives from Bentham Panopticon design, where there’s a predominant position placed in the centre that can view its surroundings without limitations or interruptions. This in turn can be combined with Barthes’ statement “I can never deny that the thing has been there” (Barthes, 1993: 76), as it’s possible to view the whole image and the viewer cannot deny that the referent wasn’t present. By placing the viewer in the centre of the image, it allows for their full attention to focus on that one image. Furthermore, this surrounds them with the information being perceived from the image, creating the illusion that they’re becoming more knowledgeable about the subject presented.
To summarise this essay, the points discussed can all relate back to Barthes’ statement. When exploring the veracity of images, it can question whether what is being photographed is a true representation. In addition to this, the mass production of photographs begins to lessen the truth-values within the medium. Furthermore, through the staging and manipulation of images, it makes it more difficult to find the connections between what was photographed to the final outcome. Moreover, exploring the traditional aspects of photography and photographers from the period, it can be said that they were able to keep more of the indexical naturalness within their images. Exploring the unified perceptions and the social dependency on photography opened up the questionable concepts behind photographs and the importance of images. The discussion about how an image creates a lasting representation of something that is now absent fits Barthes’ statement well. The reason for this is that using photography as a tool for documentation, anything placed before the camera is more likely to be represented in its truest form. In addition to these points, the perception of viewers becoming all seeing or all knowing creates the perception that they’re able to make connections and know whether photos truly represent what is within images. To conclude, all images can be linked to Barthes’ statement from Camera Lucida. Some may depict a more truthful or realistic approach, and some may not but both options confirm that you cannot deny that the object or subject photographed was not present at the time.
Bal, Mieke (1993) His Master’s Eye. In ‘Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision’, edited by David M. Levin, 379-404. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Barthes, Roland (1993) Camera Lucida. London. Vintage Classics. Bate, David (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London. Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.
Berger, John (2013) Understanding a Photograph. Ed. Geoff Dyer. London. Penguin Classics.
Krauss, Rosalind. 1977. “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America”. October 3. The MIT Press: 68–81.
Lindsey, Matt (2015) Traces and Indexicality. Farnham. [Lecture at UCA, 06 October, 2015]
Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography. London. Penguin.
Sturken, M, Cartwright, L (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Second Edition) Oxford: Oxford University Press
Wells, Liz (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (Fourth Edition). London. Routledge.
Fig. 1. Talbot, WHF, (1843-44) A Scene in a Library [Photo] At: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/images/h2/h2_2005.100.172.jpg (Accessed 20.11.15) Fig. 2.
Charlie Hebdo Rally Couldn’t Escape Politics (2014) [Blog] At: http://annamariacom.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/charlie-hebdo-rally-couldnt-escape.html (Accessed 28.11.15) Fig. 3.
Clark, Larry (1971) Accidental Gunshot Wound [Photo] At: https://mcachicago.org/Collection/Items/Larry-Clark-Accidental-Gunshot-Wound-1971-1983 (Accessed 01.12.15)