Through the book ‘Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (2nd Edition)’ written by Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, both authors have explored and discussed all aspects of media; this includes visual technology, Postmodernism, realism, advertising and politics. By viewing the chapter on the myth of photographic truth (2009: 16-22), I have focused of generating different interpretations of their initial analysis. Whilst studying this chapter, it required additional study of other chapters including reproduction and digital image (2009: 212-222) to solidify the furthered examination. Within the following essay, there is specific focus on three aspects of the myth of photographic truth. These three analysis’ are the idea of Positivism and its influence on photography, personal interpretation and what the entails and digital manipulation and the development and influence it has on the media. Therefore, through exploring these specific ideas, it focuses on the ‘truth’ of photography and how it came to exist as a ‘myth’.

Sturken and Cartwright have both explored the idea of Positivism and the positivist way of thinking. Positivism is a “philosophy that… holds that scientific knowledge is the only authentic knowledge and concerns itself with truths of the world” (Sturken, Cartwright, 2009:17). Through this perception of truth, the idea that machines were able to attain this truth through the production of experiments became prominent. Scientists who were conducting these experiments previously were seen to be liable to making mistakes, unwillingly allowing their “subjective actions… influence the outcome or skew the objectivity of the experiment” (Sturken, Cartwright, 2009:17). Sturken and Cartwright likened this ideology to photography, noting how using a camera - which is free of opinion, is able to obtain the ‘truth’. Cameras capture what is being photographed in its truest form; not adding meanings or values, therefore allowing the photographic truth to be shown. Furthermore, machines such as cameras, are unbiased and have the ability to display a factually true view, rendering photographs to be objective. Additionally, Sturken and Cartwright noted that historically, photography is regarded as more objective than drawn or painted art pieces. This is a conclusion drawn from how a photograph captures moments in history mechanically, allowing for a clear perception to be frozen in time. A further development of the idea of photography being objective comes from the French theorist Roland Barthes. Barthes generated the term studium; this term is used to describe the banal meaning of an image, referring to “the photograph’s ability to invoke a distanced appreciation for what the image holds” (Sturken, Cartwright, 2009:17). This refers to the ability to see the facts within a photograph without the need to analyse it further, which photographer Elliott Erwitt expressed in his book The Joy of Photographing People stating “The whole point of taking pictures is to that you don’t have to explain things with words”(Eastman Kodak Company , 1983:14). 

Following on from this, Sturken and Cartwright reconnoitred how an image can be interpreted. As mentioned previously, photography is deemed a more objective practice and display of expression. However, it can also been thought to be subjective as images can contain what Barthes describes as punctum. The term 'punctum' expresses how an image can grab our attention or emotions; drawing viewers into the image, punctum is unique to each individual. This, in turn, creates individual truths for each image seen by the audience or an ideology captured and displayed by the photographer. Subjectively, the photographer can manipulate images to portray various meanings or ‘photographic truths’ for the viewers - photographic truth is “a circumscribed truth; it only exists within the limits of the photographic frame” (Brothers 1997:18). Therfore, the information depicted within an image could be truth; it does, however, depend on the personal interpretation of the image. Thus, the ‘photographic truth’ generated in a photo becomes a myth as there is no solid version of what is truth; creating numerous versions of the ‘true meaning’ of the photos. Barthes also noted that photos have become distorted 'photographic truths' as they are culturally inflected and there is “no singular truth to be identified outside the myths or ideologies of cultural expression” (Sturken, Cartwright 2009:18). 

Developing this idea, Sturken and Cartwright have delved into Barthes uses of denotation and connotation. By looking at the difference between connotation and denotation, we’re able to depict the ideas of punctum and studium. Through connotation, viewers can have a more emotive response or understanding of the images as the connotative meaning relies on the social, cultural and historical meanings; in turn, this adds to the literal meaning generated within the photos. Alternatively, studium and denotation relate to each other as they both refer to the literal, face-value meaning through the image. With regards to the photographic truth, Sturken and Cartwright state, “myth thus allows the connotative meaning… to appear to be denotative, literal or natural” (Sturken, Cartwright 2009:20) stating that through having both functions within an image, they balance out the result of being emotive and informative. Furthering this idea, Sturken and Cartwright looked at how it’s possible for both punctum and studium to co-exist in one image as before it has been stated that only one can exist in an image. For example, photographer Robert Frank took numerous images through his travels in America including one image titled Trolley – New Orleans from his photographic series The Americans. This particular image depicts how punctum draws viewers in with an emotive connection of the racial segregation, and also studium by drawing upon the historical events within the 1950s and recording that moment. Sturken and Cartwright have stated the image “is moving insofar as it connotes a culture on the precipice of momentous change, evoking powerful emotions” (Sturken, Cartwright 2009:19). As a further development of this, photographer and theorist Allen Sekula proposed: “The photograph is imagined to have… a power that is primarily affective or a power that is primarily informative. Both powers reside in the mythical truth-value of the photograph” (Sekula 1984:10).

Through progressions in digital photography and software, it has now become easier to edit and manipulate images. Sturken and Cartwright have noted how digital manipulation software, including Photoshop, has altered the way viewers interpret an image. Photos are initially identified to be “objective or truthful records of events” (Sturken, Cartwright 2009:18), continuing with the idea of positivism. However, viewers are beginning to struggle to believe what they see when viewing a photo, whether it’s in magazines, newspapers or through various forms of advertising. Sturken and Cartwright propose that “photographs…manipulated with much greater ease than ever before” (Sturken, Cartwright 2009:18). Debates regarding the use of Photoshop and other forms of digital image manipulation have been put in the spotlight over the past 10 years. One example is of the film poster for King Arthur (2004). This particular poster conforms to the dominant ideologies set by the media, also portraying what theorist Naomi Wolf considered the Beauty Myth (portraying women as sexually attractive specifically for a male audience). 

The Beauty Myth links to the myth of photographic truth as both display standards that have become hegemonic ideologies with no solid proof of what is ‘beauty’ or ‘truth’. Additionally, the analytical book Feminist Perspectives of Eating Disorders (1996) notes: “a culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession on female obedience” (Wolf 1994:97). Through this statement, it is clear that we as a culture are becoming standardised by the representations (particularly of women) in the media. Furthermore, Sturken and Cartwright have also explored that we as viewers expect to be deceived with images through films and advertising but not through newspapers or news images on TV, proposing “we do not… bring the same expectations about the representation of truth to advertisements of film images… that we do to newspaper or television news images” (Sturken, Cartwright 2009:21). Ultimately, it’s clear that as a society we are living in a state of ‘hyper reality’ with theorist Jean Baudrillard stating “it is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Baudrillard 1994:1-2) and are manipulated by the media, resulting in viewers inability to relate or trust images produced, conforming to the idea of the myth of photographic truth.

In conclusion, the evidence and opinions expressed have noted how photography and other media forms are tagged with the term ‘myth’. Through technological advances and changing social and cultural climates, photographic truth is being questioned about its integrity. Furthermore, through exploring theorists’ works and interpretations, there are multiple and conflicting ideas that suggest photographic truth is created in two ways: generated through the media and their manipulation, or through the individual viewer or photographer. Ultimately, all ideologies and opinions agree there is a certain level of ‘truth’ around the myth of photographic truth. Finally, through Sturken and Cartwright’s analysis and this further developed study, the myth of photographic truth has been an ideology that recently developed through the progressions in technology and social and cultural influences.   


Baudrillard, Jean (1994) Simulacra and Simulation (The Body in Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism) USA: The University of Michigan Press. 

Brothers, Caroline (1997) War and Photography: A Cultural History (1st Edition) Oxon: Routledge. 

Cable, S (N/A) ‘Has Keira Knightley gone under the airbrush again as the face of the CoCo Chanel campaign?’ in The Daily Mail [online] At: (Accessed 14.01.14) 

Eastman Kodak Company, Editors of. (1983) The Joy of Photographing People Boston: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. 

Fallon, P, Katzman, M. A. Wooley, S. C. (1994) Feminist Perspectives of Eating Disorders (New Ed Edition) New York: Guildford Press. 

Sekula, Allen (1984) Photography against the grain: essay and photo works 1973 – 1983: volume 16 of Nova Scotia series Michigan: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. 

Sturken, Maria and Cartwright, Lisa. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (2nd Edition) New York: Oxford University Press. 


Fig. 1 Robert Frank, Trolley – New Orleans (1955). Robert Frank, from The Americans. Photo: Bowdin College Museum of Art.

Fig. 2 Cable, S (N/A) ‘Has Keira Knightley gone under the airbrush again as the face of the CoCo Chanel campaign?’ in The Daily Mail [online] At: (Accessed 14.01.14)