The Power of Photographs
Why authenticity matters
The power of a photograph compared to a painting comes from its ability to replicate a scene in a believable manner. A simple click and a scene has been captured. The nature of photography relies on the illusion of reality. When people look at photographs they believe what they see and feel it shows a true moment of time. Photography collects light and the technical process is similar to how our brain receives information from our eyes. The success of photography is closely connected to the ability to provide the viewer an illusion of reality. This visual quality could be called authenticity [from Wikipedia: Authenticity concerns the truthfulness of origins, attributes, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions.] in regards to the original quality of photographic material to replicate an illusion of reality.
Without diving too deep into the philosophical question of what we consider reality, we can easily say that photography is able to create an image of what we believe to see. However it is, at least, subjective.
The picture and the illusion of reality largely depends on material, the photographers view and mindset, as well as the photographers vision and ability to print. Still, the authenticity of photography and the faith of the viewer in what is dipicted, is what distinguishes photography from illustrations, paintings and digital creations.
We look for the unaltered truth and expect a photograph to show it to us. Even though we know that we will fall into the trap of illusion, our belief in this unaltered reality is important. Over centuries photojournalists and documentary photographers used our trust to present meaningful stories and profound news coverage. We heavily rely on the truth of a photographic image. Again we will be fooled, but that is not the point. The illusion is what becomes important. We believe in what we see even though it is only the truth seen through the eye of a single person, altered with all the power of photographic manipulation.
The responsibility of the photographer
As with all creative outlets there are no real rules for the artist except for those who really rely on the trustworthiness of their work. The artist can play with it, the photo journalist needs to stick to an approach that reinforces the verity of his story. When a photographer goes beyond a certain amount of manipulation he losses the reference to reality and introduces abstraction. The amount and form of abstraction largely defines the departure of the desired *authenticity* and often the success of a photographic image.
Still, despite all the freedom we allow an artist in his work, if the photographer wants his work to be viewed as a photographic image he might need to consider to stick a certain amount of authenticity that lies within the medium. You might call it the core and heart of photography.
What authenticity in photographs means
As said before authenticity basically means adherence to the photographical nature of the visual language of an image. There are several ways to depart from this quality. All the decision in the field, our camera settings, lens choice, film type and or camera angle are introducing a subjective view on reality. Except for special effect lenses or film, this still maintains authenticity in this context.
The inherent quality of the photographic process is that it works with what is available. It captures light and it does not matter if this is happening on film or on a digital sensor. The process is pure and simple, in theory. We could argue that the subjective view of the photographer is already jeopardizing authenticity, which would be a valid argument if we consider depiction of reality, but as this essay concentrates of the visual qualities and how they affect how a viewer perceives and reacts to a photograph, the argument is not valid. The subjectiveness of the photographer plays a huge role especially when we consider his intent. This combination is what elevates photography from a pure technical process to a craft or even an artistic medium.
What mainly effects the authenticity is what a photographer does during printing or digital post-processing. As the foundation is laid down in the negative, the interpretation of this material can be either a success or failure. There is no guideline or rule we can follow. Whether we succeed in maintaining authenticity, is mainly decided by the viewer and a matter of making a photograph believable. It must retain the illusion of reality. A failure of doing this will partially or fully destroy the trust of the viewer. The viewer must look at the image and believe that the scene that is laid down on the paper has been real. This does not mean a photographer cannot alter the way a scene has been captured. It can be done to a level where the viewer is still accepting the illusion of reality. Going beyond this point can still work, but the photographer trades authenticity with illustration. This must be a deliberate process.
As an example we can use the great Ansel Adams and his skillful prints of the grand North American landscapes. These prints masterfully replicate the landscape as Ansel Adams was seeing it and with his printing skills he was even able to enhance the scene, even to a point where he departed from reality. He darkened the sky, increased or reduced contrast, he played with tonality and still maintained the authenticity. The viewer is still believing ithe photographic nature of the print. We do not perceive it it as a painting, an illustration or nowadays a digitally produced image. If Ansel Adams would not have been the great printer he was, he could have easily failed in maintaining authenticity. Dodging and burning the wrong parts of the scene, increasing contrast too much or too little, all this could have destroyed the authentic look.
A Moder modern example would be the dreaded HDR look that has been so popular. Even though the photographer starts out with a good intention and high quality photographic material, the software and post-processing workflow fully destroys the authentic quality. The viewer immediately detects that it is not a photograph and while the viewer may still like the look of the image, the lost connection to reality always plays an important part. If authenticity is lost, we might question the content of the image. Something we need to be aware of.
The biggest issue we face is when we come across adding or removing parts from the frame. The easiest and often used concept is cropping. Henri Cartier-Bresson refrained from cropping his work at all[Interview published on americansuburbx.com]. He always printed a small black frame around his images in order to proof that he printed the full negative without cropping.
HCB:"If it’s not correct it’s not by cropping in the darkroom and making all sorts of tricks that you improve it."
This is one extreme position which I want to mention. There are other photographers who severely crop their work and get wonderful results but we could declare this a manipulation. This discussion would certainly lead us to other methods of altering content. I just want to describe the problem and want to open our eyes for an issue we might ran into. As authenticity is a major quality aspect of our photography, we risk loosing a vital part of it with every manipulation step we take. We need to be aware of it. We need to stay as close to the idea of what we want to achieve.
If it is not cropping but cloning and moving parts around in the scene. Do we loose authenticity? Yes, I think so! While we can get away with some minor corrections, cloning away dust and scratches, dealing with some small details that are removed in order to clean up the scene, we are always playing with our credibility and with the loss of the soul of the image. What if Lee Friedlander would have added the cloud in his famous image Knoxville, Tennessee 1971 in the darkroom . I am sure it would have less impact on us.
Pushing the boundaries
What if we decide that we want to play with this idea and we want to build on the illusion of authenticity? There is of course nothing wrong with that. Obviously a departure from authenticity can be a very effective method to underline the artists idea or inetnt. In the end the artists faces the decision to purposefully use *authenticity* as an artistic tool.
Reality vs. authenticity
Photographical reality is a straight capture of our surrounding environment, the world that lies in front of us and the resemblance of what we see. Authenticity does not need to depict reality, although it can, it just provides an image that let's the viewer belief in the reality of what is in the picture. This verdict is very important.
As an example, Andreas Gursky [Andreas Gursky website] plays with the viewer. His images promise a lot of authenticity and we believe in what we see in his work. The truth is he obviously manipulates the final image in order to convey his message or to exaggerate what we see. The secret to his success among other things is the authenticity of his visual language while manipulating the viewer.
In the end there are no rules. We just need to make sure our idea does not get distorted. If we want to manipulate the viewer that is fine, but we should be fair and do not claim this to be reality. We can however play with the idea of authenticity! Allow others to believe what they see. Authenticity is in my opinion the most important quality of a photographic image. It is our decision how far we depart form this authenticity in our work. Make it a deliberate decision and be aware of what it means to the viewer.