Photography doesn’t always reveal the truth.
In essence photography always reveal the truth. That’s why many painters have opted for it when it appeared. The photographic medium can be trusted because it records reality, shows exactly what’s in front of the lens. Many photographers (such as reporters, street photographers…) have shown it. However, the history of art and the media show us that we must be wary of it.
What if we could be fooled by an image?
What if, while looking at a photograph, what we thought true was actually completely false ?
It’s hard to imagine that. By being constantly surrounded by images, we have total confidence in the information they give us.
Roland Barthes said in his book “Camera Lucida : Reflections on photography”(1980), that “By nature, the photograph has something tautological about it : a pipe, here, is always and intractably a pipe”. Indeed, if we see a chair, we will always say that there was a chair in front of the lens when the photographer took the picture.
But we must not stop there, because photography can also play tricks on us, and we will see that it has been doing so since its appearance. Photography and those who use it are capable of playing on our credibility: the chair might not be so real.
In order to play tricks on us, artists and creators have put in place different methods (which can also cross each other) such as staged photography, photo montages and more recently fakes news.
Hippolyte Bayard is undoubtedly one of the first to have fooled his spectators. As a French civil servant at the Ministry of Finance and a photography enthusiast, Hippolyte Bayard had proposed an invention (a process that made it possible to have positive images directly on paper) to François Arago of the Academy of Sciences, but his invention didn’t achieve the expected success. In reaction to this, Hippolyte Bayard produced the photograph entitled “Self portrait as a drowned man” in 1840.
By inference, the title of this photograph tells us that it’s both a self-portrait and a staged photograph. As a reminder, a staged photograph is a photograph made from A to Z. We can say that it’s the opposite of the spontaneous shot.
To achieve this, the artist-photographer will use many elements: possibly one or more models who will pose with instructions as if they were actors. The sets, props, lights and other things will also be important. The idea is to create a composed photograph that will tell something, a fiction in short.
So we see in this photo Hippolyte Bayard simulating his own death with his eyes closed, his hands folded and his body leaning on something. Giving the impression that he has fallen asleep forever.
On the back of this picture, Hippolyte Bayard had written this text: “The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government, which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life…! He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognized or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay”
Through this alliance of image and text, we can see that the lack of interest shown by the Academy has been a real source of inspiration for Hippolyte Bayard. By faking his death, he expresses his frustration. He reinforces this idea with the text. With a lot of humour, he invents a double (this could have been in one of my previous articles), talking about him in the third person. This avatar underlines the disappointment, as if he was saying “I could have come to that.” This “Self portrait as a drowned man” is false: it’s a self-portrait, but it’s staged : the artist could not have taken this photograph if he was dead.
Several decades later, in the 1860s and 1870s, the British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron shown a real craze for staged photography. Drawing her inspiration mainly from painting and literature, she produced numerous “tableau photographs”.
Here is one of Julia Margaret Cameron’s best known photographs, entitled “Paul and Virginia” (1864). This photograph echoes the short story of the same name written by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1787), which tells of a kind of impossible love between Paul and Viginia. The image taken by the photographer narrates the moment when the two children are caught in a storm. But some people believe that it’s an illustration of the story in general.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s stagings can be seen as illustrations that relate to religion, literature, myths : she has, for example, staged The Fairy Viviane and Merlin the Enchanter.
Let’s skip more than a century and a half and take the road to France, with the work of the visual artist and photographer Florence Paradeis.
The scenes she presents are disturbing. On the one hand, because of the “banal” situations they present in which we can easily recognize ourselves and also because of the almost raw aestheticism of the photographs. By all this, the viewer could be deceived into believing that these are spontaneous images.
Up to now, I have shown you artist-photographers who have constantly included people in their photographs. But other artists have proven that we can tell false stories without human presences and I will show you some of them right now.
In 2006, photographer Tess Hurrell created a series entitled “Chaology” (the chaos theory’s study).
At first glance, her images resemble the images one might see in history books, films and medias. They could appear in articles about nuclear tests or space shuttle accidents. Except that her series is a trompe l’oeil: her photos actually show sculptures made of cotton, talcum powder, strings that Tess Hurrel created and then photographed in the studio. If you look closely in the image above, you can see a string that holds the sculpture which brings us back to reality.
Tess Hurrell fooles us and so does David Levinthal who plunges us into realistic scenes with meticulously prepared figures, toys and sets.
His “Hitler moves east” series produced in collaboration with the cartoonist Garry Trudeau from 1972 to 1975 is certainly the best example of his career and also the trigger of his success. Their images reproduce the Second World War and the moment when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The images are false, but unlike Tess Hurrell’s images, they tell the story of something that actually happened.
To achieve this, the two artists have taken up the characteristics of period images: sepia, grain, blur…thus fulfilling the role of imperfect but narrative images to perfection. They turned this series into a book and when it came out in 1977, the photos were so credible that some booksellers placed the book in the historical section !
For the past fifteen years or so, British artist Anne Hardy has been creating spaces suspended in time: you can feel that something has happened there, but you can’t tell what exactly. She meticulously constructs rooms in which she places rubbish and second-hand objects that she has collected for months and then photographs them. These are places that exist just for the photographs. This results in familiar images (like an empty room after a party, cf book “Making it up”) as well as almost extraordinary images. One often has the impression that people have left in a hurry in an almost apocalyptic, chaotic atmosphere. Each piece is a puzzle in which Anne Hardy provides the viewer with multiple details and it’s up to us to make our own interpretation. As she says in Ten Magazine (spring-summer 2011) : ” I want these images to have a relationship to things that exist in the real world, but at the same time not to have an immediate ‘answer’ or resolution. I see the work as a form of fiction that parallels the real world but does not attempt to explain it.” The link between reality and fiction is so confusing.
In this image entitled “Drift” we find ourselves in what appears to be a control room that has been abandoned and covered over time, like if it was buried. What happened ? A disaster ? When did it happen, why is there such a large amount of leaves ? There’s also something very cinematic. For my part, I think it’s easy to see references to certain science fiction films or series like Lost for example.
Speaking of cinema, how can we not mention Blow Up (directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, released in 1966) ? I would need a whole article to talk about it properly…but for those who don’t know this film, it’s a perfect illustration of the doubt that can exist between what we see and what an image is capable of making us believe. A pure marvel !
The creation of false stories through images is not peculiar to the artistic world : just take a look at the history of the Tasadays (which Joan Fontcuberta talks about very well in his book “The Kiss of Judas -Photographs and Truth, 1996). To sum up, the Tasadays is a tribe that was discovered by Manuel Elizalde Junior, a Filipino businessman, in the early 1970’s. The members of the tribe were self-sufficient. They made their living by gathering and fishing (using machete and stone tool), wore orchid leaves and palm skirts (for the women) and speak their own language…What a discovery it was for the whole world ! Numerous reports were devoted to them (including one by National Geographic). For a while, they were the only ones talked about, but then things calmed down… until Joey Lezano (a Filipino journalist), Dr. Oswald Iten (a Swiss anthropologist) and a translator entered the reserve and discovered a real trick: nobody really lived in the caves because the so-called members of the Tasaday tribe lived in houses and were dressed in a very ordinary way. In reality, Manuel Elizalde Junior had fabricated this story, fooling the whole world and the media, in order to embezzle money.
Photography has an immense power : that of revealing reality. Yet we see in this story and in the works of the artists I talked about that the people behind these photographs can deceive us and can literally tell us stories.
There is no question of doubting everything we see, but it’s always necessary to keep this in mind, especially in a society that transmits millions of informations a minute without always knowing if they are verified.