Photography doesn’t always reveal the truth.
By definition, photography always reveals the truth. That’s why many painters opted for it when it appeared. The photographic medium can be trusted because it shows exactly what’s in front of the lens. Many photographers have demonstrated this. However, the history of art and the media show us that we should be wary of it.
What if we could be deceived by an image?
What if what we thought was true was in fact completely false?
It is difficult to imagine this. 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 think that there was a chair in front of the lens when the photographer took the picture.
But we should not stop there, because photography can also play tricks on us, and we will see that this is not new. Photography and those who use it are able to play on our credibility: the chair may not be so real.
To play tricks on us, artists have developed various methods such as staged photography, photomontages and more recently fake news.
Hippolyte Bayard was probably one of the first to deceive his audience.
A French civil servant at the Ministry of Finance and a photography enthusiast, Hippolyte Bayard had proposed an invention (a process for obtaining positive images directly on paper) to François Arago, but his invention was not as successful as he had hoped. In reaction to this, Hippolyte Bayard produced the photograph entitled “Self-portrait as a drowned man” in 1840.
By deduction, the title of this photograph indicates that it’s both a self-portrait and a staged photograph. As a reminder, a staged photograph is a photograph that is taken from scratch. It’s the opposite of a spontaneous shot.
To make it, the artist-photographer will use many elements: possibly one or several models who will pose as if they were actors. The sets, props, lights and other elements will also be important. The idea is to create a photograph that will tell a story.
In this photo, we see Hippolyte Bayard simulating his own death with his eyes closed, his hands crossed and his body leaning on something. Giving the impression that he has fallen asleep.
On the back of this picture, Hippolyte Bayard had written this text: “T“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 combination 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 great humour, he invents a double, speaking of himself in the third person. This avatar underlines the disappointment, as if he were saying “I could have done it”. This “Self-portrait as a drowned man” is false: it’s a self-portrait, but it’s staged because the artist could not have taken this photo if he had died.
A few decades later, in the 1860s and 1870s, the British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron showed a real passion for staged photography. Inspired mainly by painting and literature, she created numerous “tableau photographs”.
This is one of Julia Margaret Cameron’s most famous 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 a kind of impossible love between Paul and Virginia. The image taken by the photographer relates the moment when the two children are caught in a storm. But some think it is an illustration of the story in general.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s staged photographs can be seen as illustrations that relate to religion, literature, myths: she has, for example, staged The Fairy Viviane and Merlin the magician.
Let’s skip more than a century and a half and go to France, with the work of the visual artist and photographer Florence Paradeis.
The scenes she presents are disturbing, 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. The viewer could be misled into believing that these are spontaneous images.
So far I have shown you artists who have included people in their photographs. But other artists have proven that we can tell false stories without a human presence and I will show you some of them now.
In 2006, photographer Tess Hurrell created a series entitled “Chaology” (the study of chaos theory)
At first glance, her images images look like those you see in history books, films and the media. 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, and strings that Tess Hurrel created and photographed in the studio. If you look closely at the image above, you can see a string holding the sculpture, which brings us back to reality.
Tess Hurrell fools us, and so does David Levinthal who immerses us in realistic scenes with meticulously prepared toys and sets.
His series “Hitler moves east”, 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 depict 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 do this, the two artists have taken on the characteristics of period images: sepia, grain, blur… thus fulfilling perfectly the role of imperfect but narrative images. They turned this series into a book and when it came out in 1977, the photos were so credible that some bookshops placed the book in the historical section!
For the past fifteen years, the British artist Anne Hardy has been creating spaces suspended in time: you can feel that something has happened there, but you can’t tell exactly what. She meticulously constructs rooms in which she places rubbish and second-hand objects that she has collected over a period of months, and then photographs them. These are places that exist only for the photographs. The result is familiar images (like an empty room after a party, cf book “Making it up”) as well as almost extraordinary images. One often gets the impression that people have left in a hurry, in an almost apocalyptic and 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, as if it had been buried. What has happened? A catastrophe? When did it happen, why why are there so many leaves? There’s also something very cinematic about it. I think it’s easy to see references to certain science fiction films or series such as 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 able to make us believe. A pure marvel!
The creation of false stories through images is not unique to the art world: just take a look at the story of the Tasadays (about which Joan Fontcuberta speaks very well in her book “The Kiss of Judas -Photographs and Truth, 1996). To summarise, the Tasadays is a tribe that was discovered by Manuel Elizalde Junior, a Filipino businessman, in the early 1970s. The members of the tribe were self-sufficient. They lived by fishing (with machetes and stone tools), wore orchid leaves and palm skirts and spoke their own language… What a discovery for the whole world! Numerous reports were devoted to them (including one by National Geographic). For a while, they were the talk of the town, 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 deception: no one really lived in the caves because the so-called Tasaday tribesmen lived in houses and were dressed in ordinary clothes. In reality, Manuel Elizalde Junior had invented this story, deceiving the whole world and the media, in order to embezzle money.
Photography has an immense power: to reveal 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 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 pieces of information per minute without always knowing if they are verified.