On the third of July 1839 François Arago stood in the Chamber of Deputies, France, in order to persuade the French government to purchase Louis Daguerre’s patents for the revolutionary Daguerreotype photographic process. Arago was keen to emphasise the scientific applications of this new apparatus. (1) Persuaded by this argument, the government bought the patents. Arago’s stance at the founding moment of photography was one that widely persists today: the camera is considered to be fundamentally an instrument of science, not of art. Before anyone had even conceived the notion of documentary photography, the seeds of conflict had been planted.
By the 1870s cameras and printing presses were being used to discover and disseminate scientific knowledge that could not have been attained previously. Pioneering motion studies, such as Eadweard Muybridge’s horse sequences were sealing the reputation of the camera as an instrument that operated without inflection. The photograph was thought to be the visual analogue of the written factual record (‘the camera never lies’). However John Taylor observes in his examination of 1930s documentary realism that this is a common misconception. (2)
The belief in photography as factual record persisted into and throughout the twentieth century, largely due to the insurmountable influence of the newspaper. In addition to the technical constraints of the printing press, editors imposed formal constraints on the medium to pander to the public perception of what constituted an accurate observation. Taylor notes: (3) The camera’s ability to produce sharp images had become its limiting factor. People considered a sufficiently in-focus photograph to be an accurate factual record, as if ‘the truth’ was inherent in the clarity of the image. Accepted without question by the public, the photograph became (4) The further the written word moved from the reality portrayed in an accompanying photograph, the more subjective and the less accurate the written word was considered.
An exception to this rule are Robert Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landings, taken when he joined the first wave of troops to land on the Normandy beaches in June 1944. His photographs have been printed accompanied by a personal written account of the experience from Capa:
“I didn’t dare to take my eyes off the finder of my Contax and frantically shot frame after frame. Half a minute later, my camera jammed – my roll was finished. I reached in my bag for a new roll, and my wet, shaking hands ruined the roll before I could insert it in the camera.” (5)
Capa’s account is subjective and emotional, yet his images do not lessen the perceived accuracy of his words. His photographs of the landing - smeared, grainy and slightly out of focus - actually validate the drama of his written account. Famously, when his film rolls were received for developing at the London press office an over-zealous darkroom technician turned the heat too high in the dryer and melted the emulsions. Out of 106 pictures, only 8 were salvaged (6) and even these few were almost destroyed. The damage makes the images even more startling: the smear of the action is enhanced, the detail lost, and the pattern of the sprocket holes on the negative has spilled visibly into the frame. One of the 8 photographs made the cover of TIME magazine. These images are uniquely interesting among contemporary reportage photography because they acknowledge the possibility of subjective reality in the photographic record. Capa’s photographs could not claim to be the truth in the accepted sense but they could claim to be ‘a truth’ - they were true to his experience.
This illustrates a conflict in representation that is ongoing today. On one side, the belief that reality is totally subjective, that every representation is constructed and interpreted. On the other side is the belief that the only problem reality poses is (7) By the 1960s the horizons of documentary filmmaking were about to be significantly widened, and the documentary film drawn to the centre of the conflict. Richard Leacock, a documentary filmmaker and soon to be key figure, had talked about the (8) and his ideas were about to be realised.
In the early 1960s the Eclair hand-held camera and the Nagra sound recorder appeared, making portable recording with synchronised sound possible for the first time in the history of cinema. These technical advances allowed for a revolution in documentary filmmaking practices, and filmmakers made uncompromising claims for the technology. They believed they were finally able to (9) Almost immediately the filmmakers deployed the new technology to this end, developing new ethics of non-intervention to chase the elusive ideals of objectivity and of the film as evidence. So the cinéma-vérité or ‘direct cinema’ movement was formed. Leacock and Al Maysles made the groundbreaking film, Primary, and others followed soon after. The vérité filmmakers talked of a purely observational mode of documentary. 120 years after François Arago had first claimed the camera for science, they were reasserting that claim. Their attitude, argues Brian Winston, was that the camera was (10)
However, many of the conventions of cinéma-vérité can be easily recognised - despite its attempts to hide the processes of its creation, they still exist. (11) had all become stylistic quirks that pandered to the audience’s expectations. In the 1940s Capa’s famous D-Day photographs had altered the public perception of reportage photography, and in due course the new look he pioneered became the convention: (12) In the 1960s Jean-Luc Godard proved that audiences were making similar associations with cinéma-vérité techniques when he used those same techniques to bring a sense of immediacy and authenticity to his fiction films. Even if, as was claimed, the purely observational documentary could be achieved using the latest technology, still it would not attain the status of a factual record of events. Non-interventionism is no guarantor of factual accuracy because the act of observation is subjective. As Colin MacCabe rightly insists, (13)
Many critics have concluded that the conventional modes of representation are reliant on a passive audience willing to accept the filmmaker’s portrayal of reality without question. The claim that the indisputable truth could be captured in the recorded image implied that (14) In response to this claim some critics argued for a (15) According to Bill Nichols: (16) Chris Marker is one such filmmaker, and his desire to make his audience aware of the complexity of representation is a defining characteristic of his film, Sunless.
In his analysis of Sunless, Jon Kear observes that (17) From the first sequence this is at work. We watch serene silent footage of three children walking in an Icelandic landscape, which has the (18) of a home movie, after which a length of black leader runs. says the narrator, as the black leader is interrupted by acquired footage of an American warplane descending into an aircraft carrier, creating a skilfully constructed association (contrary to the narrator’s assertion) between the innocence of childhood and the horror of war that entirely alters our perception of the images. The narrator continues: Of course, Marker knows that we perceive a lot more than that.
Throughout Sunless Marker is openly searching for a method of representation that is analogous to human consciousness. Recurring icons and themes – animals, cultural nuance, history/memory – are the subject matter for his film experiment. Each time a theme is revisited, our perception of it is altered as we infer new meaning from the ever-changing context of everything that has come before. The film considers the past to be in a constant state of transformation; history repeats itself as previous and future events touch in the spiral of time. Marker employs montage extensively, constructing complex sequences that allude to our remembering and forgetting, using intricate patterns of association and dissociation to mimic the scattered nature of our memory recall. Sunless overwhelms the viewer with its philosophical postcards narrated from a dreamscape of rapid and dislocated picture edits. Is the camera filming the traveller’s tangled thoughts and memories, or the narrator’s, or is the camera itself dreaming? At one point the narrator describes an idea the traveller has had for a future project to be called ‘Sunless’, implying that Marker considers the version of the film we are viewing to be only one of many possible solutions to this representational puzzle. The most radical of the film’s experiments in representation, ‘The Zone’, is interesting if considered in this context.
The Zone is a process of electronically transforming images into an abstract and barely recognisable form, intended to reveal to us the unsatisfactory nature of all forms of representation. In The Zone, Marker shows us transformed archive images, television pictures, and excerpts from Sunless itself. Of the transformed television images, the narrator comments that after transformation they are more truthful: The presence of excerpts from Sunless in The Zone is a reminder that they too are no more or less constructed and interpreted than any form of representation.
As filmmaking moves into the digital age, the relevance of Marker’s argument becomes ever more apparent. The Zone’s crude transformations may be obvious to us, but with modern digital technology, an image can be subtly or radically altered by processes that are undetectable. Brian Winston claims that (19) The implications of this statement are troubling: if digital imagery is untrustworthy as a document of anything but its own creation, the observational mode of documentary cannot exist in the digital age, and the position of the self-reflexive mode must be complete scepticism.
In fact observational documentary filmmakers have embraced small lightweight digital camcorders as an advance towards the ideal of non-interventionism. If digitalisation is not destroying observational documentary, then the issue of realism is more complex than both cinéma-vérité’s proponents and critics would have us believe. The danger of the self-reflexive mode of documentary, a danger apparent in Sunless, is that it (20) as it seeks to challenge the observational mode and in so doing becomes hopelessly entangled in the search for alternative forms of representation.
Dana Polan has instead argued for a revised approach to theories of representation in order to avoid these pitfalls. She argues for approaching representation not as a process of controlling a submissive audience, but as a contract in which the audience (21) Within the structure of a contract we can see audiences’ changing perceptions of what constitutes realism and truth as a natural process, an ever-evolving language of codes. Each new technique that the filmmaker deploys only temporarily attains new heights of realism in the minds of an audience, until the language evolves again.
Within this structure the theory of realism as being contained in the image must be set aside. The filmmaker manipulates the audience’s perception of realism by using what is a mutually understood and agreed-upon language of code and convention. Self-reflexivity becomes an invaluable tool for filmmakers to make audiences aware of the language, and so ensure its continued evolution. Photography’s claim to the ideal of the factual record may finally be destroyed by the digital age, but the debate on realism will continue for as long as there are filmmakers and audiences.
Everyone knows the saying that the camera never lies. What is less well-known is that the man who coined the phrase, almost a century ago, added a rider. "While photographs may not lie," the great American documentary photographer Lewis Hine said, "liars may photograph".
They have been at work ever since, as was seen this week with the fake snap of John Kerry which caused a stir in the United States. It purported to show him associating in the 1970s with the film star Jane Fonda, who is still widely reviled in the US for her visit to the enemy capital, Hanoi, during the Vietnam war. Many still see it as the act of a traitor.
This was not the kind of publicity the Democrats' leading presidential candidate needed. It was, we now know, doctored. But it fooled many US citizens and some British newspapers.
They should, it is easy to say with hindsight, have known better. For the black art of photographic manipulation has been with us for a long time.
True, it is more sophisticated than when two young girls in Yorkshire launched what was to become one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th Century. They claimed to have photographed the fairies at the bottom of their garden.
The pictures, taken in the summer of 1917, turned out to be paper illustrations, cut from a popular children's book, Princess Mary's Gift Book, and held up with hatpins. But it was a stunning deception. The Cottingley Fairies fooled many people, including the eminent self-styled detective Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The techniques of trickery have evolved over the years. At first a bald lie sufficed. In Russia at the end of the 19th century a French lumiére operator, finding that audiences at the Cinématographe craved film of the Dreyfus scandal, strung together shots from a number of films he had on hand - a group of French soldiers with an officer, an imposing building in Paris, and a ship at sea - to create the desired effect.
But then came physical interference with the photographic print. Abraham Lincoln was a pioneer here, asking a photographer to retouch a portrait to shorten his neck and make him appear more youthful. The result, he insisted, assisted his electoral victory.
Next Edwardian spiritualists discovered that double exposure would produce photographs of spectral relatives hanging in the air behind their grieving clients.
In the 1930s supporters of the anti-Communist zealot Joe McCarthy turned to careful scissorwork to undermine one of his earliest critics - Senator Millard Tydings - appearing to make him unnaturally friendly with the leader of the American Communist Party. Evidence that cut-and-paste was in those days an international phenomenon is there for anyone who cares to inspect the Daily Herald photo archives now lodged with the National Museum of Photography in Bradford. But if the techniques evolved, the formulae of fraud are fairly constant. So are the motivations. The press office of 1980s' film star Robert Redford used to issue instructions that his photographs should be retouched - particularly "the veins on his nose" and "the area around the throat and neck".
Some stars don't even have to ask, as with the GQ magazine cover shot of Kate Winslet which was digitally "stretched" to make her look thinner and sexier. Then there is mischief. It now seems pretty clear that the quintessential photo of the Loch Ness monster, allegedly shot in 1934 by a London gynaecologist, was a hoax made from a toy submarine to which a neck of plastic wood had been fastened. A similar sense of prankishness is today to be found behind internet japes like doctoring images of George Bush so that he is holding a children's book upside down, or looking through binoculars with the lens caps on. But the main motivation behind picture manipulation is politics of a darker kind. It always has been. During World War I many newspapers showed faked propaganda photographs of Kaiser Wilhelm cutting off the hands of babies. Soviet archives were filled with shots in which "disgraced" individuals, like Tolstoy and Molotov, had been airbrushed from party portraits on the orders of Stalin. In the West pictures of the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl were doctored to place her standing next to Hitler, to reinforce the anti-Nazi view that she was too close to the dictator. Manipulated photos can reveal hidden agendas. Time magazine came in for criticism for being racist when its cover featured a grim mug shot of OJ Simpson - looking darker and more sinister than in the same picture on the cover of Newsweek.
The official police photo turned out to have been electronically manipulated to create what Time, in small type on an inside page called "photo illustration".
And in Britain The Daily Mail was taken to task by Reuters when two of the agency's photographs of the singer Michael Jackson - taken the day after he dangled his baby son from a window - were merged under the emotive headline "Is he fit to be a dad?" To make the image even more distorted, Jackson's security personnel had been painted out of the image.
Modern computer technology has only made such cavalier decisions easier to make - like when the National Geographic used an early Scitex computer digitiser to move one of the Great Pyramids of Egypt so that it would fit the magazine's vertical cover format.
Russell Roberts, senior curator at the National Museum of Photography said: "It is possible, with careful scrutiny, to detect some of this."
"If you look at the Kerry/Fonda picture you can see there are two different light sources on the two figures. There are shadows on the side of Fonda's face, but not Kerry's; the light falls differently on the wrinkles in their clothes," Mr Roberts said. Yet such analysis is not uncontroversial.
Not everyone is convinced by the website of the French astronomer who says that the shadows in the pictures of American astronauts on the moon prove that the Apollo lunar mission was a fake and that the pictures were codded up in some US desert.
Still, truth is not always the final prejudice. Barbara Warnick, Professor of Media Criticism at the University of Washington, and author of Critical Literacy in a Digital Era says: "Events have shown that parodic activity can be a consequential factor in national [election] campaigns."
The task of campaign managers has nowadays shifted to "reviewing what is out there and trying to contain it."
Until now it has been Mr Bush who has been the butt of the internet photo parodies - with shots of him cuddling up naked to Al Gore, earnestly studying "Anchor Politics for Dummies", dressed in women's clothes, or incapable of holding a children's book the right way up. His aides have been so worried that they had lawyers send a cease-and-desist order to one website and eventually filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission.
Which means that Senator Kerry can comfort himself with one thought. The faked photos of him and Ms Fonda show that he must have got the Bush camp really worried.Reuse content