Photographs are Lies

Photography is generally considered the most realistic of the representational visual arts. No one expects sculpture, painting, or any other technique to be a perfect representation of reality, but one of the common measures of photographs is how realistically they portray their subjects. The color, the resolution, the detail – all of these are frequently used descriptors for photographs, and all address the question of realism. Yet in all of this the more fundamental point is usually ignored: photographs are lies.

As I mentioned in my recent Manifesto, Magritte’s The Treachery of Images succinctly presents the issue at hand. No matter the subject, a photograph is not and can never be a duplication of it; rather, it is a new thing, unique and distinct, and must be viewed as such. This is not a sufficient explanation, however. We must consider the ways in which a photo differs from its subject in order to better understand the medium.

Let’s start with the most basic difference: dimensionality. The world is three-dimensional; photographic representations of it are not. The brain may impose a three dimensional perspective out of habit – seeing what it expects to see rather than what is – but photographs are flat. Understanding that disconnect is necessary for photographers to manipulate viewers’ perceptions. Photos taken from unusual perspectives or using focal lengths that deviate from “normal” can alter the feeling of depth, drawing distant objects closer or pushing them away, swinging them up or down, distorting them from expectations. While this is impossible in the three-dimensional real world, it’s quite easy when working in only two. The photographer can mold the viewer’s perception by manipulating the non-existent third dimension.

Color and rendering are part of the lie as well. Perfectly accurate rendering of color is impossible, and seemingly rarely sought in any case, and the world is certainly not monochrome. Any deviation subtly influences the way a photo is understood. Brighter, more saturated colors create a very different feel than pale or dull ones. A photo with hard contrast and razor sharpness is going to look quite distinct from the same photo with softer rendering. These factors influence the mood of a photo significantly, and with digital manipulation allowing virtually limitless opportunities for such things, the photographer has every chance to create the mood they want to portray, regardless of any connection to the reality of the scene when it was captured.

Now consider space. The world is not bounded by regular frames, but photographs are, the limits of which are absolute and inviolable. In reality, you may know there is a street full of buildings, cars, and people just around the corner even though you can’t see it; in a photo, what you cannot see doesn’t exist, period. This is a powerful tool. Omission of elements of a scene can significantly alter the ways a viewer sees it, and indeed may be a misleading or outright false representation of reality. Hiding an inconvenient cell phone tower behind a tree is the same is blotting it out of existence in Photoshop – in both cases, the photographer has made it cease to be, when in reality it exists. Similarly, life exists outside the frame of the photo at the moment of creation, but once the shutter has been tripped it disappears. All that is left is what was in the viewfinder. This sort of dishonesty can be used to create ambiguity, which is very useful for increasing viewer engagement, as the mind tends not to leave things it does not understand.

Then there is the question of time. A photo captures a moment in time, nothing more. Motion ceases, things are left unresolved. How a viewer sees a photo influences their perception of the reality represented in the frame. Isolating a diver in mid-air by itself forces the viewer to consider the outcome: is he diving into a pool? a damp sponge? a block of concrete? Some may assume the obvious, but the fact is that the photo offers no such assurance. The photographer may influence how such a scene is likely to be viewed by when the shutter is tripped, in combination with other choices, to create more or less uncertainty.

Finally, there is presentation. Something as simple as the orientation of a photo can radically alter how it is likely to be seen. Take a photo of an aircraft in level flight surrounded by nothing but sky. Presented as shot in a landscape orientation, the plane is flying normally; turn it upside down and it’s likely to be in an airshow or some other aerobatic demonstration; turn it 90 degrees into a portrait orientation with the nose up and you might assume the same thing; turn it 90 degrees with the nose pointed down and you might be witnessing the last moments before a horrific crash.

The same is true for titles. Consider a photo of an empty plate and some silverware on a table. Titled “Family Dinner” it might evoke feelings of home and comfort; titled “Hunger” it might make one think of privation and suffering; titled “Cannibalism” the photo will likely create instant revulsion and disgust. All that’s changed is the presentation, not the photo.

All of these combined produce a lie. How believable the lie is depends on the photographer’s intent and skill. Someone who shoots in HDR and pushes every slider in sight up to 11 is not a good liar; one who subtly alters the truth to shape its meaning to their own purposes is a lot more likely to come off as faithfully representing reality. But it’s still a lie.