U3A Cambridge 2020-21 Photography: The Telling Image 5

Following on from my earlier posts, here are the comments and my responses on issues raised by Module 5, which looked at ambiguity and veracity in photography.

TB:  I think you sum up the ambiguity/veracity debate precisely in simply one word: continuum. I believe that images can move in different directions along the continuum, depending on what we know about contexts and intentions, though, perhaps unhelpfully we seem to be conditioned to believe what we “see” in a fairly literal way. A bit like the individual people we meet, some photos/photographers try to tell the truth most of the time while others have a more flexible relationship with veracity. We just need to be alert on first meeting them.

On this topic, I find the picture below fascinating. Firstly, it is a true representation of an event that took place and was photographed by many other photojournalists in slimiest ways. Once you know that Thatcher is speaking in front of the Tory strap line of the moment “Forward Together”, it becomes clear that the image is also a distortion achieved through careful framing and cropping. However, you could also say it is revealing a deeper truth in its portrait of the Prime Minister. So it slides back and forth along the continuum, or perhaps exists in several different places at the same time.

BH:  We do indeed need to be alert to the risk of believing what we want to believe and/or being naive about the motives of others. It’s sad always to be doubting, but healthy always to ask questions. I guess we all need to try find people and sources we can trust.  Maybe we should all read How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford, to help us evaluate the claims that surround us with confidence, curiosity and a healthy level of scepticism.

It’s a fascinating photograph, Tim. A classic example of manipulation that might mislead, yet in this particular case reveals a deeper truth – ask the miners and as you said, the Argentines!

GM:  You left the most contentious to last!

It is sometimes the case that a photograph is worth less than a few words when seeking understanding. For instance it’s sometimes impossible to determine whether Gill is laughing or crying in an image or whether Jack is smiling or pretending to smile at request.  Probably it doesn’t matter most of the time as we’ll see what we expect to see or want to see.

Also it doesn’t matter much whether manipulation has been employed as it’s the final image which is the only one which matters.  Viewers sometimes think that a bit (or a lot) more manipulation could have been used as the image presented is boring or uninteresting. Of course too much digitry-pokery is likely to produce unflattering comments and ridicule! 

I was surprised to read that Cartier-Bresson refused even to crop his images, one of the easiest procedures available then and one which can have a dramatic effect.

BH:  I agree about the benefit of a few words. Artists usually give pictures titles and most photographers rely on captions in some form. These should not tell the viewer what to think, rather they should help the viewer to understand the image and leave him or her to draw their own conclusions. At its best this should help the viewer to see what the artist/photographer saw, not what they want to see.

I think manipulation is fine, provided it is clear what has been done and not hidden because the intention is to deceive. I agree that some efforts in this direction deserve derision.

Cartier-Bresson’s aversion to cropping is interesting. At one level it’s an attempt to show what’s in front of the camera in the most honest way; and because of his obsession with the decisive moment the integrity of the resulting shot is of paramount importance to him. So, one can understand his position. On the other hand, any photograph is a cropping of the scene in front of the photographer and it’s always selective. For my own part, many of my pictures benefit from some modest (honest?) cropping and I don’t feel guilty about doing that.

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