M4 Wk2: The Index & the Icon

Week 2 Forum: A Question of Authenticity

Camera LucidaIn Camera Lucida (1980: 89) Roland Barthes states that ‘In the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation’.

This quote, from Barthes’ downbeat and reflective final publication, written just months before his untimely death, reflects his realist beliefs.  He favoured the photograph as a source of tangible proof: something that could be used in evidence in a Court of Law, for example.  In the 1980’s, creative photography was the pastime of a talented few.  Fast-forward almost 40 years and nearly half of the planet’s population has direct access to a smartphone festooned with creative photographic features that will turn any authentic image into something far more representative.

Consequently, the accuracy of this statement lies more appropriately in a vanishing society of the past and is also subject to the precise definition of the words.  Of most significance is the word ‘photograph’.  Today, the increasing ease with which an image can be fabricated from scratch and purport to being a photograph necessitates the question ‘at what point does a photograph cease being a photograph?’  By definition, a photograph is the process of producing an image by the action of radiant energy on a sensitive surface, so a photo-realistic image cannot be a photograph, but how much alteration can be made to a photograph before it is considered something else?

I interpret authentication as the accurate reproduction of a given scene, whereas representation might be considered as the more artistic or creative production of an image.  Where my practice is concerned, it is my intention to portray a faithful reproduction of stained glass windows, with authentication be most important.  However, I am using a medium that is not capable (currently) of doing the job.  Every photograph I take reveals the inherent limitations of digital photography and show that in order to produce an ‘authentic’ photograph of stained glass, post-production is necessary.  The reality is that I am using the ‘modern’ full pallet of photography (camera and computer) as the only way order to create a faithful image.

This poses a paradox… it seems reasonable to accept that an authentic image is one that is factual or truthful.  So by implication an authentic image is one that has not been manipulated – most probably one devoid of editing.  In the case of the photography of stained glass, such an authentic image would not be a truthful portrayal of the stained glass itself.  With our eyes being so much better at handling a wide dynamic range than a camera’s sensor or a film, an authentic image as considered by Barthes would be a pale reflection of the reality.  Only with considerable editing, decreasing the authentication and increasing the more representation, could a photograph of stained glass become an accurate facsimile of the object.

Context has a vital part to play: in journalism and iconic competition, it is expected that the photographs exude authentication.  However, in May I reflected upon the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest (HERE) in which Marcio Cabral was stripped of the “Animals in Their Environment” category prize in an incident that definitely fell short of these expectations.  This term I have been teaching image editing to a year group and as always we start by looking at the ethics (and wrongdoings) in the world of advertising, focussing in particular on fashion and food – areas where the power of representation has been for many years the driving force of photographic work.

Ultimately, photography is photography, and it is down to the gullibility, knowledge and experience of the observer to interpret the reality depicted within an image.

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