M4 Wk2: The Index & the Icon

Week 2 Activity: Further Questions of Authenticity

Geoffrey Batchen (2002: 139) notes: ‘In the mere act of transcribing world into picture, three dimensions into two, photographers necessarily manufacture the image they make. Artifice of one kind or another is therefore an inescapable part of photographic life’.

The Two Ways of Life, Rejlander (original)

Oscar Rejlander (1857) Two Ways of Life

As early as the 1850’s, ‘art’ photography leading protagonists such as Rejlander and Robinson had perfected methods of producing complexed seamless montages containing as many as 30 negatives.  This approach was challenged in Emerson’s Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889), in which he deplored the use of multiple negatives as contrived and artificial.  He argued that photography should be concerned with the ‘naturalistic’ and faithful representation of reality on its own terms, rather than in the imitation of another art form.   However, he redacted these claims just three years later in his black-bordered publication The Death of Naturalistic Photography (1891), where he declared ‘I have compared photographs to great works of art, and photographers to great artists… It was rash and thoughtless, and my punishment is having to acknowledge it now.’  His thoughts were influenced by negative views on photography’s artistic status, as well as evidence that suggested inherent mechanical limitations in controlling tone in printing.

Then, photography was a scientific plaything that existed largely to the dismay of the art world, today the proliferation of ‘cameras’ is so vast that most families will have photographic devices in double digits in and around their house, be it regular cameras, action cameras, mobile phones, tablets, laptops, webcams, drones, toy robots, security cameras… today technology is hardly considered technology unless it contains a camera. Where image editing was once the preserve or a trained professional, now young children are adept at editing on their mobile devices before sharing the results with the world.  So might it be that the validity and relevance of many writings on matters pertaining theoretical photography are diminished by the commonplace nature of photography and image editing.

A photograph must start as a ‘real’ image – to the best of my knowledge, a camera cannot create, spontaneously or otherwise, an image not trapped in reality.  From that moment, the likelihood of the image remaining ‘real’ diminishes rapidly, subject to its planned use. 130 years after Emerson separated the “scientific division” from the “art division”, those important divisions remain and as a result photographs do perhaps require unique methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation, unlike other sorts of pictures.  However, there are of course many exceptions…

In my formative years, I worked in geology labs at a time before it was straightforward to photograph rock and mineral thin sections viewed through a microscope.  Consequently, the archived records of the thin sections were hand-drawn, with the images having to be facsimiles of the microscopic view.  Below is one of my drawings of a porphyritic rock sample.  It is clear that for scientific archive purposes a photograph and a drawing would serve the same purpose and they would be interpreted, evaluated and analysed in the same manner.  Similarly, Courtroom sketches are digested as would be a photograph, so once again they would be treated in the same manner.

Thin Section - porphrytic sample

Dominic Price (1997) Porphyritic rock thin section, Mull

From the standpoint of a photographer, it is pleasant to look the other way at art imitating photography – when art is so realistic that it is questioned as to whether or not it is actually a photograph.  To those not aware of Diego Fazio’s work, the image below would be presumed a photograph, yet it is a pencil drawing, some 200 hours in the making.  Such pictures certainly require unique methods of interpretation – far more so than most photographs.  In an effort to counter the disbelief of his artistic ability,  Fazio has taken to photographing himself as the work progresses (HERE) to quieten the sceptics.


Diego Fazio (2012) Sensazioni

With light playing such a fundamental role within chapels, in reference to my practice it seems fitting that Arnheim’s observation of photographs, in On the Nature of Photography, was that they are not entirely ‘made and controlled by man’ but are ‘mechanical deposits of light’.  The whim of the weather is most definitely a controlling factor of my work, over which I have no power, but today more than ever the power to manipulate the scene in post-production helps regain some of the control hitherto held so tightly by those who produce other kinds of pictures.  This should come as no surprise, since surely image editing is an art form more akin to ‘other kinds of pictures’.

Is photography ‘really real’?  It can be as real as Fazio’s pencil drawing above or as fake as the Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life photograph.


  • Arnheim, R. (1974) On the Nature of Photography. Critical Inquiry, 1
  • Emerson, P. (1889) Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art. London
  • Emerson, P. (1890) The Death of Naturalistic Photography. London
  • Fazio, D. PROFILE

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