Truth in photography

Just some notes on reading the concluding pages (152-154) for Project 1 in Creative Arts Today with ideas to develop or explore.


 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1932)

Many interesting points in this essay, not limited to photography. Original works of art had an ‘aura’ – a sort of magical, religious force given to them by their uniqueness – which gets lost when they are mechanically reproduced as in photographs or films: ‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ (Benjamin, 1932).

The original, unique work of art was meant to be contemplated from a distance, while photographs and films come close to the audience and become completely detached from tradition and ritual, they are ‘liberated’ from them, and take on other values connected with social and political conditions: ‘for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.’

‘Photographs … acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way.’

Photographs as a reflection of the world (Creative Arts Today, page 152)

Photography can be seen as a reflection of the world, when looking at a photograph we tend to see the subject rather than the photograph as an object.

We see ‘through’ the photograph as it if were a window onto the subject. This is especially true with digital images that are not even printed: they are so to say ‘transparent’.


But are photographs ‘true’? (Creative Arts Today, page 153)

‘Photography, in contrast to painting, is largely a craft of given forms, rooted in a process of finding rather than making … photographs show us what happened in front of the lens at a particular time in a specific place.’ (Edwards, 2006, page 83).

So there is an element of ‘truth’ in photography, but its result is always dependent on context and interpretation:

‘A photograph is not only an image as a painting is an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.’ (Sonntag, 1977, page 154).


… or are they a lie? Susan Sonntag’s view

But Susan Sonntag is hard on photographs in many points of her book On Photography (2005) and often connects the taking of photographs with consumerism and voyeurism, and thinks that they offer only an illusion of truth, when not its falsification. Here are some very critical quotations from the book:

‘Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. … This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.’ (page 11)

‘To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power. … print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.’ (page 11)

‘A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. (SS p 14)

‘A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights-to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on. …The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing’ (page 17)

‘A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs—especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past—are incitements to reverie. The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance.’ (page 21)

‘To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more – and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.’ (page 24)

‘The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: “There is the surface. Now think—or rather feel, intuit—what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.” Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy. Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks’ (page 26)

‘Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” (page 27)

‘The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’ (page 52)

‘So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful.  … Many people are anxious when they’re about to be photographed: not because they fear, as primitives do, being violated but because they fear the camera’s disapproval. People want the idealized image: a photograph of themselves looking their best … The consequences of lying have to be more central for photography than they ever can be for painting, because the flat, usually rectangular images which are photographs make a claim to be true that paintings can never make A fake painting (one whose attribution is false) falsifies the history of art. A fake photograph (one which has been retouched or tampered with, or whose caption is false) falsifies reality’ (page 74)

‘Despite the illusion of giving understanding, what seeing through photographs really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment.’ (page 97)

‘A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetise the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivise reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs as strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself. The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.’ (page 149)

The debate about ‘truthfulness’ of photographs

The debate about ‘photoshopping’ and other manipulating techniques is nothing new but has been open and roaring since the early days of photography, when photographers like Rejlander and Robinson combined separate negatives into a single print, as in The Two Ways of Life (1857) and in Fading Away (1858).



Benjamin, W. ‘The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1932) [online] At: (Accessed 10/04/2017)

Edwards, S. (2006) Photography: A Very Short Introduction. [Kindle edition] From: (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Sontag, S. (2005) On Photography. [pdf edition] From: Internet Archive At: (Accessed 10/04/2017)


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