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)


Research point 3: Notes from reading Gareth Dent’s article, ‘Dealing with the flood’

This article is to be found at:

Risultati immagini per erik kessels 24 hours in photos

Erik Kessels, photograph of the work 24 Hours of Photographs, at:

Gareth Dent’s article points out three main creative ways in which artists deal with the flood of photographs produced especially on the social media:

There are some that embrace the flood wholeheartedly and use it to produce their own work – embracing the flood

There are others that select which images from the flood are most suitable to their work and appropriate/use/combine them – appropriating the flood

Still others are storytellers and construct their own stories with found or staged images – making storytelling.

Erik Kessels is an example of the first type,  other artists he quotes are Roy Ethridge, Doug Rickard and Mishka Henner – all appropriating images in their work – and the visual storyteller Cristina de Middel (I found her method particularly interesting).

I checked their work online using the following sources, all accessed on 2/05/2017:

But how do I personally deal with the flood?

I definitively have a difficult relationship with social media, for me it’s a hate and love affair, and the constant flood of images, together with the constant flow of ‘news’, is at the core of my problems with them. I am rather reluctantly on Facebook on an on-and-off basis, I have accounts on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram but never use them, and I am happily enough on Pinterest, but even here for just a few minutes every other day or so.

More often than not I need to take a break away from the ‘flood’ to breathe freely: the overflow of images makes me anxious, unconcentrated, unfocused, even unhappy. And on Facebook and elsewhere I am really bored to see selfies of pouting faces, endearing pets, beautiful vacation photos, food photos, family reunions and the like. I never post any of them also because I think nobody is really interested in them, rather everybody is interested in their own. Perhaps, deep down, many people share loads of self-referential images because they need to be reassured: that they are valuable, that they have and deserve love, that the life they live is precious and meaningful.

But that said I do enjoy and value the possibility offered by social media to see and get to share all the incredible amount of amazing photographs, information and resources available through the Internet, and have no regret for the times when all this was only a dream. And whenever I share something – mostly artworks, craft by others – rarely by me, unknown views and opinions from other parts of the world – is because I think somebody out there might be really interested in them, value or use them as information or inspiration.

Do social media democratise or devalue photography?

All considered, I prefer a flood of photographs to an absence of them and I cannot even imagine a world without social media or global communication anymore. I have read Robert Frank‘s quotation by Alec Soth – ‘There are too many images, too many cameras now …’ but I’m not sure that I agree. Many images are silly and useless, others are meaningful and moving, or beautiful. Some of them are art, most are not. ‘Nothing is really that special. It’s just life’: I think this is true and perhaps this is exactly what makes photography special as a medium: it can reflect life as nothing else, it conforms to life, it can be senseless and tedious, it can be amazing, it can be marvelous. Photography depends on us, on what we do with it, and we can look in it almost like in a mirror.

In this regard I find very stimulating the idea that ‘we see through the photograph as if it were a window onto the subject’ (Creative Arts Today, page 152).

So my tentative answer is: yes, social media democratise photography, and like in democracy there are good things and bad things but better have democracy than not to have it. If it is devalued is our fault, we can learn to use it better.

Am I contributing to the ‘flood’ and is this a good or a bad thing?

So far my contribution has been modest and in itself this is neither good or bad. Maybe in the future I shall take courage and contribute more or the other way round. I appreciate that the possibility is there and open.


Exercise 2, Part 2 : Taking a walk in my neighbourhood


Rome – a sense of place

The problem with the centre of Rome where I live is that this town is so beautiful that it is often difficult to take purely functional photos. The combination of monuments, palaces, light conditions and people is unique. Even ugliness – the trash left around town, the heavy traffic – tends to become special in this environment. Here are some moments I captured during my walk.


First group:  documentary or utilitarian images

These images are from a walk around yesterday and show a mixture of beautiful monuments, cars, people, tourists, maintenance works, daily life of a typical workday in the centre of Rome in a rainy weather. Rome has I think a very unique impure beauty, a beauty in which tourists and residents are awash all the time sharing the same spaces, brushing each other but living the place in different ways, tourists mainly walking and smiling, stopping at corners to look at maps and taking photographs, and residents and politicians trying to find a quick way amid the crowds, among cars and cafés, choosing small alleys and passageways to avoid the throngs.





Second group: stepping aside and choosing details

In this second group of images I tried something different: I walked away from the main routes and focused on details. Because if it’s true that Rome is full of people, it also has many serene and almost empty spots, even in the city centre.

I don’t think these photos are ‘artistic’, but taking them was certainly an exercise in paying attention. And for the time being this is what photography means to me: to focus, to pay attention, to see things with a concentrated mind. I am drawn to the playing of colours and light, to textural effects in the world around me, to how lines meet. I am aware that my approach is more or less pictorial, not photographic, and I realize that I tend to see things around as if they were potential art materials, to be captured and stored, like interesting magazine clippings, that I somehow do not have a photographic eye, that I still have to learn how to see with a camera instead of using the camera as a tool to find something interesting to be used in other ways.


Trees silhouetted against a dramatic sky, on the Pincio hill


Remnants of a smashed motorcycle rear window








Detail of a wall under renovation








A beautiful drawing of writer Pasolini, a sort of modern Pietà, on an old wall


Who lived in here? Even in the centre of Rome deserted places abound


Left aside and forgotten inside a church


The sun playing a beautiful light game on a building


Exercise 2, Part 1 : Flicking through my Iphone’s photos

Exercise 2 invites me to flick through a photo album – I chose the Camera Roll in my Iphone – and pick out some that seem ‘artistic’ to me.

As I said in my introductory notes to Project 1, I never thought to make art through my photos and so all of them were merely an attempt to fix what interests me, an aid to memory, or a form of documentation for future use. Nonetheless while reviewing these snapshots, moments of my life came forcefully back, some images woke up emotions or feelings associated with them, and these are the ones that I chose to upload.

While all of them are more or less personally meaningful to me, I am not going into the circumstances at the time – it would take too long – and shall limit myself to take note of what I think makes every one of them a little special if not really ‘artistic’.


The vivid colours and the sharp lines caught my attention in a restaurant


The mirrors in front of me fragmented the people and the trees behind



Graffiti on a wall look like an abstract painting



Another photographic abstract painting, loved the combination of green, black and cream and the strength of the black shape in the centre



Inside a museum: I was attracted by the combination of the three elements, the wheelchairs in partial shadow, the white strong shape of the stair and the woman climbing



I was driven by the strong contrasts of shapes, colour and light



This is a photograph of me, taken by somebody else. I absolutely love the relationship between my eyes and those of the painted figures, and the mellow colours



A confused picture inside a museum, I like how the statue in the foreground is a bit out of focus



I think this is a fun portrait


A photograph of an old photograph on a grave, I wanted to take it back to life



I was captured by this shadow of two people on a wall, it looks like a double exposure but it’s just a reflexion












Research point 2: John A. Walker’s essay ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’

Walker, J. A. ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’ (2009)


In his essay John A. Walker argues that the meaning of a photograph changes according to the context in which it is located and seen: a change in location determines a change of context and so of meaning; for example a wedding photograph is viewed as a memento of a social ritual in a family album, but becomes a demonstration of a photographer’s work in a photographic shop window.

Context always influences the viewer’s perception of a photograph even if his or her attention is mainly drawn to the internal space and content of the image since as viewers we cannot but maintain an awareness of our environment. And in this sense the ‘context’ is seen as a determinant of photographic meaning.

The word ‘context’ is a generic term that can be further specified as being architectural, socio-historical and so on, and in most cases a recontextualisation of an image produces a partial or complete transformation of its depicted content or denotation: parts or the whole picture are given a shifted or new meaning in different contexts.

If in the distant past artworks like oil paintings or sculptures were often produced for a specific location or as part of architectural structures as in the case of frescoes, in time they became geographically dispersed until with the advent of photography they lost any connection with their original location, being ever since easily reproduced. As a consequence the importance of the architectural or physical display context has diminished while that of media contexts like newspapers, books, magazines has risen.

Also the socio-historical context is important and if the meaning of a photograph is certainly heavily influenced by the moment of its production, it changes however when it is viewed within different cultures and in different times. This means that it is crucial to examine an image not only at its birth, but also to consider its ‘circulation’ – that is the distribution/transmission of an image – and its ‘currency’ – that is its meaning, use and value for a particular community.

After examining the influence of display and media contexts, Walker takes into account a third important context: the beholder’s mental set. People enter in relation with the image according to their different position in society which is determined by factors like gender, race, nationality, age, education and so forth. The mental context of an image can be partially influenced by artists with an appropriate choice of the conditions of display according to the specific audiences they have in mind, but very often it lies outside their control.


Side notes on this text

This essay deals with the relevance of context for photographs and how a change in context involves a change of meaning, but the same observations can be applied to all the other areas of creative arts as I have been studying them so far, from contemporary artworks, to writing, to visual communications.

Context in its different forms – architectural, socio-historical and mental as Walker calls them – determines an interpretative shift of meaning and so new connotations: different cultures and times, and also different people appropriate what they see, read, listen to or participate in, in new ways and from changing vantage points and in so doing alter every time its meaning. At the same time and conversely, a piece of work has a different impact on people depending on their historical, cultural and sociological condition.

This generates a double flow of meaning towards and from the piece of work, a reciprocal action and impact from the work to the audience and vice versa. If I interpret it correctly, the essay can also be usefully read in the light of the critical theories of reception aesthetics/history and of the reader response which concentrates on how the reader responds to the text, and of the seminal essay by Roland Barthes,  ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967), and the corresponding ‘birth’ or the reader.



Walker, J. A. ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’ (2009) [online] At: (Accessed 13/04/2017)

Kemp, Wolfang (1998) ‘The Work of Art and Its Beholder The Methodology of the Aesthetic of Reception’ in Cheetham, Mark A. (ed.): The subjects of art history : historical objects in contemporary perspectives, Cambridge 1998, pages 180-196 [online] At: (Accessed 27/03/2017)

Barthes, R. (1967) The Death of the Author. Translated by Richard Howard. In: [online] At:  (Accessed 21.12.2016)


Exercise 1: What is a photograph?

What, in your view, makes photographs unique as an art form?

Photography as a genre looks really difficult to pinpoint since photographs are everywhere and everybody can easily take them, artists and not artists, for all sorts of different reasons and purposes, and exactly because it is so pervasive at the end it becomes elusive. After all the basic tools photography uses are largely available and simple to get: light, the world around us and a more or less sophisticated camera. This immediacy and straightforward simplicity could partly be what makes photography so unique and popular as a medium: in contrast to drawing or painting or sculpture, even without any technical knowledge or skill photographs can be taken by anybody.

The relative easiness of photography is certainly a factor that explains its success and a quality unique to this medium, as Talbot had already argued right from the start, even if in itself does not account for or explains the specificity of photographs as objects. Certainly though, I think, this immediacy allows for what is unique in photographs: a fixed image of a fraction of time of a specific place, the captured ‘momentness’ of André Cartier-Bresson.

In this sense the photographic image really seems the medium of choice for dealing with the main themes of time and place in contemporary arts around which this course revolves. But I think that if this freezing a place in time is certainly unique to photography as a medium, it also is less innocent of what it looks: on the one hand it is highly satisfying because the captured image saves that moment of that place from being lost and forgotten – it fixes it in our memory and makes it present after it is past – but on the other hand the image is also unsatisfactorily only a fragment and an illusion since it offers a very partial view or aspect of the many possible and continually changing conditions of that moment of that place.

And I think that this intrinsic ambiguity of photographs is also what makes them so suitable to our shifting postmodern attitude, in which nothing is certain or explained forever and everything seems condemned to being transient or only partially true and open to further interpretation. Perhaps this is why so many contemporary artists choose photography as a medium: because photography is multi-functional, unsettled, fluid, adaptable and compliant, fit to whatever purpose and extremely elusive.

Perhaps also this impossibility to contain photography within prescriptive boundaries, its same fluidity, make photography a very special if impure medium, that allows for an intrinsically hybrid use, artistic and non artistic, high or low, everyday or functional, whatever one chooses. So maybe the photograph as an object – an image that is flat, framed, taken from a certain angle – tends to disappear as if making place for the partial view of a moment of the world fixed by somebody, which can be candid, casual, unintentional, staged, manipulated or even made up (as allowed for by digital photography today).


Think about what we mean by ‘photographic image’. Does it have to be something permanently fixed? Does a photograph have to exist in hard copy? Is there a difference between a printed photograph and a digital image that sits virtually on someone’s device, for instance?

Following from this reasoning it seems to me that the freedom of photography as a medium can also mean that a photographic image may have a life outside a printed or a hard copy without renouncing its nature: it may have a virtual, potential if impermanent life stored in a device or digitally floating in the cloud, projected on a screen or transmitted via radio waves.

Digital images can be altered and so manipulated pixel by pixel, but after all also conventional photographs could be and have been manipulated by different means, as shown for example by Fading Away, a 1858 arranged print which was obtained by H. P. Robinson out of five negatives, or by the daguerreotyped portraits coloured by hand.




Photography as genre

Project 1 revolves around the questions of how we can define photography as distinct from other genres and what is its specificity as a medium, and in this regard quotes opinions from some famous practitioners (Creative Arts Today, page 14)

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), an American photographer known for her portraits, New York City photographs of architecture and urban design of the 1930s (Wikipedia), believed that ‘photography can never grow up if it imitates some other medium. It has to walk alone; it has to be itself.’ (from the article ‘It Has to Walk Alone’ in Infinity Magazine, 1951, cited by Creative Arts Today).

Fig. 1. Berenice Abbott, Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street in Manhattan (1935)

At:, Public Domain, (Accessed 7/04/2017)

In his book The Nature of Photographs (2010), Stephen Shore says that ‘the photographic image depicts, within certain formal constraints, an aspect of the world’ (Shore, 2010). He also says that, beyond its ‘physical and optical factors’ which give the image its formal character, a photograph’s visual grammar is determined by four attributes: flatness – the flat plan of the photograph, frame – framing a selection from a wider view, time – the fraction of time captured by the image, and focus – where the photographer focuses the camera. I have bought this book and am going to take it into account in my first exercise for Project 1 in the next post.

Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s view is also cited by Creative Arts Today: ‘To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of the event.’

Immagine correlata

Fig. 2. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alberto Giacometti, Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1961

At: (Accessed 7/04/2017)

Other quotations by Cartier-Bresson express in different ways his idea of  the ‘momentness’ of photography:

‘A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace.’

‘For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.’

‘Photography is nothing – it’s life that interests me.’

Susan Sonntag (1933-2004), a Jewish-American writer, film-maker, teacher and political activist, wrote extensively also on photography (Wikipedia) and was rather interested in the relationship between photography and reality:

‘Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality and of realism’ (quoted by Creative Arts Today).

So it could be particularly interesting to focus on her ideas later on, on the post on ‘Truth’ in photography.




Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer (2nd edition). London: Phaidon Press

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

Berenice Abbott: (Accessed 7/04/2017)

Stephen Shore: (Accessed 7/04/2017)

Henri Cartier-Bresson: (Accessed 7/04/2017)

Henri Cartier-Bresson: (Accessed 10/04/2017)

Henri Cartier-Bresson: (Accessed 10/04/2017)

Susan Sontag:  (Accessed 10/04/2017)