“The camera never lies.”
- Buck’s Fizz, My Camera Never Lies, 1982.
As we all know, Buck’s Fizz were telling a big fat lie. The reasons it is a lie are legion.
Choices or accidents in making a picture – framing, timing, lighting, and so on – can transform the final result. In a portrait, these are the things that make the the same sitter look intelligent or stupid, evil or heroic, happy or sad, beautiful or ugly. Add to this scenic interference by the photographer – say, annoying the sitter by snatching his cigar away – and we increase the potential for fibs to be told and viewers misled, right at the moment the shutter is clicked.
And all this is before the infinite manipulations possible ‘post production’. Trotsky was disappeared completely from the famous photograph of Lenin rousing the rabble. A curvy Kate Winslet was rendered stick thin on the cover of GQ. These are just two of probably billions of examples across the past one and a half centuries.
But there’s so much more. The single most important determinant of how a photograph is interpreted has little to do with the photograph itself. Usually, it is the context in which a photograph is presented which carries the most weight. In photography as in speech: it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it. A Spanish woman looking up at a speaker on a platform in peacetime has become a woman scanning the sky in fear of bomber aircraft. This is just one of innumerable examples since the medium's invention of photographic recontextualization transforming a picture's meaning.
And it seems we’re constantly introducing new variables. Both of the above pictures were taken of the same scene from the same angle at almost exactly the same time, with the same camera with the same settings in the same light by the same person with same intentions. Neither has been subjected to post production. As far as the hapless photographer is concerned, the differences are purely accidental, a result of decisions made by the camera in his smartphone even before it captured the image.
Photographs have always been approximations, fictions, or – if you like – damned lies. But in making life easier for the photographer and entrusting more and more decisions to technology, we are not helping matters. Perhaps in our quest to make things better, we’re actually making them worse.
- Simon Bowcock
The book in the picture is by Stefanie Moshammer and is published by Spector Books. Simon reviewed it for 1000 Words.