A Photographic Mind

An inadequate explanation of my passion for photography

It’s not the photograph that has to be trusted, it’s the photographer.

Following my post the other day on manipulated photographs by Steve McCurry, some thoughts on Don McCullin’s problems with digital photography.

Digital Photos Can't Be Trusted, Says Renowned War Photographer


Another FFS moment on coming across comments from Don McCullin about the issues of digital cf film (zzzzz… sleep coming on). The problem is that people fetishize their own working version of whatever medium they are talking about, they forget the problems of previous versions of their craft and its alternatives, and believe that any particular instance of a “veracity problem” invalidates all other methods and uses of the medium.

Firstly, there is no right way to do photography, just as there is no right way to do painting or writing or talking. Different people have different approaches and different outcomes. In the same way that I am not engaged by many of the genres of literature, but other people are, I am not engaged with many types of and subject matter of photography. I don’t read romantic fiction, very little science fiction and no war, horror or crime fiction. That doesn’t mean that there is no science, horror, war, romance or crime in the novels that I read, just that those subjects are not the main thrust of the stories told there. I find art that is purely conceptual in terms of its examination of the navel of its own medium and the mental mechanics of it tedious and uninteresting. Some people, particularly those who are following an academic or curatorial career, find that those types of work can enhance their opportunities for developing their authority. A lot of it is the equivalent of angels on pinheads that the religious authorities used to agonise about.

Secondly, if we think about photography as a way of telling stories, true or otherwise, about the actual or an imaginary world, then we have to compare the photographic method to those methods that came before. We could do the same for writing and speaking, the other main means of communication that we have. Before photography there was painting and drawing as visual media, as well as the plastic forms of sculpture. Were these endlessly criticised for being distortions of the truth because of the subjective creator and the mechanisms of the medium that they are using? No, and they are all now fetishised as “fine art” and endlessly examined for their true meanings and metaphoric content. What of writing – do we challenge everything that is written because of the subjective leanings of the writer? And of course, everything I say is always true isn’t it, because I always have a perfect viewpoint for what I see and memorise. No, of course I don’t. If others are to be convinced of the veracity of what I say or write, they have to know something about me, my reputations for not allowing myself to distort what I have seen and my mechanisms for ensuring that I have not been deceived myself by my point of view, either physical or mental. That thereby I can say something that is usefully accurate in known ways, and potentially inaccurate in known ways, so that we can benefit from the communication.

Photography is no different. A great deal of the possible distortion is not in the darkroom or the computer software, it’s in the chosen or happenstance point of view, in the arrangement or not of the subject matter, the impact, in Heisenberg’s terms, of the viewer and her process on the thing viewed and recorded. Most photography up to the 1950’s was as much manipulated in the set up of the shot as in the darkroom. Even McCullin was guilty, though infrequently, of that. Classics where there is some question of this set up distortion of what we see in the final image are Lange’s Migrant Woman, Capa’s Dying Soldier and a lot of Bill Brandt’s social documentary work.

All makers and creators have their own working practices and also their own agendas, explicit and implicit. Knowing the people, their working practices and the mechanics of the medium well enables us to take those factors into account when assessing and using what they communicate. And thus we can take something of value from their communication rather than just pointing out that all media and communications are distorted by the means and the motive of the creator and presenter, and therefore of no value.

And so to the question of the response to the tsunami of imagery that digital photography allows, and whether that undermines all communication through photography. Well, that is no different to the tsunami of digital news headlines or points of view or blogs or writing of any kind. We have to develop practices that are reputation and filter based to help assess the likely challenges to the material from various possible distortions that it contains. We are already doing that. We restrict incoming content to known sources, whether personal contacts or organisations attempting to get our attention. We filter in varying ways. I take no notice of material from the Daily Mail – I expect it to be so distorted by a frame of reference that I do not credit it with validity, that I see no point in engaging with it at all. I do not “friend” people in facebook that I have not had some interaction with or some common contacts. The same on LinkedIn etc., etc.

These are the same sorts of mechanism that we might have employed before the ages of writing, before printing, before the digital age. When all we had was verbal – gossip and sermons essentially, and used reputational and cross comparison mechanisms for assessing the value of what we heard. The same must apply as we build the reputation and channel credibilities of the sources of the communications that we attend to and find useful in our lives today, including digital photography.

(I originally wrote this back in November when the Guardian published their article, but didn’t post it until now).

Written by Robert Ashby

May 11, 2016 at 7:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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