Wednesday, November 14, 2012

authenticity in photography

loving this book! if you're interested in the meaning of photography, get it!

i picked this book up from the library yesterday (i've been waiting for it for ages). i sat down with it and didn't put it down again until the end of chapter 2 - the television remained off and dinner was leftovers warmed in the oven. i was riveted.

chapter 1 is an exploration and analysis of two photographs taken by roger fenton (famed as the first photographer of war) in 1855 in the crimea - valley of the shadow of death is the name of the photo. there are actually two versions - one with cannonballs strewn on the road and one without. the controversy is whether fenton staged the shot for dramatic effect by spreading out the cannonballs (as susan sontag suggested in her last book regarding the pain of others) or whether the cannonball shot was taken first and then they were picked up and recycled by the british soldiers.

here are the photos in question (i found them here):

without cannonballs on the road

with cannonballs on the road

morris goes through a fascinating journey (literally traveling to the crimea to find the spot where the photo was taken) and a compelling analysis of whether it matters which shot came first and why it seems to be so important to us, as humans, to assign meaning. after all, posing a shot isn't necessarily a deception, but why do we have an impulse in us to think it is?

and simply as a photo, there is definitely more drama in the shot with the cannonballs on the road and in my google image search to find the shots for this post, it is by far the more reproduced of the two shots. was it a decision made by the photographer for the sake of drama? or a coincidence that he came upon such a scene? what are the implications of trying to capture war in photos? (or in words, as he quotes tolstoy's sebastopol sketches as well (my favorite tolstoy, if i have to like something of his)).

as morris concludes, "...is it unnatural to have people move cannonballs? Or inauthentic? Aren't these photographs of human events--even if there are no people in the frame. They are photographs about war. The effects of war. Is war itself natural or authentic? The concepts of naturalness, authenticity, and posing are all slippery slopes that when carefully examined become hopelessly vague."

after subjecting the photos to extensive analysis (shadows, light, etc.), he does make a conclusion as to which photo came first. but rather than tell you what that conclusion is, i'll insist that you get this book from your local library (i'll bet you won't be able to restrain from writing in it either) and read it for yourself.

do come back and tell me what you think - i think the question at the heart of it is one of authenticity, something i think we're all desperately searching for in what seems like a world gone mad (which is probably why this book speaks to me so strongly).

i want to continue this conversation.

3 comments:

celkalee said...

A picture speaks a thousand words. Well, that is what "they" say. These photo's are compelling for a few reasons. The photo without the cannonballs is a bleak landscape, the meaning is rather vague without historical context. However, with cannonballs it is a declaration of tragic events. Why are they there? Ammunition is limited and expensive. To see them lying about indicates futility to me. War is futility to me. Nothing is ever accomplished. Power mongers flexing their proverbial muscles...mine is bigger than yours!

Authenticity is one of those personality traits that must be a life long pursuit. A daily attempt to identify the person within and use those characteristics to define your world. The frustration lies in the fact that it is a struggle, always torn in different directions we are always seeking the opportunity to level the playing field, to elevate the conversation, to be honest and forthright without being brutal or causing pain. To stage a photo is usually, to me, an attempt to capture a thing or a person in its best light. To attempt to present the best of it or the worst of it depending on your perspective at that moment in time.

Unfortunately, this book is not available in my public library system which rather surprises me. I will check the University system, that may yield results.

Thank you for presenting these photo's. I will be interested to see other opinions. Since I have been leaning a little morbid lately I often think I look at things with dark glasses. No rose colored glasses for this chick!

celkalee said...

A picture speaks a thousand words. Well, that is what "they" say. These photo's are compelling for a few reasons. The photo without the cannonballs is a bleak landscape, the meaning is rather vague without historical context. However, with cannonballs it is a declaration of tragic events. Why are they there? Ammunition is limited and expensive. To see them lying about indicates futility to me. War is futility to me. Nothing is ever accomplished. Power mongers flexing their proverbial muscles...mine is bigger than yours!

Authenticity is one of those personality traits that must be a life long pursuit. A daily attempt to identify the person within and use those characteristics to define your world. The frustration lies in the fact that it is a struggle, always torn in different directions we are always seeking the opportunity to level the playing field, to elevate the conversation, to be honest and forthright without being brutal or causing pain. To stage a photo is usually, to me, an attempt to capture a thing or a person in its best light. To attempt to present the best of it or the worst of it depending on your perspective at that moment in time.

Unfortunately, this book is not available in my public library system which rather surprises me. I will check the University system, that may yield results.

Thank you for presenting these photo's. I will be interested to see other opinions. Since I have been leaning a little morbid lately I often think I look at things with dark glasses. No rose colored glasses for this chick!

Ally said...

I've not seen these photos before. Interesting pieces of history.

I can only think that they represent what has become the norm. That is, photoshopping photos to make the photos the way you want them to be, rather than the way the situation was.

Talk with any smart lawyer, and he or she will tell you that photos are no longer proof of much of anything more than creative talent.