This is a fairly short (1700 words) essay I just finished writing for my Aesthetics module discussing the possibility of taking a photo of something which does not exist in front of the camera. It’s not referenced properly, but it draws moderately on the work of Currie and Scruton, amongst other theorists on the course. I’ve included some of the photos I mention at the bottom for context (apologies for poor formatting, wrestling with WordPress).
‘The camera never lies.’ Discuss
Photography is a unique technique because of its having, in some sense, an automaticity in its mechanism which, it will be argued, requires that the product somehow involves the subject in a direct relation unlike any other form of static representation like drawing, painting, or even tracing. In order to grasp the problem of whether a camera can present something which is not real, whether that means it is ‘fictional’ or not, it will be necessary to look at some examples of images which it might be claimed have achieved this form of presentation, and in doing so evaluate the importance of the mechanism of photography, especially in relation to the wider range of representational arts such as film. Before proceeding with this evaluation, it will be necessary to clarify the question and set aside some irrelevant practical details.
‘The camera never lies’ is a statement which could mean many different things, and it is therefore important to get clear that primarily the use of ‘camera’ will be understood as photography, rather than film. Given this, it seems straightforwardly obvious that the output from a camera can be misleading, whether the user intends it or not. For example when the exposure is incorrect and a person’s face in the resultant image appears blurred so that it just happens, by coincidence, to look like someone else. This fairly colloquial understanding of a camera having ‘lied’ is not the issue which will be examined here. Rather, the focus will be on whether it is possible to produce an image using a camera that is not straightforwardly of the physical object it takes for its subject, the quality of that image aside. The first thing to investigate is the mechanism of the camera, which is vital to understand the images it produces. Whatever particular design the camera might be, it will always have, in some form or another, a light-sensitive surface which can react to light when it is exposed, capturing an image of whatever the surface is facing. The important thing to note here is that without the light reflecting off of the object facing the camera, there can be no image, The image is therefore not only dependent on, but constituted by the light of the object. It is also important, if obvious, that the way in which the light acts upon the camera is not subject to the photographer’s intervention – the photographer can change the position of the camera, and even the way it interprets light, but not the way in which the light forms. This is important because it differentiates photography from other forms of depiction like painting, many have compared the light-sensitive surface to a canvas, and the light itself to the paint, but even given this analogy, the actual process of taking a photograph is totally mechanistic, and therefore in some sense objective, in a way that painting simply cannot be. Thus the painter can paint a man to be twice as broad, and half as ugly as he is in real life, whereas a photographer is limited by the structure of the light reflecting from the man as he genuinely is in reality. It is in this sense that it will be assumed that there is an objectivity in the mechanism of photography which precludes it from being able to produce, within itself, an entirely false image. It has to be mentioned, however, that a camera is not the most truthful method of representation through light, since what is given in a photograph is given in the form of a still, but no matter how good the camera is, the image produced at the end represents an aggregate of light collected during a certain period of time (whether that period of time is 1/2000th of a second or a minute). This stands in contrast to film, which is an image captured in motion and displayed in motion, which it can be argued is not potentially misleading in the same way a photograph can be. This is one sense in which a camera can be understood as ‘lying’, since the final image does seem to present a genuine still moment, when really it isn’t, however, this problem can be set aside as an example of issues of clarity much like the blurred image previously mentioned, rather than the kind of object-independent representation which is of more philosophical interest.
Having set aside these functional considerations, the focus will be on whether or not a photographer can manipulate those features of an image which are not mechanistic to produce an image which is not of its object. This investigation will primarily concern itself with two specific kinds of image which might lay claim to being of something other than that which is portrayed. The first kind can be described as metaphorical or suggestive images, the archetype of which is Weston’s Pepper #30, a black and white photograph taken in 1930 of a pepper which is smooth and contorted in such a manner as to recall the composition and format of nudes of the same period, best characterised by another of Weston’s photographs, Head Down Nude from 1936. The claim here would be that the image is of a nude, not a pepper, since the pepper has been photographed in a deliberate attempt to accentuate its nude-like qualities to the point of transcending the pepper itself as the object of the image. A similar case is presented by Julia Margaret Cameron’s nineteenth century story-telling photographs, for example King Arthur wounded lying in a barge, a photograph from a series telling the story of King Arthur wherein each photograph was accompanied by some narrative text describing the scene. These images were of actors dressed up deliberately as fictional characters, posed in a particular fashion to increase the dramatic impact, and given written context to help the viewer see in them something which is not there – the death of King Arthur. Though these photographs do not seem as obviously of their object as most photography, it can be argued that the images themselves do not present something which is not there, rather they present some particular object which is itself of something else. The King Arthur photographs are not of King Arthur, but of actors dressed up to represent King Arthur, hence King Arthur is a kind of second-order subject, the image fails to directly present King Arthur in itself. By the same token, Weston’s Pepper photograph is not itself a metaphor for a nude, rather it is a photograph of a pepper which is a metaphor for a nude. Hence the photograph itself still takes for its object something which is real – the pepper. It might be granted that the photograph is suggestive of a nude, but this seems again to be making a second-order claim.
A potentially more compelling case could be in examples of photography where the light mechanism is used to ‘create’ objects which can only exist in virtue of the camera’s having captured them. A good example of this would be the use of a very long exposure time in a dark room, where someone (perhaps even the photographer) takes a bright LED light, and shines it in front of the camera in such a pattern as to produce an image in the shape of a person on the light-sensitive surface. The resulting photograph would naturally depict a person sketched out in bright light, despite the fact that at no point in reality was there an image of a person in existence. In apprehending this kind of image, one would have to make a decision one way or another on whether the photograph is of something which exists or not. To claim the man in the image, the object of that image, does not exist would be no less than to claim that cameras can produce images of things that do not exist, hence one would be led to believe that the camera can indeed ‘lie’, something which seems intuitively not to make sense, given the mechanism and function of photography. Yet to take the opposite position, that the image is of something which really exists, is necessarily to claim that an object can be created (and documented) by the mere motion of a light, though the eye at no point apprehends that object, and that object does not fully exist at any particular given moment. This appeases the claim that the camera does not lie, but leads to the curiously mystical position of believing an object can be brought into existence by the movement of light. It is this odd dichotomy which was anticipated by the distinction between photography and film earlier; what the photograph presents as a still is really an aggregate of separate reactions to light, in this case uniquely cohering to form a complete picture. This isn’t a problem for film, where motion is again captured, but it is displayed properly as in motion, hence film cameras arguably never do lie. This might be thought an oddity considering film techniques derive from photography.
In conclusion, the camera can produce images which are, it seems, fictionally competent – they can present themes, ideas, or straightforward fictional objects in much the same way as painting and indeed film can. However, this presentation is second-order, and the object of the images is still an existing thing, hence in the case of Weston’s Pepper or Cameron’s King Arthur the image is still directly of a pepper or an actor and the camera is not, as it were, lying. By contrast, when the mechanism of photography is used to ‘create’ an object using only light, a material which totally escapes manual formation in reality, it allows the camera to produce an image of something which is not there. This is, perhaps surprisingly, the more outwardly sensible of the two options regarding the possible existence of objects created with light and captured by cameras, since the alternative mysticism begs many tricky metaphysical questions. Given this understanding, it does seem that the camera is capable of lying, it is possible to create a photograph of something which does not exist. The implications of this creative capability for photography as an art-form are vast, and bear consideration independently in much greater depth.
Pepper #30 by Edward Weston, 1930
Head Down Nude by Edward Weston, 1936
King Arthur wounded lying in the barge by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1875