Subjective Lens: Truth and Lies in the History of Photography

Does the camera lie? The camera is an inanimate device, a tool of intention. Like a personal computer, or any other electronic communication device, a camera serves at the discretion of the one who wields it. The effects of the device are impracticable without the will of the operator. As a result, the integrity of the photographer is thrust to the center of ethical discourse. His renderings, like the product of his narration, are subject to evaluation on the grounds of integrity and truth.

The camera, as a machine, has been around for centuries, depending on which anthropologist you ask. It was believed to be first used by the Phoenicians (cir. 1550-300 BCE). In its most rudimentary form, it existed in what is known as the “camera obscura”. Obviously the efficacy of the ‘camera’ would not be realized until the early 1800’s when photosensitive emulsions were introduced as rendering media.

The phenomenon of the camera obscura is the result of physics: the photometrics of a lens, focal length and projection.
The phenomenon of the camera obscura is the result of physics: the photometrics of a lens, focal length and projection.

Obscura Origins

The phenomenon of the camera obscura is the result of physics: the photometrics of a lens, focal length and projection. In fact, there is a growing controversy that postulates that Jan Vermeer (b. 1632) used a camera obscura to aid in his renderings of subjects and their activities, in his studio, demonstrating perfect perspective and lighting tonalities. The precision with which he created his works garnered him the recognition of art historians worldwide as among the best in the world. Currently, there are those who ask, if his images are indeed the product of mechanical duplication, do they stand the test of credibility, since they are not the product of the maker’s hand exclusively?

There is a growing controversy that postulates that Jan Vermeer (b. 1632) used a camera obscura to aid in his renderings of subjects and their activities, in his studio, demonstrating perfect perspective and lighting tonalities.

In Europe, the photographic camera was starting to gain momentum as a miraculous example of wondrous technology. It was able to render in such detail, as to be the indisputable “truth” of our view of the world. Its acceptance was perhaps a backlash towards a growing style, in the more traditional art world, of impressionism. Where the camera was able to render an image in ‘life-like’ detail, the impressionists were viewing the world in broader strokes — literally. The key to the impressionist movement was the subjectivity of the painter and the ability to relay the concepts of his representations to an audience. The “idea” of an image was more important than the literal interpretation of detail. On the other hand, the photograph was taken in perfect reverence to the subject, leaving little or nothing to the imagination.

It wasn’t long before the camera would be recognized for its complexity and put to use documenting everyday life. As with many forms of artistic expression, our first humble subjects tended to be ourselves. Beginning with classical Dutch and Italian painters, the portrait has been a staple of the art world for centuries. It was no different with the camera. Among the first practical uses for the camera were, portraits of dignitaries, the wealthy and their families. Later, the images of everyday folk would begin to capture the imagination of the masses. “Do I really look like that?” was the prevailing sentiment of the times. While the invention of the mirror had been available all along, there was something about the tangible evidence of a photograph that preserved the ‘reality’ of the moment and was a guaranteed means by which to pass on the experience to future generations.

Photography as Propaganda

Uses for the modern camera were rudimentary at first. Images of the westward expansion and the American Native American would stir the imagination. With the onset of the Civil War in the US, the camera would be pressed into service to document the horror and pageantry of the war of secession. The portability of the device and the means by which it captured the details of the struggle made the camera the perfect medium for advancing the rhetoric advocating for the validity of the war and its issues. However, even the moral position of the anti-war rhetoric was not without controversy.

In the years since the Civil War, photographers and scholars alike have accepted the preeminent theory that many of the images of that prolific conflict were staged. Those active in this field of study explain that eighteenth century standards were different than today. The claim seems to be that the newness of the medium drew comparisons with traditional art forms where the author had complete license to compose for effect. In the case of infamous shutterbugs like Mathew Brady, or Alexander Gardener, it was documented that their work, some of the most gruesome and revealing images of the war, were staged. By today’s metric, this behavior would be objectionable at the very least.

In the years since the Civil War, photographers and scholars alike have accepted the preeminent theory that many of the images of that prolific conflict were staged.

Fact or Fiction

Of course, the extent of its accuracy depends greatly on the direction in which the camera is pointed. Soon, the ability of the camera to tell a ‘story’ became clear. By the turn of the twentieth century, the camera was becoming a critical contributor to the daily press and magazines of the day. It was clear that the camera, due to its abilities, was ideally suited to the task of journalism, in a way that a painting or a sketch could never achieve. By the twenties, the camera was an integral part of the narrative. The stories and their credibility were tempered by the presence of photographs. The only question to answer became, “what story do we want to tell?”

It was clear that the camera, due to its abilities, was ideally suited to the task of journalism, in a way that a painting or a sketch could never achieve.

“Being unwilling to abandon any artistic ground to the process of inferior work, I have no fear in appealing to an enlightened public as to their choice… whether it is best to encourage real excellence or its opposite; to preserve and perfect an art, or permit it to degenerate by inferiority of materials which must correspond with the meanness of the price.”
– Mathew Brady

In New York City, during the 30’s and 40’s, Arthur “Weegee” Fellig would make a name for himself, as one of the first freelance photojournalists. He described his style as, “F8 and be there!” In other words, preset the camera and flash for a correct exposure, then make sure you are present at the moment the news becomes worthy. The detail and acuity of his process would serve his narrative.

Telling stories of tragedy, corruption and lawlessness on the streets of Gotham were on full display. Often words were not necessary. The images were stark and sometimes brutal reminders of unchecked mob violence in New York City. In the case of Arthur Fellig, where he pointed his lens was crucial when telling stories of murder and mayhem at the hands of the monsters within society. It is, perhaps, based on these particulars that cameras were not allowed in courtrooms until much later, and in special cases with permission of the sitting magistrate.

Photos telling stories of tragedy, corruption and lawlessness on the streets of New York City during the 30’s and 40’s, by one of the first freelance photojournalists, Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, were stark and sometimes brutal reminders of unchecked mob violence.

“When you decide on your message first, and then try to make the reporting adjust to it, you have created a place where the truth becomes the first casualty.”
– David Burnette, CNN

Modern Images

Of course, all this discussion leads us to the present day. Photography and video are ubiquitous in our society. Images form narratives on a variety of subjects — social and political issues, special interests and entertainment constantly drive the messages toward one focus or another in the epitome of rhetorical practice. Technology has surpassed our wildest expectations and given us tools with which there seem to be no limits. Smartphones have become a nexus of the human communication. Their ability to connect us via telephone, Wi-Fi, video, photos, social media and the web itself, has elevated the casual user to a position equal to professionals charged with recording our society, but without the binding constraints of objectivity, integrity or truth.

For years, I have labored under the auspices of the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words” and, moreover, that the “words” themselves have been selected to persuade via the point of view of the author. Use of terministic screens, public speech, and linguistic relativity are all incongruous with images as rhetoric. The descriptors: ‘seeing’, ‘perception’, ‘reflection’ and ‘narratives’ all translate to a visual vocabulary which is an understudied aspect of communication. To make my point, the following examples are among the more notable images from the twentieth century that demonstrate subjectivity in their creation and conditioning in their consumption by the public.

At 10:00 in the morning, on the island of Iwo Jima, the 5th. Marine Division had just gained crucial ground in the battle of the Pacific. ‘Easy Company’ had planted their battle-worn flag at the top of Mount Surabachi to signify victory against the Japanese. An officer, knowing the Armed Services PR unit was in the area, ordered a second, newer and more photogenic, flag to be raised. A number of the original soldiers had already walked down the hill, so, a few extras were gathered from a detachment running phone lines up the hill for temporary comms. It was then that AP photographer, Joe Rosenthal, staged the “second standing”, an image that would come to exemplify the US armed services and the war effort in the Pacific. The men were canonized as heroes, in an image that was manufactured to reflect the less-than-press worthy original event. To this day, the image conjures deep feelings of patriotism and is immortalized in bronze at a number of military installations across the nation. “In that moment, Rosenthal’s camera recorded the soul of a nation.” – Editors of US Camera Magazine.

Staged “second standing” on the island of Iwo Jima, an image that would come to exemplify the US armed services and the war effort in the Pacific.- photo by Joe Rosenthal

“It was like shooting a football game. You never knew what you got on film.”
– Joe Rosenthal, Photographer.

During thirteen days in October, 1962, President John F. Kennedy was embattled in a war of wills with Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, over the placement of medium range ballistic missiles in Cuba, in response to Allied Jupiter Missile batteries stationed in Turkey, during the cold war. For days, the drama acted out behind closed doors at the White House as well as on television. On one particular afternoon, George Tames happened to be in the Oval Office, covering the events for the New York Times, when he caught Kennedy in a moment of extreme lower back pain. It was an old war injury that had plagued Kennedy for years, punctuated by painful spasms. However, in the context of current events, the pose became an iconic moment, frozen in time that would forever represent the struggle and mental anguish of the ordeal on the President.

The immortal image of Neil Armstrong’s boot print on the moon, is in fact, a photo of Aldrin’s foot print. The image was taken to document the consistency of the lunar regolith, or soil. Armstrong was credited with taking many photographs that day, including one that shows Aldrin, full body, on the surface, an image that is also often mistaken for Armstrong. The legend of first man to walk on the moon has superseded the realities of the events of that day, as experienced by the astronauts themselves. The rhetoric of the photograph is woven into the fabric of US folklore, to include the themes of perseverance, victory (over the Soviets), mankind’s ingenuity and the insignificance of human beings against the backdrop of the Cosmos. Man’s first footfalls on another world will likely last for thousands or millions of years, overshadowing the frail human life which ended on August 26, 2012.

The immortal image of Neil Armstrong’s boot print on the moon, is in fact, a photo of Aldrin’s foot print.

“Metaphors are ubiquitous and inconspicuous at the same time. They populate language, yet few people are aware of their presence. Metaphor’s stealth nature is part of its power to structure thought.”
– Catherine Palczewski

Mediated Experiences

While the statement, “the camera doesn’t lie,” has a basis in truth, the message is certainly subject to interpretation. Furthermore, to recognize the “lie,” one must be intimately aware of the truths that are to be omitted and, concurrently, one must understand that the ‘truth’ has a great deal to do with a person’s point of view. This is equally applicable to texts.

I offer a quote by the French biologist/writer and philosopher, Jean Rostand: “Kill one man and you are a murderer. Kill millions and you are a conqueror. Kill all and you are a God.” Our text makes the case for “murder’ as an ideograph and “war” as a deflected metaphor for a fairy tale or a game. The US Army chants the slogan, “Army of One,” as if to resonate with the themes and exaggerated realities of a video game. All around us we act and respond under the pressures of allegory and metaphor. Gods, governments and corporations invest heavily in the manipulation of narrative. It is our sacred charge to root out and be aware of the messaging, and to keep diligent inventory of the deeds that accompany the rhetoric in the modern age of media and spectacle.

In 1968, during an FTC hearing on truth in advertising, representatives of the BBDO Ad Agency admitted to using marbles to enhance the enticement and edibility of their Campbell’s soup layouts, by making the vegetables and pasta float more visibly at the surface of the bowl. While this did not translate into legislation, it did result in an industry wide mutual agreement to lend credibility to all layouts, by using actual products and “real” ingredients in advertising. In situations where a simulated product was used, the disclaimer “simulation” would be posted within the ad, visible to the public. This was, in effect, a “gentlemen’s agreement,” among members of the advertising community to establish ethical standards in practice and avoid restrictive legal regulations that would stymie self-regulating controls. The result of all this effort was an uptick in consumer confidence and a bolster for the integrity of the ad industry. In the case of soup, it is comforting to know that, “what you see is what you get.”

In present day photo and video production, we no longer need mechanical solutions to the problem of visual enhancement. The power of Photoshop, After Effects and other computer rendering tools, to effectively alter the reality of a subject or scene, is fertile ground for debates on ethics and photographic integrity. In newsrooms across the country, photojournalists insist that Photoshop only be used to the extent that: color saturation, sharpness and basic exposure adjustment or cropping are the only permissible features of the application.

The plethora of ways, in which an application of this power and magnitude could be abused is evidence for the necessity of discipline. While there are no strict legal guidelines, under which journalists operate, they have adopted a code of their own to govern their performance. The ethical professional will consider these imperatives in the course of their due diligence. Once the integrity of a journalist has been compromised, he or she may never regain the trust of their readership.

“A picture is simply a moment, and although we might think we can divine what it is we are looking at, there are times when a visual representation of life is simply: neither the whole truth, nor nothing but the truth.”
– David Burnette, CNN

Case in point, consider the state of political journalism in the new millennium. Subjective lenses are being pointed in a plethora of directions. Each with a conflicting story to tell, serving highly divided audiences all glowering at their TVs and computer consoles, struggling to make sense of the points of view, and political rhetoric both around government and in the courtroom. In these cases, it is particularly important for the curator of such imagery to maintain an ethical high ground, while gathering the facts surrounding an issue that informs our audience without conflating sensitive issues. Like the newspaper trade, if we do not assume responsibility for the messages buried in our images, no one else will.

With regard to public hearings and courtrooms where cameras and motion picture devices are concerned, the US Supreme Court has ruled twice on the matter. First, in 1965, they stated, “The TV industry, like other institutions, has a proper area of activities and limitations, beyond which it cannot go with cameras. That area does not extend into an American courtroom. On entering that hallowed ground, where the lives, liberty and property of people are in jeopardy, television representatives have only the rights of the general public, namely, to be present, to observe the proceedings, and thereafter, if they choose, to report them.” – Estes v. Texas, 1965.

In 1981 they issued another ruling stating that cameras, specifically TV cameras, did not necessarily violate due process (Chandler v. Florida). The subject is still unresolved. In many cases, to this day, the impressionistic renderings of sketch artists are the only officially sanctioned method of telling the story inside a courtroom. This was the case recently, when President Trump banished cameras of all kinds from the White House press room, and again from certain proceedings on Capitol Hill, in retaliation for stories and content he considered counter to the narratives being put out by his administration.

While the press has long enjoyed a productive relationship with members of the executive branch of government, the forum is bolstered by years of precedent without any legal provisions. In January of this year, members of the White House put that to the test, calling for a blackout of press conferences and setting back media privilege decades.

The (Subjective) Truth

It is my assertion that, since its inception, people have been acutely aware of the potential for the camera to tell subjective stories that may be in conflict with realities perceived by different groups. The medium is, what we would call in the age of information, too open sourced. From the point of exposure in the camera, to the submission of the image to a service bureau, to the final deliverables at the agency, the image is at the mercy and interpretation of a variety of players, each with an agenda or a version of the message. The truth then, stems from our own commitment and voracity and is tempered by our conviction to maintain that rendition throughout the process of submission and receipt by the audience. We must be vigilant towards our values and fight to maintain our integrity as story tellers; dedicating ourselves to our own stories and as many universal truths as we may find. In the process of saying “yes”, if ever these aspirations should come into conflict with the demands of the marketplace, we must never underestimate the power of “No.” Truth is where you find it.

A retired Gaffer, Michael has enjoyed 26 years working on movie sets all over the United States. As a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Studio Employees and a veteran of 74 feature films and over 400 episodes of TV, he has been fortunate to collaborate with some of Hollywood’s most talented people.

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
Michael is a retired gaffer with over 26 years of experience in the film industry, working on 74 feature films and over 400 episodes of TV.

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