It is easy to think of photographs as truth. The image is there before our own eyes in all its realism, so it must have also looked that way in reality. However, the camera has been lying to us since the very beginning of photography – long before the days of Photoshop. In 1843 William Henry Fox Talbot photographed books casually placed on shelving and titled it “A Scene in a Library.” Talbot took the image not in a library, but in his garden. This is a rather innocent example, but the title causes the viewer to believe it is a library, without thought to its validity.
As an art form, it poses little threat. We think we are “seeing,” rather than seeing through someone else’s perspective. Historically, however, it can be quite dangerous. Take Alexander Gardner and his dramatic scene of Gettysburg. A dead man lies behind his cover – two huge boulders and a pile of smaller rocks in between – with his face toward the camera, mouth open and a rifle dramatically propped up against a boulder in “The Home of the Rebel Sharpshooter’s Den.” Distributed with the image was a woeful tale of the life of a sharpshooter. The body had been moved 40 yards from where he had fallen and arranged by Gardner and his assistant, Timothy O’Sullivan, and the rifle propped up artistically. Another photograph of the same body was published side by side with it and implied these were the dead of the opposing armies.
In the digital age, it hardly becomes necessary to move bodies to create a dramatic scene. Yet photographs give the illusion of a transparent access to reality. What did the photographer choose not to capture – what lies beyond the frame? Photography should be looked at with a discerning eye. It is a creation, just like any traditional still life or portrait and comes with an agenda. There is always someone behind the curtain.
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