A few years ago the Spanish photographer Joan Fontecuberta exhibited in Madrid the results of a major piece of research he had undertaken. The research revealed that the Soviet Union had painstakingly attempted to remove all traces of one of their pioneering cosmonauts, a man called Ivan Istochnikov. The cosmonaut had supposedly disappeared during the flight of Soyuz 2 in 1968 and Soviet officials had then acted to remove his image from existing photographs. They had also relocated his family to Siberia and threatened his friends and colleagues should they reveal the truth. In the exhibition Fontecuberta exhibited images of the cosmonaut that he managed to unearth, together with artefacts such as spacesuits, videos of the Soviet space programme and a fragment of meteorite.

However, it subsequently transpired that Istochnikov had never existed outside of the imagination of the artist. All of the artefacts in the show were inventions, a kind of public false memory presented as truth. In fact, the name 'Istochnikov' turned out to be a rough translation of 'Fontecuberta', and all the photos unearthed were actually re-touched images featuring the artist himself. Despite this, the work was not exposed as some kind of hoax as may have been expected because Fontecuberta had long been exploring the idea of the false reality of photography, confronting the fallacy that the camera never lies and developing creative antidotes to photographic trust.

But do we really need the work of artists like Fontecuberta to point out what many of us know already - that contrary to the popular saying, the photograph always lies. This fact has come to be understood as a consequence of modern digital manipulation, but the fundamental untruth of the photograph can be traced back much further than Photoshop - back even to the very first principles of the 19 th century image makers. The French writer Baudelaire wrote in the middle of that century that '.. a new industry has arisen   which contributes not a little to confirming stupidity in its faith' -   harsh words, but not surprising given the overwhelming optimism for the new craft at the time.

Closer to home, Bernard Harper, a researcher in the Psychology Department of the University of Liverpool, has spent the last few years exploring one of the most fundamental distortions of reality that every photograph presents to us - that of monocular vision. For most of us the difference between stereo and mono sound is well understood and few of us opt for mono sound as a matter of choice. We have two ears, it's only natural. We also have two eyes and it would seem normal to expect to take advantage of this in our media forms. But stereoscopic photography or 3D movie making is often considered a bizarre novelty, a slightly cranky and unnecessary extension to the visual experience of photography, cinema or television.

The work of Harper has demonstrated that it's not just a matter of gratuitous special effects. The limitations of monocular (one-eyed) vision change our perceptions in much more fundamental and pervasive ways. One of the most fascinating concerns something he describes as the "flattening and fattening" effect of photography. This previously

undescribed distortion can make people appear chunkier in photography, film and TV than they do in real life- an effect that makes men look more masculine and women - well - chunkier. In the words of Harper "It could be that the only hope we have for 'natural' imaging in 2D may lie in the use of programs like PhotoShop, as they allow us to seamlessly correct many of the problems introduced solely by single-lens imaging."

However desirable, the necessity to present stereoscopic images through the use of complex audio-visual trickery makes the widespread use of this technology unlikely without a fundamental redesign of our viewing technologies. And if we were intending to be truly faithful to reality we might need to consider multi-channel sound - and I don't mean simple 5.1 surround sound. Anyone who experienced the astonishing '40 Part Motet' by Janet Cardiff that was presented at Tate Gallery Liverpool last year will know what a truly separated multi-channel sound experience can be like.

But if the accidental aberrations of photographic technology are acceptable untruths, things become sinister when we introduce the possibility of human intervention. The history of airbrushing and the airbrushing of history is now an accepted part of our past, but even so, we still tend to believe the image is innocent until proven guilty. In most cases the guilt is proven or rebuffed by recourse to virgin negatives, the pure original prior to printing and retouching. But is this enough ?, there is more to the honest image than the single negative. Many photographic 'decisive moments' have been undermined by their analysis on contact strips - the sequences of original strips of film that also show the photos taken before and after the famous one - with the posing and repeating of actions wholly undermining the documentary credibility of the photographer.

However, the most famous victim of photography has been the iconic imagery of mass politics, with characters from all parts of the political spectrum being removed from popular images. Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao-Tse Tung was removed from images showing the two of them after his death and her fall from grace, while David King, who has researched and published a major book on the history of photo-manipulation in Soviet Russia called 'The Commissar Vanishes', shows an image in which Stalin stands alongside three other leading members of the communist party in 1926. He documents how, over the next 20 years, all three disappear one-by-one leaving Stalin alone. The chilling flip side of this comical manipulation being that in Stalin's Russia anyone caught in possession of an image of, for example, Trotsky could face arrest, imprisonment and probable execution. In the touring exhibition that accompanies the book, King has attempted to restore the record by exhibiting a sample of the hundreds of thousands of mugshots taken by Stalin's police forces, offering an authentic response to the crude attempts to control our image history.

We know that this form of manipulation has been commonplace for over 150 years, with the products of most promotional photography receiving the benefit of a smooth, buff and polish, and even the addition of colour, prior to the widespread use of colour photography. But all these techniques pale into insignificance when compared with the suite of tools now available to the digital artist. Although the definitive tool - Adobe Photoshop - has only been with us for less than 15 years it has already spawned its own verb, to 'photoshop' something, being to remove or improve its photographic reality. The subtlety and sophistication of the Photoshop tools allows us to easily work accurately on image elements at scales of one-thousandth of an inch, while maintaining the continuity of image-wide effects. Developed by two brothers, John and Thomas Knoll, in the mid-1980's the programme effectively sounded the death-knell for conventional photographic manipulation, replicating all the functionality of a complex darkroom and a skilled printer in a single computer. Coupled with the rise of digital camera, the demise of conventional silver-based photography seems close. While this brings many benefits, it also sees the loss of any claim to an authentic intermediary - the photographic negative. Digital cameras have no fixed negative that can be examined and tested, merely raw digital information in exactly the same form as is processed by tools like Photoshop. In this world there is no 'real' image - no point at which the original photograph exists as an object in its own right. The authentic image has slipped even further away from our grasp.

For many this is a threat, for others a liberation. Philosophers like Paul Virillio and Roland Barthes have dwelt long on the implications of photographic reality, but until the digital media revolution reaches some kind of plateau it is difficult to really understand the effect it will have upon our view of the world around us. For most of us, this world view is dominated and informed by photographic representation. We want to trust this representation, or the loss of faith could cause a crisis in our belief in the world around us. But where do we look to understand how this is effecting us ?.   One place is in the increasingly tense stand-off over the ownership of images - and especially global news images. Intellectual Property litigation in the USA has grown massively in the last 10 years as the big money gets involved in the big images, but stepping outside of this, many organisations have used web-based distribution to provide alternative views of news events - IndyMedia and videoactivism.org being two of many web-based movements aiming to provide politically engaged video documents.

A good example of the way this may work is the recent case of Mitchell Crooks, an actor, DJ and video-maker who videotaped an alleged assault of a black teenager by Los Angeles police. When police became aware that the incident had been recorded they searched for the tape in the backpackers hostel where Crooks was staying, but could not find it. Subsequently the tape was aired on major news networks across the USA and one of the police officers was charged with assault. However, the case had an additional twist when police discovered that an outstanding warrant existed for the arrest of Crooks over drunk driving, hit and run and petty theft charges and subsequently tracked him down and arrested him outside the CNN offices in Los Angeles. The case has now spun out into a major debate over image ownership with the freecrooks.com website offering links to exclusive licensing details for anyone who videotapes a newsworthy event, as well as remixed versions of the original video set to Icecube's 'Who got the camera' track. It seems likely that the pitch for a politically active version of 'You've been framed" is already on the desk of a cable TV executive somewhere in the world.

So how many of us actually still believe in any kind of photographic truth ? - is all representation mis-representation ?.   Most of us trust our holiday snaps, but press pictures ? - probably not, fashion photos ? - absolutely not. For most of us the idea of photographic truth is a sliding scale, with some kind of complex formula relating to the ownership and the intent of the image determining our belief. Maybe we have to go back to pre-photographic times to find someone who might help us through this dilemma - William Blake, the 18 th century English mystic who said, in a neat rhyme, "man is led to believe a lie, when he sees with, not through the eye".

Clive Gillman 2004

 

© Clive Gillman

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