Oscar Gustav Rejlander was an early pioneer of art photography and an expert in photomontage as seen in the elaborate tableau Two Ways of Life which Rejlander constructed by using over 30 separate negatives. The work depicts the life of a sinner versus the life of a saint and is typical of the artistic subject matter so often selected by Rejlander who had originally trained and developed as a painter and therefore recognised that photography could also be a medium for artistic expression and not limited by it’s mechanical recording capability.
The manipulation of the photographic image is certainly not a new debate and dates right back to the very first days in the history of the medium when early photography pioneer Hippolyte Bayard made his self-portrait as his expression of injustice Drowned Man (1840) following the rejection, of the early photographic process invented by Bayard, by the French Government in favour of Daguerre’s invention.
The international exhibition, Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop (2012/13) focussed on the manipulated image through the history of photography contrary to the popular belief that manipulation was born in the digital era. In a quotation from the original press release it states that “Mia Fineman offers a corrective to the dominant narrative of photography’s development, in which champions of photographic “purity”, such as Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, get all the glory, while devotees of manipulation, including Henry Peach Robinson, Edward Steichan and John Heartfield, are treated as conspicuous anomalies.” (Fineman, M. 2012). What is also interesting is that Peach Robinson, Steichan and Heartfield, in common with Oscar Gustav Rejlander, were all trained as artists and painters before they turned to photography. Again indicating that artistic expression rejects the need or claim for photography to be a representation of ‘the real’.
In her book Photography A Critical Introduction (2009) Liz Wells comments that the debate over the nature of photography and it’s relationship to ‘the real’ has been reignited in the light of the development of digital media and it’s many possibilities in image enhancement and manipulation.
Clearly this raises important questions when we consider certain genres such as photojournalism where the ‘reality and truth’ is deemed to be the fundamental basis on which the image is regarded. Surely a disproof of theory would undermine the entire foundation upon which the photographic medium has been built. Since it’s invention Photography has been regarded as a way of recording or even preserving a particular event and point in time, an event that actually took place and happened as it is this that gives photography it’s special relationship with ‘the real’.
Wells (2009, p74) argues that “It is possible to argue that the authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of discursive, social and professional practices which constituted photography. And radical transformation in this structure makes us uneasy about the status of the photograph. Not only do we know that photographs may have been manipulated but our reception and understanding of the world of signs may have been transformed.” As the earlier quotation from Mia Fineman implies, this explanation would not credibly fit the conventional narrative and therefore structures of photography as a medium or industry.
Wells (2009, p75) goes onto say that “it is clear that a complex of technical, political, social and cultural changes has transformed not just photography, but the whole of visual culture.”
Wells concludes photography and it’s specific genres are now merging and are increasingly difficult to identify and distinguish in isolation to the point that the old labels may no longer be appropriate to the new work which is now being produced.
So does digital technology change how we see truth and reality in photography? Certainly there is wider critical questioning of how far we can consider photography to ‘be the truth or reality’ but the relationship between image and reality has always been a psychological illusion, which if permanently disrupted would cause significant confusion and distress and as such photography will no doubt be seen to continue it’s special relationship with ‘the real’ at least for the foreseeable future.
However this relationship has developed and so has our perception and use of truth and reality. Wolf (2010, p52) believes that, “digital technology calls upon us to rethink previous arguments or ideas about what a camera does and how photographic images function in contemporary culture. It allows us to consider reality as mutable, not fixed, and to think of space and time as fluid not static.”
There are certainly cultural consequences as a result of society becoming so accustomed to viewing the world through the digitally manipulated image in that ‘the real’ no longer appears to be as relevant as the digitally manipulated reality takes over. Society has become much more accustomed to manipulating ‘image’ to the point that the distinction between image and reality has all but evaporated and drifted into a new existence regarded in many respects as part of a ‘new reality’. For instance social media now dictates that not just corporations but individuals too have their own self-image and brands to develop and promote.
Clearly digital technology is changing the fundamental structure of photography, visual culture, how society functions and how we live our lives but it is still too early to fully consider what the full impact ‘has been’ as I think the discussion about the future ‘will be’ is set to run for a number of years to come.
Wells, L. The Real and the Digital pages 73-75, (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed.) Abingdon: Routledge
Wolf, S (2010) The Digital Eye Photographic Art in the Electronic Age London: Prestel Publishing Ltd
Two Ways of Life by Rejlander, O taken from
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oscar-gustave-rejlander_two_ways_of_life.jpg (accessed 22/03/2016)
Drowned Man by Bayard, H taken from
http://photographyhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/bayard-forgotten-pionner.html (accessed 18/03/2016)
Taken from the series Young Musicians by Wendy McMurdo
http://www.belfastexposed.org/exhibition/wendy_mcmurdo (accessed 20/03/2016)