Pics or It Didn’t Happen: On the Objectivity of Photographs

June 27, 2016 | Tess Goodman

How do we interpret the information we take from a photograph? How have we interpreted photography differently throughout its history? What do we think about photography’s relationship to reality?

Cultural critics used to argue that all images fell into two categories: “pictorial expression and pictorial communication of statements of fact” (Ivins 138). William Ivins, writing in the 1950s about the history of prints, argued that people woke up to this dichotomy after the invention of photography. Before photography, every image—printed or drawn—involved interpretation by a human hand at some stage of the process. No objective technology was available. But photographs, made by the interaction of light and chemicals, created images apparently without human interference. Ivins argued, then, that photographs forced people to understand the differences between what he called “visual reporting and visual expression” (177).

It is certainly true that the way Victorians and early twentieth-century people understood visual information changed dramatically. Photographs became seen as documentary evidence of crimes and even of history: Thomas Annan photographed Glasgow slums as they were about to be demolished. Nancy Armstrong has argued that photography created a demand for photorealism, which drove realist impulses in literature and other visual art.  Ivins, too, claimed that later, visual artists like the Impressionists became interested in the subtleties of subjective interpretation and expression.

Ivins’s dichotomy may have held true for the Victorian era, and for his own time, but it didn’t last. In 1981, Jean Baudrillard argued that—far from being documentary evidence—images instead had a “murderous power” to deceive and simulate (5). He argued that, while some images and representations might reflect reality, others disguise it; and some images have no relation to reality whatsoever (6). This last category he termed simulations, arguing that our inability to distinguish simulations from reality ends in a dissolution of “reality” altogether. 

But what if we are slowly becoming skeptical about the “truth” of photography? We deal on a regular basis with photos that have been doctored by an invisible hand (in advertisements and on magazine covers, for example). We are also coming to recognize that even undoctored images are consciously composed: photographs of the Pyramids carefully omit the fact that they are on the edge of a city, not surrounded by desert. All images—painted, sketched, printed, photographed, photo-shopped, and filtered—are inevitably subjective. 

More importantly, we now alter photographs ourselves. We have passed through the age of Photoshop and are now in the age of filters. To alter an image is now not a scandal, but a meme. 

We rely on altered photographs to present and define ourselves (on Instagram), and to communicate with each other (on Snapchat). We’re also becoming aware that even photographs that have not been intentionally manipulated can still be deceptive for many reasons, including optical illusions.

We still rely on photographs to confirm our experiences: pics or it didn’t happen. But we also know that those pics can be deceptive. We know the Queen did not dress up as Batman. We can reconcile this paradox, perhaps, by recollecting Ivins’ dichotomy: the photo of the Queen is a personal expression, not a visual report. If photographs are personal expressions, then they can confirm our experiences by helping us externalize our interior lives. 

Ultimately, is objective visual reporting even possible? By opening photographic alteration as a new avenue for personal expression, are we fundamentally changing our expectations of the relationship between photography and reality? 

About Tess

Tess Goodman is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Edinburgh, an alumna of the University of Virginia, and a quondam employee of Rare Book School. She is curious about everything to do with book history, bibliography, libraries, and travel. Her current research focuses on how tourists in nineteenth-century Scotland used books—as both narratives and objects—to hold on to intangible memories.

Article edited by Louise Adams and Vicki Madden.

Works Cited

Ivins, William Mills. Prints and Visual Communication. 1953. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989.

Armstrong, Nancy. Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999. 

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997.

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