Winter 2002

Telling the truth?

Does digital technology democratise the photographic image?

Photography and digital technology

The past ten years or so have seen a growing uncertainty about the status of the photograph, and a loosening of functional and stylistic boundaries within photography itself. Photographs are exhibited alongside paintings and conceptual pieces without embarrassment and photographers skip cheerfully from the art world into commercial practice and back again. The things that make you a good fashion, or advertising, or portrait photographer may also be thought to make you a good ‘art’ photographer. Gritty realists, such as Corinne Day and Wolfgang Tillmans, have played around with the urgent, blurry, hand-held style (itself a subtle subversion of tendencies within reportage), perfected through the previous decade by people such as Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. The resulting pictures have looked more or less at home both on the gallery wall and in the style press. Meanwhile, exponents of a glossier, more brazenly commercial style, such as Steven Meisel and Mario Testino, get repackaged as art.

Photography has a proverbial truth-fulness, which would seem to matter most when truth is most important. Sometimes that notion of truthfulness is just something which can be played around with, as when a nubile celebrity has her knickers digitally airbrushed out of a photo story in a lads’ magazine. Yet if you found out, say, that someone was manipulating news images using the same technology you would be appalled. But agencies and editors modify our sense of what is going on in the world all the time, simply by choosing to publish some images and not others. You could argue that tweaking digitised photos is part of the same process.

A feature of postmodern culture in general, and Internet culture in particular, is that more and more of us feel media-literate, conscious that what we see is a controlled sample of what is really happening. After September 11, rumours abounded of extreme images which ‘they’ – ‘they’ presumably denoting some Chomskyite conspiracy between the media and the military-industrial complex – had decided to suppress. At the same time a picture did the rounds which purported to show ‘Tourist Guy’ standing on top of the World Trade Center as a plane hurtled towards his back. The picture spread across the Web – an environment for looking at photography which didn’t even exist a decade ago – with viral speed. But discrepancies in the image (which no lad mag art director would have countenanced) soon made it clear that in this instance the network was not serving as a tool of democracy, a conduit for officially or unofficially ‘censored’ information, but as a hoaxers’ playground. In this instance it was precisely a culture of scepticism with regard to the suppression of ‘real’ images which made the public so ready to accept a rather clumsily manufactured one; for a while at least.

One environment in which the many mutations of photography have been conspicuous is the fashion press. The story starts with the patronage of street style magazines, such as The Face and iD, which blossomed in the mannerist 1980s, and later contenders like Dazed & Confused, Sleazenation, Purple, Exit, Dutch and so forth. It is easy to see how the scepticism which youth culture has traditionally harboured towards the grown-up world of aspiration and consumption has tended to make such magazines ambiguous. Certainly they have had to perform ever more complex ideological acrobatics as the relationship between the fashion industry and popular culture has grown more intricate. The past few years have seen the ascendancy of an approach to both editorial and advertising photography which exploits all the freedoms of art, including, inevitably, the freedom to be subversive of – or flatly indifferent to – the business of selling clobber. In particular, the role of narrative in the ‘fashion story’ has developed from ‘these clothes would look nice in Antigua’ into something rather acute to do with experience and identity. Leaving aside the sociological accuracy of putting Gucci evening wear on someone who lives in a trailer, the results are often elliptical to the point of self-parody: little fragmented narratives, sometimes painterly, sometimes cinematic, putting the models through all sorts of implied emotional experiences. An evident influence is the work of Cindy Sherman, one of the most successful art photographers of the 1970s and 1980s, who had herself shot in a series of ‘untitled film stills’, each suggesting a different stock narrative or character: the lush, the menaced prom queen, the lovelorn bobbysoxer. Sherman’s later work has tended to become more lurid, veering into a sort of feminist critique of the more polymorphously perverse end of Surrealism. Here, too, fashion snappers have not feared to tread. Photo stories in mid-1990s issues of Dazed & Confused employed digital technology to deform and distort the body, and manipulate scale and setting, to create startling, improbable juxtapositions.

Another telling trend has been the growing prevalence of the nude in fashion photography. Though this would seem to be a contradiction in terms, the interspersal of bodies among the clothes tends to intensify these ‘narratives’ and complicate the viewer’s identification with them, swinging confusingly between pornographic abjection and bronzy, burnished glamour. The ‘high’ fashion press has inevitably stolen many of these ideas, although British Vogue has tended to stick to a kind of ‘ghetto fabulous’ aesthetic. A bolder approach has been that of Franca Sozzani, editor of Italian Vogue. Sozzani’s tenure has seen not only an extraordinarily promiscuous range of photographic and illustrative styles, but also dense, punky typography, a whimsical approach to editorial content and a use of language which is practically Dadaist (‘Spring Chronicle’, ‘A New Optique’). All of this shows the stamp of the streetstyle press (an important recruiting ground for Sozzani). And all of this is funded by page after page of luxury-goods advertising. Those advertisers clearly do not expect fashion students or ex-Stüssy punters to beat a path to their door; they expect the readership to be adult and affluent. In effect they are investing, in the time-honoured tradition of the rag trade, in Art; and they assume that their target audience will expect that.

Why do photographers want to do gallery work? Good PR? Mario Testino’s exhibition at the London National Portrait Gallery (see Eye no. 43 vol. 11) was a good example of how the fluid cultural environment cuts both ways. Being seen on a gallery wall rather than in a book or a magazine does not guarantee any kind of special quality of attention. People wafted around Testino’s exhibition looking as if they had been inserted into a glossy magazine: that is, as though they were killing time before a hairdo or a dentist’s appointment. And, oddly, experiencing Testino’s work at that huge size on a gallery wall makes you nostalgic for the magazine spreads from which these ‘art’ photos have been extracted and inflated. There is something creepy about such carnal intensity when seen on a large scale – especially when Testino seems to be digitally remapping the enlarged images so that their resolution appears impossibly high, the colours somehow obscenely dense, like something seen through the thick glass of an aquarium.

A broader question is provoked by other commercial photographers sidestepping into the art world, whether it be Steven Meisel at London’s White Cube2 gallery in 2001, Corinne Day and Juergen Teller at the Photographers’ Gallery, or canonised fashion snappers such as Horst. If the original purpose of a picture is to make you want to buy a pair of shoes, then, however subtly it works towards that purpose, it renders impossible what Kant and others have identified as a basic precondition to the appreciation of art, namely a sort of detachment or impartiality. This argument can lead to some absurd conclusions – it would disqualify Velasquez’s Las Meninas, for example – but there is something in it. Either you see a photo as some weird sort of Duchampian readymade, whose only purpose is to make you think, or you see it as something you can evaluate in terms of whatever criteria may be most important to you. And among those criteria, the old issues of truth and trust are bound to rear their heads.

The spread of digital photographic technology is often said to be a grifters’ charter, making various forms of fakery easier than ever before. But getting the red eye taken out of your holiday snaps seems an unobjectionable thing to do. And the kind of fun and games that my lad mag went in for might have been done, albeit with more labour, in the pre-digital age. Yet campaigners for ‘real’ culture find digitisation threatening; high-culture pundits such as George Steiner have commented on the fragility of timeless values in a high-speed, one-touch civilisation. Many photographers are alarmed by the way in which any old image can be scanned, doctored and output by anyone who knows their way round a PC.

This may have something to do with professional chauvinism: there is a long-standing belief that an art or a craft needs to be difficult to have any value. A corollary of that belief is that anything that makes something easier will tend to coarsen or degrade the results you can achieve with it. But Photoshop isn’t so easy to use – and having a sampler doesn’t make you Groove Armada, any more than having a guitar made your dad Jimi Hendrix. We need to be temperate about what possibilities we claim for digital photography and image manipulation. There is a plug-in which is supposed to make a scanned image look like a fresco painting. But Michelangelo needn’t hold his breath. The treated image works fine as a rhetorical statement – a widespread ad campaign for an anti-ageing cream uses it, or something like it – but it really doesn’t look much like a genuine fresco, much less a good one.

At the other end of the spectrum there is the argument that digital technology democratises the photographic image. The Internet is a new way of publishing bitmapped images. Various low-tech photographic systems have always traded on accessibility and spontaneity: Polaroid, Lomo and so on. But digital cameras, expensive as they still are, allow pictures to be taken in an extraordinary range of situations. They are also instantly and endlessly editable, suggesting new ways of thinking about pictures as well as simply taking them.

One specialist title that purported to exploit the possibilities of the new technology, but might equally be said to shine a spotlight on its limitations, was Digital Diaries (Taschen, 2000) by Natacha Merritt. The book, a visual account of the author’s sexual encounters, is undeniably striking, and was clearly meant to provoke a visceral response by taking a traditional ‘realist’ rhetoric to a new level: the artist is the model. But its confrontational stance is compromised by its very specificity. The pictures lack perspective, perhaps unsurprisingly given the unusual angles from which many of them are taken. They are less pornographic than cartographic: oddly over-analytical given the hot-blooded scenarios they depict. And there is something almost necrophiliac about them – some sense in which pixellated images are never as ‘alive’ as those formed by the random tonal and chromatic sprinklings of good old film stock.

The real strengths of the new technology are probably more unremarkable: easy colour correction, dodging and burning, high-quality photomontage. The principle behind Peter Saville’s eye-catching cover artwork for New Order’s 1990 Technique album might also be used by a jobbing wedding photographer to drum up a little post facto sunshine on someone’s big day. If the blagger behind ‘Tourist Guy’ had done a better job we would not have known he had worked on the image at all: ‘ars est celare artem’, as Horace (the poet, not the reggae singer) said – the art lies in hiding the art. A good example of an understated use of the new technology is ‘art’ photographer Jeff Wall, who has made extensive and careful use of Paintbox-type software to create images which are often impossible, but seem weirdly plausible. Several pieces subvert the egotism of the war photographer (I was here, I saw this). One shows a platoon of Russian soldiers, massacred by mujaheddin in an Afghan pass, but risen from the dead to play cards and shoot the breeze, disregarding their grievous wounds.

A more placid work shows a serene, naked old lady, twenty feet high, standing on the steps of a public library. Needless to say, Wall has been the subject of a number of homages in the fashion press.

The stumbling block turns out to be the concordance of image and reality. Some of the most innovative graphic design of the past decade or so has been more interested in the processes a post-digital methodology entails than the level of polish it permits. But photography doesn’t really enjoy that freedom – or not without ceasing to be recognisable as photography. Nick Knight, one of the most creative snappers from the original Dazed & Confused crowd, has embraced various digital processes with gusto. The results are often surreal, and sometimes veer close to a kind of abstraction. He says, ‘Photography has been wrestling with the burden of telling the truth – which it’s never been particularly good at.’ Knight, of course, memorably scrunched Sophie Dahl into a sort of 1950s odalisque image. But that was an editorial environment which claimed the status of art, as we have seen. Photojournalists will probably not be pumping George W. Bush up into a superhero any time soon – they can leave that to the writers. Indeed one of the most interesting things about the new technology is that nobody has really used it to make satirical images. Perhaps John Heartfield’s 1930s collages succeeded precisely because you could see the join.