The Real and the Digital–Liz Wells

In “Photography – A Critical Introduction” Liz Wells discusses the extent to which an image produced digitally in the 21st century can be considered ‘true’.  The measure of ‘truth’ is the relationship between what the image shows – its contents – and the actual moment it purports to depict.  This is a matter of extensive discussion in critical literature but it seems to me that the answer is plain – the image itself cannot be trusted.  There is no implicit veracity within a digital image because each of its constituent elements – the pixels – are simply a mutable number, a value between 0 and 256.  Because these numbers can be altered and leave no trace of the change, the image cannot be said to have a fundamental indexical relationship to the original event.

Of course most images do have such a relationship but it is not established by the technique of production.  Nowadays the truthfulness of photographs – at least the extent to which they may have been manipulated – must be decided by the source.  The trust we place in the image source is the measure by which the veracity of the image is determined.

Taking this proposal to its logical conclusion, we may be forced to conclude that the only true image is one we have taken ourselves; but even this stricture may not be enough to satisfy the seeker of absolute truth.  The digital image reviewed on the LCD screen immediately after ‘capture’ has been processed by the internal algorithms of the camera.  The colours have been ‘optimised’, the tonal values shifted to render a more pleasing result.  Indeed, many cameras have just such presets installed, enabling the user to fool themselves with little effort.

These variables are not the sole domain of digital origination; analogue techniques offer a range of image alterations too, but it is the undetectability of digital changes which almost completely undermines any claim to truth, save that conferred by the status of the source.

On a slightly tangential note I was disappointed to find the following in this section of the book:

What took place, then, was not the first Gulf War but a whole sequence of political, social and military actions that were acted out in a new kind of social and technical space. While this may be an extreme way of formulating the argument, it is clear that a complex of technical, political, social and cultural changes has transformed not just photography, but the whole of visual culture. For example, David Campany points out that ‘almost a third of all news “photographs” are frame grabs from video or digital sources’ and comments that:

The definition of a medium, particularly photography, is not autonomous or self-governing, but heteronymous, dependent on other media. It derives less from what it is technologically than what it isculturally. Photography is what we do with it. And what we do with it depends on what we do with other image technologies.

(Campany 2003: 130; emphasis in original)

WordPress doesn’t allow the correct formatting for the above so it looks a bit scruffy, but the bold is my emphasis.  I have written about this here.  Wells mis-quotes Campany above – the claim referred to “over half” of news photographs – but even this reduced statistic is far from the truth. It’s surprising that inaccuracies are shared between authors without any fact checking, but this also speaks to the necessity of considering sources.