‘The camera never lies … huh?’

Last month, I gave an after-dinner talk to a local Rotary Club on the subject ‘tweaking your holiday snaps’. The vote of thanks included the hackneyed phrase “… and they say the camera never lies”. This is odd because apart from 5 minutes on using cloning to remove distracting elements, nothing I demonstrated (minor crops, global and local exposure/contrast adjustment, waiting for the light, foreground interest, etc.) altered the essential truth of the image. I then reflected on how often I hear similar sentiments expressed, often with the word ‘photoshopped’ in the same sentence.

The phrase ‘The camera never lies’, or variations thereof is almost as old as practical photography itself, dating back at least to the 1890s (phrases.org.uk) and early photography was used as a reference for artists in improving accuracy, for instance Muybridge’s sequence of the galloping horse. (Harry Ransom Center). Photography is evidential, the photographic image is taken as evidence that the subject matter existed, in that place in front of the camera, at least for the period the shutter was opened.

However, we live in an age when fashion images are routinely retouched, impossible scenes are created by CGI on our television and cinema screens and in advertising, we are suspicious of the photographs that we see in our newspapers, sometimes rightly so (Wikipedia 2016), and the winner of a prestigious photographic competition is disqualified for manipulation. (Cheesman, 2015). Although the layman may blame this on Photoshop, we should remember that retouching occurred in pre-digital days and was considered matter-of-course by the Victorian Pictorialists such as Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson.

An 1982 extended essay by John Berger, ‘Appearances’ (Berger 2013, pp61-98) suggests an essential difference between photography and other visual arts. He says that painting or drawing ‘translates’ the scene whereas photography ‘quotes’ it. This concept of ‘quotation’ gives me a metaphor for a broad taxonomy of ways in which photography can  appear to lie.

‘Misquotation’

The camera may quote the scene accurately but the image (quotation) is then altered in post-production. Spot the differences (not to mention the incompetent use of the clone tool) between the original and altered versions.

‘Selective quotation’

Apocryphally, the newspaper review, “If you want a riotous new comedy, avoid this like the plague.” becomes “… a riotous new comedy … (Daily Blah)” on the theatre posters.

Selective quotation can happen in camera or in post-production. The photographer can select his decisive moment and his framing to show his version of the story. Alternatively, an editor can change the emphasis and meaning of an image by selective cropping.

‘Quotation out of context’

Context is important to understanding. If you hear a person wanting to buy ‘a large farmhouse’ it is relevant to know whether they are talking to a baker or an estate agent.

Words and pictures reinforce each other. A false impression can be given if the words and photographs have different sources.

This image was used to illustrate and authenticate a viral hoax about snowfall in Cairo. The sphinx is actually a miniature from a Japanese theme park (Boese 2015)

Accurate quotation of a lie

I can do no better than quote John Berger on the subject of publicity images, a subject that occupies the fourth programme of Ways of Seeing (tw1975 (2012d)). The following quotation is from Understanding a Photograph (Berger 2013, 69)

‘The lie is constructed before the camera. A ‘tableau’ of objects and symbols is assembled. […] This ‘tableau’ is then photographed. It is photographed precisely because the camera can bestow authenticity upon any set of appearances, however false. The camera does not lie even when it is used to quote a lie. And so, this makes the lie appear more truthful’

A relevant variation on the original phrase is ‘The camera does not lie; photographers do’ (various sources, all unattributed) to which could be added, ‘… and so do art directors’

References

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. Edited by Geoff Dyer. London: Penguin Classics.

Boese, A. (2015) Snow-covered Sphinx. Available at: http://hoaxes.org/weblog/comments/snow_covered_sphinx (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Cheesman, C. (2015) Photographer loses £10k crown; Claims editing ‘not major’. Available at: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/latest/photo-news/photographer-loses-10k-crown-claims-editing-not-major-11228 (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Encyclopædia Britannica (2016) ‘Henry Peach Robinson | British photographer’, in Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Peach-Robinson (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Harry Ransom Center (no date) Horse in motion, Eadweard Muybridge, ca. 1886. Available at: http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/windows/southeast/eadweard_muybridge.html (Accessed: 30 October 2016)

phrases.co.uk (no date) The meaning and origin of the expression: The camera cannot lie. Available at: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/camera-cannot-lie.html (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

tw1975 (2012d) John Berger / ways of seeing , episode 4 (1972). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jTUebm73IY (Accessed: 22 October 2016)

Wikipedia (2016) ‘Adnan Hajj photographs controversy’. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adnan_Hajj_photographs_controversy (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

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