Representing Authenticity

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As a thought experiment, think about comparing the highly-processed magazine photograph of a fashion model standing on a runway against a grainy, black-and-white image of a derelict woman standing on the street. We might conclude that the former idealises, the latter degrades. But why? Both images are of women, yet how these women are presented and the style of the photographs are very different. Through style, we can offer an emotional dimension that complements the factual information presented through the subject.

While each viewer will respond differently, there is a tendency to see “beautiful” pictures as being more contrived or artificial. The unvarnished, “ugly” photograph is perceived as more realistic (after all why would someone take such a picture if it were not true? Or at least that’s my thought). These feelings of beauty, or not, translate, if only subtly, into a sense of authenticity.

Alternatively, we could develop an unvarnished image of the fashion model say, in black and white, make it grainier, to instil a sense of the negative underbelly of the fashion industry. We could process the image of the street women to suggest defiance, pride, fortitude, resilience, vigilance, all those characteristics representing a strong social order. In the former experiment, information and emotion (subject and style) are harmonized; the latter conveys dissonance between the information and emotion.

It’s probably helpful to distinguish between truth and authenticity, if not only for the purpose of being aware of different levers available when representing something in a photograph. Truth focuses on the preservation of the facts, authenticity on the preservation of the artifact, that is it is genuine and uncorrupted. I can have an image that does not represent the truth, even though the photograph itself is uncorrupted, unchanged from the original.

The truth of the representation of a subject in an image is confronted by several subjective decisions through the life-cycle of a photograph. What is the motivation of the photographer? The Editor? Which subject should I take? What lens should I use? How should I crop? Among the many photographs taken, which do I select? It is easy to carry the questioning to a point where no image is trusted. Yet, underlying all this questioning is the fact that the camera accurately captures what is put in front of it.

Similarly, the authenticity of the subject may be in question. Who in the above thought experiment is performing the more authentic act? What is the status of a photograph that truthfully represents an artificial or recreated event? The photograph is authentic, not the event? This is the source of tension.

Untethered these observations take us nowhere. It is when we align the levers of subject and style that we can develop complementary or contrasting information and emotion.


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