MODULE 4: INFORMING CONTEXTS. WEEK 2.

Test composites.
Copyright James Bellorini 2020.

This week we have been reflecting on the nature of authenticity in photography and how that relates to our own current practice.

Photography can play with the veracity of truth because of it’s ability to capture reality through some technical format or intervention and then to test the boundaries of that reality through the moment of capture itself, its viewed context, or through manipulation. The extent to which an image is truth or falsehood is only really kept in check by either the photographer/creators’ adherence to a specific set of self-imposed boundaries and/or the rigidity (or otherwise) of the context within which the images are published and viewed. We have witnessed the vagaries of context and manipulation since the dawn of photography (for a brief overview of this look at this Wired article from 2015 though there are countless other examples, some more notorious of which have occurred since this article was published).

However, my concern here is with the deliberate nature of challenging authenticity in my practice which aims to get to a further understanding of what I’m making as an artist.

In his book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes states: ‘Painting can feign reality without having seen it… in photography, I can never deny the thing has been there.’ (Barthes, 1981).

For me this is both true and untrue.

In my subjective practice and research, I am frequently making images that are representative of reality and then, by extension, these images are used in a sequence or combination of images that create another version of reality (for example in the images above). This representational aspect is not staged, more a deliberate attempt to create or respond to scenarios within which a genuine version of reality can take place and within which the subject or the event itself has the freedom to play through, without any intervention from me at the point of image-making. My intervention (to a lesser or greater degree) comes beforehand in my communication regarding what I’m making the images for and why or afterwards within the altered context or deliberate image manipulation. It could be seen as being akin to verbatim theatre or a forum play in which, for example, the actual text of a court proceeding is presented in a theatrical context or where the audience has the opportunity to directly intervene in the proceedings of the drama and the work is halted to allow debate between audience and performance before further activity plays out on stage.

While aspects of my practice might be genuine representations of the subject in some way, I can’t always claim their final use is authentic in terms of their context. Especially as some of my current research has been looking at how images work in dialogue with each other and can, therefore, alter meaning to create a new relational ‘reality’. For example, the image below (made during Surfaces & Strategies) contains elements of truth and absolute fiction and yet both photos are genuine, made with completely photographic practices in order to preserve (at least) the sensation of the real. I guess this extends the fact that all photography is an illusion to lesser or greater degrees or, as one of my MA peers put, it ‘the illusion of fact’.

Test diptych made during Surfaces & Strategies.
Copyright James Bellorini 2019.

Increasingly, I see the supposed inherent ‘authenticity’ in photography, and Barthes assertion that photography can ‘never deny the thing has been there’ as less certain in light of the digital revolution (though I could cite work and approaches that were able to question Barthes assertion long before he made his comment). The definitions between what was once considered photographic and, for example, painting or other visual media have broken down to such an extent that the fundamentals of our perception of photography are always in flux. Those fundamentals are frequently the result of marketing and critical assertions of what photography is not what it actually is or can be. I’ve said it before, but if you ask most people lay-people what photography is today they will either say social media or weddings.

Humans like to put things in boxes to help them understand. Quoted recently by Adam Rutherford, Richard Dawkins calls this ‘the tyranny of the discontinuous mind’ – where we are always seeking to categorise things, to put them into boxes and define them by what they are rather than what they do. The digital revolution has taken the sides of the (lightproof?) boxes and permeated them in every which way allowing authenticity to become a much more fluid thing. Photography has equally become about what it can do as much as what it is. Like most creative practices, it is now an ever-increasing broad church capable of holding within itself a multiplicity of realities and perceptions. For me this is a revelation and an excitement.

REFERENCES AND RESOURCES

BOOKS

Barthes, R. 1981. Camera Lucida. 2nd edn. London: Vintage.

Rutherford, Adam. 2020. How To Argue With A Racist. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

ARTICLES

Mallonee, L. 2015. Infamously Altered Photos, Before and After Their Edits. Wired 29 July (online). Available at: https://www.wired.com/2015/07/bronx-documentary-center-infamously-altered-photos-edits/