The practice of photography opens up an important debate – is it an artform or is it documentation of reality? On the one hand, the photographer is selecting what they capture and able to alter it in editing. On the other hand, the photographer is only able to capture what is there in front of them; in other words, the reality of what is happening.
So, how do we answer the question about whether or not a photograph is a work of art or a representation of reality? Perhaps, it is simply both. Perhaps, it is a question to be asked of each photograph and each photographer in turn.
The Intention Behind The Image
One of the major signifiers in the truth vs art debate can be the intention behind the photograph. If the person is intending to capture events, say at a protest rally or life in a war-torn country, then those photographs are more about reality and truth. The intention is to capture what happened in the moment and have a record of these events that can be used as evidence of how the situation occurred.
Then there are times when a photographer is purposefully setting out to capture something artistic. They could be playing with light in a portrait shoot or looking for the most impactful landscapes and the best time of day to capture them. These images are meant to be viewed as works of art and hung on walls for decorations.
Of course, there are times when both intentions are there. Look at wildlife photography, where the images captured can be beautiful, dramatic and haunting in the same way that the best paintings or sculptures are. At the same time, they can be seen as evidence of what is happening in that particular part of the world at that specific time.
A History Of Artifice
The very act of photography includes some form of artifice, even if the intention is to show off the truth of a situation or place. The photographer is selecting which portion of the moment or the events to capture through their lens and then show to the world. If people are involved in the photograph, they are often posing for the camera.
Then there is the obvious artifice of staging photographs. The most famous example of this is the Gettysburg image captured by Alexander Gardner during the US Civil War. He purposefully staged a photograph by moving the body of a Confederate infantryman to a better location to make the image more impactful. Gardner also lied in the naming of the image, calling the soldier a sharpshooter, to up the stakes of the image even more.
While this image did its job in terms of bringing home the horrors and sorrows of war to those who weren’t fighting, it has a troubling impact on the debate about truth and art. This tradition of staging images has continued throughout the years. Today, a photographer can also stage images through careful editing after the fact.