Our coursework this week has taken us into the realms of authenticity and representation through the eyes of Roland Barthes and others, the consideration of whether photography has any defining peculiarities and whether it is really real.

 Authenticity and Representation

In 1980 in Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes wrote that:

“The power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.” (Barthes 1980:88).

Others have written about photography in a similar vein as a process that somehow conveys a true and accurate image. There is an inherent trust in the indexical nature of the photograph.  For example, John Berger wrote that photography is an “innocent transcription” and Joseph Niepce, “an automatic reproduction by the action of light.”  John Szarkowski in The Photographer’s Eye suggested that “photography was about the actual.”

 As far as Barthes is concerned in his quotation, I believe he is saying that the factual and actual attributes of photography in providing an accurate representation of an event or subject are superior and more important than its representational channels or characteristics that might make an image more aesthetically pleasing.  As Barthes said in Camera Lucida (1980):

“Photography can lie as to the meaning of a thing but never to its existence.” (Barthes 1980:87).

And Susan Sontag stated in On Photography that:

“A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened.” (Sontag 1977:5).

I agree with Barthes on this point that in relative terms the authenticity of the image is important if that is what the photographer sets out to do.  But, for me there is the matter of intent and an issue of context about the digital age in which we live.  Many photographers do not set out to provide a factual representation of what they see but seek to change or add to the scene in front of them.  Others choose to recreate a scene such as Jeff Wall and Trish Morrissey.  The digital age has changed the context in which we view images and most viewers would not necessarily believe the image is a direct representation of the scene in front of the photographer, although there remains a residual sense of the authenticity of photography.

As Ritchen stated:

“As the digital destabilises the photograph as a faithful recording of the visible, its new flexibility opens it up to other approaches that previously may have been rejected or deemed impossible.” (Ritchen 2009:53).

 Although, this will often depend upon the channel of communication.  For example, a photograph in the broadsheets would normally be expected to provide a factual image to support its stories whereas a photographer presenting their work in a gallery might lead the audience to question the authenticity of the images.  But there are many examples of images that intentionally or not, deceived the viewer.  For example, the image of the Loch Ness monster covered in the press in the early 1960s, is widely believed to be fake both in the sense of being a manipulated image and in the fact that what was shown was certainly not the Loch Ness Monster.

In Search of the “Peculiarly ‘Photographic’”  

In Photography, Vision and Representation Snyder and Allen (1975) set out to identify whether there “is anything peculiarly ‘photographic’ about photography – something which sets it apart from all other ways of making pictures?” (Snyder and Allen 1975:143)

 The early view of Peter Emerson suggested that photographs are pictures and, in this respect, should provide information or aesthetic pleasure – the term he coined to describe this was “naturalistic representation”.  However, in producing the image it should show what anyone would see if they stood in the same place as the photographer had done.

Stanley Cavell, on the other hand, was clear that photographs were not representations as photography is an automotive process and Bazin agreed by suggesting that:

“The solution is not to be found in the result achieved but in the way of achieving it.”  (Bazin 1967 in Snyder and Allen 1975:145). 

Arnheim suggests that it is the process of how an image is made that is what is peculiar about photography:

“All I have said derives ultimately from the fundamental peculiarity of the photographic medium:  the physical objects themselves print their image by means of the optical and chemical action of light.  Because of this fundamental peculiarity, photographs have “an authenticity from which painting is barred by birth.” (Arnheim in Snyder and Allen 175:146).

Piotr Sadowksi concurs with the indexical nature of photography:

“Photography is indexical insofar as the represented object is “imprinted” by light and the chemical (or electronic) process on the image, creating a visual likeness that possesses a degree of accuracy and truthfulness unattainable in purely iconic signs such as painting, drawing or sculpture.”

Snyder and Allen differentiate between the painter and the photographer as follows:

“The painter creates, the photographer “finds” or “captures” or “selects” or “organises” or “records” his pictures.”

In doing this Snyder and Allen are referring to the choices a photographer makes in terms of their equipment and photographic choices such as focal length, depth of field, finding the right spot, the angle of view, and in doing so the relationships between the key components of the image.  So, for Snyder and Allen the image is “crafted” rather than being a natural representation.  Many of the characteristics John Szarkowski had identified in the previous decade in The Photographer’s Eye such as ‘the thing itself’, ‘the frame’ and ‘the vantage point’ referred to the crafting nature of making an image.  Photography, as Szarkowski describes, is about a process of construction, what is in and out of frame and choosing angles to emphasise particular aspects of the scene.  Painting on the other hand is a process of selection.  What should be added to the blank paper?

Whilst I find the narratives of Snyder and Allen and John Szarkowski about a photographic image being crafted by the decisions of the photographer compelling, I am now less sure that this is a defining characteristic between photography and painting.  Painters have for many centuries worked with various rules of composition, technique and scene selection, many of which were taken on by the photographer. But, the thing itself, the frame and the vantage point are all decisions that a painter makes before starting to paint.

So, is a photograph really real?  This was the question we were asked.  Susan Sontag considered a photograph to be a trace while Thomas Ruff suggested we see what is already inside of us – that is learned conventions.  As Elkins explains:

“As soon as a photograph leaves Eden and enters into circulation, it becomes culturally coded, transforming the image and putting it into the realm of connotation.” (Elkins 2007:15).

Roger Scruton, on the other hand, believes that the viewer looks through an image to the subject it depicts.

For me, one area in which the camera excels is in the portrayal of metaphor.  Metaphor as Ortega tells us is what allows us to penetrate the essential being within the subject, or the noumena in Kantian terms.  The shaft of light breaking into shadow drawing us in to a half hidden world of meaning or the turn of a head and a fleeting glance reflecting unrequited desire.  Within my own imagery the reflection of a mountain in a still pool provokes the chill of death as a female form lies draped on a mortuary slab.  These things can be created through paint and other media but photography’s ephemeral output can capture penetrating insights into being that defy other means of expression.

“The metaphor is perhaps one of man’s most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when He made him.” (Ortega y Gasset 1925:33).

Authenticity and Representation in my Photographic Practice

As a police photographer authenticity was key.  The images provided evidence and were subject to intensive scrutiny.  In my wildlife work I have always strived to provide accurate images of behaviour and events.  While my more recent work, based in the landscape, has taken on a semi-abstract approach and has involved me in making more aesthetic judgements about my subject and the mood and emotion I want to convey to my viewer.  I believe that for me, authenticity and representation are more equal as I move into a different phase in my photographic practice.  I wrote in my Journal last week about the symbolic aspects of my imagery in Identifying the inherent characteristic and context of the ‘photographic’ nature of my practice: https://wp.me/p9BvX0-r4

My own personal view is that all photographs are both autobiographical and constructions in that through a series of photographic choices and decisions the author chooses to convey meaning and present the object in a particular way.  However, the viewer then interprets the image according to socially understood conventions and their own life world and experiences.


 BARTHES, R.  1980. Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.

BAZIN, A.  1967. The Ontology of the Photographic Image in Trachtenberg, A. 1980. Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven: Leete’s Island Books.

ELKINS, J.  2007.  Photography Theory. London: Routledge.

ORTEGA Y GASSET, J.  1925.  The Dehumanization of Art and [Other Essays on Art (Ideas on the Novel.1925.trans. by Helene Wey]. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

SONTAG, S.  1977. On Photography. London: Penguin.

SNYDER J, and N ALLEN.  1975.  Photography, Vision and Representation, in Critical Enquiry, Autumn 1975.

SZARKOWSKI, John.  1966. The Photographer’s Eye. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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