Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Faking It

Reports of academic fakery are all over the place at the moment.  This recent article from the New York Times is particularly interesting, as it explores the issues and motivations behind a recently-uncovered systematic fraudster of some eminence in the Netherlands.  Psychology aside, it seems to boil down to three things.  First, if you want to get ahead, tell 'em what they want to hear.  Second, so much academic work is less than rigorous in its evaluation of data (especially if the data are leading to the "wrong" conclusion) that downright fakery is just one easy psychological and ethical step beyond.  Third, nothing succeeds like success.  A cynic might say, so what's new?  No-one ever got anywhere by playing by the rules.

Issues of the ethics of "manipulation" trouble photographers, too.  I have lost count of the number of agonized (and mainly specious) discussions I have read of how far it is "right" to alter or enhance what the unmediated lens delivers.  Obviously, photo-journalists are a special case, and stand in the same relationship to "truth" as journalists: get caught faking it, and your career is likely over.  Amongst others, Magnum's Paolo Pellegrin fell foul of this high standard recently.  But, just as journalists also stand in relation to novelists on a spectrum of writing as "truth telling", so PJs stand in relation to artist-photographers as far as visual truth is concerned.

It's an interesting question -- and one which I am not remotely qualified to discuss -- whether "truth" has a necessary aesthetic dimension.  A lot of people seem to think so.  Famously, Buckminster Fuller was of the opinion that "when I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." Though I think I am more inclined to favour H.L. Mencken's equally famous view that "For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat, and wrong."

By the same token, one might wonder whether the reverse is true, that in creating an aesthetically-pleasing object, one is also creating a truth, or at least something very like it. A lot of the supposed "value" of art resides in that rather dodgy presumption.  Can you reverse-engineer the beauty of a sausage into the "truth" of a pig?  I don't think so, but I'm not aware that anyone has ever tackled that particular problem.  A good sausage is its own kind of truth, of course.

But back to photography.  Now, let's just accept that there is inherent jiggery-pokery involved in capturing the beams of light reflected off a scene, snapping them off just so, and turning the withered beam-ends into electrickery which can be stored, passed through wires, and reconstituted like instant coffee into a 2-D representation bearing a sort-of resemblance to the original scene.  Miraculous! Frankly, to worry about the truthiness of the end product seems downright ungrateful.  But it's usually the ethical truth people are worrying about, rather than the epistemological truth.  How far is too far?

Consider these three images, recently submitted to my own Ethics Committee:

The first I showed in a recent post.  It's a "straight" photo, inasmuch as anything which been slightly cropped, and had its colour-channel levels, saturation, and sharpness adjusted in Photoshop can be said to be "straight".  The Ethics Committee are not even slightly troubled by it.

The second, obviously, is the same file, a little more tightly cropped, and rendered as a monochrome image, so as to resemble the colour and tonal range of a platinum-type print.  It looks really great printed on Hahnemühle Matt Fine Art paper.  But it's a fake, in that it is not a platinum print, with all the skill and artisanal wizardry that would imply.  Do I care?  No.  But I think the Ethics Committee would have a problem, if I were to go very much further down this road, to the point where I could be said to be trying to pass this off as a hand-crafted platinum print.  I could easily put an irregular "hand-coated" border around the image, for example, and maybe varnish it to give it a more interesting finish.  I have seen precisely such work for sale in expensive limited editions.  We're in "wood effect" or "tribute act" territory here, I think.

The third, equally obviously, is the same file as the second, but with the cow moved by the power of Photoshop in an attempt to "improve" the composition.  If I were a carpenter painter, and had scraped out my first attempt and replaced it elsewhere on my canvas, no-one would have a problem.  It's what painters do.  But one of the most venerable taboos of art is "truth to materials".  To start moving things around in a photograph is something that divides the Ethics Committee violently.  "It's no longer a true photograph!", shouts one faction.  "You're stuck in the past by your own self-imposed rules!!", screams the other.  Committee adjourned, sine die.

The fourth version -- in which the cow has been removed, and an enormous, glistening roast-beef joint occupies the pen, with the words MEAT IS MURDER printed on it -- is not shown here because it is on display at the Dosh Kerching Gallery in London, vastly enlarged, and gratifyingly highly priced.  Wittily, it is part of a conceptual series about the ethics of representation.  I didn't even bother to show it to the Ethics Committee.  So sue me.


Kent Wiley said...

But has your gallerist gotten any serious bids on that ethical conception? It's one thing to show it, another to get some fool with deep pockets to purchase it for his collection!

One faction does indeed seem to be slavishly bound to a photographic truth that admits no manipulation - even though photography is completely false and an utter manipulation of reality.

What was distressing about the recent Pellegrin dust up was that his captions got the facts so wrong. There was nothing wrong with the photographs, but due to a need for concision, the whole story got seriously abbreviated.

There does seem to be a traditionalism that feels under assault by the forces of digital enhancement. But it's stronger than this. It feels like we're reacting to the digital intrusion into everything as a tearing asunder of our very lives.

This controversy over Truth has been everywhere, also recently with three of 2013's nominees for Academy Awards for Best Picture given the evil eye by the Ethics Committee: Lincoln for it's artful interpretation of history; Argo for it's Hollywoodization of some events that participants suggested were not quite as dramatic as the film would have us believe; and Zero Dark 30 for it's misleading emphasis on torture as the way in which Bin Laden was found. For an interesting take on this, Richard Brody has a good piece in The New Yorker.

But then, Los Angeles, California is not the place to go to find cinematic Truth.

Mike C. said...


You do know I'm joking about the gallery, don't you? Just checking...

Yes, "Hollywood" and "truth" are note two words you'd often see together. I think you may be right, though, that a more general anxiety is finding expression here -- concern over the decline in standards of media reporting is another example.


Kent Wiley said...

Haven't "standards" been declining since the beginning of time? When did they get instituted anyway?

Those of us born into a pre digital age seem to be the latest generation of standards bearers. Those born post digital say WTF. They have more efficient means of doing things. The guy who invented the wheel probably got stoned by his elders.

(PS I did get the joke about the gallery showing. My quip wasn't clever enough to clarify that.)

zythophile said...

We could have the germ of a reality TV programme here - The Only Way is Ethics.


zythophile said...

You've probably seen this by now

Personally I think it's a great picture, and the minimal amount of editing that went in is perfectly acceptable. It's like ruling out someone's award-winning journalism because of all the editing that went into it before it got on the page. And pre-digital photography, photographers used to sit over prints with a paintbrush and pots of white, black and gray paint, tidying the prints up before they were published. How fake was that?


Mike C. said...


Yes, it's happening all the time now -- people are very confused about what is "permissible", to the extent that the verb "to photoshop" is becoming a synonym for "to fake".

As I say, PJs are held to a different standard, probably rightly so. I think any experienced photographer knows where "enhancement" shades into "fakery".

Faked pictures, by their nature, generally have more impact, but are the equivalent of making up 50% of an award-winning interview... (as if!)