Recreating Reality – photography: facts & truths

On the complex reading of imagery in the media

First Published Next Level, 2004

May 18th, 2004Stephen Mayes

There is a revolution under way at the heart of our culture. Photography, which dominated the Twentieth Century as the most pervasive vehicle for information, has been outed as a fickle and untrustworthy partner of reality. The popular belief in the descriptive power of photography is in question and suddenly everything is changed. The impact is profound but nowhere is it more visible than on the pages of magazines where documentary photography used to represent the world to their readers. Reportage photographers went into the field and brought back representations that more or less artfully reconstructed their view of reality. Some were literal descriptions and some were multi-layered renderings but all assumed a topographic connection between the facts before the lens to the film behind the lens (i.e. “the camera cannot lie”).

No longer. These days the magazine pages have limited space for descriptive images that show us how things look, and instead they bring us photographic interpretations of what things mean, considered and contextualised for sophisticated consumers. Constructed tableaux, manipulated images, mixed media and studied metaphors offer shorthand summaries in support of the editorial content. It is a more complex process than simply reporting what things look like. Kathy Ryan, Picture Editor of the New York Times Magazine and long-time champion of photo reportage, sees that readers have developed a new sophistication. “Look at the visual culture, and it is clear that the magazine readers are used to a widely democratic range of photography. All around us every day we are surrounded by fashion, advertising and reportage, and it is all part of the daily language.” Like wine connoisseurs, we drink from many sources and as consumers of imagery we can detect great subtleties of the bouquet and taste. We have learned to identify the source of information and understand its treatment, and we can savour the final richness of flavour.

The exclusive partnership of film and fact was an unequal marriage that was too stifling to survive and the miracle is that it lasted as long as it did. It is over now, but it was a powerful affair while it lasted. The camera swept the viewer into a compelling romance that blinded us to the disconnection between the facts depicted and the truths represented. As with many bad marriages, the relationship between photography and reality was all a misunderstanding. Even as Fox Talbot wrote about “the pencil of nature” he was developing a medium of imagination, which as with any pencil, would only be as true as the artist would allow. The myth was set so solidly in the public mind that the break has come only recently as viewers learned to see through the superficial etchings to the meanings below. Many factors have contributed to this change in viewers’ attitudes: the growth of TV news, the rising dominance of advertising imagery, a growing culture of photography as art, and maybe most profoundly the emergence of digital technologies that have broken the mechanical link between lens and print.

The result is liberating. Suddenly editorial photography is released from its slavish dependency on information to explore the ethereal limits of imagination. Magazine pages that were once the platform for information (“this is what I saw”) are now the place for interpretation (“this is what I know”). Kathy Ryan is a leading proponent of new editorial styles and she describes her job not as simply illustrating the facts of a story, but “to have the photography that responds to the issues.” The opportunities to create deeper work are greater now than ever before. “There is an abundance of ways to go with photography and there are so many photographers ready to try different things.” Published examples of unorthodox reportage include Katy Grannan’s study of poverty in USA and Taryn Simon’s project on wrongful convictions. Ryan is enthusiastic about the creative reinterpretation of reality. “Artists witness the real world as well as anyone else and they interpret it in their own visual language. The facts and the evidence are there, but each artist approaches the subject with an attitude. Stories are conceptually driven by the artists who tap into a subject and marry it to their style.”

The results can be enriching and edifying, but as always with experimental approaches it can also be surprising. Ryan reflects on a story by Dan Winters that developed an unexpected twist on the printed page. In Spring 2003 on the eve of the US engagement in Iraq, Winters was commissioned to produce a story on women in the military, for which he shot decontextualised portraits against white seamless backgrounds. In itself the story was grounded and not overly conceptual (it is a serious technique that has been used by Richard Avedon and others for decades), but in the context of the New York Times Magazine some readers associated the portraits with the magazine’s fashion pages. Ryan ruefully ponders that in this instance the magazine’s reputation for associative imagery may have played against itself, creating an inappropriate context for these particular pictures.

There is a growing theory amongst progressive journalists that such confusions are a sign of strength, not weakness. The world itself is ambiguous and confusing, and attempts to straighten out reality to create a linear narrative uncontaminated by association and context must necessarily be distortions or even deceptive. Elisabeth Biondi, Visuals Editor of The New Yorker says, “We live in a complex world where linear pictures cannot be satisfying.” The great documentary photographers no longer work in narrative, but in layers, says Biondi. “The best reportage photography is not narrative, it is not linear, it is stacked.” Since leaving Stern magazine where she ran the picture desk for many years, she has vigorously engaged with new styles of documentary imagery. “At The New Yorker a single image must serve a long story with several themes. It cannot be too specific as in the old style of photojournalism and the pictures must have depth. They must include a question mark and they cannot be a full revelation. The best pictures live three times for the reader: first they must inspire curiosity about the article; then the reader should go back to check the picture after reading the words and they should discover another layer; finally they will carry the image in their memory.” Biondi is respectful of old style photo essays, but ultimately she finds them unsatisfying because of their tendency to simplify information as narrative. Few aspects of live are so easily segmented into closed sequences of beginning/middle/end, so why should photography contort its subjects into such unnatural templates?

Biondi picks a surprising theme to illustrate her approach. “It is impossible to represent theatrical productions by photographing on stage,” she says. Theatre is an emotional mixture of sound, movement and dialogue and a two dimensional facsimile of the stage represents only the appearance of the play. The eyes give only a fragment of the whole theatre experience and straight rehearsal shots are banned. Instead the photographer watches the play and later distils the elements in discussion with the magazine editors. Only when they have understood the whole experience does the photographer pick up a camera to add the photographic dimension to a truth that is in their head.

Speaking last year to Kenny Irby, Hillary Raskin of Time Magazine described that the same conceptual approach is now the norm even for news magazines, at least as far as the cover is concerned. “Covers are more conceptual, offering the viewer a “quick read” to determine if they should buy/read the story. So from the onset, covers are planned out. On a straight news picture, the image might be cropped, or combined into a photomontage. On a portrait, the background might be altered, or extended, it might be tilted and with Photoshop, the colors might be enhanced to make the image more immediate. But primarily, Time covers originate with a concept, and so are often manipulated.”

Young photojournalists used to be trained to tell the story of “what, where & when”, but now it is more about “who, why & how”. Some mourn the changes, arguing that documentary integrity is lost in process of conceptualising a theme, but for many the result is a richer visual environment. Readers embrace great photographers who trade in the strength of emotional communication and who go beyond illustration to create associations and suggestions. Photography is finally achieving recognition as a tool of the imagination rather than as a reactive mechanical process and ideas are gaining precedence over actuality.

At time of writing Stephen Mayes was Director of the Image Archive at Art + Commerce, Kathy Ryan was (and is) Picture Editor of The New York Times Magazine, Elisabeth Biondi was Visuals Editor of The New Yorker and Hillary Raskin was Deputy Photo Editor of Time magazine