Rangefinder

Views on the photographic universe by Erwin Puts

Truth and style in the digital age


One of the least acknowledged ‘truths’ in the world of photography is a rule from perception theory: “you see what you know and not you know what you see”. It is the difference between interpretation and observation. It has particular relevance for the theory of photography. A photograph has no meaning: it is a frame, a window on physical reality, devoid from context and from the flow of time. It does not tell a story and it does not reveal what is behind the surface of the physical objects that are depicted. This was the discovery of the nineteenth century when a photograph was compared to a painting or drawing. A painting was full of references, carefully drafted and included in the main tableau by the painter. A photograph was the result of a mechanical instrument and could only reproduce what was before the lens. This was most unsatisfactory and during the twentieth century photographers claimed that style was the substance of a photograph. Not the physical object was the target, but the way it was photographed: standpoint, viewing angle, choice of lens and time and more selectable aspects made the photograph to a meaningful picture, because the intention and goals of the photograph became visible. The picture says more about the maker than about the subject. This is the artistic attitude and many pages are indeed written about the maker’s intentions. This however is an invention by gallery owners and art historians.
The twenty-first century changed all that again. The digital technology engulfed photography and the photograph became artificial, a construct of pixels that could be manipulated individually. The protagonists of digital constructions defend the act of photoshopping a person into the shape of the standard beauty ideal by referring to the fact that retouch is and was a standard practice to create the Playboy next door girl.
It is true that digital technology can create photographs of the old, analog type and it is the Leica community in particular that claims that digital (Leica) photography is identical to analog (Leica) photography, only with different technological means. The whole concept of a special type of photography, identified as Leica photography, is a bit suspect. Who can claim that he is able to identify a photograph made with a Leica from a bunch of photographs without knowing some facts about the photographer or the context. The fact that many knowledgeable persons in the Leica world still identify some of Robert Capa’s iconic photos as made with a Leica is the proof. We ‘know’ that the iconic picture of the dying soldier is made by Capa and we ‘know’ he used a Leica so we conclude that it is a Leica photograph. Some historians even claim that this photo was not made by Capa, but by his girlfriend who used the Leica he once owned and had given to her long ago. None of Capa’s carefully posed public photographs show that he had a Leica around his neck or in his hand and the famous D-Day pictures were made with the Contax. We see what we know and we do not know what we see.
Constructed (staged) photography, easy to make with digital technology, is the favorite of modern image artists. These staged images are loaded with meaning, like a classical painting. There is no truth in such an image. Only the pleasure of making one. The banal version is the selfie: it is the pleasure of making one, uploading the image and register the number of likes.
Robert Frank’s photographs are intensely subjective: he only photographs what he likes and what happens when he was there. In a sense these photographs are the limit of documentary photography, emotional involvement and lack of judgement go hand in hand. After this book, Frank could never repeat this act: it was a unique experience.
It is impossible to recreate such a project in the current digital era. The photographs would lack authenticity because the long imaging chain would not be transparent to the observer.
Truth and authenticity are the losers and style is the winner. A digital photograph is made in a post-processing session. When the authors of books about digital-x-photography (where x stands for landscape, portrait, nature and anything you wish to mention) would skip the chapters about special effects possible with digital technology, the books would be much slimmer. The basic methodology is simple: take a picture in raw format with classical means (focus, frame and expose), develop the file with a simple demosaicing software, like DCraw (again with classical means: gradient curve, highlight and shadow preservation) and send the developed file to a printer. That is all there is to the process of digital photography. The style-aspect is not the expertise in post-processing manipulations, but in a preservation of authenticity. The Leica M lenses are eminently suited to this process. My next book will provide examples of this approach.