The fallacies of a photograph
A photograph is an interesting and tricky little thing. Many seem to believe that a photograph is the truth
; that it’s incontestable and totally objective. After all, it is visualizing something that was really there—something that has been
as Roland Barthes says in his book Camera Lucida. There is no disputing this.
However, the .000001 of a second of life that a picture can visualize does not tell us everything and definitely does not tell us the truth. Photographs are just as objective as literature.
In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Agee says “but Art, as all of you would understand if you had had my advantages, has nothing to do with Life, or no more to do with it than is thoroughly convenient at a given time, a sort of fair-weather friendship, or gentleman’s agreement, or practical idealism, well understood by both parties and by all readers.” (366). Photographs have “nothing to do with life,” he implies! A photograph fools you in that it visualizes something so real you feel you can almost touch it, but in its nature it cuts away all of the other factors that make up the essence, “the truth”, of a being or thing, leaving you with only a partial representation that subconsciously claims to represent it all. Furthermore, a photograph is an image through a photographer’s lens that captures a sight within a carefully crafted and considered frame, taken to give of a desired message. And even furthermore, this message and purpose is always subject to change, and be used differently within different contexts.
For example, as Evans is photographing the family, Agee describes how the Southern family his partner Evans is photographing gets itself ready for the photo by combing their hair and putting on their best (although still cheap) clothes. “It is entirely obvious that you are not what this dress is pretending you are, Louise, and that the whole thing is a put-up job,” (367) he says. Not only then is the photographer crafting his image, but the family is crafting their image too in the presence of the camera. This picture is now a tool that can be used in proof and defense of many different messages, only to be partnered with the right text or context that will be “thoroughly convenient [to it] at a given time,” as Agee says in the quote above. Just like the government’s controversial skull photograph that
Errol Morris discuses in his article “The case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock”, which was recognized as propaganda to signify the drought, any picture can be used as propaganda to signify anything at all given the appropriate context.
In the skull photograph and the photograph of Louise and her family, it doesn’t matter if the subjects were carefully constructed and placed in the photograph or not. Because, in essence, everything the meaning and content in a photograph is constructed inevitably by the nature of a photograph itself, making no difference if the skull was placed before its background or if Louise and her family were prepped before the picture. There is no way for a photograph to tell us the whole truth, and thus it relies on these small constructions, and on the specific framing and composition, to tell us the message its creator intended for. Every photograph is constructed, thus debates like the skull debate are useless.