What Is Photographic Truth?

What Is Photographic Truth?

Photography struggles with truth as a concept. With other art forms, truth is generally a non-issue. We do not question whether a painting is real. We do not question whether a dance is real. We are generally able to discern fictional texts from nonfiction; furthermore, we’re generally able to sift through multiple nonfiction texts and combine them with our own experiences to arrive at a conclusion of truth. But not with photography.

Given the mechanical nature of photography, a real-world event had to have existed for you to either take (or make) an image of it. As an aside, taking an image means the act of going out, seeing an event, and taking what’s unfolded before you. Making, in contrast, is when you’ve made the event in front of your camera (whether that’s as simple as directing your friends to say “cheese” at the barbecue before making their image or something more elaborate, like sourcing clothing, hair, makeup, etc. for a fashion shoot).

I digress. If you imagine a thing, you can’t just take a photograph of it. You first have to actually have some semblance of that thing in front of you to make (or take) the photograph. If I imagine an image of a boat, I can just paint a boat. If I imagine a song about a girl, I can just write the song. But if I imagine a specific image of a boat or a girl, I need those things to actually exist in front of my camera in a way I imagined them for me to make a photographic image of them. In this way, photography is mechanically grounded in reality (to an extent).

Self Portrait as a Drowned Man

In Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (1840), Hippolyte Bayard used makeup, props, and posing to pass off as a dead man (when he was not actually dead). He wrote an accompanying statement to the photograph, which furthered his false claim. Photography is mechanically entrenched in the real world. You cannot take a picture of something that is not actually there. Bayard had to make himself look dead.

To reiterate, photography differs from other arts. You can paint whatever you can imagine. You can write whatever you can think of. But with photography, you need at least a real-world form of what you are photographing.

Before the invention of Photoshop (and even before the invention of cameras that could feasibly take portraits outdoors), Constance Sackville-West painted fantastic scenes and then collaged studio images of her family photos into them. Given the limitations, this is a very rudimentary Photoshopping of her time. I don’t think anyone today would question that these people are actually outdoors.

Bayard and Sackville-West are just two such examples of creatives who used photography in a manner that challenges truth while photography was still in its infancy. There are innumerable other examples both new and old.

The above image was co-authored with my friends Briarna and Frank as an exercise in creating sunlight. Except for a few minor tweaks by way of color grading, the image is very much straight out of the camera.

This is a studio image and is lit with multiple flashes, some of which had colored gels on them, as well as various reflectors and gobos. The image is indoors, and there is no natural light. The model is not drunk. However, these things seem true because of how the image is staged and lit. In order to create the image, we had to actually stage and light it in a way we had imagined. Although what you see actually existed for the image to be made, none of it is real in the sense that none of it is authentic.

The Next Camera

"Stephen Mayes' "The Next Revolution in Photography Is Coming argues that current digital cameras create images of what is physically in front of them. In order to create a better image, these cameras photograph only a small portion of what is there, instead of having been coded to use algorithms to fill in the blanks.

Since the time Mayes wrote that article, we also have additional augmented photographic techniques more readily available, such as photogrammetry. In this photogrammetric tiki image, I took a whole bunch of images of this little tiki from all different angles. And then, I ran them through specialized software, which created a simulated 3-D model of the tiki. I can turn this around and look at all the nooks and crannies from any side of the computer. If I wanted to be clever, I could use a 3D printer to make a replica of it.

But is the image real? That is to say, this model isn’t a mechanical 1:1 replication of the tiki. It’s what the computer code put together from a bunch of pictures. Even if I printed it, it would be several iterations from the original model and the 3D-printed object.

Mirrors and Windows

In his 1978 essay, “Mirrors and Windows,” John Szarkowski talks about various dichotomies which exist in photography. Romantic or realist. Straight or synthetic. Szarkowski concludes that we are able to describe where a photograph — or body of work — exists on these continuums and that that placement is a factor of and factored by several factors. Ultimately, this placement is a descriptive one and not a prescriptive one.

Szarkowski concludes his essay with the question of the concept of what a photograph — and I guess photography — aspires to be: “is it a mirror, reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it, or a window, through which one might better know the world?”

I would argue that ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I don’t think you’ll have ever had a photograph which is just one or the other, and one or the other isn’t necessarily better or worse. But I believe that the framework in which a photograph is meant to be viewed is more important.

An image can be factual, but not be true. Inversely, an image can be false but still represent the truth.

To clarify, truth isn't necessarily fact. And a factual image may not be true.

As an example, my image of glasses (above), I'd argue, isn't true. They are indeed glasses. The image was lit and photographed as it was. But unless you looked closely (or I told you), you would not know they are doll glasses. And in that, the image warps reality in a way photography does so well. Photography has the power to upend truth. It is factual — and unaltered an image as can be (save for a few tweaks to color).

The clarification here (and perhaps one I should have made earlier in this article) is that truth and fact are not the same things. The image exists as a fact. I actually did have toy glasses on a pink piece of paper. I actually put lights on them and pressed the button on the camera. This is factually true. But the truth of the image, which I won’t go into detail about, is one of commentary on consumption and materialism.

Conversely, my image of Lucien may not necessarily be fact. But it is a mirror to the truth. You can behold it and feel a certain something. Or perhaps not. It reflects an emotional truth, despite being a constructed image.

Here, "constructed" means that I didn’t actually just catch him in my studio like that. It wasn’t happenstance, but rather, he was invited, and this was a concept we had discussed in advance. But either way, he doesn’t leave trails of light as he moves. That was a decision that was executed on camera to speak to an emotional truth.


The onus of Mayes’ claim rests on an inherent truth in photography, or at least that photography has more of an inherent truth than an image created from computing coding and algorithms.

Since its invention, photography has never been true. Photography is lies. An image of a thing is just that: an image. It is not the thing itself. Bayard clearly proves that with a bit of figurative smoke and mirrors, you can quite literally take a photograph that lies.

This leaves us with the question of the photograph as perhaps a mirror to the truth.

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This is a great article. Because of the inherent mechanical aspect of photography in general it has often been looked down upon by the "art" world. Using a computer program to manipulate images intensifies the disconnect seen by "traditional" artists.

Ali Choudhry's picture

Thanks Glenn! And I agree completely. I'm also weary of this "digital art" craze; but we'll see.