Illustrate and discuss the flaws in the contention that 'the camera never lies'.

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Laura Quigley                MC10220 Reading the Visual

Assignment 1

Illustrate and discuss the flaws in the contention that ‘the camera never lies’.

Everyday we are surrounded by hundreds of images, from family photos around the home and pictures in glossy magazines to advertisements in the streets.  As we go about our daily lives we are unconsciously responding to vocal cues all the time.  Photographs are being taken on a daily basis by different people, for different reasons and the diversity of the medium means that no two pictures ever look the same.  While some people will earn a living from taking photographs others will use them to record a time (or memory) that they will be able to look back on in years to come.  It is as much a profession as is it a pass time and the one thing that everyone who takes pictures has in common is the tool they use, the camera.  The large range of cameras available in the shops reflects the popularity of the medium and means that everyone can be catered for, from children to the most dedicated professional.  How well a photograph is taken will depend on many factors and the experience of the photographer will often be important but with the rise in digital photography and affordable photo editing packages for the computer the authenticity of photographs is now being questioned more often.  The aim if this essay will be to investigate why people sometimes question the validity of photographs and explore how visual perception in photography can influence how photographs are interpreted.  How true is the argument that ‘the camera never lies’?                  

A photograph is a representation of something in reality that could only be produced because that something (whether it be an object, a person or a view for example) was there to photograph in the first place.  You can’t take a photograph of something that doesn’t exist and this is where are trust in photography lies.  As a still visual medium photography allows us to reproduce moments in time exactly how they were and it is unique in offering a way to record a visual history.  This can either be on a personal level with family photographs taken to show how people change as they grow up or on a more national or even international level, with photographs taken during key events that will be remembered through time, such as wars.  We have built a trust in photography because of its relationship with reality and this is one of the main reasons why we trust pictures from the medium more than from other visual mediums such as paintings or drawings.

Below, figures 1-3 all show different visual representations of the same famous landmark, The Taj Mahal (Figure 1 is a photograph, figure 2 a drawing and figure 3 a painting).  To gain an idea of how much trust we have in photography, I asked twenty people to identify which of the three figures they believed best represented reality.  Seventeen of the twenty thought figure 1, the photograph was the most realistic.  When asked why, many people commented that it simply ‘looked’ the most realistic while one person pointed out that the drawing and painting could have been done anywhere, even using a photograph to work from while the photograph could only of been captured if the photographer was actually there, at the Taj Mahal to take it.    



(Figure 1:           (Figure 2:    


(Figure 3:

None of the twenty people I asked to look at the above images had actually been to the Taj Mahal however all of them could identify it.  Although they had not personally seen the place most of them still trusted that the photograph was the most accurate representation of reality, reinforcing how dominant photography has become as the visual medium to trust.  As Halla Beloff points out ‘The camera has enlarged our world in space and time…It has been possible for us to see strange places and people in images that have a validity completely different from that of a drawing or a painting’. (Beloff, 1985 p3)

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Figure 4 shows a make-up artist on The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring movie using a photograph to ensure continuity because of a break in filming.

(Figure 4: captured from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring DVD)

This is just one example of how photographs are used with the belief that the camera has ‘told the truth’, just like when photo finishes are used to determine who has won a race or when photographs are used as evidence in court cases. In all these instances the ...

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