For the Lens blog, Philip Gefter, formerly a picture editor at The Times who writes regularly about photography, has adapted an essay from his new book, “Photography After Frank,” published by the Aperture Foundation.
Truth-telling is the promise of a photograph — as if fact itself resides in the optical precision with which photography reflects the way we see the world. A photograph comes as close as we get to witnessing an authentic moment with our own eyes while not actually being there. Think of all the famous pictures that serve as both documentation and verification of historic events: Mathew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War; Lewis Hine’s chronicle of industrial growth in America; the birth of the civil rights movement documented in a picture of Rosa Parks on a segregated city bus in Montgomery, Ala. Aren’t they proof of the facts in real time, moments in history brought to the present?
Of course, just because a photograph reflects the world with perceptual accuracy doesn’t mean it is proof of what spontaneously transpires. A photographic image might look like actual reality, but gradations of truth are measured in the circumstances that led up to the moment the picture was taken.
In John Szarkowski’s seminal book, “The Photographer’s Eye,” Robert Capa is referred to as “the great war photographer.” Capa’s most famous picture, “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Cerro Muriano, Córdoba Front, Spain, September 5, 1936,” commonly known as “The Falling Soldier,” was taken in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Though long considered a defining war picture, its veracity has also inspired decades of debate among scholars, curators and critics. While the picture’s iconic stature rests on the precise moment captured when the Spanish soldier was shot, the possibility that it was staged undermines the historic proof it has come to signify.
New evidence reported by the Guardian has reignited the debate. José Manuel Susperregui, who teaches at the University of the Basque Country, recently published a book that includes research challenging the stated location of “The Falling Soldier.” Several previously unseen Capa pictures in the archives of the international Center of Photography, taken in the same sequence as “The Falling Soldier,” show a broader view of the landscape behind him. Mr. Susperregui uses these additional images to make a convincing case that they were taken in the Espejo countryside, some 25 miles from Cerro Muriano. This information, along with the many stories about Capa staging the picture, add to the intrigue, now rekindled in the Spanish press on the occasion of the International Center of Photography‘s traveling exhibition, “This Is War! Robert Capa at Work,” which just opened at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
“Everyone engaged with this photograph is trying to find out the truth,” Willis Hartshorn, the director of the center, said in a phone conversation. “The new information about the landscape is compelling.” Nothing is conclusive yet, Mr. Hartshorn added “We’re all trying to build the research together,” he said.
The impulse to define, perfect, or heighten reality is manifest in a roster of iconic photographs that have come to reside in the world as “truth.” Mathew Brady, for instance, rarely set foot on a battlefield. He couldn’t bear the sight of dead bodies. In fact, most pictures of the battlefield attributed to Brady’s studio were taken by his employees Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan — both of whom were known to have moved bodies around for the purposes of composition and posterity.
In “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, 1863,” by Gardner, the body of a dead soldier lies in perfect repose. His head is tilted in the direction of the camera, his hand on his belly, his rifle propped up vertically against the rocks. There would be no question that this was a scene the photographer happened upon, if it weren’t for another picture by Gardner of the same soldier, this time his face turned from the camera and his rifle lying on the ground.
In the Library of Congress catalog, the photograph “Dead Soldiers at Antietam, 1862,” is listed twice, under the names of both Brady and Gardner. In the image, approximately two dozen dead soldiers lie in a very neat row across the field. Could they possibly have fallen in such tidy succession? Knowing what we do about Gardner’s picture of the lone rebel soldier, the possibility lingers that he moved some of these bodies to create a better composition. Or it could be that other soldiers had lined the bodies up before digging a mass grave for burial.
Whatever circumstances led to this picture, it is at least verifiable that the Battle of Antietam took place on this field. We know that many, many soldiers were killed. Evidence of the battle remains — the soldiers that died on that date, the battlefield on which they fought, the clothes they wore, and so on. Just how much of the subject matter does the photographer have to change before fact becomes fiction, or a photograph becomes metaphor?
Lewis Hine’s 1920 photograph of a powerhouse mechanic symbolizes the work ethic that built America. The simplicity of the photograph long ago turned it into a powerful icon, all the more poignant because of its “authenticity.” But in fact, Mr. Hine — who cared about human labor in an increasingly mechanized world — posed this man in order to make the portrait. (In the first shot, the worker’s fly was open.) Does that information make the picture any less valid? Isn’t it a sad fact that the flaws in daily life should prevent reality from being the best version of how things really are? In our attempt to perfect reality, we aim for higher standards. A man with his zipper down is undignified, and so the famous icon, posed as he is, presents an idealized version of the American worker — his dignity customized, but forever intact. Still, the mechanic did work in that powerhouse and his gesture was true enough to his labor. The reality of what the image depicts is indisputable. Whether Hine maintained a fidelity to what transpired in real time may or may not be relevant to its symbolic import.
Despite its overexposure on posters and postcards, “Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville, 1950,” (“Kiss at the Hôtel de Ville”) by Robert Doisneau, has long served as an example of photography capturing the spontaneity of life. How lovely the couple is, how elegant their gesture and their clothing, how delightful this perspective from a café in Paris! What a breezy testament to the pleasure of romance! But despite the story this picture seems to tell — one of a photographer who just happened to look up from his Pernod, say, as the enchanted lovers walked by — there was no serendipity whatsoever in the moment. Mr. Doisneau had seen the man and woman days earlier, near the school at which they were studying acting. He was on assignment for Life magazine, for a story on romance in Paris, and hired the couple as models for the shot. This information was not brought to light until the early 1990s, when lawsuits demanding compensation were filed by several people who claimed to be the models in the famous picture. Does the lack of authenticity diminish the photograph? It did for me, turning its promise of romance into a beautifully crafted lie.
Ruth Orkin was in Florence in the early 1950s when she met Jinx Allen, whom she asked to be the subject of a picture Ms. Orkin wanted to submit to The Herald Tribune. “American Girl in Italy, Florence, Italy, 1951” was conceived inadvertently when Ms. Orkin noticed the Italian men on their Vespas ogling Ms. Allen as she walked down the street. Ms. Orkin asked her to walk down the street again, to be sure she had the shot. Does a second take alter the reality of the phenomenon? How do you parse the difference between Mr. Doisneau’s staged picture and Ms. Orkin’s re-creation?
The birth of the civil rights movement is often dated to a moment in 1955 when Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on a crowded city bus to a white man. Many people assume that the famous picture of Mrs. Parks sitting on a bus is a record of that historic moment. But the picture was taken Dec. 21, 1956, a year after she refused to give up her seat, and a month after the United States Supreme Court ruled Montgomery’s segregated bus system illegal. Before she died in 2005, Mrs. Parks told Douglas Brinkley, her biographer, that she posed for the picture. A reporter and two photographers from Look magazine had seated her on the bus in front of a white man. Similar photo opportunities were arranged on the same day for other civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Here is a staged document that has become a historic reference point, and a revealing parable about the relationship of history to myth.
As a witness to events, the photojournalist sets out to chronicle what happens in the world as it actually occurs. A cardinal rule of the profession is that the presence of the camera must not alter the situation being photographed. The viewer’s expectation about a picture’s veracity is largely determined by the context in which the image appears. A picture published in a newspaper is believed to be fact; an advertising image is understood to be fiction. If a newspaper image turns out to have been set up, then questions are raised about trust and authenticity. Still, somewhere between fact and fiction — or perhaps hovering slightly above either one — is the province of metaphor, where the truth is approximated in renderings of a more poetic or symbolic nature.
Even when he wrote those words, as part of his 1952 essay on "The Decisive Moment," photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was ignoring any number of his colleagues.
The now 95-year-old master, who made his reputation decades ago as a photojournalist and documentarian, was referring in his essay to photography's unique ability to freeze time to capture moments in an instant, be it a fleeting emotion between two lovers or, more often, tragedy, elation or other high drama amid war, chaos or upheaval.
It can be assumed that he was not talking about landscape photographers making pictures of immovable mountains, or still life photographers or architectural photographers. [And just as obviously, given the year of his essay, he was not talking about some poor soul trying to digitally manufacture a great moment after the fact in PhotoShop.]
What he was talking about was only one type of shooting: call it journalism, documentary photography, spot news photography, interpretative or environmental portraiture even snapshooting.
Cartier-Bresson was talking about photography of the evanescent, of the here and now. The kind of photography that, in many ways, defines the entire craft, the entire art.
Most photography, but especially this kind, has a tenuous reputation for truth-telling largely because of the camera's, if not always the photographer's, ability to record events objectively. In fact photography is unique among the visual arts, not only because a photograph cannot be created from (sometimes clouded or prejudiced) memory, but because the subject of the photograph and not really the photographer determines absolutely what that depiction will be.
That is to say, Richard Avedon may trip the shutter when he makes a portrait, but the subject's face and surroundings are what actually burn the image onto the film. Of course, Avedon brings hugely important elements into the equation as well: his talent for composition, for lighting, and of course, his sense of when his subject's expression becomes, for Avedon, "the picture."
Yet another form of The Decisive Moment.
"To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression." From The Decisive Moment
This seemingly miraculous confluence of expression, gesture, lighting and composition is what makes so much of Cartier-Bresson's work exceptional, especially since most of it happened on the fly, in the real world and not in the studio. But he is not unique. How many other riveting images have you, as a photographer, seen that seem to have this perfect blend of elements: that convey something more than a mere grab shot? Hundreds, I'll bet. You know them when you see them pictures that transcend themselves.
And, I will venture to say, you probably have taken some of them yourself. I have taken some as well. Only not, it's probably fair to say, in such numbers as H C-B or Richard Avedon.
Part of being able to capture the decisive moment is practice. It is no accident that great photographers tend to photograph all the time, developing a kind of intuitive muscle memory and hand-eye coordination that can recognize developing elements of a picture and grab them on film or pixels. I am convinced that, after a while, the effect is unconscious you develop a kind of peripheral vision that becomes hyper-aware of your surroundings, especially when you have a camera in your hand, ready to use. Is it any accident that when he was an active photographer Cartier-Bresson had a Leica with him at all times, or that the late Garry Winogrand, another superb documentarian, burned so much film during his too-short life that when he died he left behind an unbelievable 2500 rolls of film that he had shot and not developed?
On a more mundane, yet no less real, level consider the times you have tried to create your own decisive moment. The first instance that comes to my mind is trying to make a telling picture of a child blowing out birthday candles. You know what's about to happen; you are in position for the shot. You are waiting for the child to perform. If he or she does, fine and most often you'll get a passable snap of a kid with billowing cheeks blowing out candles. But with more experience you might think of waiting for the instant just after the candles go out, when the child looks up from the cake, his or her face flush with excitement and achievement amid a wreath of candle smoke.
Like I said: it takes practice.
One of my favorite shots that my wife Judy made during her days as a children's photographer was of two twin toddler boys sitting side by side on a couch in their parents' living room. During the shoot, Judy asked the mother to place her older son's electric guitar something the babies never were allowed to touch in their lap. The ecstatic looks on the boys' faces the decisive moment, to be sure was the best picture of the session.
At still another time, when I was working on my book Faces of the Eastern Shore, I photographed a blacksmith in his shop. I asked if it would be difficult to create a cascading shower of sparks while hammering molten metal.
Not at all, Rob Hudson answered. And so we choreographed a number of "one, two, three bang!" moments that I caught using slow shutter speed and flash. All I had to do afterward was choose the most dramatic fireworks display to print. Multiple decisive moments and all the more exciting because they were real.
"Photography shows us things that lie beyond our imagination and compel our amazement because they really happened," said writer/photographer David Jenkins in a piece that I quoted here several months ago and which bears repeating now. "It revels in the beauty, the mystery and the strangeness of life. It is the most powerful purely visual medium ever created."
That's why I cringe to hear some people even some photographers, though none I really admire dismissing the idea of the decisive moment as outmoded, even irrelevant in the digital age. That somehow, a transcendent picture a photograph can be patched together from disparate digital elements.
Sure it can. Just don't call it photography.
And just as important, don't try to pass it off as same.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.