Provenance

Part One in a Three Part ethics series.

This is a three part examination of “Truth” in photojournalism. Part one deals with the reality behind the image, part two deals with honesty, accuracy and the meaning of the word “truth”, and part three deals with the power of the real photograph.

These three columns originally appeared in the January, February and March 2011 issues of News Photographer Magazine.

 

By John Long

(Merriam-Webster – provenance: the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art or literature)

Two iconic photographs have come under intense scrutiny in the past year or so, the famous Robert Capa photograph of the Falling Soldier and an Associated Press photograph thought to be from the infamous Bataan Death March. This column does not attempt to settle either of these controversies but rather to explore the question: “What is an honest photograph?”

[Robert Capa 'Falling Soldier' photograph]

[AP photograph thought to be from Bataan Death March]

If these photographs are not what we thought them to be, are they no longer honest? There has been no digital manipulation (or airbrushing, since these both predated the electronic era by many years), and the images are exact representations of what was in front of the camera when the shutter was tripped. What definition of honesty is broken if the camera did what it was supposed to do and the negative shows the reality that existed in front of the lens at that moment?

This question goes to the very nature of photography and our expectations when we look at images. If the photograph of people carrying bodies in blankets is not of the actual Bataan Death March, is it no longer real? Is it a lie? If the Falling Soldier is not dead, is the photograph a fake?

How have we come to imbue iconic photographs with a power that might not be theirs? Is photography at its soul just a myth? Is a photograph just a personal construct, much like a painting? Is an Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite honest, or is it actually a photograph of Adams’ mind or soul, not Yosemite? I remember on first visiting Yosemite being on some level surprised there was color. I was so imbued with Adams’ black-and-white photographs, it seemed odd that the trees were green and the sky was blue.

Is honesty inherent in the image, or in the provenance? Is the honesty in the image or in the story that goes with the image? And what does the word “honesty” really mean?

We have come to value the “decisive moment,” to believe the real photograph depicts reality. Maybe we have imbued the documentary photograph with a reality it does not actually have. A photograph is merely a collection of specs of silver (originally) or pixels that represents or copies a moment in time presented in two-dimensional fashion, symbolically. Just because it looks like a man falling does not make it a man falling. The mind must interpret the visual information and this information is limited in that it does not have smell, or context, or color or temperature or any of the multitude of things that make up reality and our perception when we are actually experiencing reality.

Provenance is an important part of a photograph and we usually pass over this aspect of the photograph because it is usually so self-evident. It is only in the rare case where provenance is called into question that we see and feel its importance.

If the soldier is not dead, the photograph loses its importance. It is still the exact same set of symbolic specs of silver on the exact same paper, but it no longer has the same value as a piece of history. It is not that the photograph lied. Provenance was at fault. It is still an honestly produced photograph but the external importance we gave it has proved to be false so this honest photograph is no longer as important as we thought it was.

One time I was covering a flash storm in Hartford that caused some street flooding. As I approached a puddle I saw a youth riding his bicycle through the water. I jumped out of my car, made one photograph, and the kid rode off. I could have called him back and had him do it again but I did not and I settled for a mediocre image instead of a good one even though the public would never be able to tell from looking at the photograph if it was real or staged.

If I set up the photograph of the kid in the water, does this make the photograph a lie? Yes!!! Because the provenance would be a lie. The kid would have ridden through the water if I had asked him to but the implied provenance was that it happened on its own, not with my help. That is where the lie would come in.

Now let’s add another wrinkle: a television videographer, who believes differently in regard to set up photographs than I do, shows up at the same scene and asks the kid to ride through the water again. Do I shoot this? It’s his set up. Is it ethically okay for me to shoot his set up?

Let’s make this even more like the reality of today as television and newspapers merge: if the still photographer and the television shooter both work for the same company, can the newspaper photography editor choose a frame grab from the television shooter for the paper since it is a better photograph and shot ethically under the rules in place for the television shooter?

And as still photographers begin to work in same department as videographers, whose honesty will be paramount?