The Nature of Photography

The photographic process is simple. This is an examination of ethics of photojournalism based on the simple chemical reactions of photography.This column appeared in News Photographer Magazine in January 2010.

 

The original simplicity of photography has been lost.

By John Long

There is no Eleventh Commandment that says “Thou Shalt Not Manipulate Photographs,” so where does our belief that this is part of what constitutes an honest photograph come from?

Here is a suggestion:

[photograph of building facade with darker paint where an old sign had been]

There is a building in my town that for many years housed a company named Allied Printing Services, Inc. When they moved to larger quarters, the building became the home of Mustangs Unlimited. Allied took their sign with them when they left. Over the years, the paint had faded except in the areas where the letters of the sign had kept the direct sunshine at bay. The old name now looks like a shadow but it is a shadow that stands on its own without its source.

It dawned on me that this phenomenon is the essence of photography – sunshine causing a reaction, be it physical or chemical. It is as if Nature is using a pencil to draw pictures based on reality. And I use this metaphor knowing full well that the first book of photographs ever published was The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1844. From the very inception of photography it was understood that through the focusing power of a lens, nature casts a shadow on a surface and somehow this shadow is made permanent.

The camera obscura is a very old invention and the device upon which the modern camera is based. Since ancient Greek times, an artist would lug around this box with a lens on it (or originally a pin hole instead of a lens) and point it at scenic wonders. He or she would put a piece of paper inside the box and proceed to trace the projected image on this paper. Talbot and others wondered if there were a way to have the light make the drawing instead of a hand and secondly, if there were a way to stop the process before the image totally darkened and disappeared.

This became photography – drawings made by light and made permanent by a chemical reaction.

It then occurred to me that this mechanical and chemical reaction of sunlight is in reality the basis of our photographic ethics. We talk about lying with our images and objectivity, etc., but beneath the world of intent and manipulation, there is a belief that the very nature of photography is supposed to be the use of sunlight to cause a mechanical event on film or paper and fixing the resulting product forever.

The craft of painting is not held to the photographer’s standards – paintings can be whatever the artist wants them to be and no one questions that. Reporters use words to distill what they see into a coherent explanation. They are held to a standard of accuracy but words are a malleable medium and everyone knows they are crafted summations, not literal copies of reality. However, people expect a photograph to show exactly what the camera saw. We have the ability to set tone and frame photographs, to select the objects to be photographed, and so forth, but at the very heart of photography there is the simple fact that the camera records what is in front of it.

Today photography has morphed away from its original roots. It is the paradigm shift referred to by William J. Mitchell in his 1992 book The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era. Photographs have become something new. We can create anything we want in a computer, we can do marvelous things but we have drifted away from the original essence of photography – locking the effects of sunlight on a piece of film (glass negative, Daguerreotype, paper, etc.) with a magic box that captures shadows. The original simplicity of photography has been lost in the paradigm shift.

The process of making a photograph has in turn determined the basic ethics of photography. A photograph is supposed to be the result of sunlight reflected off a subject and captured on light-sensitive material. This is the most elemental definition of a “moment.” To change what the sunlight created is to violate the very nature of the photograph.

The ethics of photojournalism are much more complex but I think this elemental chemical reaction could be the starting point for our discussions of ethics. Photography has encrusted itself with all manner of sophistications (such as computer enhancements) but these things can make us uneasy, especially those of us who grew up on Tri-X and black-and-white prints. Like Simon and Garfunkle sang, we long for our old Kodachrome – basic, simple. You capture the sunlight, you fix the image, and you’ve made an honest photograph.

Write to John Long at jlong35@cox.net.