Informing Contexts; MA activity log, Week 2, 3rd February – 9th February, 2018

Plenty to do on the course study front.

For the forum we were asked to comment on Roland Barthes’s thoughts on ‘Authenticity’ and the difference between authenticity and representation.

I said that I agreed with Bathes, at least with his basic concept that it is likely that the representation of an image created through a photographic process it will have the ability to be treated by the viewer as authentic to a much greater extent than what the person who captured/created that image actually represents it has.

The key as usual with photography is context. My reading is that that Barthes is using this phrase in terms of the likely influence on the viewer. Thus, even though the photograph may potentially have been produced with a high degree of fabrication. Roland Barthes is postulating that our treatment of the image will be similar to how we see of the world with our own eyesight, especially if classed as comparable to an instantaneous glance. Thus it gains a degree of authenticity that is, at least initially, independent of our understanding of how the photograph was produced. The same is certainly not true for oil painting.

It’s an important aspect of my project, particularly as I’m trying to convey something of the reality of my collaborator’s working life as well as personality through the inclusion of part of their working environment. The more posed my images look, the less conviction my images will give. That my medium lends itself for my images to be treated as likely to be authentic/real is helpful in attaining that goal. Whether it can be relied upon, especially on longer examination, is questionable. Especially if there are some aspects of the image, such as expression or surroundings, that don’t appear to fit.

So while Barthes is making an important point, the more an image differs from the viewers expectation of that ‘reality’, the more important is the authenticity of that representation. This is a particular issue at this strange time of ‘Fake News’ accusation.

For our week’s activity we were asked to post Post a short response below that outlines your own position regarding the nature of the photograph as ‘really real’.

I begin with a personal observation. I guess in many ways the biggest factor that influences me in terms of whether the photograph that I’m looking at is ‘real‘ is it’s ordinariness. The more visually stimulating or intriguing a photographic image is, the more I will tend to question the reality of it. This is partly  through my experience of camera club judges who often make the point as to what could/should be done to ‘enhance’ the entrant’s image. That doesn’t mean however that I don’t appreciate the impact and effect that such a more distinctive image gives.

Scruton’s argues photography is not representational. Providing an analysis of representational causality he argues that by it’s visually representative nature the photograph tends to automatically define itself as ‘real’. Or at least it does in terms of a visual reproduction of the scene in front of it. While I’m happy to support that we see most photographs automatically as real, I’m not convinced by Scruton’s argument.

I also lack conviction that we assess photographic and painted portraits so differently. He argues that “if one finds a photograph beautiful, it is because one finds something beautiful in its subject. A painting may be beautiful on the other hand, even when the subject represent an ugly thing.” While photographic portraiture, like painting, tends to flatter the subject, like painting there’s quite a few powerful exceptions. John Szarkowski made the point that just as modern painting has been greatly influenced ay photography, so photography has been greatly influenced by painting. This is certainly a consideration in my own work.

Barthes talks about “the punctum” as a way to describe the presence of a certain aspect or detail in a particular image that raises it in the eye of the viewer, giving it ‘grace’. He also says that this ‘punctum’ is missing in what he calls ‘unary’ photographs. Most journalistic and all pornographic photographs are placed by Barthes in this group. While I can sort of see what he means, so much is in the eye of the beholder I question this as a feature that could be reliably identified. Though I do suspect what I see as ‘ordinary’ in an image is Barthes’s ‘unary’. Similarly Victor Burgin talks about visually consuming the photograph, an act of looking. Like Jacques Lacan’s use of ‘gaze’ he interprets this act in a psychoanalytic way. Personally I find this approach shaky, attempting to pigeon-hole artistic appreciation to a male/fetishist reaction. Easier to fit within the Austrian society of Freud than modern global living maybe?

I’m happy to agree with Lev Manovich that those, like Mitchell, who argue pre-digital photography (i.e. film) is different, are wrong. Manovich feels digital photography is simply a continuation of analogue reproduction and even has the ability to reinforce it. While earnestly agreeing I’d have to point out that digital is at least as capable as analogue of producing blurred and distorted imagery, digital doesn’t have to be pixel-perfect HD.

I can’t question that compared to other art forms, excepting the non-camera and abstract forms of photography, the photograph is fundamentally different. By the nature of optics the scene, however framed, is imposed. While we can talk about art photography as separate from photography I feel this distinction is questionable when the camera is in the hands of an exceptional photographer, like Bill Brandt or Richard Avedon, who were able to both record and create with exactly the same set of photographic tools.


Bill Brandt:  London, 1954

Bill Brandt: London, 1954

Richard Avedon:  Volpi Ball, Venice, Italy 31st August, 1991

Richard Avedon: Volpi Ball, Venice, Italy 31st August, 1991

I suspect that with the present ubiquity of digital photography the difference is perhaps much less marked than it was. David Bate makes the point that “photographic interventions in art are multiple and diverse, eclectic even, and art is unthinkable now without them”. Bate also talks about one response to the 21st century’s heterogenous use of digital manipulation is to refer to the digital photograph as ‘post-photographic’, merely a form of ‘data space’. This distinction I’m unsure about.

Stephen Shore talked about ‘levels’ within an image, that “the print provides a physical framework for the visual parameters of the photographic image”. He felt it was our mental perceptions that changed this “piece of paper into a seductive illusion or a moment of beauty and truth”. And while the photograph is now as likely to be seen on a large or small electronic screen as in a printed form I feel this phrase is for me describing the nature of the photograph.

Certainly. If you look at contemporary work a huge range of approaches are taken. From the quirky use of pareidolio (seeing patterns of light and shadow as faces) by Justin Sutcliffe to the colourful digitally manipulated compositions of Kenta Cobayashi, photography now takes on a multiplicity of visual forms, without entering the even more diverse realms of videography. Perceived reality, such that seen in documentary and nature photography, is just one of them.

Kenta Kobayashi:  Chel3

Kenta Kobayashi: Chel3

Justin Sutcliffe – “Parking, Ipswich”

Justin Sutcliffe – “Parking, Ipswich”



Barthes, Roland (1980) Camera Lucida translated by Richard Howard (1981), London, Vintage Books – Random House <Penguin>.

Elkins, J (Ed) (2013) Photography as Theory London, Routledge

Scruton, Roger (1981) Photography and Representation Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring), pp. 577-603, The University of Chicago Press.

Szarkowski, John (1980) The Photographer’s Eye London, Secker and Warburg

Bates, David (2015) Art Photography London, Tate Publishing

Shore, Stephen (2007) The Nature of Photographs 2nd edition London, Phaidon Press


Images – more on that photographer (see the ‘photographs’ tab)