Photography and Jeff Wall

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An Exploration into Truth and Reality within Photographic Practice Adhering to a Realist Aesthetic.

In this essay I will explore notions of truth and reality in relation to photography of a realist aesthetic, in particular the genres of tableau and documentary. Tableau's roots are in early pictorial photography which strove for balanced and harmonious compositions1. Borrowing from classical painterly aesthetics tableau photographs are made for the wall; to be looked at from a distance like paintings.2 A defining feature of the majority of tableau, and the images referred to in this essay is the use of models, or “posing”3. Documentary photography does not adhere to any particular aesthetic style, instead focusing on “the premise that the photograph is a transcription of reality that contains fact, evidence, and truth.”4

I am interested in the boundaries surrounding the real and authenticity (truth) that photography makes for itself, their flexibility, and whether the nature of documentary leads it to superiority over tableau at transmitting messages. It seems that the transmittance of truths requires a basis in reality, and tableau, constructing rather than directly taking from the world, implies the need for more complicated system of understanding if it is to provide any truth. In the case of realist aesthetics, reality is inferred to the viewer and a contract of reality between image and viewer in place. I am concerned with whether this contract gets broken by tableau, and what implications this has on the transmittance of truth.

Susan Sontag writes:

“The history of photography could be recapitulated as the struggle between two different 1
2
3
4

Jones, Bernard Edward, Encyclopedia of Photography (New York: Arno Press Inc, 1974) 137. Fried, Michael, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (London: Yale University Press, 2008) 143 – 144. Fried, 34.

Stroebel, Leslie, and Richard Zakia, The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography (Woburn, MA: ButterworthHeinemamn, 1993) 223.

imperatives: beautification, which comes from the fine arts, and truth-telling, which is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but by a moralized ideal of truthtelling.”5 Tableau falls most obviously under the category of beautification, perhaps also non-valuefree truth; which infers that it has value. Is this the case?

Sontag proposes that “the ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say 'There is the surface. Now think – or rather feel, intuit – what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.'”6 This is where tableau makes its deception.

Although one purpose of this essay is to explore what the terms within it mean, the following definitions lay down some groundwork. Vilem Flusser defines reality as “what we run up against on our journey towards death, hence: what we are interested in.”7

Sissela Bok's definition of a lie is a statement, believed by the liar to be false, made to another person with the intention that the person be deceived by the statement.8

What might truth and reality mean in reference to photography? The first problem we encounter is that the image, from it's first inception as the photographic negative, is a manipulation of the world. Use of equipment that optically alters the world is a manipulation of it, along with choices of what to include and exclude from frame. David Bate points out in his primer Photography, the camera is a monocular device, as opposed to binocular human vision; able to move around freely and use peripheral vision.9 Thus the rectangular format of a photograph is innately different from how we view and relate to the world; it cannot be a reality in that respect. So the definitions of reality and

5 Sontag, Susan, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1977) 86.
6 Sontag, 23.
7 Flusser, Vilém, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, trans. Anthony Mathews, (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2000) 84.
8 Bok,...
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