The familiar saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” may never have been less true. One day last week I recorded how many images I saw during my morning routine browsing blogs, news sites, Tumblr, and Facebook: I saw 480 in 25 minutes. If you were to look through most of the images I saw on Tumblr, many of them were heavily Photoshopped, staged, or even computer-generated. The power of images has been lessened with their pervasiveness, and our ability to doctor them has become both more easily and more widely adopted. Yet still, images have an undeniable hold on viewers.
Almost from the beginning of photography, artists have been captivated by creating fake images. Hippolyte Bayard, the under-acknowledged inventor of a photographic process that he claimed proceeded those of the two celebrated founders of photography, Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot, is credited with the first fake photograph. Titled “Self Portrait as a Drowned Man” (1840), the photograph shows Bayard pretending to be dead, with writing on the back that declared it a suicide because of the lack of recognition for his life’s work. A staged shot and a false caption was all it took to make Bayard’s photo one of the most memorable in early photographic history.
Now we are inundated with photographs that are barely believable. As a child I poured over photographs of UFOs and imaginary monsters like Loch Ness and Big Foot, wanting to believe them so badly. I was hoping for some proof of these mysterious and unexplained phenomena, and the likelihood that the photographs were fake was not proof that they were, so their mystery kept me captivated. Now I assume all images are fake unless they appear in respected news sources. Constantly asking whether images on Tumblr are fakes or not would be an endless and most likely pointless task. I no longer really care.
In this way, photography in certain contexts (like Tumblr) has been freed from the need to be rooted in reality. It can truly be an artistic medium like painting. An artist can create any image they want to with photography, and it can look completely real. Of course, in a gallery setting this is an exciting feat, but in a political context the potentials are obviously scary. For instance, recently IKEA removed many of the women from their catalogue for Saudi Arabia, thereby inciting heated debate around women’s role in the Islamic, male-controlled country. A Saudi princess said, “As long as women are hindered from visibility and work outside home, Saudi Arabia will lack 50% of their human capital.” In this way the altered images revealed a deeper and more malignant truth, that Saudi women go largely unseen.
Then again, it is worth noting that last week the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a show, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, which proclaims that “the old adage ‘the camera never lies’ has always been photography’s supreme fiction.”