BEWARE FALSE REALITY
by John Henshall
“The camera doesn't lie” is a phrase we seldom hear these days. Once we used it regularly to reassure ourselves and others that photography was above reproach when it came to the reliable reporting of the events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It became part of our photo-phokelore.
With the advent of photo-manipulation software, such as Adobe Photoshop, all that changed. […] In fact 'The Sport' is one of the best sources of examples of digital photo-manipulation - at least that's my excuse for buying it. But even publications which we feel are beyond reproach have been caught out: witness 'National Geographic' magazine's judicious re-alignment of the pyramids to fit a cover layout more conveniently.
The camera has always been a liar, especially in the hands of a capable photographer. The choice of a wideangle lens exaggerates perspective and consequently affects perception of the relative sizes of objects in the frame. A long focal length lens makes objects appear closer together than they are. A wide aperture reduces depth of field to the point where attention can be directed to the in-focus part of the image. A low camera angle accentuates the stature of subjects, allowing them to dominate us; a high camera angle enables us to dominate the subject. The precise moment of exposure and shutter speed record just a fraction of a second of action, submitting it as a representation of an event which may have taken much longer. Dodging and burning redirects emphasis. Cropping - in the viewfinder, on the enlarger table, or for the pages of a publication - edits what we see and further influences our awareness of truth. It isn't just what we include in a picture but what we choose to leave out. These are just some of the tools which enable us to tell the story as we wish it to be seen. Ultimately the viewer has to put his trust in the interpretive hands of the photographer. That is what can - but far from always does - make a photograph a work of art.
Some of the retouching is rather crude by today's standards. David King suggests that the Stalinists may have wanted their readers "to see that elimination had taken place, as a fearful and ominous warning." "Or could the slightest trace of an almost vanished commissar, deliberately left behind by the retoucher, become a ghostly reminder that the repressed might yet return?"
It would have been a brave retoucher who intentionally let his feelings show through in this way, risking his own elimination. Maybe it was because the crude reprographic processes used at the time introduced another layer of cover-up? Or was it simply that people of a less visually sophisticated era were more inclined to accept the photographic « evidence » presented to them, never even suspecting the existence of techniques for deception? Maybe they believed that the camera doesn't lie?
[John Henshall, in "The Photographer" magazine, February 1998].
David King was the art editor of the « Sunday Times » magazine from 1965 to 1975.He has assembled many of these images into a book, 'The Commissar Vanishes', which documents the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin's Russia.