The Rise of Face Value

May 10, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

I was watching the news recently, something I try to avoid doing for long periods these days, because of some of the truly awful things going on in the world.  The ongoing news item that has taken on the name Partygate was being discussed and I found myself looking at the viral video footage of the Labour party leader drinking a beer in an office.  Now, I’m not discussing the political issues at the heart of this story, whether any of the politicians broke Covid restrictions etc as that is for others to write about.   What interested me about this piece of video was more about the way it was being used in the news broadcast.   The video, around 30 seconds in length, shows Sir Keir Starmer standing by a window, drinking a beer.  There are other people present in the room, but the video is of fairly poor quality they are more difficult to see clearly than he is.  We can see their positions relative to Starmer and, apart from recording them having some form of conversation, there isn’t much else of interesting in the video.  On the surface, the video shows a gathering indoors during a time where the rules in the UK stated that we couldn’t do that – this rule-breaking is the whole premise of Partygate.  However, the news item made the claim that the video ‘proves that rules were being broken’.  Leaving aside the politics of the news outlet, this is clearly not the case.  On its own, it merely shows an event happening without context, whose legality or otherwise is the subject of an investigation.  This got me thinking about how we increasingly take visuals at face value, extrapolating what we believe to be obvious when paired with a persuasive argument.  I wondered how we got to this point and whether it’s a symptom of the modern age. 

We’ve all heard the saying ‘the camera never lies’.  This myth has its origins in the very beginnings of photography, with the early pioneers like  Fox Talbot and Daguerre seeking to faithfully produce ‘drawings’ of things.  In Fox Talbot’s case, he was frustrated by what he saw as his lack of drawing skill, producing early photograms of plant structures using his new photographic technique before considering the camera.  Photograms involved placing a translucent subject on a piece of photo-sensitive paper and illuminating it with a light source.  The light passing through (and being obscured) by the object creates an image of the structure of the object onto the paper as highlights and shadows.   This idea of the photography producing accurate images was the dominant view of the art world at the time, with many disregarding the medium as being mechanical and therefore not art.  

In the early 20th Century, the use of photography to record events gave birth to the ‘documentary’ genre, which is where some of the most noticeable doubts about photography’s ‘honesty’ can be seen.  In the 1930’s the US Farm Security Administration embarked on a project to document the migration of farm workers from the deprived rural areas to the cities during the Great Depression.   The series that was produced included works by many famous contemporary photographers, perhaps the most famous being Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.  The series sought to show the US people and the states legislature that there was this huge suffering in large sections of the rural population in an effort to get them help.  It’s said that the publication of the photographs and accompanying writing ultimately helped thousands of impoverished farmers.  What wasn’t common knowledge at the time was that the narrative was very carefully managed.  The editor, Roy Stryker, was known for his close attention to editing the pictures in such a brutal fashion that those not fitting the narrative were badly damaged using a hole punch so that they couldn’t be printed.  The discovery and subsequent printing of the destroyed negatives gives us an insight into what Stryker was trying to avoid, including images of farmers smiling at the camera, children at play and compositions that showed the defiance of the poor.  None of these things supported what Stryker wanted to say.  The camera then, was accurately capturing what was put in front of it, but the use of the results was tailored for a target audience with a very specific message.  That message wasn’t necessarily the whole truth, particularly in the case of Migrant Mother, but that didn’t matter.  The camera didn’t lie, so the readers took the pictures and the accompanying narrative at Face Value. 

When we think about Partygate in the context of ‘documentary’, this use of the visual being bent to suit a narrative is no longer a surprise.  Starmer has been highly critical of similar behaviour on the opposing benches so, in a way to balance the argument, certain press outlets are bound to use a video like this one in their counter-argument – who wouldn’t? 

Is 'face value' a modern affliction?  No, of course not.  Photography has been associated with the notion of truth for its whole existence, but the subversion of an idea such as the ‘perception of truth’ often creates the most interesting art (I’ll discuss the artists who inspire me in upcoming blog posts).  What is a symptom of the digital age, however is the ease with which we can all ‘document’ something with our smartphones and instantly share it with the whole world.  The seemingly infinite narratives that can be derived from one or more of these documents are up for grabs.  In the case of the Starmer video, it offers a narrative to one side of the argument more than the other, one that suggests hypocrisy.  This is why I’ve limited my consumption of the news, because it’s so easy to be taken in by a persuasive narrative that is not the whole story. Perhaps the consumption of many different news viewpoints on a subject is the way to combat the bias, but to be honest I personally find it to be anxiety-inducing and who needs that in their life?  One thing is for certain, the camera is a tool who’s use in capable hands can be a little dishonest when needs be. 

If you’re interested in the ‘truth’ of Lange’s famous Migrant Mother, my friend and fellow artist has posted a great telling of its story on his Youtube channel ‘Before the Shutter’:-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLXRMNlxxec&t=24s

Similarly, the Killed Negatives exhibition mentioned can be found here:-

https://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/killed-negatives-unseen-images-1930s-america/

Finally, if you’re interested in telling your own stories, true or otherwise, through photography then why not start the journey with some tuition?  My tailored beginner’s tuition will help you become familiar in the basics of photography and you’ll be shooting documentary in no time – just be careful shooting through people’s windows.   Drop me a line at [email protected] for more details.

 


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