Broken Trust of the Image

By Dai Vaughan

Dai Vaughan has worked for 30 years as a documentary film editor. His first novel, The Cloud Chamber, was published in 1993. A second novel, Moritur, and a study of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out for the BFI’s ‘Film Classics’ series, are scheduled to appear in 1994.

The invention of photography was hailed by Paul Delaroche with the declaration, ‘From today, painting is dead.’ The centuries-long search for two-dimensional equivalents of furs, clouds, distances, the intricate patterning of textiles and the multifarious details of foliage was at an end. What had been difficult was now easy. The photograph could guarantee likeness.


‘Girl in an interior’, c. 1865, unknown photographer

Delaroche is known in England for his ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ and anyone familiar with this work – which, in black-and-white reproduction, could easily pass for a film frame from the first decade of this century – will understand his reaction. But still, it can hardly be denied that the agenda of art was radically altered. Impressionism, the first major response to photography, challenged it on its own ground by questioning, if only implicitly, its claim to having the last word on the world’s appearance. The impressionist project was anti-photographic in a way that Leonardo, with his optometric approach to visual experience, would not have understood.

If the photograph seemed to guarantee likeness, how did it do so? Even leaving colour and binocular vision out of it, we know we do not perceive the world exactly according to the laws of perspective; neither do we, except for a flickering instant, hold to one plane of focus. No, the point of photography is not that it mimics definitively the experience of seeing an object, but that its relation to that object is a necessary rather than a contingent one. More tellingly: the object is necessary to the photograph. These necessities find their complement in a specific manner of trust. The photograph reassures us not only that it is a non-arbitrary transformation of the thing represented but, more fundamentally, that an object of which this is a representation must have existed in the first place.

affaire-dreyfus-georges-melies.jpgL'Affaire Dreyfus, dir. Mélies, 1899. The journalists rush out of the courtroom.

The realism we attribute to photography is our apprehension of its twin necessities. Thus the nude in ‘Le déjeuner sur l’herbe’ is shocking not just because her companions are in modern dress, but because she is rendered in a photographic manner: for a photograph demands, and therefore implies to the viewer, the prior presence of its subject in a way that a painting does not. It is likely that, had photography not been invented, the idea of travelling into and through a visual image might have seemed a morbid, Edgar Allan Poe-ish conception. Be that as it may, the sense of surrogate vision took on great force at the beginnings of cinema. It was, however, also felt to be fugitive. As early as 1903, a review of a series of films made by Charles Urban in Borneo contained the comment, ‘It was full of “actuality”, as people were fond of saying a few years ago... [my italics]’. This ‘actuality’ was – and is – the subjective conviction on the part of the viewer of that prior and independent existence of the represented world which is specific to the photograph.

at-the-mill-henry-trip.jpg‘At the mill’, Goring, Berkshire. Photo: Henry Trip, 1885

Attempts to re-invigorate the ‘actuality’ effect have been ceaseless throughout cinema’s history, consisting first in the exploration of ever-new subject-areas, then in such gimmicks as hand-tinting and toning, and eventually in the development of fresh forms of cinematic articulation. Thus at a point when ‘general interest’ films (travelogues and the like) had lost all bite and immediacy, the Grierson movement set about using everyday imagery to generate an urgent civic propaganda. By the time British documentary had begun to smell stale and governmental, new portable professional equipment was beginning to throw emphasis upon the uniqueness of the moment as captured by those holding the gear.

The evangelical function of cinema, as witness to the having-been, is one that has claimed passionate loyalty from many practitioners. They have seen in it the promise of a language purged of authoritarian impositions. The extent to which the authorities in the field of television recognise this as a threat may be judged from the efforts they make to contain it: the constant insistence that documentary material should be explained, identified, labelled, signposted – in short, made subordinate to prior schemata. It is a species of stylistic censorship more insidious than the occasional banning of a current affairs programme which provides a cause célèbre. Of course, there is no denying that a vérité-style film has been edited into a statement, and may indeed have been dishonestly edited; but even where this is the case, there remains a residuum of choice, of enfranchisement of the viewer. In seeking to curtail the power of the photographed image to direct us towards the autonomy of the prior event, the authorities have received flanking if unintended support from people who, in blind deference to semiological axiom, have made a point of denying that there is any distinction to be found between documentary and fiction. A sign is a sign, and that is that. But are those who insist that ‘the camera can lie’ seriously telling us that they have never granted the photograph a different form of credence from that which we accord to a painting, or the film-clip a different form of credence from that which we accord a written dispatch?

match-girl-strike.jpg‘Match girl’ strike, 1888, unknown photographer.

On 21 October 1990, the Independent on Sunday carried an account by William Leith of a meeting with David Hockney. Scarcely had Leith arrived when Hockney began photographing him, in segments, with a camera which recorded its images digitally onto floppy disc. He then fed the disc into a computer, adjusted the colour, enhanced the outline and laser-printed the result onto paper. In a phrase eerily echoing that of Delaroche 150 years earlier, he described this as heralding, ‘…the end of chemical photography.’ It was at this point that I began keeping an eye open for relevant items in the popular and trade press. Not long afterwards, a piece appeared in The Guardian explaining how advanced computer graphics could now be programmed to offer the viewer of an archaeological series a ‘walk’ through a long-demolished building. With Hockney, an image obtained ‘photographically’ had been only the starting point for a process of modification. Now something was to be experienced as a photographic image which was not one.

lady-of-shalott-hp-robinson.jpg‘The Lady of Shalott’, Photo: H.P. Robinson, 1861.

The memory capacity of digital systems has increased unabated, allowing ever-more-subtle effects – reflected colour from adjacent objects, for example – to be mathematically pre-programmed. At the same time, ultra-high definition video systems are being developed which will approximate to photo-chemical standards of image resolution. In day-to-day television, electronic manipulation of imagery has proliferated, and has long escaped the confines of commercials and title sequences to infect the tissue of programmes themselves: first news, then current affairs, science, sport and even gardening. Already I have once or twice been uncertain whether I was looking at a genuine shot or a simulation. Meanwhile, there has been controversy over the ‘colourisation’ of old black-and-white movies. Those who oppose this do so on the grounds that we ought not to mess about with the classics. But there, at least, all that is involved is the adding of a further fictional element to what is already fictitious. To colourise old newsreel footage for use in a newly-shot drama is a different matter: it is to negate the value of those codings whereby we customarily identify the level of recognition an image demands.

crystal-palace-francois-emile-zola.jpgCrystal Palace, Photo: François Emile Zola, 1898.

The problems of categorisation have become steadily more teasing. Snell & Wilcox have developed a system for eliminating the ratchetting effect of slow-motion action replays, whereby a computer calculates the appropriate intermediate position between two frames for every pixel in the field. Each of these intermediate frames, if held, would represent a photograph which was never taken. Less dramatically, but with similar implications, Panasonic advertise a video camera for the amateur market which will eliminate the effects of wobble by centring each frame to match the previous one. And in the realm of stills, we have seen accounts of the ‘Age It’ computer system, designed to help the police in tracing children who have been missing for a long time, which, if fed with the photograph of a child of known age, can print out an accurate image of how that child will look a given number of years later. Here the one-to-one correspon­dence of a photograph to its subject is coupled with invariant formulae for the relative rates of growth of different parts of the human face. Is the result a photograph or isn’t it?

Developments of this sort have, of course, been debated widely. The photographic journal Ten.8 devoted a whole, engrossing issue (Vol. 2, No. 2) to the digital revolution and its implications. But such discussion, in so far as it has touched upon the question of photography as evidence, has tended quickly to shift from ‘evidence’ in the sense of ‘the state of being made manifest’ to ‘evidence’ in its more limited, forensic meaning: whether the photograph can still be treated as the bearer of truth. From here, it is a natural step to point out that photography (and, a fortiori, film) was never trustworthy in any absolute sense; that we have always judged photographic texts with more than half an eye to the credibility of their sources; and that therefore, all things considered, the new technologies have changed nothing much.

le-petit-soldat-jean-luc-godard.jpgLe Petit Soldat, dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1960.

Certainly the option for manipulation of the image has always been present in photography. Mostly these manipulations have been designedly blatant, whether in the political collages of Heartfield and Bayer or in Frank Hurley’s apocalyptic multiple exposures from the battlefields of World War I – for which, even then, he incurred the wrath of the purists. But there have been exceptions. Peach Robinson’s prints from multiple negatives – of which the best known is ‘Fading Away’ – are distinguishable from straight photographs only by an unease, a certain surreal frisson, which they provoke. (Here, one must stress, it is not simply a question of mis-identification of a photograph’s subject. ‘Fading Away’ is a ‘photograph’ of four people in a room together who were not in that room together. We do not even know if such a room existed.) More sinister and widespread was the success of Stalin’s agents in eradicating from the photographic record people who had been eradicated from life. Such practices, however, whilst perhaps putting us on our guard in certain cultural areas, were never so predominant as to call into question our underlying assumptions about the relation of the photograph to a prior world. Indeed, just as Heartfield’s photomontages rely for their force upon our recognition of them as impossible photographs, so were the airbrush exercises of the NKVD parasitic upon that very ‘trust’ which is photography’s signature. There is no point in tampering with the facts unless people are going to assume – in spite of all their well-founded suspicions – that you haven’t.

So what has changed? In one sense, nothing. That is to say that none of the developments I have mentioned, singly or together, logically changes the relation of a photograph to its object. But it is not altogether a matter of logic; rather of how much weight our cultural assumptions will bear. I am inviting you to consider the moment when what has been said already will have ceased to be the case.

Let me make it clear that I am not concerned with mendacity. I am not concerned with the possibility that people may be misled by a doctored picture. What concerns me is that we shall wake up one day and find that the assumption of a privileged relation between a photograph and its object, an assumption which has held good for 150 years and on which cine-actuality is founded, will have ceased to be operative. And when that happens, it will not be because some thesis has been refuted, but because the accumulation of countervailing experiences have rendered null that ‘trust’ for which the idiom has simply been our warranty. And once we have lost it, we shall never get it back.

What we are faced with, if we entertain the suspicion that ‘from today, cinema is dead,’ is not a gradual decline into the moribund, but something closer to the catastrophe model, where a seemingly innocuous curve takes a sudden nose-dive, an irreversible switch into another state. Of course, a photographic idiom will continue to exist. Scientists and the agencies of surveillance will continue to use photography, knowing – as with infra-red and other exotic data – precisely the nature of the information it encodes. But for most people, and in most cultural contexts, a kind of fog, a flux, will have intruded between the image and our assumptions about its origins.

It is happening already. In a straightforward educational programme, an interviewee is seated in what appears to be an ordinary room until, apropos of nothing, it mutates into somewhere completely different. Such techniques are themselves becoming norms. But, to the extent that they do so, to the extent that we abandon any assumption that the background of a shot represents the location where the action took place, we are abandoning the founding assumption of a photograph’s relation to the prior occurrence. What I have termed its ‘trust’ has been breached.

In 1991, a BBC Arena programme on the human face contained a brief passage showing the metamorphosis of presenter Laurie Anderson into a baboon. I assumed this to be a bit of electronic jiggery-pokery – of the sort which more recently has allowed people on the ‘Benefit News’ commercials to mutate into other people while not ceasing to address us directly from the screen – until I read in the Radio Times that for this sequence Anderson had had to spend 14 hours in make-up, unable to eat, drink or scratch her nose. There was a time – not so long ago – when the implications of this, in terms of discomfort and endurance, would have remained present for us in the sequence; now they did not. A sense of the effort and impediment of the represented world is one thing lost when we cease to see that world as necessary to its representation.

Furthermore, it seems likely that such an effect will be felt not only in the realms of Terminator II, but in our more down-to-earth responses to individual photographs. Hitherto we have felt that a portrait by Nadar, say, of Baudelaire or Rossini, differed in some qualitative way from the works even of those artists whose representations could most convincingly persuade us – as do Holbein’s drawings – of the presence of the sitter. But will this continue to be so? And if it does not, what will be the consequences for our perception of Nadar – and of Holbein? What I am arguing is that the way we have viewed films for the past century, and photographs for the past century-and-a-half, may be on the point of becoming a forgotten state of mind, which future generations will be able to recover, if at all, only with great speculative effort.

At this point, someone will probably say: ‘OK, it’s possible that the cultural underpinning of documentary may be about to disintegrate; but that will not affect fiction, since fiction film consists precisely in presenting things as other than what was actually photographed.’ But I am not so sure. After all, as I have said, mis-identification is not the issue here; and fiction film may make its own demands upon photographic ‘trust’. Think, for example, how often a return to realism has meant the adoption of documentary manners. And, aside from any thought of realism, is it not some sense of old-fashioned actuality which must account for that extraordinarily compelling quality we find in certain technically unsophisticated fictions: the original version of Cat People, perhaps, or Cocteau’s Orphée, or Kubrick’s Killer's Kiss? Let me ask my fiction colleagues bluntly: would you really be content to think your films differed from animated cartoons only in the degree of their verisimilitude? Has there not been, for all of us, more to it than that?

To re-phrase the question: suppose that ‘Fading Away’, with its subversion of ‘trust’ in the camera, had become the paradigm for 19th century photography: can we then imagine that the cinematograph would have come to exercise the popular compulsion which it did? Can we believe that the history of our medium would have been no different if the condition we now face had preceded its invention?

If I am right, then documentary is the tap root of cinema, even of those forms most remote from it; and if this were allowed to die, all else would wither. What, then, can be done? Perhaps nothing. It is more than possible that the cause is already lost, along with that of social progress with which photography and documentary have throughout their existence been strongly identified – perhaps out of nothing more than a gut feeling that if people were allowed to see freely they would see truly. In spite of constant attempts to accommodate or recruit it, photography has always represented an impediment to the word of authority by virtue of its ultimate appeal to something prior to that word. I do not think it is fortuitous that the age of the chemical photograph has broadly coincided with that of mass democratic challenges to entrenched power.

The most I can suggest is that we should strive to protect a kernel of elemental documentary production: of films which, because they are wholly dependent on photographic ‘trust’ – on the acknowledgement of a privileged relation between the photograph and the world – will serve in turn as repositories of that ‘trust’, and hence of the responsive tradition which makes possible the maintenance of cinema as a distinctive medium. Films of this sort, films which allow no precedence to extraneous sources of meaning, and which therefore demand the documentary response as a condition of their coherence, still find their way occasionally on to our screens. We must hope that they will continue to do so.