The Index and the Icon

Forum: A Question of Authenticity.

Authentication equals reality, provenance, truth, history;  whereas representation can come under different guises such as imitation, mimickery, metaphor, ideology; and might be used in contexts and subjects such as language, music, philosophy and religion.

The same argument might be applied, for example, to Neo Classical music, where composers of the 20th century re-worked old forms, structures and melodies from the Classical period, adding their own ‘modern’ twist through elements such as harmony, instrumentation and rhythm. However we could not say that this ‘new’ music represented the old, but neither could we say that it was authentic in its own right.

Where once stock photography was primarily concerned with the depiction of reality, even this genre has become more accepting of fantastical photographs and images (Shutterstock claimed in January that their customers were looking for images that suggest fantasy, new minimalism and space). Boundaries between fact and fiction can become blurred – when the audience has not physically seen the object themselves they rely on a) what they know to be fact, and b) their imagination. An example of this was the uncertainty surrounding the authenticity of the Loch Ness Monster.

As someone who is more interested in the suggested narrative within a picture than what it is actually of, I disagree with Barthes’ assumption that authentication is superior to representation. Perhaps it’s acceptable to be neither, as in the above musical example ?

Response to the presentations and reading material.

In one of this week’s presentations I was particularly interested to discover more of the work by Trish Morrisey – Front (2005), in which she positions herself as a ‘cuckoo’ replacing family members in group photos (usually the mother), and asking the person displaced to take the photograph. This resonated within my work as I intend to displace characters from old photographs and find new settings for them (because vintage ‘found’ photographs often have their location missing). Unusually, in the micro-project I am planning, my images will not be digitally manipulated; even though they will be placed out of time and context; and will in this instance concur with Batchen’s view that ‘a photograph of something has long been held to be a proof of that thing’s being, even if not of its truth (2002, p.139). However, Batchen’s view raises many philosophical questions, not least about his reference to the ‘thing’s being’ – to understand this properly we would need to consider his use of the term ‘being’. For example, would a photograph of a cartoon character or a CGI be proof of the thing’s being? Batchen shares Barthes’ view that photography does not necessarily represent reality.

Photography is open to so many manipulations that the only images that can be taken at face value are the ones that come straight out of the camera – such as negatives or instamatic film. Even then, the picture is not necessarily a depiction of reality. The only truth that photography can offer is that of imagery – what is there, in the picture, is what the viewer sees – and what that actually represents is up to the viewer to decide. This is no different to literature, where there will undoubtedly be countless interpretations of the same text – but in the end it is the individual’s response which creates its own, personal truth.

Comparing this to my own project (The Great British Seaside) the only truth within it will be that a) the characters were once alive and did exist in the place where the original photograph was taken, and b) any places within the photograph are real.  However, the end product will have no truth besides this. I hope to provoke an narrative that the viewer will imagine for themselves. The symbolic nature of my work will leave traces of characters and places, but be mismatched by time, place and context. The viewer might imagine that the photographs are of people in a particular place and time, because that is what we expect from holiday snaps. I have considered the indexical nature of this work and reached the conclusion that there is little. In the words of Sontag ‘a photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a thing happened’ (1977, p5).