Photography: Documenting A Reality Or Constructing A Fallacy?

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Photography, it seems, is accompanied by the assumption that everything depicted within the medium is an automatic truth.  A reasonable assumption to make as photography, in its essential form, literally takes what one sees before them, and through the process of recording light onto sensitive material, retains it.  It sounds complex, I suppose it is, but what one attains from this process is, supposedly an exact replication of what appears before one’s eyes.  It is unlike painting or drawing, which, no matter how realistic the depiction always conveys some degree of alteration, of some almost unperceivable difference from reality, but is photography really any better?

Too True

I suppose when stripped to its elemental nature, the impetus behind documenting reality really is a striving towards the documentation of truth. Forgive me for asking what is shrouded in mystery, an unanswerable question, but what is truth? I suppose, as far as I am able to rationalize “Truth” is the intrinsic, integral quality behind any person or situation. Truth can be hidden or overt, but there is always the truth, lurking, present, at any moment of time.

What is, perhaps, an essential expectation of any piece of documentary-style photography is that truth be overt, and hand in hand with the overt comes to a sense of accompanying naturally. Nan Goldin is a photographer whose work is so blatantly exposing, so unashamedly coarse and overwhelmed with intrusive, intimate scenes that one cannot question their intrinsic reality and truthful exposition. They convey a gritty harsh reality, and perhaps unwelcome or ugly truths, but they are truths nonetheless.

Invade, evade?

I suppose when one considers this carefully one comes to the conclusion that despite the fact there is only one reality, within that one reality may be harbored multiple truths. Goldin exposes the intimate truths of her friends, of her chosen family, and the beautiful and often bleak lives they led, “She has affectionately documented women looking in mirrors, girls in bathrooms, drag queens, sexual acts, and the culture of obsession and dependency. The images are viewed like a private journal made public.”

What she unwittingly exposes are truths that one would, in all likelihood, never encounter otherwise; A world of substance abuse, explicit sex, atypical sexuality, and unconventional attitudes and actualizations of gender. She exposed the intimacies of a fascinating subculture as one not looking in upon it as an outsider, but as someone who was as much a part of it as those being photographed, she even took many self-portraits, including one documenting the horrific aftermath of her being beaten by her boyfriend.

In these photographs she reveals deep-seated and often unexposed truths, she has said “I want to show exactly what my world looks like without glamourization, without glorification. This is not a bleak world but one in which there is an awareness of pain, a quality of introspection.” And she is right, what is presented is her exact world, as she saw it, but the mere fact it is presented publicly makes one wonder if that truth is then thrust into a world of fallacy, for we as a public are seeing things we never would, intimate moments of privacy until now not meant for voyeuristic eyes.

Does the motive of exposition negate the truth? By being so open in their intimacy do the people being photographed actually take on a performative role rather than an exposed, truthful one? I suppose this is the pervading problem with documentary photography, no matter how exposing and natural any one image is, the exposition in itself leads one to intrusion and therefore to question the degree of construction and staging that led to the photograph’s creation. With any art there also derives a motivation of relaying something aesthetically engaging and beautiful, despite the fact Nan Goldin claims that none of her works were staged and that she considers photography a lesser art form, it is an art form nonetheless, and with that reality comes a question of the truth of the depicted.

Smoke and Mirrors

Photo by Tim Walker

Conversely, fashion photography like that produced by Tim Walker has no foundation in truth, or rather if any such basis exists the relationship between the photography and reality exists tenuously. What one is presented through fashion photography is a portrayal of debatably pointless but beautiful art. Though, I would argue that despite not reflecting reality, there is an element of truth that pervades such photography. Walker has said he makes his pictures within “the parameters of the impossible” – something has to be physically, rather than digitally, possible for the picture to register with the viewer. “Otherwise the ring of truth goes flat.”

Walker is renowned for depicting fantasy worlds of striking beauty, and equally beautiful and bizarre characters straight out of the land of fairytales. There is no tangible truth within the pictures, they are staged and magical; little windows into a theatrically constructed world that in its construction and presentation becomes true.

Behind these glimpses into worlds, be they fantasy or snippets of reality lies some kind of motivation. It could be claimed that the mere presence of motive in the creation of a photograph transforms and transfigures it into a visual propaganda however, I would assert that the motivation to create something, to construct and erect a world and make it accessible to others in itself gives rise to artistic truth.

Forced Perspective

This artistic truth could also be considered perspective. Walker allows one to glimpse into his mind and his interpretation of the clothing presented, doing so by constructing characters and worlds borne of fantasy to create a warped and decadently beautiful reality. He doesn’t manipulate his photographs and the settings in post-production but uses props and constructed sets in order to create a tactile world of fantasy. Despite the fact his work does not reflect our world it is nonetheless, within the context of art, a reality dependent on perspective, conveying an abstract dream world.

Similarly, I believe Nan Goldin uses her photography in order to present to an onlooker a perspective of the world, her world, ultimately that is all one can do. Much like a voice that narrates a story linguistically a photograph visually presents one of many perspectives of the world. Through Nan Goldin’s work, we see the world she inhabits and those she loves and is surrounded by. Therefore, whilst her photography is documenting reality, it is only one aspect of its entirety. I do not mean to say that it then becomes a fallacy, nor that it is wholly constructed, but merely that it is actually one of many perspectives, and as such one of many truths. As in a novel, it is but a part of a whole, and should not be trusted without some tentative reservation.

For example in the above photograph “Greer and Robert on the bed” she has frozen and propagated an image that is wrought with tension and sorrow. Both inhabitants sit or lie with downcast eyes, one holds her hand, weak and limpid from heroin use, the wall and bed that frame the two are decrepit and worn, masks loom over them like demon faces, the yellow tint, and slight blur of the photograph highlight the ephemeral and hallucinogenic quality of Robert, Greer and the world they inhabit.

Certain elements of the photograph appear staged, there is certainly an artistic license that has been accentuated but the apparent aesthetic construction actually emphasizes the reality and truth of the character’s situation. It is probably a mistake on my part to refer to the people portrayed in Nan Goldin’s photography as “characters” yet I feel constantly compelled to call them such. I feel no shame doing so in reference to Tim Walker, his images are blatant constructions, and even when he uses famous actors or models the overt fantastical quality of his images unashamedly propels them into a preternatural state, but Nan Goldin does so too.

The shameless honesty with which she depicts these people’s sadness and intimate natures transpose them, makes them become representations of underground ideals, icons of despair. Whilst they are actual people who have lived, suffered and died the brutality and stark honesty with which their stories are told, and the alien nature of their lives serves to subvert them from reality.

Motivation. Manipulation.

Whatever the motivation, whatever the subject matter, photography, be it documentary or fashion-based is an aesthetic art, and as with all art, no matter how grounded in reality there is always an element of manipulation. Even photographs of animals or nature retain an incentive to convey the subject in a particular manner be that beautiful, grotesque, or purely striking. Let me reiterate, again, for emphasis, there is always a motivation. Photography, and all art, is meant, if nothing else, to elicit a reaction. The photographs below, by Sophie Shaw, manipulate the contrast, exposure and lighting in order to present a dramatic scenario that reflects the truth whilst simultaneously negating it in the creation of beautiful art.

With all photography, there is an intrinsic element of manipulation, and it is the technical tools that are essential to that manipulation. In the same way a painter’s apparatus are his palette, his brushes, the paint he uses and how he chooses to mix them, photographers create with a series of devices; with lens hire, and a multitude of different cameras available, different lighting and chemical or digital processes through which to develop photographs there is, again, a haze of fallacy that casts its shadow over the reality of the situation, but one that is intrinsic to the elemental truth of the artist.


Ultimately, photography is a cumulative process. There is a world that is captured from one of many potential perspectives, and in varying degrees manipulated or altered to emphasize the photographer’s viewpoint or motive. Reality and fallacy become one in the same as the photographer strives towards uncovering and propelling an artistic truth, whether that reflects a commercial or expositional quality.

Nan Goldin, Sophie Shaw and Tim Walker are perfect examples of the polarisation that occurs within photography. All convey a simultaneous reality and fallacy through the use of different levels of manipulation and imagination. Harnessing their environments whether they are preexisting or constructed in order to create multifaceted windows into a kaleidoscopic vision of what is at once tangible and intangible, reality and fantasy. Perpetually conveying one of an infinite number of truths which, depending on who is looking upon each photograph can be interpreted in an abundance of ways.