Can we trust photos? Should we?

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1839 is often cited as the year the photographic process was introduced to the public commercially; though it should be noted some of the first photographs taken were far earlier than that date. Since then the medium has gone through many transformations to get to where we are today. Yet through its entire 175 year history one thing seems to hold true: people today, just as people 100 years ago, still (for the most part) believe what they see in photographs. Why exactly is this? And perhaps more importantly, should we?

Photographs have become so ubiquitous in today's modern society that it's hard to even imagine putting yourself in the place of someone who has never seen a photograph before. But for those living in the mid 1800’s the photograph was nothing short of magic. Before then, recording what was in front of you was up to an artist's interpretation of the scene. Now people could record images of far away places, loved ones, and every day activities; anything that you could put in front of the camera was fair game. It may be impossible to know for sure who definitively invented photo manipulation but it's generally accepted that the person who made the earliest (and biggest) splash is Oscar Gustave Rejlander in 1857 with his photomontage "Two Ways of Life."

Gustave Rejlander's
Gustave Rejlander's "Two Ways of Life"


This final image consisted of thirty-two different negatives combined in the darkroom over a period of six weeks. When the public discovered the image was fabricated they were outraged. They felt lied to and betrayed. It was the first time they had discovered a photograph was not "real." This photograph (and technique) however represented a whole new set of possibilities for photo technicians. Three years later, Lincoln posed for one of his most well known portraits. It was decided that Lincoln did not look "presidential" enough so the photographer took his head from one image and placed it on the body of southern politician John Calhoun in another.

Abraham Lincoln's head


It's important to note that not all early photo manipulation came in the form of darkroom work. There were a number of photographers who were altering the scene they were photographing before they took the picture. Alexander Gardner is one of the most important American war photographers in the history the nation. Gardner and a small team of photographers (including big names like Timothy O'Sullivan and Mathew Brady) thoroughly and ambitiously documented the American Civil War. If it weren't for these photographers, most of the images we have come to know and rely on from that war simply would not exist. What many people don't seem to realize is that a fair number of these images were staged. Take Gardner's iconic image "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter":

Alexander Gardner's


In this image we are presented with a soldier, lying in a rocky niche, shot dead while his gun leans against a rocky wall. It’s a powerful image and one that has been heavily used to illustrate the Civil War. There is just one problem: it's fake. In 1961 it was discovered that Gardner moved the body of the soldier over 40 yards to this location and found a gun he felt was suitable to place in the scene. Gardner and company were known for dragging bodies around to stage images of the war. These photographers, for all intents and purposes curated our view of the Civil War.

Of course now, as photographs exist as bits and bytes on silica, manipulating an image is as fluid and easy as pushing paint around a canvas. "Photoshopping" has become a common verb to describe an image digitally altered; and nearly every commercial image we see has been altered in one way or another. It seems like every week we are presented with another company caught in the act of "extreme Photoshopping." The latest was Target a few weeks ago altering women's bodies to such an extreme that it made no sense anatomically and, in all honesty, looked pretty awful.

It's no secret that most of images we are presented in magazines or on billboards are altered. And as I listed above, altering the photographic image is nothing new to the medium. What is surprising is that we keep believing what we see. The only reason I can think of is this: What separates photography from all other visual media (video is a form of photography) is that unlike painting or drawing, a photograph is a trace of the real. We all know that in order for a photograph to be made something had to sit in front of the camera at some point in order for that object to be recorded. Because of that many of us default to thinking what we are seeing in the final image is the same object that sat in front of the camera (even though sometimes it's not).

I cannot say if we will ever get to a point where we instinctively disbelieve every image we are presented, nor am I sure I want to live in a time where it has come to that. What I can say is places like Luther try to instill in every student the ability to critically think and examine what is in front of them. It's with this set of skills we send our graduates off into the world in hopes that they might question what is presented before them, and not just accept the images or stories presented to them as whole truths.

Aaron Lurth

Aaron Lurth

Aaron Lurth is director of the visual media department at Luther College, and teaches in the visual and performing arts department. He is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has led expeditions for National Geographic Student Expeditions. Lurth has shot marketing campaigns for Luther, and was the photographer for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. His photo exhibitions have been presented in galleries in several states.

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