About ten years ago, Mark Osterman,Photographic Process Historian at George Eastman House, and one half of the Scully and Osterman Studio, told me that there is no truth in photography, and there never has been. I always thought of photography as one of the art’s more truthful mediums. Over the years, I’ve tried to contradict Mark’s statement, but failed to find many valid examples. Along the way I found a shocking number of faked (or at least staged) so-called documentary photographs. Here are a few of the best. Or worst.
Alexander Gardner’s famous Civil War sharpshooter photograph shows a dead sharpshooter next to his rifle. Gardner carried a dead soldier over 100 feet and posed him with another’s rifle. The same dead soldier appeared in several of Gardner’s images. He often wrote narratives about his images. His writings and staged images just happened to support his views of the war. They showcased atrocities committed by the side Gardner wanted to lose.
Eddie Adams won the 1969 Pulitzer prize for his photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner. The moment of execution seems almost spontaneously captured on film. The photograph was so planned that the execution was moved outdoors to a Saigon street for better photographic lighting. The disasters and killings were real, but are their photographs truthful? Or do these staged photographs force us to consider a greater truth beyond how they were made?
The Amazing Randi is a retired professional magician famous for exposing those who claimed to have telepathic powers. He offered a still-unclaimed $1million for any psychic act that could be witnessed and verified. Randi calls himself a conjuror because he believes he conjures the truth. Nice phrase. I guess it means to magically pluck the truth out of thin air. Should we call out those who present their images to be something they are not? Or are we all conjurers of the truth, manipulating images to present our own brand of truth?
I’m beginning to see what Mark Osterman meant when he said there is no truth in photography. For twenty years, Osterman performed a travelling medicine show as Dr. B. Barabus Bumstead. Some of his props are in the trailer for a new motion picture called Artists & Alchemists.
As Bumstead, Osterman made hair grow, caught bullets with his teeth, made it rain, and traded “genuine fake” money for real money. Much of Mark’s recent photographic work showcases the performances of Dr. Bumstead, this fictitious yet very real person. Osterman once said that he may have done the medicine show years ago just so he could recall it later in his life though his images.
More and more I see photography as an illusion. Before art school, photography was something I did. It was concrete. Now it is more abstract. Sometimes I don’t use cameras. Film or digital? Neither. Photography is a tool, like paints and brushes, or pen and paper, or metal and a blow torch. This new mindset challenges me to ask questions I’ve never considered before.
Is photography is the best medium for making something new? If not, which mediums work better? The new mindset also removes a comfortable crutch. If a new project is more effective as something other than photographs, how do I breathe life into it? It’s my job to find out how to conjure its truth. Or to find a way to fool you into thinking it’s alive at all. That’s frightening from an artist’s perspective, but also exciting.
Maybe in our art we all conjure up the truth as we see it, or as we wish others to see it. Some use sleight of hand; others are illusionists of a larger scale. Some photographic magicians craft fine art images that force us think and challenge our notions of what is possible. Some are scam artists who do the same.