The camera can lie – the real, documentary and photo conceptualism – Week Six

Student with learning difficulties – please read fast to get better comprehension of text.

In its earliest inception, photography was a form of document, the photographer setting out to capture the world around them with the use of the new available technology. The first photograph, an image of the outdoors from a window was remarkable. Not for its conceptual or aesthetic qualities but for its very existence, the ability to capture and record reality almost perfectly.

View from the Window at Le Gras - Joseph Nicéphore Niépce 1826

It is not surprising that to this day photographs are often believed to be true documents, their indexical representation so close to reality, the reality often goes unquestioned, unchallenged. It is little  wonder that politicians, journalists and artists have seized on this ability of the photograph to present their versions of the truth as if it were reality. Take the two pictures below of Franklin Roosevelt, who suffered from a disability. For the purposes of appearing mobile and ‘healthy’, with disabilities not having the acceptance they do now, he deliberately did not allow himself to be photographed in his wheelchair. A distortion of reality for the purposes of maintaining confidence in his office.


Franklin Roosevelt

Rare picture of Franklin Roosevelt in wheel chair

Eddie Adams was a journalist whose photograph of a defenseless prisoner being executed became known worldwide. It also became an image adopted by anti war protestors. He later regretted the impact the photograph had procured, especially the threat that the photograph had posed to the Police Chief General and his family, after later spending time with him and hearing what had led up to this brutal act. He later lamented on what the photograph had not shown, the story that was not documented, and what he had not captured with his camera.

“Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths.” – Eddie Adams TimeMagazine, (source)

Picture of police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém, a Saigon street,1968

Photography has managed to find itself in several roles in the art world: as fine art, documentation for performance or transient pieces, and in its own right a medium with witch to inform or impart statements and concepts. On reading about conceptual photography I was interested in how many artists played with the notion of reality through the use of photography. I especially liked Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, a piece of work made up from a chair, a photograph of a chair and the written description of a chair. All three pieces are indicative of a chair, but the two that are not actual chairs remain representations. The photographic documentation of the work also serves as a representation. This piece questions the nature of representation and also invites comparison to be made between how close the visual and verbal representations of the chair are to the reality of the chair. This particular image took me back to the notion of semiotics  and to Ferdinand de Saussure’s idea of the signified (concept) and signifier (verbal manifestation).

One and three chairs - Josheph Kosuth, 1965

The use of text in photography was utilised by many artists whose work would fall under photo – conceptualism, in some situations the text displayed with the image could help to reinforce the purported reality or truth that the photographer or ‘curator’ had chosen to display. This sort of reinforcement of the visual is seen in the media on a daily basis and has been used in various forms of propaganda for centuries. What I find interesting about certain conceptual pieces is the choice to utilise words in a way that deconstructs the indexical reality posed by photography as a medium. Barbara Kruger’s work tackled concepts ranging from consumerism to feminism. Her untitled piece, made from a found picture of a female bust and her use of  the words ‘Your gaze hits the side of my face’  makes a clear statement to the viewer.

Untitled, Barbara Kruger, 1981

The Juxtaposition between text and image in Victor Burgin’s Today is the Tomorrow you were promised Yesterday injects irony into work and again makes the artist’s statement clear.

Today is the Tomorrow You Were Promised Yesterday - Victor Burgin 1976

Conceptual pieces without text seem to lead the viewer into a false sense of security regarding reality, without text the viewer is often left to discern meaning from the photograph but not outside the boundaries that the artist/photographer has constructed with regard to subject matter, context, framing, cropping and any further ‘manipulations’. In certain pieces such as Jeff Wall’s Picture for women the construction of reality seems quite obvious, the subject matter looks posed and positioned. Should the viewer have any knowledge of the arts then they might pick up that the construction is a reworking of Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergères.

Picture for Women, Jeff Wall, 1979

Other conceptual pieces are not so obvious and lean back toward a documentary style, in this instance it is easy to take the reality of the photograph at face value as it does not appear to be constructed. In the representation that Allan Sekula’s Fish Story has chosen to present, he deconstructs the traditional documentary style of capturing harbors and coastlines and instead photographs maritime processes. He also plays with the the signified and the signifier, putting together a series of photographs to portray wider themes of representation, at face value he has captured a series of maritime processes, but put together these pictures explore themes of globalisation, socio-economics and movement.


Fish Story, Allan Sekula, 1993


‘The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture. The word “picture” [Bild] now means the structured image [Gebild] that is the creature of man’s producing which represents and sets before. In such producing, man contends for the position in which he can be that particular being who gives the measure and draws up the guidelines for everything that is.’  Heidegger, Martin Die Zeit die Weltbildes (1938 – 1952)

If you take the view of the post modernist, that all reality is an artificial construct, created by man through culture, language and other means, then the photograph will never be able to capture a true version of reality.  Taking into account that the  photograph itself can never be more than a representation, created by the person behind the lens or by the person who places it into a context, you start to see how dangerous it is to accept the indexical representation posed by the photograph as a means of ‘truth’.  Hopefully  will artists continue to work with representation but  ultimately it is up to the viewer to question, explore and challenge the reality presented to them.


Edwards, S., 2004. Photography Out of Conceptual Art. In: G. Perry and P. Wood eds. Themes in Contemporary Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp 137- 180.

Foster, H,.1998. The Anti – Aesthetic. New York: The New Press

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One Response to The camera can lie – the real, documentary and photo conceptualism – Week Six

  1. paula roush says:

    very good summary of crucial issues associated with photography as document!

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