Hipstamatic, Authentic, and (maybe) True

Anthropologists talk a lot about authenticity.  I think Edward Bruner put it really well when he said this: “[M]y position is that authenticity is a red herring, to be examined only when tourists, the locals, or the producers themselves use the term” (Culture on Tour, 2005:5).  Rather than focus on whether or not something is truly authentic (which can lead to a never-ending debate), Bruner instead argues that it makes more sense to look at how different people think about, debate, and define what they feel is authentic.  The focus shifts from a philosophical discussion about truth to an empirical investigation of how different people create and imagine what is and what is not authentic.  This, to me, is a really productive methodological tool that anthropology can bring to the table.  It’s a good starting point for trying to hash out what “authenticity” is really all about.

So, here’s the question of the day: Can images taken with an iPhone Hipstamatic app really be authentic?  Or is this a sign of the end of truth in photography?

Check out this link from the New York Times photography blog “Lens.”  If you’re interested in photography in any way, this is a pretty good site to check out now and again, by they way.  The article in question is about Damon Winter, a New York Times photographer who recently placed third in the Pictures of the Year International competition.  The controversial part of the story is that Winter used his iPhone as his main tool for making the images for his series about soldiers, which he calls “A Grunt’s Life.”  But it wasn’t just the use of the iPhone that upset some people: Winter used the “Hipstamatic” app to take these images, which some people felt violated the core principles of truth and authenticity of photojournalism.  The whole event is pretty fascinating for anyone who is interested in how people debate and contest meaning, truth, and authenticity.  Winter’s response to the whole ordeal is especially fascinating and insightful.

Photography has a long series of debates about the relationships between truth, authenticity, and technology.  When it was first invented, there were some folks who had such a strong belief in the accuracy of optical imagery that they felt photographs could not possibly tell lies.  People like Henry Peach Robinson challenged such simplistic views about the medium with his composite imagery (a tradition that was continued by the likes of Jerry Uelsmann).  Still, the debates continued as to whether photography is some pure medium of mechanical, scientific truth or an instrument of deception.  It’s probably a complicated blend of both, if you ask me.  But you didn’t really ask me.  Take a look at some of Ansel Adams most famous images.  Then, have a look at the sheer amount of steps that he often went through to make those prints (his printing instructions were incredibly detailed–and if you have seen examples you know what I mean).  Adams always used to say that the negative was the score, and the print was the final performance.  Were his images authentic, or not?

When digital photography came about and really took hold, many people felt that “real” or authentic photography was dead.  I was firmly entrenched in photography during that transition, so I heard a lot of the debates, opinions, and reactions about that technological shift.  There were some who argued that “real” photography requires film.  There are plenty of die-hard film advocated out there.  But then, it’s good to keep in mind that modern color film once replaced black and white film with a similar uproar.  And long before that, film itself replaced glass plates.  And so on all the way back.

So are all these debates about authenticity a red herring, or not?  Definitely read through the story about Damon Winter and his Hipstamatic images, and then tell me what you think.

*As an ironic endnote for a discussion about photography and authenticity, check out this screen grab of the “Portrait Professional” side ad that appeared alongside the post:

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently writing up his dissertation, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, Mexico. You can reach him at ethnografix AT gmail dot com or @publicanthro on twitter.

14 thoughts on “Hipstamatic, Authentic, and (maybe) True

  1. In my own work with tourism on an Indian reservation, which may or may not dovetail with your own interests (we should get to know each other better!), I argued that debates over authenticity were about authority. These competing groups usually have interests and rivalries that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. Its only that this subject becomes a handy political area for laying claim to power within the community by accepting or rejecting the claims of others, joining or aligning against certain factions.

    Bruner is an idol of mine and if you haven’t already found it on your own you may get a lot of utility out of Kathleen Adams “Art as Politics” where, in much more sophisticated fashion, she elaborates on the argument I just gave.

  2. Interesting question re the authenticity of the photograph. Having been involved in translating numerous catalogues for exhibitions at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, I would note that the history of photography is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in all sorts of epistemological debates about the nature of seeing, the reproduction of what is seen, the permissible degrees of freedom in altering the image….

    That said, Bruner’s advice about authenticity reproduces, except for the shift of topic, authenticity instead of ethnic groups, what sociologist Howard Becker says he was taught by his sociology prof Everett Hughes at the University of Chicago. The evidence can be found in the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of Becker’s Tricks of the Trade.

    The advice is excellent. It cannot, alas be claimed by anthropology alone.

  3. Still, the debates continued as to whether photography is some pure medium of mechanical, scientific truth or an instrument of deception. It’s probably a complicated blend of both, if you ask me.

    I like to think of photos as secrets about secrets, but that might just be the (German) Romantic in me.

  4. @Chad,

    Oops, that was the link that I was talking about in the post, I just forgot to actually put the link in the text. That would help! Thanks for the reminder!

  5. I second the recommendation for the Lens blog. In addition to the picture of the day collections, there are a lot of interviews with photographers and essays that raise issues important to anthropologists. Two recent posts worth checking out:
    Whose Eye? What Beholder?
    Ed Kashi, Seeing Eye-to-Eye

    The objections to the Hipstamatic app boil down to the position that stylistic choices are incompatible with accuracy or faithfulness to a subject. It’s a common enough complaint, but I don’t think it’s very well thought out. Errol Morris, who also has a New York Times blog that has dealt several times with the issue of authenticity in photographs, provided a rebuttal to that line of thought in an interview yesterday:

    “MORRIS: When I first started years and years ago as a documentary filmmaker, I was accused of making documentaries the wrong way. People would say, you’re not supposed to use Phillip Glass music. You’re not supposed to use re-enactments. And my answer then, and it’s still my answer over the years, is that style is not what guarantees truth.

    There may be no such thing as a true photograph or a false photograph or a false photograph. They may have nothing whatsoever to do with truth or falsity. But what we can ask of our documentary filmmakers, our photographers, our journalists is that somehow they’re engaged in the pursuit of truth. That, to me, is the important thing.”

  6. @Matt:

    Ya, I’d like to hear more about what you’re research is all about. I definitely think we have some stuff to talk about! Your point about authority is a good one, and an interesting way to think about it. I think that definitely applies in this photo conflict/debate as well. And thanks for the tip about the Adams article.

    @John M:

    “I would note that the history of photography is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in all sorts of epistemological debates about the nature of seeing, the reproduction of what is seen, the permissible degrees of freedom in altering the image…”

    Ya, I agree. There is a LONG history of all kinds of massive debates about these kinds of issues. There was a whole school of US photography that prided itself on what it called “straight photography,” which was against the earlier pictorial movement. Some interesting polemic debates around all that.

    “The advice is excellent. It cannot, alas be claimed by anthropology alone.”

    Seems like that can be said for lots of good ideas, no?

    @MTBradley:

    “I like to think of photos as secrets about secrets, but that might just be the (German) Romantic in me.”

    Was that an intentional reference to Diane Arbus? (“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know”).

    @John Pierce:

    “The objections to the Hipstamatic app boil down to the position that stylistic choices are incompatible with accuracy or faithfulness to a subject. It’s a common enough complaint, but I don’t think it’s very well thought out.”

    I agree. I have heard many different versions of this same argument: Real photography requires an 8×10 or 4×5 view camera. Black and white is the only true art form. Platinum prints evoke reality better than gelatin silver. Film is better than digital. My Nikon is better than your Canon. And on and on.

    I used a view camera extensively for about 8-10 years, and I can safely say that the images I made with that camera were no more real than the Canon SLR or even the small point and shoots that I have today. Although, I would like to get another view camera some day…when I am not a poor grad student. Each format has its look…and its limits. I mean, some of these arguments are akin to saying that the only TRUE writing can happen on Underwood typewriters–or clay cuneiform tablets!!!

    Thanks for the Morris link. Good stuff.

  7. Was that an intentional reference to Diane Arbus?

    Of course! I know it from the wonderful scene in The Brothers Bloom in which Penelope says, “The Taj Majal taken by a fat tourist with diarrhea and a point-and-shoot camera can be the flattest, dullest, ‘Here’s us at the Taj Mahal, oh lovely let’s go stick our thumbs up our asses’ picture. But you can look at the most menial everyday thing, and depending on how your pinhole camera eats the light, it’s warped and peculiar and imperfect. It’s not reproduction, it’s storytelling.”

  8. In light of the discussion about photography, authenticity, and truth, here’s an interesting quote by the late Edward Weston:

    “Only with effort can the camera be forced to lie: basically it is an honest medium: so the photographer is much more likely to approach nature in a spirtit of inquiry, of communion, instead of with the saucy swagger of self-dubbed ‘artists.'”

    -In Susan Sontag’s “On Photography,” page 186.

  9. It isn’t so much the lie direct. It’s the moment, the angle, the lighting—the technical details that spin or slant what we see.

    For some reason, a e-digital, Fuji film ad campaign pops into my head. The line, describing the film, said, roughly, “It makes the beautiful more beautiful. As for those who aren’t….”

  10. It’s funny. I was obsessing during my fieldwork in Delhi about, more generally, what the deal was with instagram. It happened while I was away so I saw it blow up in Delhi, not in the US. The people I know who got into instagram are actually very concerned with authenticity in their lives more generally — about following a path they feel is authentic to their own aspirations, joys, and skills. As best as I can figure through discussions and observations, nostalgia-veneering tools like Instagram and Hi8 are a way of making photographs feel more like a memory of a special time, but getting that nostalgic payoff now. Even if it might be seen as materially impure — no actual aging of paper, film, or people required — people use it to make their lives feel more authentic, connected, and rooted. So the photo becomes not the artifact of scrutiny but the means for producing authenticity as a lived state.

    Just some crazy talk from an obsession of the last few months.

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