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: