CAN Exercise 1.5 The Real and The digital


Read the section entitled ‘The real and the digital’ in Wells, Liz (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition).

Does Digital technology change how we see photography as truth?

We apparently live in a post truth world.  Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘relating or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ perhaps the increasing ability to manipulate digital images could be a problem.  But has anything really changed?

There can be no doubt that modern digital technology creates the possibility to alter images in a way that was previously impossible. Using Photoshop we can easily place Hitler around the dining table with Tony Blair.  And make Donald Trump a character in Little Britain.  Interesting ideas but not true…

Perhaps then the Roland Barthes’ description of a photograph as necessarily being the capture of a moment in time (Wells, 2015) and the previous notions of the indexicality of photographs are redundant.

That said, in terms of truth, photography didn’t get off to a great start.  One of the earliest photographs, taken by Hippolyte Bayard (1801-87), depicted his own death.  So the idea that technology in itself has a bearing on truthfulness doesn’t hold up to analysis.  The manipulation of images has been happening throughout the history of photography.

But now, when evaluating the ‘truthfulness’ of images surely the most important aspect to consider is the context of the photograph.  In particular, using the Terry Barrett contextual framework (Barrett, 2012), what was its original context.  Namely the psychological environment of the photographer at the time he took the picture. What was he trying to say?  What was his position? 

As Maholy-Nagy said ‘it is not the person ignorant of writing but the one ignorant of photography who will be the illiterate of the future.’  (Borchardt-Hume, 2006)


Barrett, T. (2012). Criticizing photographs. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, pp.106-108.

Borchardt-Hume, A. (2006). Albers and Moholy-Nagy. London: Tate Publishing, p.94.

Wells, L. (2015). Photography. 5th ed. London: Routledge, p.93.

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