WEEK 3: PORTRAIT AS LIKENESS OR LIE
DISCUSSION: Do portraits lie? Continued discussion on the ability of a portrait to convey the essential nature— or truest self—of its subject. Student photographs will be discussed in terms of their perceived emotional content, style, and aesthetics. We will discuss how formal choices (lighting, composition, color) alter the viewer’s experience of a portrait and can be used for dramatic effect. Short instructor lecture.
STUDIO: Continuation of last week’s studio activity in small groups.
ASSIGNMENT: Open assignment: students will be asked to make three portraits for next week, with special consideration given to the idea of creating a “lie”.
Winfred Noth, “Can Pictures Lie?” from the Semiotic Review of Books Vol. 6 (2)
There is little doubt that pictures can refer to something that does not exist or has even never existed, but do such pictures therefore lie? Surrealism has given ample evidence of paintings referring to mere imaginary objects. Consider, for example, Salvadore Dali's Burning Giraffe (1935), which shows a strange woman with open drawers protruding from her legs. We are hardly inclined to call the painter of this work a liar, but even the category of truth, at least in the positivist sense does not seem applicable.
Although it is clear that pictures can refer to factual reality and to the unreal, the question whether they can convey a truth or a lie remains disputed.
What is the semiotic potential of pictures? Can they express ideas that correspond to verbal messages at all, as the proverbial saying which states "Pictures can tell a thousand words", suggests, or is the semiotic potential of a picture inferior to the one of language insofar as a picture is necessarily vague and in principle unable to depict any truth about the world, as some logocentric semioticians claim? If pictures cannot tell the truth it should also be impossible to use them in order to convey a lie.
Let us begin with the semantic dimension of our topic. Photographs seem to be prototype of visual messages which are true because they fulfill the semantic criterion of correspondence to the facts. Under certain circumstances, photographs are even recognized by the courts as documentary evidence, which may replace evidence by ocular inspection or by verbal testimony.
A pertinent example is the legal status of a passport photo as a document for establishing the real identity of the person presenting the passport to the authorities. From the legal point of view, truth, in the sense of correspondence between a signifier and its referential object, can thus be derived from photographic pictures.
Semiotically, the correspondence of the photographic signifier with the object it depicts is grounded in what Peirce described as the indexical and the iconic nature of photography.
Photographs correspond to the depicted world by their iconic nature because, as Peirce, puts it, "we know that they are in certain respects exactly like the objects they represent." In addition to this correspondence by similarity, photographs also correspond to reality by their contiguity with the depicted object at the moment of their production. There is a "physical connection" between the signifier and its referential object since, as Peirce argues "photographs have been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature." By this relation of productive causality, the photographic picture is defined as an indexical sign.
Family photos, which remind us of real situations lived in the past, press photos, which document a historical event, such as the Stalin-Roosevelt-Churchill meeting of Teheran in 1943, or scientific photos, which show a real world object in all its details, are typical examples of indexical photographic reference and iconic correspondence between the photographic signifier and its object which testify to the truth potential of the photograph.
Nevertheless, everyone knows that photographic correspondence can be manipulated. The referential object may be transformed in the picture, and its viewers arrive at the illusive or deceptive impression of a non-existing object. This deceptive potential of the medium was recognized early in the history of photography and made use of in techniques, such as retouch, color filtering, solarization, double exposure.
By retouching, the signifier referring to an existing object could be made to disappear. By montage, a non-existing object could make its appearance on the scene. Thus photography became a medium which lent itself to manipulation, deception, fakes, and forgeries. The more recent developments in computer graphics, with the new possibilities of shape blending, distortion, simulation, and other modes of digital image manipulation have greatly increased this deceptive potential of the medium.
“The image represents the tragic aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg (which caused the largest number of casualties of the entire war) by focusing on a single dead solider lying inside what Gardner called a “sharpshooter’s den.”
Later analysis revealed that he had staged the image to intensify its emotional effect. Though this practice was not uncommon at the time, its discovery made the photograph the subject of controversy. Gardner moved the soldier’s corpse and propped up his head so that it faced the camera. He then placed his own rifle next to the body, emphasizing the soldier’s horizontality and the cause of his death.”
Do portraits lie? If so, how?
In what ways can a portrait lie?
Is there ever “truth” in photography?