The imploding photograph

and political correctness

an exploration by pablo luis gonzález

Does this Helmut Newton’s photograph of David Hockney, published on the front page of The Guardian to report his first major exhibition in London for the past few years, actually depicts that reality?

Was Hockney photographed at the same time and at the same place of the pots and the painting? Or was this image superimposed via Photoshop to a different image of the pots?

I believe that this photograph depicts accurately Hockney, the pots and the painting, to be on the same place and at the same time because I trust The Guardian and Helmut Newton. I said “I believe” rather than “I know”. If the picture had been published by The Sun, I would have had serious doubts.

This difference between “I believe” and “I know” is crucial in understanding the role of the still image and its use by the media.

“The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s (among them Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee) would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film – the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry.”

Susan Sontag

The photograpic image has no relation at all with the truth or falsehood of the “reality” of its content. Therefore, to say that “the camera never lies”, “the camera always lies”, or even “the camera sometimes lies, and some lies tells the truth”, does not mean anything.

This shot of Cordelia by Jane McLeish for The Guardian’s Weekend magazine (May 24 1997) caught my attention for its open reference to the FSA’s photographic work, in particular to Walker Evans’ image of a tenant farmer’s wife, Hale County, Alabama, 1936, yet it is a photograph of a well fed English model shot somewhere in England in 1997 for a fashion supplement. A reality which is a long way apart from the rural America that Dorothea Lange and her friends covered during the great depression of the 1930s.

What does the picture tells us about its content? Is Cordelia a farm girl from rural America from the 1930s? Or is she a model playing at being a farm girl from rural America from the 1930s? The photograph was taken to sell clothes, that is its function. As such, it is independent from its content. It says nothing about the specific circumstances it was shot, we cannot construct an image of Cordelia from it, apart from reasserting that she is a model. We learn nothing about her.

However, there is a direct reference, because of its style, to a past which has been glamorized to support a lifestyle, so that more clothes can be sold. “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are unsecure,” writes Susan Sontag.

What is it actually being advertised by this photograph? Girls? T-shirts? Denim miniskirts? Underwear? A rather shallow lifestyle a young girl is suppose to reach if shebuys all three items with a CK logo? The ad was withdrawn in the US after objections by the public, including Bill Clinton.

Photo by Steve Meisel for Calvin Klein

Multinationals, a clothing company in this case, use photography to take possession of a virtual space in which they can re-create dreams and obsessions, in particular sexual obsessions, giving us with a sense of security and belonging by providing a ready made lifestyle with all its paraphernalia, and then flaunting them for us to reach.

We are hooked.

This image had a tremendous impact in 1972, when it was released. It has been “accused” of having been decisive in changing the American public’s perception of the Vietnam war, which was a factor that led to the USA’s withdrawal from that country in 1975. It has not been “acussed”, and could not, of promoting child pornography, in spite that it portrays a (burnt) full frontal nude young girl (escaping from a napalm bombing). We were told that it was shot in Vietnam, it could had been Cambodia, or even staged.

The meaning of a still image refers to its ‘credibility’, it cannot say anything about the truth or falsehood of its content, the reality to which it has been adscribed. To say that a photograph is truthful means nothing, to say that a tree is truthful also does not mean anything.

Bill Clinton’s “heroin chic” photograph. Davide Sorrenti, its young photographer, died of a heroin overdosis a few weeks later after this picture was shot. James King claimed that she was unaware that this image, a private picture, had been made public in an advertising campaign. Everybody and everything is expendable in advertising, a world controlled by the mutinationals. When ads do no longer work, then they will use law suits and other means against anybody and everybody who opposes them (MacDonald’s versus Steel and Morris).

For if photography cannot say anything about the truth or falsehood of its subject, then the only possible place for it is as an ‘independent’ object which has no deeper relation with the world outside itself that acknowledging it within the view defined by the photograph itself, and the particular context it is located. This meaning is not defined in any way by the reality alluded by the image.

“Cropping is not merely an aid to the art of journalism; it may be a tool for the unscrupulous. Many photographs lend themselves to such manipulation of the truth. As an example, left is the full frame of a debate in the UN General Assembly in which the Soviet delegate Andrei Vishinsky was denouncing the US delegate, Cabot Lodge, with Britain’s Sir Gladwyn Jebb downcast in the middle. It is susceptible to different crops to support different meanings.”

Harold Evans

“Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitous Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.”

“It could be cropped as the left, curiously, the print supplied to The Sunday Times had more of the scene but did leave off Cabot Lodge. It could then support the idea that Britain was the object of Russia’s scorn, a false impression since on this occasion Britain and the Soviet Union were on the same side in trying to gain representation for India to peace talks after the Korean armistice. The US was opposed to Indian admission and Britain and the US untypically parted in the vote.”

Harold Evans: “Pictures on a Page”

“The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.”

Gipsy with a portrait of himself as a young man and an image of Gottwald.
Josef Koudelka’s photographs, shot mostly in the separated Gipsy settlement in East Slovakia between 1962-1968, show the haunting power of the photographic image to convey the atmosphere of bygone communities, without telling us necessarily any information on the specific circumstances alluded in the actual image.

Rakusy, 1964

“Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald had stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

Milan Kundera: ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.’

It is not only in Red China or Castro’s Cuba where propaganda is omnipotent and towering over people, offering us an image of a utopian society attainable if we do what we are told by the “party”. This is the zone firmly occupied by commercial advertising in the so-called “free societies”, where in the name of free market advertising is constantly flaunting at us an image of a lifestyle which could be ours if we play by the rules laid down by the multinationals(ultimately unattainable).

Manchester, 1978. Photo by Pablo Luis González

Multinationals, towering over the so-called “free market” economy, have achieved the sort of power that religion and ideologies had until the fall of the Berlin Wall, by advertising the dreams of lifestyles achievable only if you wear Calvin Klein denims, Reeboks on your feet, Adidas T-shirts, eating MacDonalds’ hamburgers.

Overpowering Coca-Cola, always there, the logo jumping at us at corners, dominating a, sometimes, large proportion of our lives, overhead, underhead, at eye level, all the time…
Was not Sophia Loren who once said that Coca-Cola was called Pepsi-Cola in Italy?

Hull, 1985. Photo by Pablo Luis González

Do not forget that you have to be seen with a can of Coca-Cola in your hands (or is Pepsi Cola supposed to be “cooler” these days?).

Once these objects have been purchased, then a different set is being put in front of our eyes for us to follow. It never stops.

If we cannot join the Lamb’s Navy, or the Coca Cola’s Kids International Club, we can certainly crush a can of Coke, after we have drunk it, of course.
Is there a kind of ceremony by the capitalist society’s underdog in this almost ritual crushing of a can of Coca Cola after he, or she, has drunk it? “Yes, I drink the stuff packaged in your cans, but certainly I will not drink from your soul.”

Hull, 1977. Photo by Pablo Luis González

MacDonalds is no longer just a fast junk food chain, it claims to provide the supportive role atributtable to religion and ideology in the past. I recall a senior executive of the company claiming that countries which have MacDonalds outlets in their territories do not go to war each other (may be because they are unable, may be soldiers are to ill to go to war?).

To dispute their claims is heresy, hence the law suit brought by MacDonalds against Helen Steel and David Morris, two “pagans” who dared to contradict their claims and dispute their “right” to carry on with their activities whatever the cost to the environment and humans alike.

When the lies, at worst, and half truths at best, portrayed in advertising campaigns, with the help of photographic images, failed, Macdonalds recurred to gangsteril tactics first, before attempting to manipulate the courts to silence their critics. MacDonalds are not alone in this attitude, the manufacturers of the computer I am using to put this article together are famous for it. The list of companies using gangster-like methods is long, very long… and growing.

Even schools are now operating within a similar framework, stamping out dissent by expelling fifteen years old schoolgirls who dared to critisize the low academic standards of the school and misuse of funds.

Photography is just another tool used by multinationals and governments to mould us into a lifestyle which then can be used for political and/or commercial purposes.

A scene from a ganster movie? Text relates the image with the reality it supposes to depict.
Sunday 20 July 1997: British Aerospace’s security personnel at the Brough factory watching protesters demonstrating on the runway against the sale of Hawk jets to Indonesia, also approved by the new Labour government, making a mockery of Robin Cook’s “ethical” foreign policy.

Brough, 1997. Photo by Pablo Luis González

Photography is entering into a new era, uncharted, through the development of new technologies. The concerns are there, and numerous, about their role in the electronic processing of photograpy and in terms of the appropriation of the image by the electronic industry, leading to the manipulation of the virtual world, and therefore, its power in mapping out our lives, by the grey men in grey suits hiding behind glass facades, unaccountable to anyone.

If unwanted power cables can be deleted from a news photograph, what can stop a newspaper to go further and actually alter the content of an image by computer manipulation?

Young woman juggling a living in the streets of Pisa during the summer of 1987.
Are not we all trying to juggle our ways through the massive and intrinsically coercetive information weight inflicted on us by multinationals through the media, with their implicit threats of being casted out, directly if necessary, if we dare to speak our minds?

Pisa, 1987. Photo by Pablo Luis González

The manipulation of photographic images to reconstruct the world to suit an ideology, or a capitalist vision, is as old as the image itself, as old as the caves of Altamira, and even older, to those scribbles on rocks long lost. Manipulation of the virtual world, the reconstruction of history, goes together with a society organized on a hierarchical structure. History is never seen from the view point of the underdog, if such a vision appears, it is suppressed ruthlessly.

The virtual world – religion, ideologies, myths – is a mapping out device for our insertion in the real world. It cannot be therefore left for the underdog to mould it. Gottwald and his Communists knew it, MacDonalds, Coca Cola, Murdoch, et al, know it.

The ways that old building learn. The ways through which old building are constantly reinserted in the mapping out devices for our insertion in the ‘real’ world, in which we have a recognised existence as long as we are consumers. The coertion, again, and not really in a subliminal level, to exercise our ‘humanity’ by buying.

Roma, 1987. Photo by Pablo Luis González

The new technologies are not responsible, per se, of the degree of manipulation apparent nowadays in the world of the media. This alteration of the image has been obvious from airbrushing the image of Clementis from thousands of photographs in Communist Czechoslovakia, to the coloured windows of medieval cathedrals, depicting a reality where every body, from God downwards, had a place in society.

“The truth is that art, for all its claims to be a personal expression wrought by th hand of the artist, has always employed the latest technology whenever it has had the chance.

“Digitally constructed colour photographs from Fictitous Portraits
Untitled (Single)
Photo by Keith Cottingham,
reproduced from Scene, may/june 1997,
Man or Mouse?, by Chris Townsend.

Ethical concerns about digital processing of the photographic image? The issue is not the new technologies themselves. What they have introduced is an amplification of the scale that this manipulation is being done. By making easier to achieve it, everyone is doing it. No, the issue lies on the multinationals, Macdonalds, Coca Cola, Calvin Klein, Reebok, Murdoch, etc, and, ultimately, ourselves.

The digital manipulation of photographic images through computer processing has made possible the creation of images which would have been virtually impossible to achieve by using ‘conventional’ technologies. However, electronic processing of information does not necesarily produce a new art form by itself, unless the boundaries of existing artistic endeavours are pushed to the limit, eroding the barriers between them.

 “‘Art’ does not lie in the means by which images are made, but in their content and context. Vermeer may have used a camera obscura as a drawing aid; one of the earliest uses of photography was making figure studies for portrait painters to copy.”

Four digitally produced (manipulated?) c-prints.
The Dystopia Series
Images by Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cucher
reproduced from Scene, may/june 1997,
Man or Mouse?, by Chris Townsend.

Allen-Mills, Tony, If looks could kill, Style Magazine, The Sunday Times, 1 June 1997
Compton, Nick, Klein of the times, London, Sky Magazine, July 1997
Evans, Harold, Pictures on a Page, London, Book Club Associates/Wm Heinemann, 1979
The Guardian, Weekend Magazine (fashion section), 24 May 1997
Koudelka, Josef, Gypsies, New York, Aperture Books, 1975
Kundera, Milan, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, London, Penguin Books, 1987
Sontag, Susan, On Photography, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1977
Time-Life Books, Life Library of Photography: Documentary Photography, Time-Life International (Nederland) B.V., 1976
Townsend, Chris, Man or Mouse?, London, Scene Magazine, may/june 1997