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Cottingley Fairy Photograph
“a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask” (Sontag, 1977)

Contesting Photography

With the advent and widespread adoption by the general public of the instamatic camera, the attributes of the new medium of photography, and the snapshot, were defined and a new terminology emerged. Brand names became household names, like Kodachrome, Kodak and Polaroid. Ways of composing friends and family “snapshots” into “group poses” and expanding details with the “blowup” produced documents of personal experiences within everyday lives that could be shared by and with everyone. The historian Judith Gutman stated, “for the first time the public saw photographs of bored ministers, ungainly postures, and cunning smiles behind cigar-smoking officials” (cited in Mitchell, 1994). And once the medium of photography became publicly entrenched, its attributes as a medium were defined in the public consciousness. The lack of human intervention needed to create a photograph - just a simple point and shoot, helped to define the perception of it as an objective artifact of the world, one representing accuracy and certainty. It seemed hard to discredit photographic “proof” and the ease in ensuring an unadulterated replica of the subject matter has meant that photography has been embraced by law enforcement, the scientific and the medical communities as witnesses to identify, accurately demonstrate and record information.
In 1917 two Yorkshire girls announced that they had taken five photographs of fairies in the woods. The photographic evidence of their stories was widely celebrated at the time and championed by the author Sir Conan Doyle, who took the lantern slides abroad to America with him as part of his lecture tour (Randi, 1995).

The Cottingley Fairy Photographs seem quaint and foolish today and most viewers will contrast the blurred waterfall in the background with the lack of movement on the fairy wings as a flaw in their consistency. The other photographs suffer from similar detection to the contemporary viewer but were accepted as legitimate in their time and by the Theosophists (who built a huge church with the millions of pounds in proceeds raised from sales of the photos) (Randi, 1995).

The digital image didn’t undermine its older relative, the photograph, so much as expose discrepancies in the assumptions widely held for the medium. With most photographic images, the validity of the content is of no real importance, they simply document a time and place for personal reference, but with a small number, images employed in influence, the authenticity of what is represented is of great importance. Altered photographic images have been used to sway public opinion for political ends, as fabricated evidence and as a strong persuader/motivator when words prove limited. With the introduction of the digital image I believe the comprehension of the attributes of this new media also bought an additional skeptical burden to photographic authenticity by questioning the validity of the photograph’s attachment to the real. The profusion of sizes and variety of optical devices available to capture and manipulate digital images has increased the capacity to visualize the world, but in so doing, it has rendered this more comprehensive reality, untrustworthy.

The visual element of a digital image is pixels. Electronic mathematical data displayed as small squares of coloured light on a screen. It has no physical scale or materiality. This disembodiment has allowed digital photography, in partnership with imaging software, to become interactive and with this expansive new photography comes a need to redefine the nature of the photographic in a similar way that the invention of photography caused artists to re-evaluate the nature of painting. The art historian Fred Ritchin (1990) discussed this need to define each medium so that the ethical qualms of truth and honesty implicit in the photographic attribute may be re-addressed. He states: “to say ‘the camera never lies’ is as foolish as asserting that the computer always does. Just because words can be fictional does not require the outlawing of news articles; similarly with photographs. The initial clarification that is needed is the separation of one kind of communication from the other, properly labelled” (Ritchin 1990). But control of the authenticity of the image has been lost far beyond proper labelling. The ease and availability of imaging software to filter, adjustment and effect (and affect) the digital photograph opens it to modification, misrepresentation and to rapid publication, with little reliable verifiable authenticity of the originality of the content. The rearranging of the visual elements has become a standardized cut, copy and paste and available to anyone with the correct software and aptitude. In this way the digital is undermining photography and because we live in an image saturated world, where much of the information we utilize to negotiate and understand our lives is images, the digital is revising our relationship to our environment and our lived experiences. Yet, I consider that viewers continue to read digital media through photography’s residual reality, a function maintained despite its transition from physical artifact into the intangible digital realm.
Even as the digital has become accepted as illusionistic, the photographic quality of the real remains the standard for the digital. In a distortion of the attribute, the image modifier defines the success of the image by creating a simulation of a representation of the real. Film companies, newspapers, political powers and advertisers constantly employ the real attribute of photography to sell an ideal or to influence the public consumer. With the use of software, a picture can be transformed, its impurities and inconsistencies carefully removed in order to create an image dream reality where fantastical undiscovered realms, products and human bodies may live and inspire desire.
The professor and writer on photography and contemporary art, Geoffrey Batchen (1994), states that “Digitization abandons even the rhetoric of truth that has been an important part of photography’s cultural success…. newspapers have of course always manipulated their images in one way or another. The much-heralded advent of digital imaging simply means having to admit it to oneself and even, perhaps, to one’s customers” (Batchen, 1994).
With the content of the image becoming fluid, the viewer’s ability to perceive the extraordinary has diminished into plausibility. And accepting the pervasiveness and ease of such manipulation within any image is to also accept that all imagery is suspect as testimony of a real experience. To quote the philosopher James Enyeart (cited in Meyer, 1995): It may be that digital imagery will liberate photography and reality from being questions of representation by sufficiently distorting the truth of both. Art, it seems, thrives wherever and whenever it is set free of expectations (Meyer, 1995).
The cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard (1994) writes about this breakdown in the relationship to reality, and warns that the advancing accumulation of information only produces less meaning defining it as the hyperreal; the production of models of a real without an original reality. He states “it is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes” (Baudrillard, 1994).
This liberation of the image from reality also breeds anxiety and ambiguity for the viewer in relation to its authority and their control over its potential influence. Without any ultimate verification, a viewer may only accept that all representations of reality may be constructed. It becomes clear that while the medium may at times produce reliable and verifiable truth, all manifestations of that truth are contestable in the face of the contingency of vision.
Photography (traditional and digital) and painting hold claim to visual representation, not to reality, yet comprehension of the world is increasingly the world - as image. As the digital expands the possibilities of expressing reality in ever more detail and extravagance, it becomes impossible to substantiate validity and a secure knowledge of experience beyond the immediate environment. Each remediation of the image adds its own particular dialect, creating slippage in clarity and further distance from the original information, so that the attributes of each successive representation distort and transform the message, stripping it of authority and authenticity. In a visual world that is hyper-mediated there seems to be a desire by people to return to something more real in everyday lives. Despite its spectacle, even cynicism at times, reality TV seems to be one desire to re-connect with real experience, to see people just like us, overcoming obstacles and making judgments that align with our own. It signals a longing for a sense of community in a world of pluralistic intents.

The Cottingley Fairy photographs may be an amusement to us today, the irregularities’ easy to distinguish with our contemporary skills of perception developed in the course of many years of looking at pictures. The ability of an image to deceive the eye hasn’t changed, just our perceptions. But with everyday visual experience of the world being overtaken by the immaterial digital, it may become increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Barry Ross Smith. 2011


Batchen, G. (1994). Phantasm: Digital Imaging and the Death of Photography. Aperture Magazine no. 136.

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Meyer, P. (1995). Truth and Fictions: A Journey From Documentary to Digital Photography. Qtd. (New York: Aperature Foundation, Inc.

Randi, J. (1995) An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. James Randi Educational Foundation. Retrieved on 4th December 2010 from:

Ritchin, F. (1990). In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography. New York: Aperture Foundation, Inc.

Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. Picador USA. Farraf, Straus and Giroux, New York.