The Real and the Digital-Liz Wells (2009)- Some thoughts and wider reflections

Initially I read this short excerpt from Liz Wells Book: Photography: A critical Introduction and felt it was a useful brief commentary on the changing nature of how images are made and interpreted.

However,  having re read it a couple of times I think it is saying something much more profound. The question does digital technology change  how we see photography as truth really only scratches the surface of the point I think she is making.

Wells starts by succinctly suggesting that with advances in technology,  image making has been transformed and not just the technological capacity to create new ways of making images but also transformed  photographic practice in a range of spheres such as commercial and art image making. This raises key questions though about the nature of the photographic image and how it is perceived, in particular the long established link, or at least the perceived link between an image and something real. The notion of a photograph being a momentary slice in time , related to a real event, place or thing. She rightly points out  that there is nothing new in photographs being manipulated. Any survey of the history of photography will reveal examples of manipulation from frivolous  fakery to down right deception .

It is however photography’s link to notions of the ‘real’ and the ‘truth’ that are in question in this piece of writing I think. Rightly or wrongly documentary photography and photo journalism have been linked to  revealing a truth, revealing something that might otherwise have remain hidden.  I touched upon this in my blog entry here.

Citing Barthes (1980) and his notion that a photograph contains or retains some sense or ‘trace’ of something real, it is this tennis link from a the flat and lifeless two dimensional images hat is a photograph to some thing that once existed, that anchors the idea of photograph to some notion of truth. This idea is set against notions that painting and other creative media are for more ,inked to the whim and skill of the artist than they are to the real or concrete. Well’s uses this point to make the relationship between a photograph and something real. But as stated I think there is a deeper point being made. I remember vividly the opening comments in Camera Lucida and Barthes (1980) description and reflections upon seeing an early photograph of Napoleon’s younger brother and looking at the image and thinking:

‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the emperor’

To Barthes the photograph reveals something much larger that that which is contained within the frame. Wells suggests that our very understanding of the world around us is shaped by the meanings we glean from images. Citing Pierce , the american semioticians notion of indexical signs, Wells I think is suggesting that image manipulations has wider implications than just fakery.

I am only just beginning to scratch the surface of semiotics and I am reading about Pierce and signs at present. I am familiar with the social psychologist George Herbert Mead a contemporary of Pierce and the founder of the symbolic interactionist movement in social science. Mead suggested that we make sense of who we are and the world around us through symbols, the most powerful of which is language. Language and visual signs and symbols are linked and after language signs are a very powerful mechanism for making sense of the world. Wells hints at this in her reference to Baudrillard’s assertion that the Gulf War never happened, what really happened was a series of political, technological and human actions. In this stamen he is perhaps redesign the notion of war as a separate set of references points, Wells for me makes the most important point in the excerpt in that it suggests to me that technology and the use of other visual media through advances in technology have the potential to reshape who we perceive events and make sense of the world around us.

So what does all this mean? Well the photographs relations with truth, whether real or not is a powerful tool in shaping meaning. Advances in technology mean that how we understand the world is potentially manipulated at multiple levels.

I am conscious this is a somewhat tenuous reflection on the article but it has really fired up my thinking about how meaning is created in visual media and how through tech biology the potential for things to be manipulated is significant. Also there is a blurring of what once we might have seen as different approaches into a wider and more difficult to define notion of visual culture.

I really need to get to grips with semiotics, this is intellectually very exciting though!


Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida, Vintage , London

Meade, G.H. (1934)  Mind, Self and Society, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Wells, E. (2009)Photography: A critical Introduction Routledge, Abingdon



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s