The truth of photography



The camera obliges the photographer to lie.  He has no choice.  The photographer is subject to the dictatorship of the viewfinder and the image size.
Only when a photographer realizes this and has come to a modus vivendi with his camera, he can become a good photographer.  
In the other case, he is just the ignorant slave of his camera.

For François Arago photography was the answer to all doubts.  No place for interpretation.  The photograph was the representation of the truth.
But Arago was also aware of the artistic possibilities of this new medium.  He knew that there was a lot to discover before photography would be able to be a better observer than the human eye.

Nowadays documentary photography and press photos are a hype.
This is, however, the most misleading form of photography there is.  The true, dark side of photography is most explicit in documentary photography.  In this case the spectator is most susceptible to the manipulative side of photography.

Photographs can play a vicious game with the spectator’s memory.  The memory is being misled.
A press photo of something that happened 40 years ago can be interpreted differently in the present because of a minor detail that had in the heat of the moment escaped the spectator’s attention.  Today’s spectator will see an event of 40 years ago in a different perspective and the picture gets a different meaning.

Compare the famous photograph of the astronaut of Apollo 11 Buzz Aldrin on the Moon made by Neil Amstrong in 1969 with the original press photo and the souvenir photo of 1999.  Which picture is the original one?  Which picture is the memory?

Politicians and regimes are very aware of the power of photography.  On the one hand they are scared of the power of photography but on the other hand they use it in the realization of their goals.

Let’s go back to our example of the space exploration photos.  Especially the manned space exploration.  There are doubts about the scientific value of the Apollo missions.  Were they scientific missions or merely a propaganda stunt for the USA?
The photos from the Apollo missions are icons and part of the common history.
But they don’t have much scientific value.  
The same goes for the Russian manned space fligths.  The difference between the NASA and Roscosmos is the marketing department.  Roscosmos didn’t publish as much as the  NASA.  Perhaps the astronauts were better photographers than the cosmonauts?

More explicit are the documentary photos from Russia and China from the Sixties and Seventies.  They use the language of the photojournalist but are pure propaganda photos.  

Compare the Chinese propaganda photos with the photos made by the English photographer Anthony Beresford-Cooke (1943-1977).  In the Sixties Anthony Beresford-Cooke took the Trans Siberian Express to discover Russia and China.  His view of China is very different.  Here we meet authentic people in their daily life. We see poverty and the captions talk about the doubts for the future.  Again this isn’t an objective image of China.  The photographer takes the photos from a Western point of view.  He can’t deny his origin.

Germaine Krull (1897-1985) was a very famous photojournalist and political activist.  The photos we show in the exhibition are made in Gabon in 1940.  At first sight these are great examples of documentary photography.  But if you know that these photos were made for the Free French Forces, the French Resistance, you look at them differently.

Two very large photos by the Belgian – Russian photographer Nikolaï Kossikoff (1898-1975) take a central place in the exhibition setup.  Two views of a print shop in Paris in the Fifties.  Great prints with a lot of ambiance.  The size of the prints is very unusual.  These rare prints were part of the peculiar shop windows Kossikoff made in his photo shop in the Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat in Ghent.  The people from Ghent knew Kossikoff as a portrait photographer and a photographer of communion pictures.  But in fact Kossikoff was a very unique photographer with his own technique and style which had very little to do with the standard work in his photo shop.
Being the photographer of the Ghent port, he was a real innovator.  But then again this is an interpretation.

In the exhibition you discover the photos in the original environment of a print shop…

© Xavier Debeerst, November 2012

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