OPINION: The very act of picking up a camera and raising it to your eye to frame what lays before you is a form of photographic illusionism. What was it that made you reach for the camera in the first place? And what compelled you to frame one part of the scene and not another? Why do so many people take particular photos – say of unusual weather, such as the storms that lashed Sydney in late April – and post them online?
Games around what is real have been a dominant theme throughout the history of art, from the trompe l’oeil (literally meaning to “fool the eye”) of the 5th-century artist Zeuxis to the tricksters who faked images of a waterfall descending off Sydney Harbour Bridge.
When an image is presented to the public, we must always be on the lookout for tricksters like these.
Tricked by double exposures
In 1917 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the great analytical mind of Sherlock Homes no less was fooled by two young girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, when the girls produced a constructed photograph of the infamous Cottingley Fairies.
Conan Doyle was a spiritualist who was pre-disposed to accepting the photograph presented by the girls as evidence of the fairies he wanted to believe in. The idea of spiritualism flourished in the early 20th century, as did the leading edge photographic technique of the day – the double exposure.
For example, a photographer would re-photograph pictures of a deceased family member or members onto corners of a sheet of film, then re-expose the same peace of film with the living family member in the centre of frame. The resulting print would show the living family member miraculously surrounded by their deceased kin.
Photographic composites and staged shots
At the same time Frank Hurley, the famous Australian adventurer and first world war photographer, “made” war photographs.
Hurley once claimed that “to get war pictures of striking interest and sensation is like attempting the impossible”. He thought that photographs should express ideas, tell stories and excite emotions – in much the same way as paintings do.
To achieve this, he began to manipulate war pictures to give in his mind a greater understanding of the complex panorama of the battlefield. Hurley grouped negatives together in the darkroom and made photographic composites, to better represent the battlefield.
This process outraged the official Australian war historian Charles Bean, who considered Hurley’s photo composites as “fake” and attempted to stop Hurley making his “unreliable” images of war.
Bean represented the reportage/photographic documentary tradition and Hurley the picture-making tradition common in historic panoramic paintings. Both traditions are alive today within photojournalism, contemporary art and cinema.
Over time, the Hurley images have become sanctified via our historic institutions. And in this past week of ANZAC remembrance, you might have spotted documentary footage of the Gallipoli landing shot by Alfred Rolfe at Tamarama Beach in Sydney in 1915.
The footage is now so old it has also been incorporated into the “real” footage of the event.
Fakes against propaganda
An unambiguous use of photomontage was deployed against the Nazis by John Heartfield, a collage artist who was born Helmut Herzfeld in Germany and anglicised his name in an anti-nationalist protest.
Through his cut, copy and past technique, Heartfield reconfigured and re-deployed Nazis propaganda images into anti-Nazi propaganda. The Nazis despised him and his work so much he was placed onto a death list.
Speaking of propaganda, in a now infamous speech to the United Nations on February 5 2003, then Secretary of State Colin Powell produced faked documents about Iraqi nuclear weapons development in an attempt to take the USA and its client states to war.
Colin Powell’s fabricated evidence only ever really worked if, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s and the fairies at the bottom of the garden, his audience was pre-disposed to accepting the “evidence” to reinforce their cultural, political, religious or ideological positions.
Like any skilled illusionist the Pentagon also needed to construct a fitting end to the invasion of Iraq when they decided to leave in 2003. They needed the right image.
The one produced was constructed in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. We see a statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down by what the USA would have us believe are outraged locals. Pan the camera frame back and what is revealed is a near empty Firdos Square controlled by US military at each end. It’s now widely argued that the photo was staged.
The technologies by which we bring about photographic illusions might have improved – but the will of the tricksters is still alive and well.
Phillip George is Associate Professor, UNSW Art & Design at UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.