Between 1500 and 1900, paintings and drawings were the main medium of visual art. They represented the universe based on the author’s imagination and technical skill. However, the birth of photography presented new possibilities and a new means to depict and show an accurate, complete and ‘authentic’ reproduction of reality. Based and inspired by Susan Sontag’s book, On Photography, this essay will discuss and explore the notion of the authentic image as well as what makes for an authentic photograph.
According to Sontag, a photograph is “able to usurp reality because first of all a photograph is not only an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint” . The photographer is able to show reality as one has not seen it before and in turn, the photograph becomes an integral part of the real. Martin Munkácsi, a Hungarian photojournalist defied and transformed the pictorialist fashion image of the late thirties with his customary approach. One particular photograph: ‘Boys at Lake Tanganyika’, epitomized the elements of serendipity and joie de vivre, which later inspired photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (whom coined the term, The Decisive Moment). Bessayon says: “I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera, it made me realize that photography could reach eternity through the moment” .
Despite this, Sontag emphasizes that we tend to believe there is more truth in a photograph than in the world surrounding us and goes on to say that “photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are” . With that being said, how might the supposedly sheer spontaneity and effortlessness of this image be more celebrated or acknowledged for its authentic qualities as opposed to an image made by William Albert Allard or Boris Mikhailov. Therefore, the question at hand is not if the photograph is any more (or less) authentic but perhaps, it is the act of photography itself that should be examined. After all, as Ansel Adams put it “A photograph is not an accident - it is a concept” .
A question, which inevitably surfaces, is how genuine or authentic is the act of making pictures. In fact, Sontag reinforces this idea of photography as an event itself, whether the process and most of all end product remains authentic or not, is debatable. One thing is certain as Sontag reveals, “the act of photographing is more than passive observing. Like sexual voyeurism it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening” . In the case of portrait photographer Jill Greenberg, encouraging her subjects was not the issue – she provoked them. The photo series ‘End Times’ portrays pictures of children in tearful outbursts by having taken away their lollipops. Greenberg uses them, however, to make a political statement of the now defunct Bush Administration: “the first little boy I shot, Liam, suddenly became...