Although much is written on what does or does not make a photograph authentic, it is by no means a settled question.
Snyder posits ‘If our vision worked like photography, then we would see things as a camera does.’ (Snyder and Allen 1975, p. 152) This implies that there must always be some element of doubt in authenticity, as neither the camera nor the eye sees things the same.
Arnheim argues that the act of taking a photograph unavoidably influences the outcome, comparing it to physics and observing alters the result:
Photography reaches into the world as an intruder, and therefore it also creates a disturbance, just as in the physics of light the single photon at the atomic level upsets the facts on which it reports. Inevitably, the photographer is part of the situation he depicts. (Arnheim 1974, p.151-152)
This idea further erodes at the concept of authenticity. If the very act of taking the photograph influences the situation, then you are more than simply a recorder of facts but a passive participant.
The image of the tracks taken by radioactive particles through smoke challenges my ideas of authenticity and what is real. We cannot see radioactive particles. Scientists tell us they exist and there is a lot of math and experiments that support this. We can see the path the particles have carved through a cloud of smoke, and we can photograph that to document it happened. What should we make of this picture? First, we have to believe there are tiny particles flying around, and if you put some smoke in a fish tank and watch patiently, you can see them and make a record of it. To quote Marshall McLuhan ‘I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it’.
Perhaps our trust in the photographic image has an element of belief attached to it. David Levi Strauss states “Indexicality has served over the past 40 years or so as a kind of materialization of belief.” (Strauss 2021, p.41) Certainly this week has led me to delve deeper into the reality of photographs and to look beyond their authenticity to question why we believe in photographs.
Arnheim, R 1974, ‘On the nature of photography’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 149-161
‘Particle Accelerator’. n.d. [online]. Available at: http://starsdestination.blogspot.com/2013/02/accelerators-storage-rings.html.
Snyder & Allen, 1975, ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 143-169
STRAUSS, David Levi. 2020. Photography and Belief. David Zwirner Books.