٠ Thomas Susanka’s ‘The Rhetorics of Authenticity: Photographic Representations of War’ (II of II) ٠

(continuation. part I here)

capa_life

PROXIMITY AND IMMEDIACY

With regard to war photography, we can isolate several major criteria of authenticity that have prevailed over the course of the last 60 years. Most prominent is the impression of spatial proximity and temporal immediacy with respect to the events depicted. Photographs satisfying these criteria create the impression that they were taken right at a particular spot at a significant moment in time and thereby suppon notions of truthfulness and accordance with real-life events.

(…)

The sense of temporal immediacy is created by freeze-framing an instantaneous moment, a certain constellation of people and objects, an unforeseen moment in the combat. The photographer Henri Canier-Bresson referred to this moment famously as the ‘decisive moment’ in photography. The notion of immediacy counters the suspicion of staging with the help of a seemingly spontaneous organization of the image. An imponant aspect of photographic authenticity, according to Elke Grittman, is that the photograph has to establish the impression that its subject was caught in a moment otherwise unobserved; that the subject is unaware of the camera, and his actions, therefore, do not appear to be merely performed for the camera. Perhaps the most famous image of war that creates this impres ion is Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier – despite the heavy debate about the photograph’s authenticity. Apart from subject matter, purely formal devices are often also instrumental in creating a sense of temporal immediacy. First and foremost, this can be achieved by an organic, snap-shot-like composition that reveals its formal logic only upon second glance, as opposed to images that feature a manifest system of organization that overtly reveals their compositionality.

Both spatial proximity and temporal immediacy reflect the notion that the construction of authenticity in war photography is defined by the interaction of form and content. Even though the subject matter intuitively seems to be central to a picture’s potential to appear authentic, it is not merely the subject matter and the fact that it was recorded with a camera that makes an image authentic. Authenticity is always connected to a certain style of depiction, and this style most often aims to create the impression that the picture was taken rather than made. (…) Pictures seem to make a stronger claim to authenticity when they hide the fact that they are constructed images and suggest that they are either unmediated pieces of reality (a window to the world, the captured gaze of the bystander) or the result of a spontaneous, unplanned and seemingly unintentional act of photographing without thinking about how to make the picture look good. In this sense, Volker Wortmann points to the paradox of creating the impression of authenticity by consciously pursuing an aesthetic strategy that tries to suggest that there is no conscious aestheticizing going on in the first place.

KratochvilIraqIraq. Photograph by Antonin Kratochvil

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: DEFICIENT IMAGES AND CHANGE OF PERSPECTIVE

…we can observe two prominent strategies for establishing authenticity. The first is a playful engagement with the mediality of photography. Essentially, these photographs seem to highlight the medium and strike the beholder as unconventional insofar as they work by means of stylistic irritations (mainly with excessive blurring and tilting of the camera). The second strategy is the shift of perspective from that of a bystander to that of an actual agent in war. Both strategies seem to highlight the experience of war and aim at a more emotional appeal, since they try to present a more subjective and impressionist account of wartime events. And in this sense, these are clearly strategies that aim to create the idea of authentic images of war, giving the beholder the impression of being immersed in the conflict, seemingly annulling the distancing effect of medial communication and thereby getting closer to an authentic depiction of war.

(…)in recent war photography, the blur is used more freely as a stylistic effect in order to insinuate movement and action and hence goes along with the notion of immediacy. (…) Another newly observable stylistic irritation is a heightened use of tilting the image. For a long time, the standard for war photography that aimed to hide its mediality was normal human vision.(…) Now, however, photographers present pictures that suspend this rule of balance.(…) The result is vexing images that suggest movement and spontaneity during the process of imagemaking. These images seemingly imply that they were taken rather intuitively, without the photographer stylistically engaging in the act of representation (even though we may note how well-composed these images are, nevertheless). Similar to the blur, the appeal of authenticity of these images lies in the fact that they seemingly eliminate the intentionality of the photographer by transgressing an aesthetic norm.

ChrisMorrisChechenSoldierA Chechen soldier fleeing the destroyed Presidential Palace, 1995. Photograph by Christopher Morris

Both devices, the blur and the tilt, overtly defy the common standards of journalistic photography. But by overtly violating conventional conceptions of ‘objective photography,’ they also counter the suspicion of deception. After all, it is obvious in the era of Photoshop manipulation that flawless images can easily be created. An openly flawed image might strike us as more convincing, as it seemingly (and deceptively) lays its emphasis not on form but on content. But there is also another level on which devices like blurring and tilting seem to authenticate photographs – namely because tilts and blurs usually occur under extreme conditions, such as in combat action, where there may not always be enough time and it may be too dangerous to handle the camera properly. Thus, these photographs place emphasis on the moment at which they were taken and highlight the heat of the battle, underscoring their claim to authentic representation. (…) Through overt play with the medium, photographers employing this strategy aim to achieve authenticity by suggesting spontaneity and unimentionality.

(…)

Indeed, it seems as if the stylistic devices used by war photographers reflect contemporary conceptions of photographic truth – namely that despite its fervent appeal to our sense of authenticity, photography is a highly subjective and personal way of approaching the events of history. This points to a decisive change in the conceptions of photography after the digital tum: namely that photographic authenticity is no longer connected to the objectivity of representation but to the subjectivity of the represented experience.

Excerpts from an article by Thomas Susanka, published in “Paradoxes of Authenticity”, pp.95-113, edited by Julia Straub and published by transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2012

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