The Believability of Photography

One trait of photography that separates it from other media – be it painting, drawing, sculpture – is something I call ‘believability’. This characteristic isn’t often discussed by artists or photographers, perhaps because what I’m referring to is so inherent to the medium that we simply don’t pay attention to it. Nonetheless, it’s a large part of what makes the medium so potent. ‘Believability’ is simply photography’s ability to be believed as a visual documentation of reality. It’s the reason why the term ‘photographic evidence’ exists. It’s the reason why courts can deem an authentic photograph as admissible evidence, but not a sketch of the event by an eyewitness. It’s why we believe in photographs of space, or in footage of rare species in remote jungles captured by strategically positioned trail cams. A photograph of an athlete accomplishing a heroic feat is more likely to strike us as something that actually happened than a drawing of the same event, and a photograph of a catastrophe is more likely to shock us than a painting of one. We’re more apt to believe things about the world when we see it in a photograph than we are when we see it in a sketch or a painting. “This looks photoshopped,” simply wouldn’t be a phrase people wrote if we didn’t use the medium often enough for reference about the real world.

The point here isn’t that photography can be taken for objective truth, nor that photography itself is infallible testimony of the world. Creative cropping, choice of lens, choice of angle, lighting, etc., can all be used to shape the story, exaggerate features, hide important details, and persuade the viewer in one direction or another, and this tailoring can occur before the negative is even touched during post-processing. Photography has a long history of being tampered with; doctoring and manipulation techniques were used in the darkroom long before digital cameras were even an idea. Now after years of deceptive ‘photoshopping’, special effects, and more recently with the rise of AI art and deep fakes, the general public is growing more wary, more discerning, more hesitant to accept the things they see in photographs and video as credible documentation. Granted all of this, ‘believability’ is still a deeply embedded trait of photography that separates it from drawing and painting, and influences the way we look at images created with the medium.

No, the point isn’t that photography can be taken for objective truth, but rather that this characteristic of ‘believability’ is a deeply embedded trait of the medium that influences the way we see and experience images created with the medium, and causing us to approach those images differently than if they were made in other media. For example, if we were to look at a photograph of a beach, we’re likely to register what we’re seeing in the photograph as a real location – a place we could actually visit. We may even think that we’d like to visit that beach, and that if we were to visit that beach, we may feel that we could trust that the beach will look very similar to how it appears in the photograph. Even if the photograph were very old and outdated, we can still surmise that the beach photograph depicts a real location on the planet Earth, and that at a point in time this beach once looked the way it did in the photograph. On the other hand, when I see a painting of a beach, I don’t necessarily assume that the beach in the painting is representative of a real or specific place. The painter doesn’t need to visit the beach to paint a beach, they can often reference their own experience of beaches, if not then multiple reference images, and craft a painting of a beach, a painting which the beach as a subject is more of a general idea of a beach and less a representation of a specific location that exists in the world. Depicting a specific beach may be more or less unimportant to the artist, as long as painting a beach fulfills a role in carrying out their creative vision for the image they intended to create.

Another difference can be drawn in how the qualities of the media hold our attention. In viewing the average photograph, the common person is typically focused on the subject matter and not so much on the means by which the image was rendered. I’m not speaking in the case of the person with the photographer’s experience, who has an eye and interest to spot these things. I’m speaking on the typical daily experience that we all engage in, of viewing the dozens or hundreds of photographs that come upon us, as we browse social media and shop through product listings, glance at beauty ads on magazine covers and travel ads on billboards, browse different topics on Wikipedia and news feeds, and wherever else photography is used.

When the average viewer looks at a painting of a beach, the artistic medium used to render the image of the beach is more likely to be equally at the forefront of the viewer’s attention as the beach or subject matter is itself. However, when the average viewer looks at a photograph of a beach, their attention is more likely to be entirely focused on the beach or subject matter, occasionally with no thought given to how well it was photographed. The qualities of the medium of the painting very often retains our attention, and the common viewer is observant of both the subject matter and how the subject matter was been painted. A common remark about a beautiful painting of a beach might be, “what a beautiful painting!” Meanwhile, the qualities of the photographic medium tend to recede from our attention, and the average viewer tends to focus more on the subject matter and perhaps on the reality of the subject matter’s existence. When viewing what’s deemed to be a beautiful photograph of a beach, a common remark might be, “what a beautiful beach!” whereas in viewing what’s deemed to be a beautiful photograph of a beach, a garden, or an animal, a person is more likely to remark, “what a beautiful beach,” (or garden, or animal,) than they are to remark on the quality of the photograph.

Of course, this is only my interpretation of what I’ve experienced during the years that I’ve been interested in both art and photography, both from what I’ve observed in my own experience of viewing photographs and paintings, and from what I’ve observed of other people. I don’t think it’s nearly this black and white, I don’t believe normal viewers never appreciate a photograph for the eye and skills of the photographer. However, I do think people have more of a tendency to make aesthetic judgments of the painting itself when viewing a painting and are more likely to make aesthetic judgments about the actual subject matter when viewing a photograph. Perhaps we associate the medium of painting with artwork in most cases, whereas we associate the medium of photography with artwork in far fewer cases (and the reverse may be true in regards to documentation.)

These are just a couple of ways that the characteristic of believability affects the viewer’s approach to photographs. As someone who is primarily interested in photography as an artistic medium, I don’t think this characteristic should be overlooked, especially as it’s part of flavors a viewer’s experience of the medium and also a part of what makes the medium so potent. Even as the medium is used for artistic and expressive purposes and not for documentation, this compelling trait of the medium doesn’t disappear – it still remains an active and dynamic part of the medium, working behind the scenes to affect both the viewer’s approach to the work and the message of the work. It remains so up until the point that the photograph has been obviously manipulated, such as in the case of photo-composites.

I’ve created work that was obviously “Photoshopped,” I’ve created work that was obviously not “Photoshopped,” and I’ve created work that appeared to be “Photoshopped” but wasn’t. In each case, the viewer approached the work somewhat differently based on that nuance alone, and that in turn affected the work’s message and impact. Take this photograph for example. As it stands, it can speak about how we can limit ourselves, drawing self-imposed boundaries around one’s self. If this piece were created as a drawing, a painting, or even as a photo-composite or digital illustration, it could still illustrate this idea. However, once the viewer is told (or realizes) that 99% of what is seen in this photograph was captured in camera, and the characteristic of believability is reintroduced, the photograph takes on more meaning. On the surface level, viewers are often more impressed and more curious about how the photograph was created. More importantly, though, is that the photograph now begins to speak more about the idea that it’s illustrating. The illusion of the box is no longer just a cage or a boundary around the subject, it’s also a cage or a boundary that collapses. If the camera’s position were to change in position, the change in perspective would cause the illusion to collapse, no longer appearing to encompass the man in the box. Now it begins to speak not only about us limiting ourselves but also about how a change in our own perspective can cause us to see through the illusion of the limitation and escape our self-imposed boundaries. Not only does the photograph now have more dimension, but so does its message. This additional depth in the piece can only exist because it’s a photograph; the image is simply strongest in the photographic medium as it both utilizes and plays on the characteristic of believability to strengthen the message it conveys.

I think if conceptual and surrealist photographers were to preserve this characteristic of believability in their photographs, which can be done capturing the essential image in camera and avoiding heavy manipulation, two things would occur: A.) photographers will explore an avenue that more often challenges them with tougher problems needed to be solved creatively in order to create the images that they desire, which leads them into learning new techniques and generate new ideas for new work. By avoiding the simpler method of compositing multiple photographs together in post-processing to achieve the images I imagine, this approach pushed me to think of unconventional ways to accomplish the image in camera, which has led to many learning experiences and sparked numerous ideas I probably wouldn’t have had if I weren’t forcing myself to create in this way. B.) By creating anything you can imagine while retaining the believability of the photograph, there is more depth and breadth for the resultant work to speak. A digital composite is more akin to a collage or a digital painting, and can be appreciated as an artwork, but a photograph that depicts the same thing while captured completely in camera will accomplish all the same and more.

Photography furnishes evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re showing a photograph of it.”

Susan Sontag

2 thoughts on “The Believability of Photography”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top