The camera and the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth*

Have you ever heard the statement that: “I never look good in photographs.” If I’ve heard it once, I think that I have heard it a thousand times.  And the statement belies the dichotomy of how we view the camera and photography.  The camera is at once the ever trustworthy arbiter of truth and the never to be trusted purveyor of falsehood.  With the invention of photography in the late 1830’s you suddenly had a box that could in seconds capture the stark reality of a moment.  But with the invention of the calotype and subsequently the wet and dry glass plate processes, where negatives could be copied and modified at will, came the notion that somehow this box could not really be trusted.  And of course, with digital photography came the realization that all “reality” could be modified.  It is the world of the “Matrix,” where our senses can no longer be trusted. Indeed, it is not coincidental that the ascendance of Adobe PhotoShop is concurrent with the Matrix movies.

This ambiguity, as to what a photograph is, is what your friend is appealing to with the statement that “I never look good in photographs.”  But there is, I believe, more going on.  First, on a physiological level when we see people, we typically do not see them frozen in time.  Unmoving people tend to be dead people and there is nothing vibrant and vital about dead people.  They are not quite themselves visually. This is because living people are constantly and subtly in motion, especially their eyes.  This is wholly lacking in a photograph – witness your friend who has the uncanny ability to shut his eyes at the instant that you press the shutter.   In a real sense the camera has killed them, created a microdeath. Second, but still on a physiological level, when we see and more importantly recognize a person, we are keying in on certain features that composite mean to us, “that’s my friend Peggy Sue.”  How well does this three dimensional perception translate to our perception of the compressed two dimensional  image in the photograph?  Also Peggy Sue may be self-conscious of the little space between her front teeth.  She is forever covering her mouth with her hand.  The camera has frozen her face in 1/160th of a second.  You may not notice them at all, or better still may consider them an adorable element of the composite that you call Peggy Sue.  But to Peggy Sue herself this space has now become a looming glacial crevasse. She conceives that her ugliness is revealed to the world.  Which takes us to the third problem, that Peggy Sue has an image of herself, which is a lot less forgiving than the one your loving eyes see.  In fact, she is fully aware of all of her flaws, and the camera really puts it in her face.

With the exception of stars, starlets, and fashion models, who live in a very unreal world, where it is acceptable, in the pursuit of elusive beauty, to place Oprah Winfrey’s head on Ann Margaret’s body, the rest of us must deal with what we are given.  We chide the camera for its faults and subject ourselves to digital dermabrasions and facelifts in Adobe Photoshop.  Always in the back of our minds is the fact that the camera really isn’t lying.  That 1/160th of a second of our lives is really one of a sequence of 1/160ths of a second that tell our stories.  Indeed, there have been some marvelous photoessays that do just that.  A wonderful example is Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters,” which is a series of annually taken photographs of these women starting in 1975.    Visually, features, now despite their metamorphoses, become the glue that binds the images together.  The camera is not capturing the triumph of time, but rather the victory of the constancy of the human spirit and the glory of maturity.

* “I pull in resolution, and begin
To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth…”

William Shakespeare “Macbeth

This entry was posted in Essays on Photography.


  1. rajn September 12, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

    Maybe it is a real phenomena as in how your sound, when you record and hear it, seems not as good as your original. The explanation given is some kind of a positive feedback effect to a signal processed by the brain. So why not in the visual domain too?

  2. David September 12, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

    Rajn, that is a very interesting view of it. And we tend not to think of the recording device as being malignant. I think that there is a lot of merit to what you are suggesting. David