“Send me what news you can that is true.”
– Benjamin Franklin
“Truth.” The word floats high on the side of a building in San Francisco where Market Street adjoins the Civic Center. Crowds pass under it. Political demonstrations are held opposite it. The homeless camp beneath it. It dominates the square, but is barely noticed by the people below. I’ve chatted with various folks who spend time there, and they were quite surprised when I pointed it out. Like so many of us, they’d never looked up.
The mural was one of several painted in the city by an artist named Rigo 23, through a grant from the city’s Art Commission Gallery. Others feature different words but it is his “Truth” piece that really struck me. Truth is not only central to our moral development, but here it radiates upon the street below.
In this project, I tried to capture the street in its various permutations using “truth” as a fulcrum. The series is also a meditation on the fungibility of photographic truth. As Richard Avedon said “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” For instance, they can depict an atypical moment. I once saw an exhibit of the outtakes of Robert Frank’s The Americans. The book includes that famous image of the alienated elevator operator. But in the outtakes, she’s smiling. Which is the atypical moment? Maybe all our moments are atypical… Furthermore, photos can be set up. I think of those wonderful Curtis images of native Americans, supposedly of anthropological interest. They’re still wonderful, but only many years later did historians discover that he carried a wagon full of costumes to clothe his subjects.
Furthermore, though we photographers claim total responsibility for the image, for our version of reality, the camera–any camera–has its own notion of what it wants to do. It’s always a struggle and often the camera wins. I’ve produced so many images that bore little relation to what I had planned. (Many photographers have recognized this phenomenon. Walker Evans, as straightforward a photographer as you could imagine, said “If it works it is almost an accident & the photographer must be aware of the role of accident in his work.” Diane Arbus said “I’ve never taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse.”) But sometimes it’s better, so whose complaining? Besides, you don’t have to give the camera credit.
Related to photographic truth is the question of how original any piece of art may be. How to separate out the influence of earlier or contemporary artists is one of the threads running through art criticism. I mean this not in the sense of work being derivative or the concept of appropriated art, but in the sense of any photographer rubbing intellectual shoulders with the surrounding artistic community. I consider the images in this project original, yet they contain a non-original central element: Rigo 23’s painting. Does the inclusion of his “Truth” in my image make it a collaboration or a documentary about the painting–or is truth just a word about which it is pretentious to claim ownership?
For all the critical ferment of the last few decades, we are, in fact, just beginning to develop a photographic aesthetic. It’s still perceived as conceptually different from other artistic media in that, uniquely, it is primarily a carrier of information. As soon as we grasp that information (usually quickly, even in a strong image) we move on. Thus we can’t help thinking that an altered photograph has strayed from virtue, from the documentary truth. This will probably continue until another medium takes over this function (God knows what it will be, but I suppose it will arise from the digital world) freeing photography’s aesthetics as still photography freed painting.
Still, the medium, like any life form, develops & me along with it – I’m trying to add complex layers of detail & color that will produce something akin to a painting in the sense of asking that the viewer spend some time with the image. Perhaps I’m unduly influenced by the emotional intensity of Abstract Expressionism, which was the formative art movement when I was young. Although many years past being the central movement of painting, (Color Field, Minimalism, Photorealism & many other movements have given it a run for the money), it’s still practiced, and its vitality still resonates. Most of whatever complexity I’m able to bring to my images is photographic: I use multiple exposures in the camera, which demand a balancing of found light and color; long exposures employing a neutral density filter; Photoshop, & lots of other photographic mechanisms to approach the real world. But the line between the mediums seems to be disappearing. By the close of the series, the photographic portion of the image has become entangled with painting; In one image the photo portion has been deconstructed down to five individual letters with the remainder painted. So, as seems to be the case with a number of visual artists these days, my photographic & painterly consciousnesses are merging.
In any case, the word “truth” lies at the center of this series, but there are so many ways to approach it. I’m not trying to create a narrative or provide context. (Well, I am, but not officially.) I just try different visual approaches to the subject. It’s my exploration of photographic truth.
Of course, this project was put together at a peculiar time: The very concept of truth as a moral touchstone, as the basis for science & good government, as a concept, the respect for which is one of the primary things that ties a disparate culture together, has been under attack. Replaced by the lie. I’ll quote the poet Adam Kirsch: “the lie is a fiction that does not admit its fictionality. It is simple shamelessness that allows us to recognize a lie as a lie but treat it as if it was a reality. And the bond between demagogues & their audience is cemented by their exhilarating consciousness of their shared culpability.” This didn’t happen for arcane philosophical reasons. The truth just got in the way of a politician seeking to advance his own interest.
And how quickly it happened! From Donald Trump claiming to win the popular-vote majority & claiming to speak to the largest audience to witness an inauguration to his insistence four years later that he won reelection: The Oxford Dictionary 2016 word of the year: “post-truth.” We will regain our sea-legs or be dragged into Fascism (the Nazi government being the quintessential example of the lie as a governing principle). All I can say for the moment is that we live in a post-truth society.
© David Goldberg 2021
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