Daniel White, Blog Post 8 – The Struggle of Authenticity

Achieving true objectivity through photographic work is nearly impossible.  Once the camera is there, the scene, the people involved, the situation—it’s altered, it’s different from what it would be like if the camera wasn’t there.  Yes, most of the time it’s such a minuscule change, a very slight difference, but the more people are aware of that their situation or event is being captured or recorded, the more subjectively they’re going to represent themselves based on who is there documenting them or their situation.

I thought of all this after reading pieces of William Couch’s These Are Our Lives and while looking through a bunch of the pictures on the Yale Photogrammar website.  I wonder how many of these pictures are actually “objective” and how many of them are staged.  The idea that all these pictures could be objective really gets me thinking about what the Photogrammar website intends to preserve through archiving these images.

I also thought of the word “authenticity”.  The authenticity of Couch’s stories, the authenticity of the Photogrammar photographs, the authenticity of the work of the Federal Writer’s Project.  Two years ago, during my freshman year, I took the class FOLK 202 (also ENGL 202), Introduction to Folklore.  The class mainly focused on Southern Appalachian folklore and history, but some of the themes and stories we are discussing in class overlap with things we learned about and read in FOLK 202.

The main reason I thought back to that class, though, was because we also talked a lot about objectivity and authenticity.  My professor believed that once anything was taken out of its original context, it’s no longer authentic, no matter how hard you try to preserve its original state.  He was mostly talking about physical objects that wind up in museums, but I feel the same goes for these photographs.  As objective as the pictures may have been when they were taken, viewing them now, we’re going to have a different view on them, a different vantage point.  When we see these pictures, we are automatically going to have a completely unique and different reaction to them than we would have if we had actually been alive during the time of the photograph and experienced it for ourselves.  We are so far removed from those photographs that sometimes it’s hard to imagine that we really understand what they are supposed to mean at all.

Methodist church, Unionville Center, Ohio

For example, this photograph of a Methodist church in Unionville Center, Ohio from the Photogrammar website looks candid enough, but how are we really supposed to know what was going on, and if those actions were truly portrayed in the final photograph, or if people altered themselves because they knew that the photo was being taken.

The only way to discover their authentic meaning, would be to go back in time and be in that very moment ourselves.  But alas, we do not have a time travelling DeLorean that would enable us to do so…

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2 Responses to Daniel White, Blog Post 8 – The Struggle of Authenticity

  1. Carla Aviles-Jimenez says:

    “Authenticity” and “objectivity” were also words that came to my mind when reading William Couch’s These are Our Lives, and I also discuss these terms in my own blog post. I think you tackle a very important question when considering how “objective” these photographs and life histories truly are in their depictions of everyday life during the Depression. I also think your Introduction to Folklore teacher made a valid point in saying that “once anything was taken out of its original context, it’s no longer authentic, no matter how hard you try to preserve its original state.” Everything goes back to this question of whether something is truly objective and whether objectivity makes something authentic. Are the two words meant to go together, meaning if something is objective then that makes it authentic? In terms of presenting history like these photographs and life histories we today like to consider the two terms linked. However, I think that the photographers and writers for the Federal Writer’s Project would not necessarily link these words, perhaps they may consider them mutually exclusive. These photographers and writers are fundamentally artists, and so they may argue that placing their own subjectivity into their depictions are just as authentic as an objective piece, and this results in life histories that did not necessarily follow Couch’s “objective” instructions. These questions then become important to consider when we have to tackle the life histories and decide what is truly “authentic” when we tag them in our project.

  2. Annie Kingman says:

    When I read the first few lines of my blog post I was a little surprised by your thesis, but you have made me realize just how right you are about the authenticity of photographs. At first I thought, how can you get more authentic than a photograph (assuming it hasn’t been digitally edited?) But you are right that the destruction of authenticity occurs on the other side of the lens, for the subjects’ awareness of the photo changes the story. People act differently when there is a camera involved. Think back to our discussion about Facebook- when our lives are being put on display, we try to doctor appearances. We all can probably admit to taking part in this cycle, asking our friends to retake pictures until we get the perfect shot. So, with my experience with modern-day social media, I totally knew that photos were not an accurate portrait of whomever is being photographed. However, I would never have thought this way about the pictures on the Photogrammar site. I still have to be cautious when I look at pictures of people in the past. While they may not have had the motivation to get the perfect shot for their Instagram profile, the presence of a camera would automatically affect the situation and subjects, challenging the authenticity of the scene.

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