Photograph Aesthetics: Lies, PFIs, and Function

5 Mar

I was inspired by the dialogue in Errol Morris’ “The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock” to excavate some reading on the aesthetics of photography. In part 7, Bill Ganzel mentioned that there was an aesthetic change between his photo and Mark Klett’s that rested upon a change in function: from scientific to humanistic.  If its aesthetic is dependent on function, does a photograph’s categorization as “fake” or “real” rest completely on this function?

I went downstairs to make some tea before I tried to find the answer in Paloma Atencia-Linares’ “Fiction, Nonfiction, and Deceptive Photographic Representation” in the Journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism (Vol. 70, No.1, Winter 2012).  While I was making my tea, my parents were watching one of their favorite crime tv shows and the man taking the stand was describing how he manipulated a photo still of a video, much to the jury’s disgust. Since my thoughts decided to follow me downstairs I asked myself: did this guy commit an aesthetic crime by “faking it”?

Interestingly enough, I found out in the article that most philosophers would say no— at least, not entirely.  Many philosophers consider themselves PFIs; they stand on the side of the argument that photographs cannot represent ficta due to “Purported Fictional Incompetence”. There is an entire debate on whether or not photographs can “lie”.

PFIs argue that the photograph is fictionally incompetent because it is constrained by the real object that produced the image. This object is not entirely imagined like a subject in a painting, but can exist freely outside the photographer’s brain. Gregory Currie is mentioned to argue that photographs may not represent fiction by source, origin , or photographic means, but they do so by use— or function.  Atencia-Linares’ continues by suggesting that photographic means can include the dark room (or in our case, the Photoshop Lab) and that manipulations during the photographic production can lead to the production of “ficta”; the photograph becomes a fictional representation and not a photographic representation of a fictional object (which remains nonfictional).

Whether or not you consider yourself a PFI, both articles point to the complexity inherent in the label, “fake photograph”.

This week I did scan some old photographs of my mother’s. I used the unsharp mask filter in Dr. Petrik’s tutorials, which seemed to work well for editing one of the images.’s photo restoration tutorials are very helpful, but going back in forth between video and interface does get old.

I also noticed something when I was diving through old photographs: I prefer the torn, the tattered, and the discolored. I have no real desire to photoshop a single one of my mother’s photographs. Blown out whites? I’ll take them. I like the way time can change the materiality of a photograph and turn it into something else. Tattered photographs are like paintings with old varnish: they may not have the original intended function, but the new aesthetic that they behold has an unusual beauty to it.

And despite these remarks, I still want to be a conservator and remove old varnish.  Why? Because the aesthetic depends on function. And restoring a photograph, painting, object, etc. to a state where aging is reversed is not a lie or a preference for crisp newness over nostalgic agedness. It is an act that becomes imperative for the intended use of that cultural object. When the aesthetic is dependent on function, we should be ever more careful on how we use the images that are available to us in our research.

Regarding the readings for this week, I commented on Megan’s blog

7 Responses to “Photograph Aesthetics: Lies, PFIs, and Function”

  1. Sheri March 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    Your discussion of Gregory Currie’s arguments caught my eye because they do suggest that photographs serve many roles to many people. As a casual photographer of family events, I snap pics to create memories. Sometimes I just snap away and see what happens (usually resulting in many discarded shots) and sometimes I wait until everyone says “cheese” to get that “perfect shot”. Does this make my image staged? Well, to say that every member of the family is always happy and laughing would be a stretch, but for that one moment in time, we all were, and that is the memory I want to keep and preserve.

    So am I guilty of manipulating the photographic moment to serve a purpose? Maybe so, maybe not. Perhaps the better distinction rests with your argument from Currie that fiction rests in the function of the photograph, not in the origins. The caution for those who use photographs to tell a story rests in maintaining a connection true to the origins rather than inventive (or fictive) in the subsequent function of the photograph to the historical story.

  2. historiclove March 5, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

    I really loved your blog post, as I thought it supplemented our readings and discussions on restoration very well. It’s funny that you mention your preference for the aged look of your mother’s old photographs – there is a whole movement in photography right now to emulate the word look of aged film photographs even when using digital means. There’s a huge nostalgia for this aesthetic and a move back toward film cameras (when we’re not building programs and apps that allows us to fake the appearance without the equipment), perhaps because the physical medium also contributes to our notions of authenticity. What kinds of debates will future historians have about digital photographs? If someone had access to the PSD files, they could then see layer by layer the changes that were made, compare the out of camera image to the finished product. Some people are well-versed enough to deduce these things without the PSD file.

    You make a good point though that aesthetic is related to function. We can find the history behind the image’s creation in some cases, but in many others we will simply never be able to find that information. Restoring an image for historical purposes can therefore fill give us information or, as Dr. Petrik showed us, supplement the articles and books we produce.

    Sheri brings up the idea of intent and do no harm and I think that’s also right. But as with any source, no matter how we massage it, we must always try to track the changes and selections we make ourselves.

  3. marthalindsey March 19, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    I have decided to comment here on your image assignment… just go with it…

    I thought that your restored photo looked really great! The blue eyes in particular really popped after you altered the tinting of the photo. The photo where you removed stains turned out really well too! You had a lot of work to do there, and while there is still some discoloration where the damage had been, the improvements were very impressive. In your hand colored image I thought that the hair and hair line looked particularly good.

    Well done all around on your assignment!

    • mbarkovi March 20, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

      Thank you for your comments on the blog and in class, Lindsey– they provided some good feedback that I really appreciated….merci!


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