Posted by: schne20r | December 17, 2012

Diane Arbus: exploring the truth claim of photography

One of the interesting problems that surfaced during the shift from portraiture to photography is the nature of photography’s claim to be a scientific representation of absolute truth.  As John Tagg writes in The Burden of Representation, “The value and fascination of such mechanically produced portraits seemed to lie in their unprecedented accuracy.  The mechanisation of production guaranteed not only their cheapness and ready availability, but also, so it seemed, their authenticity.  When the technology of the camera first became available, there was a great deal of concern about the accuracy of a photographic representation.  Because we are pre-programmed to accept a photograph as “truth” and due to new technologies such as facebook, this concern is still relevant today.  

Diane Arbus, a 1960’s photographer, explores the truth-claim of photography and the ability of the camera to reveal what she described as the “gap between intention and effect”. 

An excellent example is her photograph, “Child with Toy Hand Grenade”.  When viewed in tandem with her contact sheet, it is clear that Arbus chose to represent the boy as crazy even though he appears to be a completely normal child in all the other photos.  




  1. These remind me of the photographs we see in gossip magazines…where the photographer will find the one shot where all wrinkles and cellulite show. In these pictures though we see the reality of what is usually airbrushed, we see the “truth.”

  2. This raises a very interesting question. What do photographs represent, then, if not the truth? I don’t like the thought of it being ‘the machine’s interpretation’ the same way you would say a portrait is the painter’s interpretation of oneself. A photograph can never really be seen as capturing the entire truth of somebody if for no other reason than the fact that photographs are two dimensional- we are not. A picture may be worth a thousand words but words are not all that describe us. Also going along with Laura’s comment: how do photos hop come into this mix? Then any affiliation between photography and the truth becomes entirely questionable.

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