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Things Are Sometimes What They Seem

ISSUE:  Winter 1985
Truth and Falsehood in Visual Images. By Mark Roskill and David Carrier. Massachusetts. $16.00.

In the late spring of 1936 Arthur Rothstein was traveling in North Dakota, seeking pictures of the Dust Bowl— pictorial evidence of the sort he and the other photographers of the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) supplied to various New Deal agencies, the Congress, and of course a Democratic and publicity-minded president bent on showing the country what a Depression, what a national calamity, he had to deal with. According to the photographic historian F. Jack Hurley, Rothstein took five shots of a cow’s bleached skull, some on grass, some more tellingly on the cracked parched earth. All went well—the photographs were greatly admired by Roy Stryker, the head of the Photographic Unit—until a Republican newspaper in Fargo, under the headline “It’s a Fake,” asked pointedly just what kind of documentary photographer Rothstein was supposed to be. Had he not moved the skull around? Wasn’t it a prop rather than an artifact? Just how much truth was there in his picture of High Plains desolation?

The controversy, like the Dust Bowl, blew itself out in time, but the interpretative questions it leaves behind are far from settled. Does a photographed or painted image need to be literal in order to be true? What contexts surrounding the image, what expectations about artistic license or documentary accuracy or symbolic expressiveness make a difference? What does it mean, after all, to say of a painting on the wall of a museum, “How true that is!,” and how does our meaning, with all its hedging variants (“How true that is in spirit!,” “How true that is to the artist’s vision!”), compare with what we mean when we say of an ad in The New Yorker, Catherine Deneuve’s icily beautiful face suspended in space next to a bottle of Chanel, “How false that is!”? All these are questions examined—not definitively answered, as the authors are careful to point out—in Mark Roskill and David Carrier’s Truth and Falsehood in Visual Images.

Roskill and Carrier argue that an image can be “true” in three different senses (tripartite categories keep cropping up in the book, giving it an oddly scholastic formality). First, the image can embody a certain quality or effect. It can give a true “essence,” as a photograph of a nameless veteran of the Civil War truthfully conveys what it is like to be without one’s arms. Second, it can “evidentially secure” that something took place, something happened “out there.” Pictures taken automatically by bank cameras indisputably record robberies. (Indisputably indeed, but what else the films show is often a matter of great dispute. Photographs truthfully record Patty Hearst with a submachine gun during a holdup, but as the leftist critic Allan Sekula has pointed out, they hardly testify to her state of mind. Kidnap victim? Urban guerrilla? This second, evidentiary sense of truth in images is more complicated than it at first seems to be, and needs somewhat more detailed treatment than Roskill and Carrier give it.) Third, the image can summon up and show forth certain social or political values. Manet’s Execution of Maximilian—one of a number of 19th-century paintings interestingly discussed in the book—reveals what a certain Frenchman at a certain historical moment thought and felt about the event and is visually true in that sense.

Roskill and Carrier might comment on the Rothstein photograph (this is not one of their examples) that the cow’s skull, however handled, wherever placed, truthfully depicts aridity. It can no more be false about aridity than a Turner painting can be false about the swirling colors that make it up. Or they might argue that it authoritatively summons up a particular attitude toward the ravaged land, a sympathetic, intellectual, willfully dramatic, perhaps slightly condescending attitude we associate with all the FSA photographers and the material, ideological, and historical forces that sent them out into the Plains, shooting scripts in hand. In this view, Rothstein’s is a thirties picture. The test of literalness imposed on it by the Fargo Forum, that it be a view of a skull actually on one identifiable patch of North Dakota, is irrelevant; The picture is not, in this case, evidence of something out there, though another photograph might well be true in that way (Roskill and Carrier’s example is a picture of JFK proving that he died of a gunshot wound).

Truth and Falsehood in Visual Images is a work of mixed elements. Collaboratively written by an art historian (Roskill) and an aesthetic philosopher (Carrier), it adopts the methods of two disciplines, emerging as “a philosophical essay based on concrete examples,” though (as we are told in the preface) the essay does without the “detailed logical arguments” we associate with philosophy; nor are the concrete examples lovingly dwelt upon in the style of art historical monographs. The authors wish, commendably, to escape from specialization, drawing on each other’s strengths, and they do so in the substantive arguments of the book, which are informed, reasonable, subtle, and challenging. In the book’s style, however, philosophy wins the Interdisciplinary contest; untheoretic readers will find thickets (“the possibility of any determinative understanding or interpretation must itself be contextualized within social and intellectual history”) to be gotten through before discussion (and illustration) of the next Manet or Carpaccio. Or Beatles album cover, as it might be. The book’s visual range is wittily and persuasively mixed: paintings and photographs, literal and nonliteral images, Courbet’s The Stonebreakers, Caravaggio’s Burial of St. Lucy, the American flag on the moon, Man Ray’s camp photograph of Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavie, a Walker Evans portrait of tenant farmers (but not one of those used in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), an ad for Candies shoes.

Above all, Truth and Falsehood is mixed in purpose. On one hand, Roskill and Carrier have written an academic book, perhaps even a rarefied academic book. They aim to provide a framework “for ongoing and no doubt ampler discussion”— i.e., for other books. They argue with extreme cautiousness (“This is not, we are sure, the right time to propose any very rigid framework”) and buttress argument with bibliographical notes that are everything they should be. Academically conceptual themselves, they value (or at least seek to analyze, without any sign of amusement or dismay) the most recherche developments of conceptual art. On the other hand, their work suggests and in some ways invites a practical usefulness (the last chapter is headed “How to Analyze Truth and Falsehood in Visual Images”). They look at politically important images, with their attendant controversies, as well as at Man Ray. They contend against the skeptical, relativist, and deconstructionist beliefs that images, like texts, can never achieve determinate meaning. They argue, in effect, for validity in visual interpretation. Admittedly, they do so only at the cost of positing “an interesting complexity in our notion of truth,” but their three-part classification of the complexity is indeed what they say it is, interesting—greatly more interesting than the theoretic dead ends and blind alleys down which radical deconstructionist critics seem to wish to lead us.

Practical tests for veracity in images, especially in photographic images, are in fact much needed in what academics call the “real” world, the world, say, as surveyed by The New York Times. The Times reports that scandal has broken out over the author’s photograph on the dust jacket of Joan Didion’s Democracy, a rather more anatomically revealing photograph than one expects to see in such a context, of Didion or anyone. A true likeness? A true likeness yet false to the essence of the novelist? A true (or false) conception of Woman as Novelist? This is a trivial argument, of course, as ephemeral and unphilosophic as 1936 squabblings over cow skulls and alkali flats, but The Times also reports that family photographs are coming into greater and greater use as tools of the psychotherapist—indeed, of the “phototherapist.” The father always standing to one side in family portraits, for example: there is a sign of his emotional distance and a warning of trouble to come. Such images may be clinically helpful, but to what exact degree they are true (more or less than the imagery of dreams, for example?), and true “for” or “about” given individuals, are questions both difficult and necessary. Real clinical usefulness can only follow on confidence in an image’s truthfulness, in whatever senses it can be determined. Far as it may seem to be removed, with its cautiousness and academicism, from the work of phototherapists, Truth and Falsehood in Visual Images is nevertheless a book they ought to read. So should anyone who wants to be confident about the forms of veracity and mendacity in front of his eyes.


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