Week 2 - The Index and the Icon

The question of whether there is “anything particularly “photographic” about photography”[i], and whether photographs can be considered “real” is an interesting one. The idea is that photography is a unique method of making images, different to painting or drawing for example, and therefore requires unique methods of understanding. Unlike paintings, in which the subject matter could have been completely or partially imagined, photographs show something that actually “was”; something that did exist in that moment, space, and time. Presuming the photo in question wasn’t solely created on a computer via image creation and editing software – but more on that later.

This idea of photographs showing something that actually “was”, as if the viewer had been there themselves, requires the viewer to trust and believe that what they are seeing is a faithful, and true, representation of the subject matter. Paintings are viewed as the artists interpretation of the subject matter, and as the artists choices of how and in what medium to record the subject are wildly varied, paintings are not viewed as an accurate true record. For example if one wanted to look at an image of a clock one could turn to “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali.

The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dali  Available at: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/1168-2

The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dali

Available at: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/1168-2

However modern cultural knowledge tells us that clocks do not look like that – the clocks in that painting are the artists interpretation. And if that is true for one painting how could we say with any certainty that other paintings of clocks are any more or less accurate. This is an example of where the particular belief that photographs – created by a machine, are accurate records of the subject. A photograph of a clock tells us that that particular clock existed in that manner at the time the photograph was taken.

It is this particular belief about photography that has in part led to my project, and is what I am trying to use within my project. The belief that photography is an accurate record of the “thing” it is showing; that surf brand photography consists of iconic or indexical images of female surfers (to put it in relation to Pierce’s[i] characteristics of photography). There can be a belief that the subject in photographs are, in real life, as they appear in the images. That the women shown in photographs look and behave exactly as the photographs show – the iconic image. Or, that the photographs indicate the real females surfers in the world, that for the image to exist it is proof that the women in them must also exist – the indexical image. And to further extrapolate from this, that if those photographs show what one female surfer looks like, that must be what they all look like.

The way photographs are used by surf brands and media to indicate that the “thing” is real, has led to this image of women that surf as the surfer-model in the tiny bikini in the tropics. Those images are read by viewers as the truth of who a female surfer is. In my last module I photographed a surfer, Ceri, and her 12 year old daughter. During the session Ceri commented that her daughter is influenced by those images, and believes that those types of photographs show what female surfers are, or should be – and this is what I am trying to show is not necessarily the case, by using the knowledge of that same belief of the “truth” of photography.

Nowadays many more people are aware of the power and widespread use of photo editing software – particularly in the advertising industry. So there are many more people that read those types of images “with a pinch of salt”, so to speak. However the underlying core belief is that even with photo editing the subject was there and real to begin with, and so this dichotomy of what is “real” and what is “fake” in an image persists.

I am trying to use this belief that a photograph shows a real thing, to show “real” surfers in the UK. I am keeping the style of the photographs quite “natural” – only natural or available lighting, so no studio lights, and very minimal post processing. Mostly colour correction/balancing, but no editing anything in or out – and definitely no editing of the surfers to make them look taller/skinnier/or change their “flaws”. These images of real women are a record of them in that particular place in time - rather than an symbol of who all female surfers are.

The veracity of what a photograph shows can be called into question by the advancements in digital editing. The idea of photography as a record of something that really existed in a particular place and time is applicable when the elements in a photograph actually existed in real life. But what about the cases where photos are digitally manipulated to add and remove subject matter from the image. This link below shows the editing process of a wedding photo for a couple that wanted a Star Wars themed wedding photograph.


Whilst this is an extreme amount of editing and, due to peoples knowledge of the world and the Star Wars movies, it would never be presumed to have actually happened in real life. But I wanted to use this as an example of where photography as record of what “was” can be pulled apart. It is quite obvious to know, looking at the finished image, that this couple did not spend their wedding day fighting the Empire on the ice planet Hoth. However it is not inconceivable to think that they may have actually worn cloaks and hoods, or been married in winter somewhere snowy – and yet all of those elements were added in via Photoshop – they were never a thing that was there. So how can we believe that any photograph was created by taking a photo, and not in Photoshop? How is the creation of the photograph different to a painter and their brush? Is there a point at which digital editing stops a photograph from being a photograph? And when edited photographs are seen by viewers, by consumers, I wonder what impact this has on them and how they view themselves.

I think these will be aspects to consider going forwards; to consider the expectation by viewers of digital editing and how to ensure that the context they are seen in encourages the belief that what is being seen was something that happened, and is a representation of that moment in time – and not something created afterwards. Photographs used in surf brand advertising and in magazines are expected to have been edited in post-production. If I were to have my photographs shown in that same context would the assumption be that they have also been “Photoshopped”? I will need to consider whether other contexts for viewing photographs, e.g. photobooks or gallery walls, are seen as less likely to contain digitally manipulated work.


[i] PEIRCE, C, and BUCHLER, J. 1955. Philosophical writings of Peirce’, Dover. New York, USA

[i] SNYDER, J, and ALLEN, N. 1975. ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’ in Critical Inquiry. =Chicago Journals. Chicago, USA.