This is a picture of Daniel Johnston playing in Vicar Street earlier this year. I have already posted a shot from this gig on the blog but was never entirely happy with it. The stage was too bright and crowd was too dark – a common problem. I went back to look again at the negatives from that night when a friend of mine asked me to make him a print. I wanted to see if I could do something better with them so, with the help of David Monahan, I started experimenting with scanning them in and digitally combining the negatives to get the perfect shot.
The one above is the result of doing this. I chose the negative with the most interesting stage exposure and then used masking and layers in Photoshop to add in the crowd from one of the other shots. It turned out pretty much exactly as I had envisaged it turning out when I was photographing on the night. Because of the giant difference in light levels between the stage and the crowd, it wasn’t possible to capture this on a single negative but I managed to achieve it by combining two of them. Is this cheating in some way? Is the result somehow less valid when you know that the audience looking up at the stage have been beamed in from earlier (or later) in the night, and that they are not in fact looking at that particular stretch of stage performance that is captured in the image?
The title of this blog, Traces Of The Real, is a quote from Susan Sontag and refers to the idea of the photograph as being some sort of facsimile of reality; that it has a unique property among art forms in that it can only depict what exists in front of the lens. The extreme version of this would be the contention that “the camera never lies”: since it can only record what is actually there, it cannot present you with things that are not there, and therefore we must take at face value what we see in a photograph and believe that it was there or it did happen. However, even before the advent of digital photography, this was being questioned, with many pointing to the various ways that photographs can be manipulated in order to distort the truth, to present particular points of view, and to maybe try and influence the viewer in some way. This can be done by as simple a means as cropping the image to leave out something crucial that would alter the meaning of what is depicted.
So, in some respects my picture is clearly lying, in that the exact scene it depicts never really happened. It may well be that the woman in the stripy dress sitting at the front actually got up to go to the bar during that song. If she did though, does it really matter? She was there for most of the gig, so surely it’s more truthful that she would be in the picture than not – even if she didn’t happen to be there during the period of time that my shutter was open and photographing the stage. When chatting to David about this he reminded me that film photographers would often use this method of combining multiple exposures to get the perfect shot also – making multiple exposures on the same negative by lighting different parts of the scene in succession and carefully balancing them to get the right result. In a similar vein, I was talking to some analogue photography enthusiasts the other day who explained how a new and more interesting sky can be dropped in from another negative to liven up an otherwise dull scene. So, while the advent of digital, and Photoshop in particular, has made these sorts of manipulations of “reality” a lot easier to do, they have always been part of photography, and no one form of photography has any kind of monopoly on the truth.