Gary Sauer-Thompson wonders What’s the Fuss? (regarding “faked” photographs from the early twentieth century). His post provides an interesting set of links regarding the work of Frank Hurley on the 1914 expedition to Antarctica. It’s nice to find some corroboration (on a global level) with similar controversies about early American photography—the same sort of charges have been leveled against Arnold Genthe and Edward Sheriff Curtis around roughly the same time. All these controversies are based around the same assumptions. As Gary puts it:

Photographic images cannot be altered seems to be the assumption here. So the manipulation of the images (ie. superimposing images or restaging events) is deemed to be fakery.

This assumes that photography has implicit connotations of authenticity, presupposing that the image is an unmediated transcription of reality. But Hurley rebelled against that view of photography as he used the camera to interpret the world around him.

The presumption of “authenticity” is actually a much later development—I would place it closer to the 1930s. Prior to this time, documentary photographers followed a different set of presumptions first established by documentary sketch artists where composite views were the norm, not the exception. In the US during the Civil War (1861-1965) sketch artists routinely collected views of potential battlefields which were later composited with other material to depict battles which the artist could not possibly have seen. The impetus was to provide a “true depiction” by any means necessary (even when such a depiction was impossible). I find it interesting how frequently CS Pierce, in his writings from 1867-1878, refers to “composite photographs” as if everyone would be familiar with them.

A slight correction to Gary’s observation is in order—Hurley did not so much “rebel” against the presumption of authenticity (because it did not really exist), but rather conformed to the general opinion that interpreted (including manipulated) records were more valuable than “straight” records. It is only our current perspective, looking back after the influence of modernism, which makes Hurley’s efforts seem radical and nonconformist. The first two decades of the twentieth century are profoundly different from the ensuing decades in their normative perception of “authenticity” in images. It was an era of license, where the validity of the observer was not measured by the absence of craft, but rather by its presence.