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The Truth in Photographs:

Edward Burtynsky’s Revelations of Excess by Mark Kingwell

“Art is not truth. Art is a lie that enables us to recognize truth” Picasso

1. The first truth about the truth in photographs is this: truth in photographs is like the truth more generally, only harder. Start at the beginning. ‘Truth’ is an abstract noun, and an escalator noun at that—one of those words whose uses go forth and multiply, usually into some vast metaphysical theory. The truth won’t just sit there, merely useful for proximate purposes. As soon as you say something is true, someone, somewhere wants to know what you mean by truth. Contemporary philosophers may want to restrict this demand, pushing instead what are known as deflationary or disquotational theories of truth—to say that ‘snow is white’ is true, is just to say snow is white—but run-of-the-mill humans find that rather thin soup. They want to beef it up with more metaphysical protein.

One could even sketch a broad scheme of these big truth-ideas—just four of them, in fact—that have dominated the ongoing human obsession with getting things right. They are, in rough order of historical priority, (1) the truth you feel, (2) the truth you are told, (3) the truth of reason itself, and (4) the truth you perceive through the senses. All of these have had various names in their different contexts, but for present purposes let us call them inspiration, authority, rationalism, and empiricism. In each case, the theory posits not the truth of this or that proposition or experience, but an idea of Truth overall.

The trouble with these Big Ideas about Truth is, first, that these rival theories seem irreconcilable one with the other, forcing a choice—or, if you prefer, a story of progress, itself a controversial choice. Second, though, any dominance by one tends to lead, often by its very own efforts, to self-destruction. Success breeds its own counter-intuitive failure: the more we try to establish once and for all the final authority of our minds and senses, the more the attempt backfires. Inspiration fails. Authorities are deposed. Reason distorts, and the senses themselves can be doubted. The paradox of all foundational truth is thus that it invites the very questions that will, sooner or later, make it crumble.

Even if we abandon the search for a general theory of truth, however, we still need the word ‘true.’ That is, we want to be able to say whether—or perhaps the better issue is how—this or that specific thing is, or might be, true. And the more we press that question which arises from practical needs to decide, to judge, the more complicated matters once more become. Consider what happens when we shift from propositions to pictures. Can an image be true? How, or when? What would it mean to make the claim? Are photographs propositions about the world, chunks of empirically verifiable fact? Or are they interpretations, filterings, fictions? If so, what sorts of intent—documentary, social activist, ‘merely’ aesthetic—must we associate with their making?

We are, I think, well past the first, unhelpful stages of this debate. I mean the stage where photography was thought guilty of a sort of double-distortion about truth. The criticism was based on a faulty original conception of the medium of photography, and went roughly this way: photography, while purporting to be a clear-paned window on reality—a simple snapshot rather than an image-was actually a fiction framed by choices, lighting and artifice. It distorts reality and then, worse, denies the distortion.

Photography isn’t merely subjectivity, but subjectivity masquerading as objectivity. The critic Alexander Cockburn sums up this view as part of a general indictment of photojournalism. “A photograph is by definition a moment seized from time, and the seizure can remove context in a way that might not be exactly unethical, but does damage the truth,” he writes. “Photography is almost always manipulative.” Despite its basic appeal, this view is rather naive, largely because it’s based on a crude understanding of truth and photography both: one truth, photography as manipulation thereof. At a more sophisticated philosophical level, we might want to say something rather different.

Photography is a medium, we say, and therefore not a window on the world, not even a mirror of it. It does not simply capture what is there, light held prisoner by the technological magic of shutter speed, exposure and photosensitive chemicals. Rather, like all media, photography is a symbolic system, a game of signification. The image is made, not found, and the making is inherently personal, rooted in prejudice. The important truth is to recognize and acknowledge bias openly, not least in the essential decisions around framing the image. “When a photograph is cropped,” says the philosopher Stanley Cavell, “the rest of the world is cut out. The implied presence of the rest of the world, and its explicit rejection, are as essential in the experience of a photograph as what it explicitly presents.”

This second-order view of photographic truth is compelling (and partially true) but it, too, is naive and ultimately misleading. The thinking in play here still relies on an unspoken, and unjustified, presupposition that there is a world out there, just one. This world is now not merely shown but interpreted in various subjective ways, yes; but its ante facto consistency—its reality outside the frame—is still assumed. Cavell claims, mistakenly, that a painting is a world, whereas a photograph is of the world. It makes sense, he says, to ask what is behind something in a photograph, but not in a painting. No. Once the photograph is taken, there is no more a behind in photography than there is in a painting. In other words, the deeper lesson about the truth in a photograph, even or especially in documentary form, is that there is no single world, indeed no world at all, absent in this particular image. Photographs are not multiple depictions of some single reality, waiting out there to be cornered and cropped, and somehow regulating, even in the cornering and cropping, how/what the image means. Rather, photographs offer multiple meanings. The presented image is not a reflection, or even an interpretation, of singular reality. It is, instead, the creation of a world.

2. Since the object of the photograph is never merely ‘waiting there’ for the image to be made, but rather comes to be what it is partly via the image, photographic meaning is never simple or, a fortiori, reducible to propositions. We make a mistake if we understand photography as coding of information, as a document that reports rather than reveals—even as a coding about the subjective intentions or prejudices of its maker. A picture isn’t worth a thousand words; it’s not even for sale in the word-market.

That is why the best way to consider the truth in images is to see images not as documents but as gestures within a larger play of signs; that is, as tokens of semiotic exchange. Meaning, not truth, is actually the compelling question here, but we cannot see that except as an investigation of our desires about truth.

Images are not mere visual signs in a simple economy of exchanged representations, then; nor are they even simple symbols in the way that a red rose conventionally symbolizes love. Rather, images are moves in a supercharged visual-cultural system of layered meanings, the surrounding welter of eye-tilling noise with bits of now-and-then revolving signals offering their powerful (and often misleading) stories about ‘how things are’ or ‘what makes sense.’ In many cases, these visual mythologies of the cultural surround are also self- erasing, in that their visual power simultaneously amplifies and obscures the clusters of meanings they support.

This play of figure and ground, of signal and noise, is part of any image’s existence. An image needs to find its meaning in a field that is, categorically, unstable. We might wish that there were an overarching theory of truth to sort the valid from the twisted, but there is—and can be—no such theory. Every image has to take its chances in the visual culture. Any image styled as ‘documentary’—a mere factual image, to use the old language—is particularly susceptible to this layered distortion because it allows a range of meanings without acknowledging that it does so. And so documentary images present, as in the case of Edward Burtynsky’s work, an especially acute problem of meaning-investigation. They are never merely informative, like a newspaper illustration, and yet their rootedness in real states of affairs is essential to their meaning. How can we ask after their truth without falling back into exploded truth-ideas and bankrupt epistemology?

American philosopher Charles S. Peirce’s distinction among indexical, symbolic and iconic signs is useful here. An indexical sign indicates it’s signified directly, as in the paradigm case by simply pointing to it. A fingerprint or a weathervane are also indexical signs: their meaning is coded by a direct reference, or pointing to the object in question (the person, the wind’s direction). A symbolic sign is one that signifies its object without resembling it in any way. Most natural languages are symbolic in this sense, as are, even more clearly, mathematical and logical languages. Twenty-six letters or nine digits and zero suffice to generate a potentially infinite number of meaningful moves in the symbolic-sign system. Iconic signs entail some resemblance of signifier to signified, but they do not reduce to any simple logic of correspondence. A figurative painting is iconic in this sense. So is a graph, whereby growth or velocity is indicated by an upward vector or implied volume.

Hexagonal stop signs or green lights are symbolic signs in Peirce’s sense but the red hand and walking man used in many pedestrian signals are iconic. Visual icons, including documentary images that compel attention beyond a newspaper spread, are both iconic and indexical: they exploit resemblance, and a trace of connection to the ‘original’ object, in order to celebrate that object, or to reinforce its meanings. Since the object found in the finished image is never merely ‘waiting there’ for the image to be made, but rather comes to be what it is partly via the images, these meanings cannot be simple or, a fortiori, simply reducible to mere propositions. We make a mistake if we understand iconography as the routine de-coding of information. To think that way is to succumb to the very naturalization of images, the general tangled field of visual culture, we must analyze. Image-icons must be investigated, instead, as nodes in a complex system of cultural self-regard and self-understanding: iconology, in other words, rather than just iconography.

And perhaps ‘self-understanding’ is also the wrong word here, since much of what fascinates us about the image is not understood, is relegated precisely to the level of taken-for-granted, “how things are.”

Iconography can, all too easily, become ideology. In consequence, our investigation must entail a special kind of refusal: a refusal to take the taken-for-granted for granted. It follows that the responsible image is the one that makes that refusal necessary, unavoidable, insistent. That is the truth in the image though perhaps not the truth we thought to find.

3. It follows, too, that the best documentary photographs, which is to say the most compelling and arresting ones, are therefore ontologically unstable. They seem, at first glance, to offer simply a record of ‘what was there.’ But they also manage to indicate just how contingent, and constructed, their revelation is. Though clearly the residue of choice and subjectivity, they spill beyond the chosen frame, indicating a series of relations with what lies outside the image: time, circumstance, events. The documentary is a special kind of fiction, a fiction predicated on an exploded concept of truth. Ed Burtynsky’s China photographs illustrate this instability vividly, and at scale. Earlier Burtynsky works were often more painterly in composition, using landscape conventions in composition, capturing ‘natural’ images of mountainside railway cuts or toxic-waste spills that were structured according to the Golden Section and classical disappearing-point perspective. In contrast, the newer works are less polished, more raw—and more unsettling. They retain the depth of aesthetic awareness that guides all of Burtynsky’s work, but appear to have a more straightforward, even insistent, intentionality. The viewer is swallowed up by them, no matter what dimension they employ, and there is always a small detail (a lone figure, a dab of color from a parked truck) that the eye finds, then cannot discard. Awareness revolves around the structuring power of the detail, and the works teeter back and forth between a pure aesthetic formalism and the informing realistic ends of photojournalism.

This instability in turn generates a familiar moral dilemma, itself a residue of larger truth-seeking, found in still darker forms in the work of Sebastião Salgado, James Nachtwey or Larry Clark. The moral issue is more and more central to Burtynsky’s work. How can we ‘see’ the social or political truth of the image when we are drawn to it primarily by its aesthetic power, its beauty? Are we distracted by gorgeousness, or seduced by it, such that the reality of the depicted scene is lost in transfiguration? In the case of earlier documentary masters, the issue was often raised as one of personal responsibility. Evidence suggests that Henri Cartier-Bresson staged his scenes of spontaneous emotion, that Walker Evans left on his contact sheets the images of smiling or laughing Okies and sharecroppers, preferring to highlight their grim visages instead. In war photography, the issues become even more pointed, extreme cases of what Cockburn calls “psychic hardening.” Can the image-maker stand by and record images of genocide or famine and not intervene, distanced by the lens and intentional concerns about light and composition? In a word, yes. Cockburn himself tells a story of a photojournalist in Northern Ireland, apprised of a hidden time-bomb in a public place, waiting, camera poised, for the detonation—and the resulting shots. Can a photographer, furthermore, simply capture images of evil and use them as a personal canvas, transforming tragedy into celebrity? Neither Nachtwey nor Salgado, in particular, resolved these questions satisfactorily, leaving viewers adrift in a pool of contradictory justifications and half-baked rationalizations even as they rose to celebrity-icon status themselves, riding a wave of documented human misery. (Salgado has lately explored a less troubling, or at least less clearly moral, subject: the Antarctic landscape.) Rivers’s participant-observer aesthetic sociology, meanwhile, while arguably more consistent and honorable in the treatment of drug addicts or delinquent teenagers, ultimately elides its own fragile distinctions, so that advocate or recorder is indistinguishable from voyeur or fetishist. For viewers, the pressing question remains one of response. What do we do when confronted by arresting images of profound human suffering?

Can we enjoy the beauty of the image when the scene offered is one of disaster or violence? The second-order argument that our discomfort with ourselves as we aestheticize human depravity is somehow instructive, begins to ring hollow when that discomfort has no outcome, generates no action. Photographer and viewer are soon joined in a complicity of stimulated inaction that is at best grotesque and at worst actively evil.

4. Burtynsky has, of course, faced similar charges. Even sympathetic critics have wondered, with some reason, whether his overwhelmingly haptic images are critiques of landscape degradation and the costs of technological fetishism, or merely glossy celebrations. Is he a crusader for sustainability or an unwitting purveyor of eco-porn? When we look at his celebrated images of industrial waste poisoning water supplies, for example, or the landscape-rapes of Italian quarrying and Indian ship-breaking, and are fetched by the unearthly colors of oxidized steel or toxic effluent, are we letting ourselves off the hook, entering into a kind of desecration, in its way just as bad as those offered by beautiful silver-gelatin faces of hunger or mangled limbs of genocide? What impact remains if, let us say—in what is in fact a true instance—a large image of environmental disaster is used as artistic decoration in the business-class departure lounge of a major North American airport?

At this point, though not via direct intention, the work has become inert or even disreputable in either or both of two sense: as mere wallpaper, the sort of well-meaning neutering liable to overtake any work via fashionable appropriation (a problem, let it be said, hardly unique to Burtynsky’s work); or also, and worse, as slyly doubled avoidance-ritual, such that a sop to environmental awareness is offered and then as quickly withdrawn, or set aside, by the work’s surrender to an existing logic of aesthetic appreciation.

These ethical tangles were already obvious in the gallery showings of Burtynsky’s pre-China work. One thinks here of the varied responses to the large, and moving, retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2003, where viewers were often divided, and sometimes strangely conjoined, by activist approval and aesthetic appreciation. But they are exacerbated by the dissemination, and assimilation, of the work into the larger world.

Outside the gallery setting, the works can slide too easily into the background visual culture, lose their impact, become mere ghosts of themselves.

There were, and are, no simple resolutions to these dilemmas; but some partial judgments can be offered, and some complicated truth-responsibilities outlined. Salgado in particular was guilty of what we might call “the paradox of the generic real.” In capturing images of misery drawn from various times and places, looking for common features or conditions, he managed instead to reduce them all to the same level of generality, and hence banality. Trying to go universal—if that was indeed the intent; it is not always clear—in this case only created useless particularity, divorced from its time and place. These were mere images, we might say, rather than world-making ones. Here, truth disappeared in the subjectively wielded camera, rather than being opened up by it.

There is no doubt that Burtynsky himself, though never a mere journalist of extremity, has grappled with these questions all along, and in recent years has shifted his position, or at least his emphasis, when it comes to such questions of responsibility. His newest works, and the discourse offered alongside them, strike a much more obvious political note; he has put his environmental-activist cards on the table. But the background instability has not been removed, only renewed. Indeed, the China works present new ways of grabbing our attention and unsetting our assumptions, in part because we are forced to confront the fact that we sometimes miss the obvious beauty of precedent works! In the images from the Three Gorges Dam Project, for example, there is less sense of clear formal composition and more apparently straightforward documentary intent.

And yet, the overall impact is still one of alchemical mixture, with aesthetic power and political awareness permeating and negotiating with each other—witness, in this regard, the eloquent play of color and scale in shots of a human river during a shift change at the Yuyaun Shoe Factory or the pink and white bleakness of a Factory Worker Dormitory in Dongguan.

The result is a fascinating confusion. We cannot finally decide what the image is up to, what its purpose is. We can’t decide, perhaps, what we want from the image! And this is not necessarily a failing, not because mere confusion is somehow independently interesting, an end in itself, as those earlier celebrity documentarians suggested, but because it generates, let us say dialectically, new insights about our relations to technology, to beauty, to production and consumption. To the logic of excess.

I think here, inevitably, of the first work of Burtynsky’s I ever saw, an image of a automotive tire graveyard that dates from 2002 and which, when I saw it, I did not know was his work. From the first, your eye is drawn by principles of classical composition— here deployed by a master-photographer’s framing skill—to a point roughly in the lower centre left. There it focuses on individual tires. You think: what is a tire? A circle, a ring, a sort of automotive platelet or wafer. A token.

But then the background crowds in, the rest of the tires flow together and now swim around the focal point and beyond, flooding the frame. Your eye sac cades up and to the left, up and to the left, to the weird diamond oasis of color and detail in the tractor-trailer, but there is no relief there. So many tires! So many wheels! The numberless cars and SUVs which bore them form up in a mental convoy, sucking back their discarded rings of rubber, plotting the arc from use to discard. They are all here by implication, the vehicles, their rubber shoes now worn and tossed aside, replaced by new galoshes of the road. But not tossed aside just anywhere: gathered together here, concentrated, in a landscape of depletion and rejection. The plenitude of discard, these vast concentrated remnants of wear.

And now the too-muchness floods not just the frame but the mind: excess, to go beyond, always beyond. The ceaseless cycles of production and consumption, the never-ending movement of the vehicles along their ribbons of highway, rolling their tires as the rubber meets the road and combustion becomes friction and we move. It does not stop, the never-ending cycle, it just deposits its black rings of waste here in this eerie meadow of steel-belted, galvanized nothingness. Use and discard, use and discard. You might set the world aflame here and it would burn, slowly and noxiously, for weeks and months. You might take one circle and, filled with another petroleum by-product, use it as an especially nasty means of torture and execution.

What you cannot do is return these circles, these sooty tokens, to the earth from which they came. They create their own world, our world, our rolling global machine of use, our abundant wasteland. The China photographs, labeled scenes of the next industrial revolution, actually reveal the latent truths of the first one, our past by way of the future. I mean the underlying logic of decay, the way things break down. At their best, these are essays in entropy, at once beautiful and harrowing. We confront, over and over, the truth of technology which technology typically keeps hidden, or ignores, namely the twinned logic of possibility and negation. Here we are made to see the internal necessity of waste, the mechanical body sloughing off its dead skin cells and inert hair in the form of obsolete diodes and printed circuit boards. Megaproject-blocking cities are erased, scrubbed from the earth. Old concrete is crumbled and piled into archaeological mantles of disuse. This is not experienced as a narrative of justified progress, of the dangerous or useless old supplanted by the new; rather, it is enacted as a kind of Sisyphean farce, brutal and meaningless, constant repetition of theme with a change only in the specific materials, like a bleak version of Theseus’s ship, planks and gunwales constantly replaced without altering the basic template. At the same time as the destruction and waste, then, there are impressive and unnerving scenes of production, the sleek and sometimes oppressive order of vast factory spaces and assembly floors, the ranged and serried ranks of workers, worker housing, work stations, work clothes.

The vast engine of the Chinese labor force, the billion-strong population that keeps this economy booming at a rate that during the first part of the new century, regularly topped ten-per-cent growth rates—in turn prompting worries that the Chinese economic machine was overheated and needed cooling Though there are an estimated 100.000 millionaires in China, the strange new super-elite of what can only be called command-structure hypercapitalism, personal income levels across the population are only where Japan was in the 1950s. If Chinese production taps into Chinese consumption, creating a new middle-class market for goods and services now mostly offered for sale offshore, another two decades of two-figure growth is possible. At the same time, many analysts both in China and elsewhere caution, in the mixed metaphors so typical of economic punditry, that the country’s economy must at all costs avoid a hard landing: the big crash that always follows inflation, in what is as close to an iron law of determinism as the latter-day theology of markets will produce. At the moment of writing, this outcome has not yet arrived, but neither has growth significantly slowed. Burtynsky’s treatments of China are therefore poised at a moment of alarming perplexity: how high can it all go before something comes crashing down?

This inescapable trajectory of production and decay finds ample illustration everywhere in the unnerving techno-feudalism of 21st-century China. Shanghai’s science-fictional skyline, for example, with its overwhelming jumble of architectural styles and scales, is particularly resonant. The mix-and-match stylistic exuberance of Shanghai’s architectural boom sits on a foundation of routine human suffering and poverty, the stink and dirt of its always crowded streets. Beijing’s newly favored showcase to the West, the city is a palimpsest of histories and self-images, an exhausting exercise in central-command economics and the open-secret capitalism of Red China. Meanwhile, as Burtynsky’s extensively documented travels show, there is an unearthly infrastructural economy of obliteration: outmoded industrial-age factories are swiftly abandoned and dismantled, their sites leveled, and the old enterprises immediately replaced by new apartment buildings or cutting-edge production facilities. The new economic realities obvious here are hinted at, sometimes lamented, sometimes admired, in the range of this work.

5. Every photographer, indeed every photograph, creates singular conditions of judgment. Not multiple relative truths, but specific demands of what truths will be seen here. That is one reason there is never enough space to say everything that needs saying about photography’s truth.

We might say this little more, though. The truth of the image is the truth of time: not its metaphysical essence, whatever that might be, but its presence; its inescapability. A photograph, I want to say, is a machine for making worlds. The background lies here-the belief that the image delivers to me a captured slice of the world ‘as it really is’—actually works to open up a different, foreground truth: that time and light are how we make our worlds.

Responsible work is in the service of the world a photograph gives. Documentary photographers, at their best, unfold both the truth of a time and place and the truth that there is no general truth, and hence no single world, out there. The alleged double-distortion of before becomes, on more careful analysis, a double revelation: of circumstance, and of our troubled relationship to circumstance. Otherwise known as mortality.

To be sure, some documentary photographs have, historically, demanded an active response, not just (though it is never really ‘just’) the contemplation of the image. Indeed, the value of certain celebrated works of photographic revelation—Walker Evans’s Appalachian families, Lewis Hine’s underage workers—lies to some large degree in the social awareness they create, even the political changes they wrought in housing relief or labor conditions. Burtynsky’s images of ship-breaking in Bangladesh have prompted, or anyway supplemented, similar environmental interventions.

And yet in a kind of post-social moment, a sort of neo-aesthetic loop, these images are often swallowed up by the forces of general cultural mythology, and so rendered inert. The same process afflicts Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, so relentlessly celebrated for its formal beauty—as if the subject matter were of no importance, to him or us. Whether reduced to postcard fodder or elevated by high-level art exhibition, such images perversely become, we might say, mere icons, romanticized and nostalgic, empty gestures of ‘noble labor’ or ‘sturdy poverty.’

These layered effects cannot be predicted, and so the positive ones cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, we must go further: they cannot be actively sought. That, after all, is propaganda. Aesthetic integrity is not a superfluous addition to the document but an a priori function, a condition of possibility. The final truth of the responsible image—the specific rather than generic real—is that it can serve no purpose other than being. After that, if s up to us.


Mark Kingwell received his PhD from Yale University in 1991 and is now Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is the author of eight books that address philosophical issues in politics and culture, including The World We Want (2000), Practical Judgments (2002), and Nothing for Granted (200S). In addition to publishing in many leading scholarly journals, he has written for a wide array of mainstream publications, among them the New York Times Magazine. Adbusters, Utne Reader and Harper’s Magazine, where he is a contributing editor. His major awards include the Spitz Prize for political theory (1996) and the National Magazine Award for essay-writing (2002); in 2000, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts by the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design for contributions to theory and criticism. Mark Kingwell has held visiting posts at Cambridge University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the City University of New York, where he was Weissman Distinguished Professor of Humanities. He is currently at work on a study of the Empire State Building, and a book examining how cities shape consciousness.



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