Photography: Fact And/Or Fiction?

An Essay by Barry Salzman


Much of the musing on photography is based on the origins of the medium, which are founded on realism, rendering photography (at least pre-digital) as fictionally incompetent. There are naturally those that disagree. In this short essay, I conclude that photography, by its very nature, exists on a continuum between fiction and non-fiction. Most photographs are neither and are both. As with all continua, by definition, an infinitesimal number of data points relative to the total universe exist at either extreme or precisely at the midpoint. Most exist somewhere in between, falling on one side or the other of the midpoint. I believe photography and all photographs fit this same distribution between fiction and non-fiction.

At the pure non-fiction extreme, I posit that the photograph never escapes at least some element of subjectivity and manipulation, even if it is simply where the photographer chooses to place the camera. The photographer is making decisions at every moment that affect the aesthetics, composition and information contained in the image. At the pure fiction extreme, there remains an element, however slight of indexicality; the thing that the image refers to is still at least partially recognizable. In instances where there is no referent, where the image has been digitally manipulated to such an extent that nothing visible looks like anything we know or can relate to, I would argue that we have moved from photography into another digital art or communication medium.

The Photograph as Fictionally Competent or Incompetent

The relation between a photograph and reality has been the focus of much of the writing on photography since the medium came into being. This is understandable given the predominantly realistic view of photography taken by most writers and philosophers. Susan Sontag in On Photography defines the photograph as a ‘trace’ of reality (the major caveat, beyond the scope of this paper, being the implied belief that reality is a given external entity that exists outside of the individual). She writes that photography is “never less than the registering of an emanation, a material vestige of its subject.” As a logical extension of this definition and others similar to it, there are those that argue that photography can never be fictional, since it relies on a causal relationship between photograph and subject in terms of both the chemical processes by which photographs are made and the choice of subject matter which relies on a particular real existing object or thing.

Arguing against this view of the photograph as fictionally incompetent are those who make the case for fiction based on the use of the photograph. While generally agreed that it is a photograph of the subject, one case for fiction is that the photograph can be used to represent somebody else. Defenders of the photograph as reality, however, may argue that it is the subject in the photograph that is representing somebody else not the photograph itself, which is merely disseminating a visual image to the audience.

It is therefore important to go further in arguing against the photograph as fictionally incompetent. Paloma Atencia-Linares challenges the definition of “photographic means” to make the case. Obviously fictional characters, places or entities cannot reflect or emit light to initiate the chemical process of making a photograph, but Atencia-Linares argues that the conception of the photographic process can, and in fact must, go beyond the exposing of light sensitive material in order to make the latent image visible and tangible. These further processes in the making of a photograph can vary significantly, but where they still rely on the exploiting, manipulating and controlling of light, she argues they are still an integral part of the “photographic means”. It is through these further processes that the photograph can, and often does, represent ficta and fictive events. Examples include multiple exposures, dodging and burning, and compositing, all part of the processes of controlling and manipulating light that can have materially different outcomes determining where on the continuum between fiction and nonfiction a given photograph may fall. In an age of infinite digital manipulation the delineating line I would draw in defining “photographic means” is determined by whether the digital processes could reasonably have been performed in a darkroom by manipulating light (since many of the tools and functions in Photoshop and other imaging software are based on what photographers had been doing in the darkroom for decades). If so, I would argue they continue to fall under the Atencia-Lenares definition of “photographic means”. If not, the image in question ceases to be a photograph and we are in fact then talking about another medium defined by its digital attributes and capabilities.

Art Approximates Life

Document and Narrative (or staged photography) are two genres of classification often used in the discussion and classification of art photography today. They align loosely with nonfiction and fiction respectively. While the word ‘document’ is almost synonymous with photography itself for the reasons of indexicality and referentiality I have already mentioned, the term is more broadly used and understood in contemporary art photography where many artists comment on how the document functions and how people respond to it, while often undermining the purported “truth” inherent in photography. Others approach documentary photography from curatorial, archival or anthropological starting points, sometimes drawing on text and image sources to draw a broader picture, because of their skepticism of the single image’s ability to explain the intricacies of their subject matter. Those traditionally associated with the documentary genre are photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans from the 1930s and 1940s and extend to Nan Goldin’s diaristic work from the 1980s and beyond. Larry Sultan’s work The Valley looks at the blurring lines between fantasy and reality, while Martin Parr’s social documentary is infused with humor. Sophie Calle investigates the role of the photographic document in her work, and how it functions as something both personal and artistic and the blurring between what is public and what is private. If there is a recurrent theme in the work of artists working in this genre and the critics and historians that write about it, it revolves around the word “blurring” of lines or boundaries. On the other hand, the genre of “narrative” or “staged photograph” has become most synonymous with contemporary art and includes the work of artists like Gregory Crewdson, Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Bill Henson, Tracy Moffatt and the Russian collective AES&F.

These distinctions are in fact quite cursory. The ongoing intrigue with photography in academic study and the challenges it presents are, in part driven by the fact that it defies any simple classification system, largely because of its many and varied uses. In art, as in life, there are no clear lines, distinctly red lines or truly bright lines. The world of art photography is no different from the world of photography, which is a good proxy for the world itself.


The question of fiction and/or nonfiction is pervasive across most of photography’s varied uses, particularly because photography has often been accorded the status of medium of truth, of evidence, and of fact (at least in the pre-digital era). However, the real fact is that photography has been a medium synonymous with manipulation since its beginnings over 150 years ago, as illustrated with numerous examples from Mia Fineman in "Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop" a 2012/2013 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She points to manual coloration of images and Gustave Le Gray’s use of separate cloud negatives to complete his seascapes in the 19th century, just a few decades after the birth of photography. In fact, the photograph widely acknowledged to be the first of a human, Boulevard Du Temple by Daguerre, can be considered a manipulation in that it shows a man getting his shoes shined on a street which appears to be emptied of people and vehicles because of the 10 minute exposure time.

Today’s digital revolution and the ubiquity of technology tools have only served to make consumers and viewers more aware, more skeptical and more educated about the coexistence of photography with manipulation. Given this irrefutable, but codependent and often uncomfortable partnership, but still honoring the realist origins of the photograph (both literally and figuratively), it is impossible to place photography, and perhaps any photograph, into the neat categories of fiction or non-fiction. It is both. And that was not changed by the digital revolution of the past two or three decades. The digitization of photography, while perceived to move photography from reality into the realm of fiction, has really not changed the notion of truth in photography very much at all.


1. Paolo Atencia-Linares, Fiction, Nonfiction and Deceptive Photographic Representation, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism Volume 70, Issue 1, Winter 2012.

2. Susan Bright, Art Photography Now (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2005)

3. Mia Fineman, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art, 2012)

4. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Delta, 1978), p.15.