In the early 1800s, Napoleon decided to document his ascension to the role of “Supreme Leader of the World” by commissioning the painter Jacques-Louis David to produce a work titled The Coronation of Napoleon. It was to be a celebration of the coming to power and superior rule of Napoleon, a glorious moment to be revered by all. It’s a stunning and monumental painting (measuring twenty by thirty-two feet). I’ve stood in front of it and considered its composition for quite some time. What intrigues me about it is how it stands as a historical document of a moment in real world history, and yet it is full of lies.
For a starter, the artist painted himself into the balcony as an observer even though he wasn’t there. One might forgive this whimsical bit of deception as an artistic liberty. But the deception doesn’t end there. The painting also depicts Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, who due to an argument with Napoleon chose not to attend the coronation. Napoleon’s mother also refused to attend, but can still be found in the painting. Unlike these family members, Pope Pius VII was in attendance. But Napoleon directed Jaques-Louis David to paint the Pope anointing the coronation even though history indicates that the Pope was only present to maintain a fragile relationship between the Church and State.
The painting itself is quite beautiful, and its scale is powerful. It’s also almost all we have as a visual document of this event, and paintings have long served as some sort of record of events, slightly idealized for sure, but still representative of a given moment in history. But it’s a lie. This is, of course, to be expected due to the very nature of the medium. And the words “artistic license” must have come from somewhere, right?
Then photography came along and we were given a device that could be trained upon a scene or event and capture it in pure and unadulterated form for posterity. A camera was a device to be used to precisely document reality. It only captured what it saw, nothing more, and nothing less. Not long after the invention of photography the lies began.
The original acts of fakery are well documented, one of the earliest photographic misrepresentations being a picture taken in 1840 by a man named Hippolyte Bayard who staged a scene of a drowned man and captured it with his camera. It turns out that the supposedly dead man in the photo was the very much alive photographer himself. While the photograph is real, the story behind it isn’t.
By 1860 we are given the somewhat famous example of an Abraham Lincoln portrait where a photograph of his face was reversed and “Photoshopped” onto an engraving of John Calhoun (used at the top of this article). It was presented as legitimate for almost a century before the lie was exposed. It took that long for someone to notice that Lincoln’s mole was on the wrong side of his face.
There’s the long-debated example in Robert Capa’s 1936 photograph of a Spanish soldier being shot on the side of a hill. That photograph won awards and has been universally praised as the most brilliant example of wartime photojournalism, purported to be shot at the exact moment of the death of the soldier, symbolic of the brutality of war and the real cost of life associated with it. Upon later careful examination of the mountains and hills in the background, the photograph appears to have been taken some thirty miles away from where the war was actually being fought, and is a photo of someone other than he who was purported to be in the photograph in the first place. And other photographs taken by Capa at the same time suggests that they were all probably posed and fake.
These are just the beginnings of the big lies in photography. We haven’t even gotten to Adobe and the software that’s made it easier than ever to make a photo lie. But it’s not these lies I want to discuss. It is the lies that photography tells day to day that I want to explore; the lies we happily embrace as our reality.
It starts with that ubiquitous photograph of a child sitting on Santa’s lap with excitement or fear reflected in the young child’s eyes as the lie of Santa’s true identity is betrayed by the obviously fake beard worn by a semi-retired man working at the mall for the holidays. The elastic bands wrapping around his ears to hold the beard in place can’t be hidden from the scrutinizing lens of the family camera. But we view it as a picture of Santa Claus. Even when the young child becomes a teenager or an adult, it’s still a photograph of the child on Santa’s lap, with no pretense about the reality of Santa Claus. There is only the suspension of reality and an unspoken truth, and when the photograph is reviewed years later, the lie has become reality; it is Santa Claus, no discussion. The myth of Santa Claus is often cited as the first lie we tell our children. It’s nice that we all have photographic proof.
Then there’s the photograph of me when I was sixteen years old sitting on the hood of my first car. To look at it now you would see youthfulness and potential, a cockiness afforded by lack of experience. When I show it to friends they marvel at how much more hair I had then, and there’s a whole lot of power existing in the nostalgia for a moment that, well, it never really existed. I was never as sure of myself as I appear to be in that photograph. The car was a 1976 Dodge Dart SE that cost me $250 and when one sees it in the photograph there is a longing for a car like that again, and “why did I sell it?” It was so cool, right? I look at that photograph now and I wish I was that thin again, and that I had that much hair again, and that my current car was that cool, but in consideration of the hormone-driven insecurities of that time, and the peer pressure, and the misunderstandings about love, well, I’m quite happy that it’s all behind me now. The photograph is a lie. And truth be told, it was a pretty shitty car.
I remember being in Paris and making my way to the Louvre to see all the stuff a person sees there, not the least of which is a small painting called the Mona Lisa. There are thousands of photographs of the Mona Lisa, all representations of the painting, doing what photographs are supposed to do, showing us an exact copy of a thing thus allowing us to experience it without being there. Even so, a photograph of a painting isn’t the actual painting, it is a lie told about the painting, and I wanted to see the Mona Lisa in person. I wanted my magical moment in front of the most important, most viewed, most valuable painting in the world. I wasn’t sure if it would live up to the hype, but there was only one way to find out.
I made my way through the Louvre, past many paintings of dead Jesuses hung on the walls, following the letter sized photocopied signs that had been taped up for the benefit of tourists in August, the pages stating clearly; “Mona Lisa” with an arrow pointing in one direction or another. I knew I was close as I entered a larger hall and was presented with the legendary double queue through velvet roped corrals and I could see the painting hanging on the wall behind glass that could purportedly stop bullets, the crowd kept a safe distance away. It was instantly recognizable from afar and I slowly moved towards it.
I joined the inner line of the double queue so I could be a bit closer to the painting, the tension building as the line moved along, and I recalled hearing all the stories about how beautiful the painting is in person, and how it’s smaller than you’d expect. I’ll tell you this much; it really is an incredible painting.
I slowed as I got closer and marveled at the subtlety of the tones, the honesty of that smile, THE smile, and though it was smaller than I thought it would be it felt bigger than all of Paris. My breathing slowed, I drifted into the eyes of the Mona Lisa, and my spirit started to leave the crowd as I became lost in the painting. It was one of those incredible moments when nothing else in the world matter. And then I felt it; WHACK! on my right shoulder. I instantly snapped back to reality and turned to see a pair of stout, italian grandmothers, one was holding the rolled up museum guide in her hand with which she had just hit me, the other was waving me out of the way because they couldn’t see the painting. As I shuffled a bit to the side, one grandmother held up a small digital camera, snapped a pic, and showed the preview to the other grandmother. They nodded in unison and moved on. I’m not sure grandma two even saw the Mona Lisa and I’m certain both of them looked at the preview on the little point-and-shoot longer than they did the actual painting.
And now they had their own little lie, their photographic proof they saw the Mona Lisa in person, even though it’s unlikely they actually saw it. And I’m okay with that. I hope they both ended up with a copy of the photograph and that they show it to friends and family and conversations are had about the smile, and how the eyes seem to follow you wherever you stand in the gallery, and the size of it, and how DaVinci never really considered it finished. They can do that, and I’ll keep showing people photographs of my first car and tell how amazing a 1976 Dodge Dart SE is. And it’ll all be lies. All big, fat, beautiful lies.
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Reality is often hard to reach.