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"Reality and Truth" by Peter Durant
By Hilary Barton
Posted: 2023-01-17T23:00:00Z

Peter started by summarising his whole talk on "Reality and the context of Photography" by stating that:

"As you look at a photographic image it is telling you who you are.

How it speaks to you is how you are speaking to yourself.

It is exercising your ideology, your value system, that set of values and ideas that are with you at this moment of contact with the image...

An exploration of TRUTH & REALITY is an exploration of IDEOLOGY"

The rest of the talk was examples, illustrations and stimulation to help us to internalise and remember this message, which he structured around "three caves of desire".

The first cave was a real cave in Northern Spain in which our ancestors left hand prints 40,000 years ago.

Peter saw these hand prints as contact prints, the equivalent of a personal portrait recording a particular individual's presence in a specific time and place. As an accurate, mechanical record it has similarities with a photograph.

The second cave, 36,000 years later, was man-made, an Egyptian tomb:

The images in these tombs, such as the solid gold portrait head of Tutankhamun are testament to a belief system addressing existential anxieties. The Egyptians loved life so much that they devised a system to prolong it for eternity.

The Egyptians loved silhouettes and this was the preferred form of personal depiction for centuries, for example, on Greek vases. Jumping to the 18th century, artists would trace silhouettes from shadows in order to draw faithful portraits. Eventually more sophisticated tracing machines were developed. The presence of the subject and the mechanical nature of the procedure gave the subject a truth and authenticity. It was a short step from this to photography where the image could be fixed chemically. Photography inherited the idea that images were true and authentic, despite the fact that the first hoax image was created only one year after the first photograph. Fox Talbert popularised the idea that nature was drawing itself and therefore the images could be trusted. The first photograph was printed in a newspaper about 40 years later and the caption emphasized that the image was "direct from nature".

Despite a widespread belief in the "truth" of photographs, the 20th century abounds with images doctored for political and ideological purposes, from politicians air-brushed out of Societ propoganda photographs, to John Heartfield's multiple images showing, for example, Hitler accepting money from German capitalists.

The frame is a whole subject in itself, where the frame isolates a part of the scene in order to impose some meaning onto a chaotic scene. This approach is helped by the human tendency to see a photograph as a window on the world. We should be warned by the phrase "you have been framed" to realise that a frame can create a false relationship and imply associations that are not true.

The third and final cave is Plato's Cave, which is the one between your ears. If you want to understand more about this, Wikipedia has a good article. In essence it argues that it is impossible to know whether what you are seeing is reality or an illusion, and that struggling to see the truth can be dangerous and unwelcome to many.

Peter suggested a contemporary version of Plato's Cave, where the recent rapid growth of social media has revealed how flawed, fragile and easily manipulated are our ideologies and certainties. Ideologies offer subjective certainties masked as objective truths or realities.

Just as in the previous two caves, photographic images are taken as tangible evidence of our existence. They have moved from being a window on the world to being a mirror of our own psychology, our own special truth and personal reality.

We should each examine why we react as we do, in order to guard against thoughts driven by desire. We should explore where our values and ideas come from in order to change them. He suggested that we should do the opposite of what our instincts are telling us and seek a silence from the constant chatter in our brains in order to listen to a deeper truth. Peter believes in what he called spontaneity, the on-going moment. We should fill the now to make it the best moment of our lives, because that is all there is.

Peter Durant by Paul Shelley

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