Truth in Photographs

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There are many different philosophical theories of truth – pragmatism, coherence, realism, correspondence, language etc.

That said, it is indeed TRUE that there are many theories.

That is a truth in its own right, which we would all accept.

We also have generally accepted notions of truth – night follows day; one plus one equals two; the Moon orbits the Earth; iso/shutter speed/aperture operate reciprocally in the exposure of an image and so forth. Those can be considered pragmatic truths, often based on experience, deduction, scientific experiment or logical induction. There are, of course, many philosophical theories that cover these.

The problem occurs when we try to consider what is a ‘true’ image, or what is the ‘truth’ in an image. I believe that is partly because we are using different definitions ‘truth’ to the one that philosophers of logic use.

There are philosophers who tackled aesthetics and logic. Nelson Goodman wrote the seminal book ‘Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols’ in 1968. His core idea was that painting, music, dance etc. consists of a system of symbols with a formal language and with a grammar consisting of syntactic  and semantic rules.

We ‘read’ images with certain rules in mind, in other words. He also commented on musical notation, which gets translated and performed by an orchestra, as an example of ‘authentic correspondence’. i.e. the performance is ‘true’ to the score.

To quote the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy on Goodman:

‘Indeed, to Goodman, aesthetics is but a branch of epistemology. Paintings, sculptures, musical sonatas, dance pieces, etc. are all made of symbols, which possess different functions and bear different relations with the worlds they refer to. Hence, artworks require interpretation, and interpreting them amounts to understanding what they refer to, in which way, and within which systems of rules’.

Of course, in the case of music, different conductors provide nuance and finesse to deliver different feelings in the performance, even with the same basic notation. There’s an obvious photographic analogy here, I think.

A footnote of history: His work was the basis for my final year thesis back in the day (1972). I described a system which allowed an architect’s idea to become a sketch to become a detailed building plan to become an actual building. In other words, at different stages of the ‘reality’ of the architect’s idea, through to the real building, there were different rules to describe it’s ‘truth’.

I think this also applies to how we ‘read’ images’. There is a kind of hierarchy of thoughts that we go through, not necessarily in a fixed sequence. There are ‘rules’ we use.

Is this is true likeness of Mohammad? Is this likeness truer than that one? Is the composition a pleasing one? Is an impressionist painting of Mohammad as ‘true’ as a photograph, or less ‘true’? And on it goes.

My essential point is that we are all guilty, myself included, of being a bit fast and loose with words like ‘truth’ – when actually that word has different meanings in different contexts and to different users.

To add a little more piquancy, consider the Japanese notion of truth.  There are two, separate definitions. One is Honne (real, private truth) and the other is Tatemae (socially/publicly appropriate truth)

I have had to deal with this duality in Business, but never (until now) wondered if it also influences how Japanese Photographers and ‘everyday camera users’ consider imagery?

I wonder if we, in the West, do the same, without necessarily knowing it? Do we differentiate between ‘real’ truth and what is socially acceptable?


Goodman, Nelson. 1968. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 1976 Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Glanzberg, Michael. 2006. Truth. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (Ed.). Revised 2013. Available at: (Accessed 10/02/2018).

Giovannelli, Alessandro. 2005.Goodman’s Aesthetics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (Ed.). Revised 2017. Available at: (Accessed 11/02/2018).

Header image from AZ Quotes

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