Albrecht Durer’s Rhinoceros print from 1515 is one of the most influential animal images of all time. In Durer’s lifetime, 4-5,000 copies were probably sold. This was remarkable in a time when most people in Europe were illiterate. Some argue that, at the dawn of mass media, the demand for images like Durer’s may have outpaced that for texts.
The print was created to capitalize on the sensational appearance of the first live rhinoceros to be seen in Europe in nearly 1,000 years, a gift to the king of Portugal from an Indian sultan. For the majority of people across the continent, Durer’s print was the only opportunity they would ever have to see the exotic creature.
Notice anything off about Durer’s Rhinoceros? For comparison, here’s some photos of your average Joe (or Josephine)-rhino for comparison.
Did you notice that Durer’s rhinoceros’ body appears like it’s covered in rigid plates like armor? Or the scales on its legs? Or maybe that extra little horn on its back? A real Indian rhinoceros doesn’t have those characteristics. These inaccurate details might be due to the fact that Durer never actually saw the famous rhinoceros himself. Instead, he had to rely on a drawing created, ironically, by an artist unknown today.
For centuries, Durer’s rendition was taken to be a true representation of the rhinoceros, apparently even appearing in German science textbooks as late as 1930. Do you think Durer told his audience he had never actually seen a rhino? See that text at the top of the print? It’s an inscription which among other things states, “This is an accurate representation.” Instead of being upfront possible mistakes, Durer doubled-down by explicitly telling his unsuspecting audience his image represented the truth. Was the motive for Durer’s inaccuracy mere misunderstanding, creative embellishment, or an intentional fabrication to drive up sales?
Fortunately, people don’t get fooled so easily by pictures anymore...
While we’re talking about important animal images, let’s fast forward and look at a more contemporary example. Below is a photograph of a 49 meter long giant squid that washed up on a shore in Santa Monica, California a few years ago.
Giant squids such as the one pictured above were once considered more myth, imagined by sailors and fishers, reported to be capable of dragging entire ships beneath the water with ease.
Scientists now confirm that giant squids do exist. But not because of a photo like the one above. That photo is fake. Below are the original images that were edited together to trick the viewer.
Here are two photos of an actual giant squid that washed ashore in New Zealand.
Still impressive, but this squid is probably not going to be taking down the Nautilus anytime soon. Certainly not as dramatic in comparison to the previous photo. Here at the dawn of a new type of mass media known as social media, the creator of this super-sized squid image may have suspected that a more fantastic image would be more likely to go viral. In this case they were right as it gained enough attention to be debunked by National Georgraphic, a reputable naturalist magazine.
Would you call the person that made this image an “artist?” Why or why not? What do you think are is the motivation for the creator of a hoax image? Sometimes the 'creators of these images remain completely unknown and other times they are quickly forgotten. In some cases, the creators are able to profit from their images but that often requires denying their images are fake. Is it a desire for attention, a penchant for mischief, an enjoyment for manipulating others, a joke, guerrilla advertising, or just a quick buck? Is it harmless or harmful?
Consider these images - all hoaxes. Why do you think the creators made these hoax images? Would you consider the creators of these images “artists?” Why or why not? Are these images different from the giant squid hoax? Could any of these images have negative consequences? Do you think altering reality is an artistic goal? Would you ever create a hoax image? Why or why not?
Do you think artists have any responsibility to truth?"
Did you know that one of the first photos in history was a hoax? In the early 19th century, there was a rivalry between two pioneers, Louis Daguerre and Hippolyte Bayard. The former would eventually be called “the father of photography,” while the latter claimed to have actually invented photography. Bayard, after developing his photographic process, intended to share his discovery with the French Academy of Sciences. But Francois Arago, secretary of the academy, convinced Bayard to wait. In the meantime, Arago’s friend, Daguerre, was able to announce his own photographic process and thereby gained fame and riches. Bayard received the consolation of a small cash prize for equipment. Perhaps in anger or protest or self-pity, Bayard set up his camera and posed limp and lifelessly for a self-portrait in 1840 titled “Self Portrait as a Drowned Man.” He released the photo to the public with text claiming he had committed suicide due to his unfair treatment. It began, "The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you."
Bayard did not give up however and would continue to invent, going on to create the process of combination printing, a means of photo manipulation allowing the artist to create scenes that didn’t really exist by combining parts of different photo exposure. This process was the predecessor of the photomontage, a technique popularized in recent years by Photoshop, widely available photo editing software. An especially effective example of photomontage would be "Leap Into the Void," 1960, by artist Yves Klein.
The photo was published in a fake newspaper created by Klein called "Dimanche - Le Journal d'un Seul Jour," which translates to "Sunday - The Newspaper for Only One Day." The photo shows the artist apparently leaping from a roof and falling towards the street below, his arms outstretched and face seemingly elated, as if he believes he can fly, in stark contrast to the implications of gravity and the hard pavement below. The image seems to allude to popular notions of artists as 'free spirited' risk-takers, 'rebels' that defy the rules, or impractical dreamers. That seems contrasted with 'the tortured artist' archetype, or at least a tragic conclusion, as the viewer considers the harsh reality moments away for the plummeting artist. Unless, of course, you the viewer believes that people can fly.
Picasso famously said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Do you agree with Picasso? Do you think Yves Klein made a lie that makes us realize a truth? If so, what truth? Was Bayard lying to tell a truth also? Was Durer? Do you think this was an effective approach?
Does it make a difference that in each of these cases the creators wrote or said that they were really telling the truth? Do you think this was a necessary part of the illusion, like a magician claiming they are performing "real" magic, or are they just liars? Do you think they cared if anyone figured out the truth or not? If we reverse Picasso's quote, is it also possible to tell a lie with the truth? Can you think of an example?
Of course, the ability to manipulate photos is not only of interest to artists, the mischievous, and profiteers. When the powerful and political wish to manipulate the public, they too turn to technology. Similar techniques that allowed Klein to make his impossible image would also allow Stalin's oppressive regime to try to alter not just reality, but history, by erasing individuals from photos and documents in an attempt to eliminate not only dissent but the very existence of dissenters. Censors were able to make it as though they had never even been born. Would something like that still be possible today? What, if any, is the difference between Yves Klein's photomontage and the censored photos of the Stalinist Soviet Union?
Among artists one can easily find at least two camps of thought - luddites that reject technological advances in favor of more traditional media and techniques, and technophiles that experiment with the possibilities and challenges of new media and approaches. Interestingly, Klein seems somewhere between the two. On the one hand, Klein was using advances in photography to create his artwork. On the other hand, Klein apparently used the photo as demonstration of his outlandish claim that he could travel to the moon under his own power. He called the folks at NASA fools. Klein both used science to his advantage while simultaneously denouncing scientific progress represented by the space agency. How do you make sense of this apparent conflict? Is it common for people to maintain such contradictory views?
History, I would say, proved Klein the fool 9 years later in 1969 when American astronaut Neil Armstrong took a photograph of fellow astronaut 'Buzz' Aldrin standing on the surface of the moon - one of the most famous and important photographs in history. Ironically, today conspiracy theorists claim that the photos, as well as the entire moon landing, was a hoax. They're wrong.
Clearly we have some issues telling what is real and what is fake in our modern world. Indeed, we always have it seems. But while disbelief in this case might simply represent a fringe view, belief in conspiracies from 'flat earth' to 'chem trails' seems to be increasingly prevalent. Once this may have been due to lack of information but today we exist immersed in a glut of information. Like any human endeavor, technology is a double-edged sword. Fire can cook food, provide warmth, and illuminate the darkness. But fire can also burn, maim, and kill. The same advances in photography that allow for the creation of incredible and amazing images can also be used to manipulate and control.
Contemporary artist John Baldessari says, "If anybody believes a photgraph is telling the truth they are living in the dark ages." But is it really that simple? Dismissing all photos as untrue doesn't seem that much more helpful than claiming all photographs are true. This of course seems to be our post-postmodern dilemma - avoiding throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Is it possible to see with nuance?
What, if any, responsibility does the artist have for the images they create and their impact? What role should society and the government play when it comes to spread of false information, including images? What is our individual responsibility when it comes to being able to tell what is real and fake? What is our role as visual art teachers in ensuring that our students are media literate?
Join me in a couple weeks for Critical Looking - Part 2: The Future of Truth, where we'll continue to investigate these questions and more as we venture into the future of images and our role in media literacy. Thank you as always for reading!
I'll mostly be blogging about my experiences teaching. I teach a class online right now called Teaching K12 Art Online where I'll be exploring art online with art teachers. I also currently teach a (formerly?) face-to-face course called Visual Culture: Investigating Diversity & Social Justice which is an art, critical writing, and research course for undergrads. Before this, I taught a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where I was experimenting with cooperative & creative teaching integrating art and "going gradeless" with preservice early childhood education majors.