Proof Reading: Tracing the history of evidential photography

What do photographs of 9/11, burnt filing cabinets and a police line-up all have in common?
They are all compelling records that uncover revealing evidence.
Since it’s invention, photography’s claims of truth and scientific objectivity have long furnished the photograph as the primary tool of evidence.
From crime scenes, zoological specimens, lunar and space exploration, to family holidays and  atrocities taking place on the global stage, the photograph has been used as ‘proof’. Any contemporary artist using photography has to accept the evidential language embedded in the medium.

September 11th, New York, NY 2001 © Melanie Einzig
As Susan Sontag mused in her seminal On Photography, “something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it.”
The picture may distort, but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in a photograph.
Mexico City, ca. 1970. The murder weapon! A jealous husband shot his wife and then her lover. I included the shadow; it reminded me of scenes in gangster movies. © Enrique Metinides
Central to the new exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery are these themes. The Image as Question: An exploration of evidential photography, explores the long held fascination with all photography as a medium firmly grounded in the documentary tradition – how the camera record justifies, and how it incriminates.
Cheat, the faculty of journalism of Moscow State University, 1984 © Valery Khristoforov
The exhibition is unconventional in the sense that it places images never intended for contemplative viewing on the gallery wall. Many of the images were originally taken to provide empirical evidence of a theory or record of an event. Dislocated from their original context and distanced by time, they do not so much provide an answer, rather question the viewer afresh.
One of a pair of American Police Identity line-up photographs, 1/5/1933 (with and without hats) Unknown Photographer
All these images were made to illustrate a fact. The identity of a face, the location of a cell, the shape of a skull as confirmation of evolution, the coaxial lighting down a gun to show the twist of the barrel. All these images were made to illustrate a fact – all required to prove a point, solve a mystery or simply to inform with clarity.
Burnt filing cabinets, Iraqi National Archives, Baghdad, April, 2003 © Simon Norfolk
Though seemingly disparate in subject matter, the photographs exhibited share a weightiness and gravitas that emanates from their documentary function.
From the works of scientist Etienne-Jules Marey and artist Alfredo Jaar, Man Ray and Francis Bacon, to daguerreotypist Takashi Arai and fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, the exhibition encompasses a myriad of different images and contemporary works of art from some of the most visionary image-makers of the 19th and 20th century.
Plutario Fassi (1901-) and Fausto Manfredi (1904-) burgled the Comptoir Lyon-Allemand in November 1933 by drilling into the ceiling. Theft by an anarchist pair. Unknown Photographer
“It was a long ongoing process over a period of 12 years” says Michael Hoppen on the project. “We started looking for material in all areas of science, maths, crime, war and astronomy, each image needed to contain some kind of ‘proof’ whether erroneous or not, with much of the images appearing to be not quite what they seem.”
The Image as Question: An exploration of evidential photography is open 28 September – 26 November 2016 at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, London. For more information, go here.

Charlotte Harding

Charlotte Harding was born in London and studied Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths’ College. She has written for the British Journal of Photography since 2014 and writes about art and culture for a variety of publications.