MS 190: Authorship is the course website for the Fall 2006 Media Studies senior seminar at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
Revised Thesis Proposal
I just realized that it's been a while since I've posted anything relating to my thesis on the blog, even though I've been working on it a LOT lately (as we all have, I'm sure, given last week's deadline). Here's my revised proposal. Congrats to everyone on all the work you've done this semester... it's been really interesting to hear about how far you've all come.
::: BEGIN REVISED THESIS PROPOSAL :::
"Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato's cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth."
-Susan Sontag, On Photography
In my senior thesis, I plan to explore and examine the evolution of photographic truth, a concept that has intrigued and influenced theorists, artists, photojournalists, and the general public since the time of this medium's invention. I became interested in this topic as a junior while taking a class on the history of photography with Professor Kathleen Howe. For my final project in the course, I created a digital exhibit called "Contesting the Myth of Photographic Truth," which featured about 40 images dating from 1839 to 2004. Through this exhibit, I wanted to illustrate the longstanding power of photography as a tool of deception and counter the popular notion of the photograph as "an unmediated copy of the real world, a trace of reality skimmed off the very surface of life" (Sturken and Cartwright 17). Pictures have been altered since the nineteenth century, but the proliferation of digital image-editing software has made manipulation more efficient, convincing, and widespread than ever. As a result, people know that photographs have the ability to deceive--yet in spite of this knowledge, they still perceive photographs as unadulterated depictions of reality. This phenomenon, mentioned in a number of theoretical texts, strikes me as an interesting contradiction. If we realize that photographs can lie, why do we still believe them?
Because of my interest in media studies and art history, I want to investigate the theoretical and historical background of photographic truth in depth, but I also want to verify what I have read and find a potential explanation for the aforementioned paradox. To do this, I have taken advantage of the Media Studies Program's interdisciplinary nature and incorporated another field into my thesis research: psychology. I came to this decision because the more I read, the more I realized that writers make a lot of assumptions about the notion of photographic truth without any data to support their assertions. It seems ironic that theorists criticize photography's incompetence as a form of proof or evidence without any substantial proof or evidence for their own claims. To avoid falling into this pattern, I have decided to design and conduct a psychological experiment to test how people perceive the truth status of photographs.
Because my background in psychology is limited (I have only taken two courses in the field while at Pomona, and both were during my sophomore year), I have consulted with Professor Banks, who teaches Perception & Cognition in the Psychology Department. He gave me information about past experiments on different topics that provide appropriate models for my own investigation. After I designed my study, he granted it approval as a valid and ethical form of research. For the purposes of this experiment, I will use images from the photojournalistic and documentary traditions, not only because of their dominance in the mass media, but also because of their unrelenting associations with truth and reality. I am excited about incorporating psychological methods into my thesis, but I want to stay true to the fields of media studies and art history by theorizing about my experiment, its results, and its ramifications in the context of these two disciplines. By pioneering a psychological study about people's perceptions of photographic truth, I hope to inspire other researchers to explore practical methods for confirming theories about this subject. I believe that media studies and art history will benefit from this type of discourse, since it has the potential to confirm and explain a phenomenon that has been theorized about for over 150 years.
With regards to the structure of the thesis, I plan to organize my paper into three chapters. The first of these will contain a detailed investigation of the theoretical background surrounding the subject of photographic truth. My sources will include direct accounts from photography's early years, when the medium was hailed as "the pencil of nature" (featuring quotations from Daguerre and Fox Talbot, the inventors of photography, and possibly including descriptions from Samuel Morse, Edgar Allan Poe, and Baudelaire), theories written by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag not long before the digital age (in Camera Lucida and On Photography, respectively), and recent publications that focus on truth in computer imaging (by writers such as Fred Ritchin, Andy Grundberg, and William J. Mitchell). I have begun researching and drafting this chapter, but it will undoubtedly evolve, grow, and improve. At the moment, I have yet to obtain and incorporate a number of crucial texts, including William J. Mitchell's The Reconfigured Eye, Andy Grundberg's Crisis of the Real: Writings on Photography Since 1974, Alan Trachtenberg's Classic Essays on Photography, and John Berger's Ways of Seeing. I am in the process of ordering them, and I will receive them over winter break, at which point I will read them and tie them into my research.
My second chapter will focus on the psychological experiment. I plan to model this section after the format that the American Psychological Association (APA) has designed for publishable psychology reports. In accordance with the APA's guidelines, I will outline the materials, procedure, and results of my experiment in detail. I also plan to supplement my report with images, charts, and tables to make the concepts more accessible, especially since my study is image-based. To conclude the second chapter, I will discuss the experiment's outcome and implications, along with its limitations in order to make suggestions for further research on the subject of photographic truth.
In the third chapter, I will apply the findings of my psychological study to current issues surrounding the ways that people perceive images. This section has the potential to go in two different directions, depending on what I conclude from the results of my experiment. If my study indicates that people still trust photographs, despite their knowledge of the medium's deceptiveness (as theorists tend to argue), I will write about the importance of increasing visual literacy through education. If my study indicates that people are overwhelmingly skeptical about the authenticity of images, I would like to explore the ramifications of this within the fields of photojournalism and documentary photography, which draw their force from their associations with the truth.
At the moment, I have explored some of the theory behind my topic and designed my psychological study. Over winter break, I will continue researching and writing my first chapter, which I hope to complete before I return in January. At the start of the spring semester, I will transfer my experiment from PowerPoint to a program called SuperLab 4.0, which I will access through Pomona's Psychology Department. SuperLab will allow me to program my study with commands that will convert my participants' responses into a spreadsheet of statistics. I intend to get the study up and running before the end of January. By the end of February, I hope to have had at least 30 participants complete the experiment. At that point, I will process the data and analyze the results, which will feed into the second and third chapter of my thesis.
::: END REVISED THESIS PROPOSAL :::