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LYING TO TELL THE TRUTH   Leave a comment

Truth — or rather, expressing the truth is such a slippery thing.

"Women's Toilet" from Felice Beato's "Views of Japan" on view at the Getty Center © The J Paul Getty Trust -- also accessible on-line

When I was writing  my review of “Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road” at the Getty Center, I ended up  looking at lots of 19th-century photographs.   What struck me was how some resorted to lying in order to tell the truth.  Is the woman in Beato’s “Women’s Toilet” really shampooing the other one’s hair?  Probably not.  Did Beato really happen upon a courtyard filled with the bones of Indians slaughtered by British troops?   Definitely not.  By the time Beato got to Lucknow, the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857 had been over for months.   These are bones Beato had  disinterred and scattered (much the way Roger Fenton in Crimea moved cannon balls in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, though just which way he moved them may still be up for discussion).  All of which makes you suspect that Beato might have rearranged some of the corpses he photographed during the Second Opium War in China — you know, the way Alexander Gardner later did during the Civil War.

So the question is: would Beato’s photographs have conveyed more “truth” had the Japanese women not frozen in position? had the site of a slaughter been barren? had the faces of killed soldiers not faced the camera, proclaiming to the lens that they were dead?

"Interior of the Secundrabagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels," Felice Beato, Lucknow, British India 1858 (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Partial gift from the Wilson Centre for Photography)

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