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How "real" are photographs? As an important new show suggests, this may be a question best answered by tearing them up

By Ben Lewis   June 2009

Maurizio Anzeri, Priscilla, 1940-2008, from the series Second Hand Portrait

Since the 1980s, discussions about photography have been bogged down in the concept of “the real,” the most meaningless term in the art theorists’ lexicon. In effect this has divided up photography into two camps. Photography’s claim to show reality—otherwise known, usually in inverted commas, as “objective truth”—is posited against the various ways in which the camera and photographer alter reality by taking photographs. On the one side are the photojournalists, guided by Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the “decisive moment,” which was his definition of the way a good photographer…

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