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January 28, 2010


Absolutely incorrect - the photograph IS reality, a frozen instant in time. It's the viewer's interpretation of the photograph that is not necessarily reality.

Are you sure about that, Adam? A photograph is an image recorded by a camera and reproduced on a sheet of paper or some other medium. The image is a visual representation of reality, but reality itself? I don't think so. After all, the photo I used as an example is black and white. Most of us see in color, so there alone we have an altered representation of reality. Even if we set that aside, how do you know I didn't use Photoshop to remove a distracting drain spout on the left side of the photo? Again, such an alteration wouldn't make the physical photograph (i.e. the print or the image on your display) any less real, but as a represention of reality it would be false.

You are under no obligation to agree with this explanation, of course. I only hope that it better explains my point of view.

Further ways that photographs diverge from reality occur when using a lens that any focal length that is not "normal." For example, a long telephoto shooting a distant object against a more-distant background will compress the distance between object and background giving the appearance that object is close to the background (there was a terrific shot of a baobab against a rock wall once in Outdoor Photographer illustrating this exact point, in reality they were very far apart). Likewise a very wide lens will enhance the apparent distance between objects that are different distances from the lens. An extreme wide angle lens will even bend straight lines, making architectural photography a real challenge.

Lenses often add color distortions that diverge from reality; their elements can cause starburst patterns when the sun is in the frame but partially behind an object and a narrow aperture is used; etc. There are plenty of ways that the camera/lens themselves present us with data prior to printing that already suggests facts about the scene that are not in alignment with objective reality.

Sight and experience are subjective, filtered through our minds and subtly altered from the objective reality that comprised the details we witnessed, and the same happens again when viewing a visual record of a scene. I strongly believe that all perception is subjective, and while we mostly agree on the overarching details the subtleties are probably entirely personal.

Good post, Gordon. You have my mind in full gear this morning and these thoughts are probably going to be with me all day. Thanks!

Umberto Eco wrote once: "The author should die once he has finished writing. So as not to trouble the path of the text." I've always thought this applies to artistic production in general. And to photography, of course.

That's a very poetic image, Frank. I'm not too keen on dying after I finish printing a photograph though. I suspect that sort of outcome would tend to diminish interest in photography as an artistic endeavor.

Your post reminds of that shot of the photographer at the grand canyon jumping from one location to another. It looked like a leap over a great fall. A ledge a few feet down wasn't in frame. When I first saw it I thought, 'that guy is crazy' but of course, the picture was not the whole story.

Good article. Speaks to the issue of it being all in the eye of the beholder...
BTW, per Frank M.'s post, Yukio Mishima committed seppuku upon completion of his tetralogy.

Interesting that I saw your excellent article this morning, having just read the original 1938 essay by Lincoln Kirstein that accompanied Walker Evans's American Photographs. Here's something Kirstein said: "The candid-camera is the greatest liar in the photographic family, shaming the patient hand-retoucher as an innocent fibber. The candid-camera with its great pretensions to accuracy, its promise of sensational truth, its visions of clipped disaster, presents an inversion of truth, a kind of accidental revelation which does far more to hide the real fact of what is going on than to explode it."

--Marc Rochkind

Reference our earlier exchange above.

Ya know, Gordon, this reality discussion is highly philosophical, and if carried far enough it will eventually reach the point where the conclusion must be that nothing is real. Indeed, the discussion is as old as civilization itself - maybe older - and books have been written on the subject.

You say that "most of us see in color," with which I agree, but I have to ask, "what is color?" Color is only an interpretation by the human visual system of different wavelengths of light, and "red" is only a term we use to describe our mental response to a certain narrow band of electromagnetic radiation. Is "red" real? Well, yes, given our perceptual definition of red; and no, if it is considered to be only a mental interpretation. So monochrome images are every bit as "real" as color images, the two are just mental (or sensor) interpretations of different bandwidths of light, and neither is any more "altered" than the other.

Folks have the great tendency to look at an image such as yours, which is indeed a frozen instant in time, and expand the time continuum to create some story of what was happening. That expansion is based on a huge number of assumptions, many (or most) of which are incorrect. It's the conjured story that is not "reality," not the image itself.

It seems to me that when we talk about "reality", what we mean depends on where we want to set our threshold. I happen to set my threshold at a point which includes the image you present in your post. Do I care if you "shopped out" a drain spout? No, because I don't think it would alter the subject. That is not to say that I don't recognize the existence of contrived images (we all know they exist,) but I place them in the category I define as "lies," and disregard their veracity, if not their artistic value.

So, at the risk of opening a bag of worms, and emphasizing that my "reality" threshold has been applied, in answer to your question:
yes, Gordon, I'm sure about that.

Hi Gordon, I've been pondering this issue recently in the following form: there are [at least] 3 main considerations when making a photograph.

1. Its visual design / composition;
2. Photographer's POV (including the story or meaning they place on the image);
3. Technical image quality.

Point 1 is really the only thing the viewer can go by. If the image is meant to be looked at by others then this is where the photographer should put his main energy. Not to convey the "real" story but to make the image interesting.

Point 2 is really for the photographer's benefit. The viewer can and will make up any story to suit their interpretation. It may match the photographer's interpretation but there's little guarantee.

Point 3 comes down to pragmatics; i.e. how much quality is required for the final image presentation should be the driver.

I've recently read John Szarkowski's "The Photographer's Eye". He offers the following perspective. (I'm not quite sure why he is using past tense .. these issues continue up to today.)

"The photographer was tied to the facts of things and it was his problem to force the facts to tell the truth. ...it was found in nature in a fragmented and unexplained form - not as a story, but as scattered and suggestive clues. The photographer could not assemble these clues into a coherent narrative, he could only isolate the fragment, document it, and by doing so claim it for some special significance, a meaning which went beyond simple description.

The compelling clarity in which a photograph recorded the trivial suggested that the subject had never before been properly seen, that it was in fact perhaps not trivial, but filled with undiscovered meaning. If photographs could not be read as stories, they could be read as symbols.

... photography has never been successful as narrative... the heroic documentation of the America Civil War by the Brady group, and the incomparably larger photographic record of the Second World War, have this in common: neither explained, without extensive captioning, what was happening. The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, it was to make it real.

The great war photographer Robert Capa expressed both the narrative poverty and the symbolic power of photography when he said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

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