Real Artists Tell The Truth When They Lie

Reality

Never before has the public been more skeptical of what they see every day.  A massive section of the web has been dedicated to outing fakes, spotting goofs, and pointing out flaws in everything from political arguments to celebrities’ stories.  This is understandable in an era where anyone can pay $12 to see an entire continent convincingly crumble under John Cusack’s fleeing feet.  When Will Smith stomps through a vacant and overgrown New York City that actually looks like the world had abandoned it for 50 years, it gets tough to take any sort of visual imagery without a grain of salt.  Questioning if what we’re presented with is real becomes the status quo.

The world of photography has not escaped unscathed.  If you try to sell your work, you will inevitably be asked some variation of “Is it real?”  I don’t blame people for asking this.  The real answer is “Of course not”, but many may find it difficult to say this to a potential buyer.  A photograph is, by definition, not a real or true exposition of what is displayed in the photograph.  It’s at best an approximation, a portrayal, a depiction, if for no other reason than a photograph is, for now, a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional world.  Reality has depth, not to mention sounds and smells and tastes and feelings; a photograph is just a bunch of dots on a piece of paper.

Perception

Of course, a photograph that anyone would pay for is much more than just dots on paper.  The image itself is only some small part of a larger scene, all of which the photographer chose to exclude because it didn’t belong in the image.  Is that real?  Not really.  My eyes see something like 160 degrees on the horizontal axis and 130 degrees on the vertical axis.  That’s a huge field of view, one that even a panoramic camera with a serious wide-angle lens would have trouble capturing.  Even if you did capture an image with such a field of view, it would probably look like crap.  I’ve never found a scene that just envelops you in beauty and is still orderly enough to look good in a print.  The main job of any artist is to eliminate all of the extraneous stuff that doesn’t make the work any stronger.  Altering reality and changing perception, which is what you do when you compose an image in the viewfinder, is the first thing a photographer needs to learn.

Once the image is composed, you face more choices: shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and film type.  If you use a longer shutter speed and any motion is captured as a blur in the final image, this certainly isn’t representation of what your eyes saw.  Likewise, if you use a very fast shutter speed to freeze action, you can’t call this an accurate representation of what you saw either: the whole reason we have the slow-mo replays is because we can’t see those fine details in real time.  Your eyes also have a very shallow depth of field, so if you stop way down to make your landscape image sharp from foreground to infinity, this is absolutely not how you saw the scene.  Your eyes also have cones and rods, not film grain or digital noise, and you certainly don’t have the ability to resolve detail in the dark like today’s cameras do.  Your eyes certainly don’t see colors like Fuji’s Velvia slide film does, or Kodak’s black and white T-Max film.

When it gets right down to it, it’s pretty silly to even compare the eyes to how a camera captures an image.  The comparison also disregards what your other four senses experienced as you fired that shutter.  While it’s nice to fantasize that our brains are powerful enough to fully separate each sense, that’s just not how things work.

So, if photos don’t, and can’t, depict reality, what do they depict?  The photographer’s perception of the scene.  The question that buyers should be asking isn’t “Is it real?” but instead “Is this how you felt?”

Art

Sometimes a photographer’s job is to capture an image that represents a scene as accurately as possible.  If you’re reporting the news or reproducing some other piece of art, we don’t want any evidence of the photographer’s interference.  In documentary photographs, we want to believe that the story told in the image itself is what’s powerful, not any technical or artistic decision the photographer made.  But this is bullshit too: I could stand next to a veteran photojournalist like Joe McNally and I would come away with boring photos while he came away with evocative, maybe iconic, shots.  But, because we think that photojournalists should capture “only what’s there”, we’ve convinced ourselves that we don’t want any after-the-fact manipulation of the image.  This obviously overlooks all of the manipulation that goes into creating an image before the shutter is ever fired.

So is it all art then?  Can we manipulate as much as we want?  Can we add skies or birds or people or buildings, or take away twigs or power lines or whole towns?  The answer is yes.  Every good photo is art, because every good photo is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” We want to see the artist when we look at his work; if we can’t, it’s often considered empty.

The Reason I Take Photos

I don’t take photos with the intent of creating “art”.  I don’t even have a definition of what art is or should be (the definition in the last paragraph is from the dictionary).  I don’t really care.  I take photos because mostly because I love to be outside, in awesome locations, experiencing awesome light and seeing awesome things.  I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the most incredible sights on the planet, and I feel that it would be a bit of a waste to squander those moments, so I try to take them with me.  That’s all I’m trying to do: convey what it was like to be able to stand there and experience the show going on in front of me.

Sometimes the images I capture don’t reflect that experience at all.  Most of those go in the recycle bin.  Sometimes the images I capture reflect that experience, but there’s things in the image itself that I couldn’t see or didn’t notice when I was standing there shooting.  Those things usually get cloned out immediately.  I make huge prints of my photos, and often really small stuff that you can’t notice when you’re shooting gets displayed, sometimes glaringly, in the final image.  That telephone pole on the far ridge that I couldn’t see when I was taking the shot now sticks out like a sore thumb.  Guess what?  It’s gone now.  Is that cheating?  Not for me.  That wasn’t part of the experience I had when I was standing there shooting.

Hypocrite: the man who murdered both his parents and pleaded for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan. ~Abraham Lincoln

There are few things that America hates more than hypocrites.  Catching them has become a sport for all levels of media covering all aspects of life.  When it turns out that the politician campaigning against gay rights gets pulled over leaving a gay bar with an “unidentified male companion” in the passenger seat, that story doesn’t get buried on page 2.  When celebrities who espouse “going green” get caught living in mansions with carbon footprints the size of small towns, we excoriate them with extra exuberance.  When photographers claim that their images are “exactly as they saw them” or “straight out of the camera” they too should be lambasted if they’re not being honest.

Why would anyone consider a photo shot on Velvia or T-Max to be “real” but a digital photo that’s had it’s saturation increased or decreased to be “fake”?  I have no idea, but this view is perpetuated by gallery owners and salesmen the world over.  Not only is this terribly misleading, photographers that “refuse” to use Photoshop are stupid.  Why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of the latest tools to make your vision come to life?  Almost everything you can do in Photoshop can be done in a traditional dark room; it just takes 100 times as long, is far less precise, and the results aren’t as good.  Why bother?  Do you still use a slide rule and a carrier pigeon to pay your bills?  To remove the “LP” off the side of a hill in Lone Pine, Ansel Adams had to painstakingly scratch it off the original slide film with a razor blade, and since this wasn’t good enough, still had to paint over it in each print he made.  That’s authentic, but digital manipulation (which would have taken about 30 seconds to accomplish the same thing) isn’t?  Give me a break.

Ansel was up front about what he did.  If you ever get a chance to see his originals, you’ll realize that his prints, “the performance” as he called them, looked nothing like the original slides, which he called “the score”.  But he didn’t pretend, as many photographers do today, that his prints were anything but his vision.  He wasn’t trying to document the scene as accurately as possible.  He was trying to evoke emotion from anyone and everyone who viewed his prints.  He definitely succeeded.

So clone away.  Replace skies.  Give the elephant four trunks.  I don’t care.  Just be interesting.  Convey emotion.  But stop pretending that what’s fake is real, that what you’ve added was really there, or that the final print is “really how it looked”.

 

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