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Is photography about capturing reality?
Aug 14, 2008, 02:59
Post: #1
Is photography about capturing reality?
This posting is about a degree to which photography needs to reflect reality. Some photographers are quite willing to alter reality quite a bit, others see reality as a golden standard. The posting has been triggered by a response to a comment I got on one of my postings. This is not however a response to that postings, but rather I hope that I will trigger a bit of a debate on the subject. Some obvious responses are:
1. Some photos must be left "unprocessed" (e.g. passport photos) or they are designed to document reality (journalism, some holiday snaps), art photos could run wild. Answer: yes.
2. It is a matter of personal taste and everybody is free to do what they wish. Answer: Of course. This posting is not intended to define what is right or wrong.
3. It depends on the photo. Some look better in their unprocessed format, while others look better when reality is altered. Answer: yes, may be, sometimes, sort of, but not quite.

Point 3 is the closest to what I wish to discuss here. There are few issues I want to raise here:

1. There is no magic in what comes out of a camera. It is not reality. The "reality" that comes out of a camera in the form of a slide or JPEG or RAW is what the chemists or engineers concocted to map the reality of a huge number of colours and contrast our eyes can discern into a much smaller colour space that our cameras, monitors or prints can represent. It is an engineering mapping for an average situation and this map may not be appropriate for a specific conditions of when and where the photo was taken. Further issues include mapping 3-D reality into 2-D photoand other factors. Different camera manufacturers map colours differently and they map JPEGs differently from RAW in the same cameras. Which is the "reality" here?
2. Our perception plays a role. Should we aim to represent the reality as we perceive it or as it is? This posting was triggered by a photo of a bird which on the photo appeared to be leaning backward. The photographer explained that this is because the photo was taken on a sloping ground. However because of a crop, the sloping of the ground was not visually apparent and the bird gave a visual impression of falling backwards. It thus came to a creative decission: Do you best represent a reality by not rotating the photo and leaving the bird leaning backward or is it more realistic to manipulate the photo and to rotate the image slightly to represent reality the way the eye perceives it on the photo and have the bird standing upright? (I want to stress that this is not a polemic about a specific photo. It just that I think that this case illustrates the dilema photographer faces really well)
3. Many photographers like the photographs to be "natural", yet their taste in music and paintings may be quite tolerant of images and sounds not found in nature. is it reasonable to see photography as yet another art medium not bound to reflect reality?
4. Many photographers swear by staying "natural", yet they think nothing of taking long shutter speed photos of water (whoever saw cotton candy falls?) or B&W, IR or HDR photos. Ansel Adams would be favourite of many naturalists, but was not his Zone System an attempt to manipulate reality by varrying contrast?
5. I have seen photos which by the very act of "altering reality" captured or highlighted "reality" which would escape in a realistic photo.

I wrote this as much for me as for you. I find that many of my photos are over the top and I am not hapy with them. On the othe hand, I am often not happy with "realistic" photos either, because I often find them uninteresting. I keep on going back and forth on this and I do not know where I stand. I certainly do not like most of the drastic "in your face" alterations or distortions, but I also do not like many of the "realistically" flat photos. I find it difficult to understand where the sweet spot is and how to recognize it. I would be interested in your views.
Pavel
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Aug 14, 2008, 06:18
Post: #2
Is photography about capturing reality?
This is an interesting question, and a good discussion to have from time to time, and my opinion is only one of many. And with that disclaimer out of the way, I will now proceed with a tone of absolute certainty and conviction... Lol


The problem is with the premise itself: that photography can or should be about anything. Photography isn't an act or an object, it's a medium of communication, just like the written or spoken word. There's no expectation that writing should be only shopping lists or only sonnets. If you ask two people to describe a simple object they will choose different words and put emphasis on different aspects of the object, just as two photographers will create different photographs when facing the same scene. Both allow complete fantasy, and even when they are being as literal and factual as possible the message being communicated is still being filtered through a set of assumptions, experience, and a single unique point of view.

Photography is a language, not an art. It has its own conventions, styles, and limitations. We all know that there's no such thing as an objective photograph - passport photos are highly stylized, but the focal length used changes the appearance of the subject - but there's a certain level of photographic literacy that drives assumptions about what a photograph is. I carry a photograph of Penny in my wallet, and people who see it never assume that she's only a few inches tall even though they accept that it's a realistic image of her. Some of the inherent familiarity that people have with photographic conventions is upset by the use of photography for "Art", but at the same time most people accept that the young women on the covers of magazines really do look like that.

I write shopping lists far more often than I write sonnets.
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Aug 14, 2008, 08:22
Post: #3
Is photography about capturing reality?
Mathew, what you write is clever, insightful and thoughtful. However, neither of us is driven to produce better passport photos or shopping lists. We strive to take photos and write sonnets as a means of self-expression. One of the uses of photography is in fact to produce "art". In this context, I use the following definitions: Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature; The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colours, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic ...en.wiktionary.org/wiki/art or
human endeavor thought to be aesthetic and have meaning beyond simple description. Includes music, dance, sculpture, painting, drawing, stitchery, weaving, poetry, writing, woodworking, etc. A medium of expression where the individual and culture come together.
oregonstate.edu/instruct/anth370/gloss.html
Whether successful, competent, tallented or otherwise, we (or at least I) have a need imitate or supplement or accentuate nature and to use photography as a means for self-expression and an effort to make an aesthetic statement. In other words, we are driven (we are intent) to produce art, even though some of our (my) results may not pass some tests of what is art in the eyes of some people.

If we can agree that we are not driven to generate photographs in a way equivalent to shopping lists, where does it take us? By discussing what our aim is, I do not expect we will reach a consensus, but perhaps thinking about it and debating it may help us being better at what we do.

Pavel
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Aug 14, 2008, 12:57
Post: #4
Is photography about capturing reality?
My goodness, Pavel! I am getting a little woried about you. Fretting about all this stuff must be a litle tiring and may actually take a toll on your creativity. Maybe too much gloomy weather lately. Well, the sun has been shining brilliantly on the mountain today, so I didn't give this discussion a second thought and I went out this morning to take some photos of whatever, enjoy the day and have some FUN.

Best regards (really).....Dennis
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Aug 14, 2008, 13:26
Post: #5
Is photography about capturing reality?
Thanks Dennis, have a good holiday. I am next. P
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Aug 14, 2008, 15:32
Post: #6
Is photography about capturing reality?
The notion that photographs must represent "reality" comes from journalism and its use for things like drivers licenses and passports. If you are doing expressive photography the measure of success is one of communication. How well does the image recreate and convey whatever compelled you to make the photograph. If you were compelled by the way that sun rays broke through the clouds and lit an isolated grove of trees on a hillside but the unedited RAW file is flat by comparison with the experience, it is not only acceptable but imperative that you edit the image to better convey what you saw and what you felt. Mountain photographer Galen Rowell said in one of his books "We photograph the extraordinary to represent the ordinary". Sometimes when photographing the ordinary it is also necessary to push the factual image a bit toward extraordinary to get the message across. You are communicating your experience & vision, not reporting the news.

Regarding Matthew's remark about a shopping list: I'll bet a poet could write one that was art. Smile

ADK Jim
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Aug 14, 2008, 16:02
Post: #7
Is photography about capturing reality?
Thanks Jim, you described with eloquence and clarity what I have been strugling to comprehend and express. Still, I feel that there needs to be or there is zone of limit and as you enter that zone and proceed further and further into it, your over the top representation starts to detract, rather than contribute to the message you wish to impart. My trouble is that I do not know where that limit is and my feel for it changes minute to minute. Pavel
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Aug 14, 2008, 16:42
Post: #8
Is photography about capturing reality?
What I have taken away from this discussion, thus far, is that: (1) photography is not about recording or reproducing reality, because reality is different than what one sees in a photograph; and (2) photography is a medium for communication. Matthew and Pavel appear to disagree about whether photography is (or can be) an art. I think that the definitions that Pavel has found for art are inadequate. Is art (or photography for that matter) about imitating beauty? Who would consider these images beautiful?

[Image: gougedwomanseye.gif]

[Image: soutine.jpg]

The second definition refers to an “endeavor thought to be aesthetic”. Although the dictionary definition of aesthetic refers to beauty, in fact the word is derived from a Greek word for the act of perception. I think that this is closer to the answer for, “what is photography?” It is a way of perceiving the visual world. Perception is not reality, it is not the physical world at which the camera (or the eye) is aimed. Perception is sensation that is filtered and even reshaped by our brain. Our brains are biased (or hard wired) to see certain things: circles, for example. The creative aspect of perception is being able to overcome the hard wiring, and “see” the world in a new way. When someone does this, sometimes it may be called “art”.

To Pavel’s original question, “to what degree does photography need to reflect reality?” I would answer that it necessarily reflects the photographer’s perception of the world. To the degree to which his perception is original, and stimulates the imagination of others (i.e., his success in communicating his perception), may be the measure of its value as art.
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Aug 15, 2008, 00:49
Post: #9
Is photography about capturing reality?
"This posting was triggered by a photo of a bird which on the photo appeared to be leaning backward. The photographer explained that this is because the photo was taken on a sloping ground. However because of a crop, the sloping of the ground was not visually apparent and the bird gave a visual impression of falling backwards. It thus came to a creative decission: Do you best represent a reality by not rotating the photo and leaving the bird leaning backward or is it more realistic to manipulate the photo and to rotate the image slightly to represent reality the way the eye perceives it on the photo and have the bird standing upright?"

In the photo you mentioned, the ground was obviously sloping, and the goose might have been leaning back for whatever reason, although he looks pretty normal to me. I thought you would understand that maybe he was leaning back because of the way the ground tilted under his feet, as if he was compensating somehow?

Through years of practice (and a bubble-level in my old camera's hotshoe) I taught myself to shoot straight well enough that rotating and therefore cropping (and losing resolution) are distant memories.
Artistically, the bird's posture was not the type of thing I would seek to "correct" since it was captured accurately and honestly.
I wasn't making an artistic or journalistic judgement in this case--the picture was shot as close to level as is possible without a tripod, and whatever decisions a goose makes about it's leanings aren't my concern. I didn't think it's posture looked odd at the time of shooting or processing, and I still don't.
Animals do whatever the hell they want, and I support their freedom to choose.

But that doesn't mean that I won't engage in all sorts of other corrections in my processing, from removal of litter to selective darkening and lightening and pretty much anything else I feel like doing at the time.
With all of the night shooting I do there is plenty of un-reality captured from the more-intense colors to motion-blur and other time effects. This is the area where my art resides.

In this case, everything was straight and true so there was no need to correct.
Had I made a mistake somewhere, it wouldn't have bothered me at all to fix it.
I'm not a professional photojournalist, just an amateur on my photoblog, so the rules about reality don't apply to what I do.

Blowup's last paragraph above sums up my feelings very well.

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Aug 15, 2008, 03:32
Post: #10
Is photography about capturing reality?
Keith, I am sorry, it appears that my comments offended you or irritated you. In commenting on your photo, I described my perceptions and yours are different and if there is right or wrong in this, you may well be right. However, your photo led me to think about how I photograph and how I perceive reality and about my lacking clarity of understanding and that was the real subject of my posting. This post was definitelly not about critiquing your photograph, however I can see how you may come to a conclusion it was. I do not doubt your skills and experience as a photographer. Pavel
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Aug 15, 2008, 04:00
Post: #11
Is photography about capturing reality?
Gary, my posting was not really about defining what art is or is not. I am interested in figuring out what I wish to achieve and how to get there. One of the issue is the question of the degree of "reality" in photos. There are numberous definitions of art (Google lists a pagefull) and sorting what is and is not art I will lead to others. For me, the definition of art would be important if I needed a goverment grant or if my photos were banned from a gallery. I chose the definitions which were the closest to what I wish to accomplish and which separate me from Matthews "shopping lists".

Your last paragraph comes closer to the original intent of my posting. Originality is not high on my list of objectives right now. It may become so in the future. Right now, I would like to be able to translate my mental image closer to what I see in my photos. The issue of stimulating the perception of others is closer to what I am trying to get at. I noticed that people in general aim to keep images "natural" as one of their goals but the reasons for aiming at natural photo were not clear to me. This is what I was trying to get at. I think that when the subject comes up, photographers claim to be open to all forms of photography, yet their photographs and their critiques of photographs reveal that in fact achieving "naturalness" is often an unquestioned but very real goal. This is what I hoped the discussion will be about.

Pavel
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Aug 15, 2008, 04:56
Post: #12
Is photography about capturing reality?
Pavel,
I agree that your original posting was not about defining art, but the discussion strayed into this topic, and you provided the definitions. I also agree with you that there is an unspoken bias on the part of many photographers and critics that photographs must be "natural". I think that we need to question this assumption. Jim has made the most relevant observation, "You are communicating your experience & vision, not reporting the news." (Unless, of course, you're a photojournalist!) The challenges are, first, to have, or develop a vision, about which one feels strongly, and then to communicate those feelings through photographs. It is ironic that is was the advent of photography that freed 19th century painters from the conventions of realism. Yet, here we 21st century photographers are discussing whether photographs have to be realistic. I don't understand why this should be a criterion for photographs any more than it is for other visual media.
Gary
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Aug 15, 2008, 10:57
Post: #13
Is photography about capturing reality?
Dreamingpixels Wrote:However, neither of us is driven to produce better passport photos or shopping lists. We strive to take photos and write sonnets as a means of self-expression. ... we are driven (we are intent) to produce art, even though some of our (my) results may not pass some tests of what is art in the eyes of some people.
Actually, I'm quite proud of my passport photos. Big Grin

... but that (my earlier message) is my answer to the title question "Is photography about capturing reality?" Photography is no more concerned with reality than radio or TV is - it's a medium, not the message. What people use it for is entirely up to them.

Dreamingpixels Wrote:If we can agree that we are not driven to generate photographs in a way equivalent to shopping lists, where does it take us? By discussing what our aim is, I do not expect we will reach a consensus, but perhaps thinking about it and debating it may help us being better at what we do.
If you change the question into "Is photography as an art about capturing reality," then you're still looking at a very broad category of activity and a lot of different motivations. I don't see why it should be, and think that it's still too diverse a subject to have any room for dogma or restrictions.

I certainly see no need to keep my photos "natural"; I consider all photography to be unnatural because there is no way to observe or record without influencing the results. But in general I do think that I'm a fairly 'straight' photographer simply because diverging from the recorded world takes a kind of creativity that I don't have.

blowup Wrote:Matthew and Pavel appear to disagree about whether photography is (or can be) an art.
Photography is not art in the exact same way that painting is not an art. It can be Art, it can be a powerful method of artistic self-expression, but for most people who take photos it is not. Almost every household in the developed world has a camera, and I'll bet that just as many have at least one paintbrush as well. Most people simply take photos of loved ones and significant events without regard for artistic expression or creativity, and most people simply paint the walls of their home with broad even strokes.

ADK_Jim Wrote:Regarding Matthew's remark about a shopping list: I'll bet a poet could write one that was art.
Walter Miller's novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz" had fun with that idea: a culture so far removed from its roots that it literally could not tell the difference, and turned a shopping list into a sacred relic.

I don't doubt that a poet could use any format to create art; the idea of it had me go looking for the work of bpNichol. What I found was his "First Screening", a set of computer poems that has been recreated here. Clever stuff, especially considering that it's twenty-four years old.
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Aug 15, 2008, 11:55
Post: #14
Is photography about capturing reality?
Matthew, as always excellent comments. Thanks. Pavel
Sent you and E-mail about a tripod.
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Aug 17, 2008, 10:07
Post: #15
Is photography about capturing reality?
Pavel, I wasn't irritated or offended at all.
I was only surprised that such a simple and boring and very real photo of mine could launch you into this discussion, when pretty much everything else I show seems much more likely to stir debate on this topic.

To answer your topic's question as accurately as possible:
Q: "Is photography about capturing reality?"
A: Sometimes. It depends on who is shooting what, and why.

I have several websites where I show my work in different genres, and each one has a different level of reality. I think of "snapshots" and point&shoot type photos (with flash) as being no more "reality" than a wildly edited HDR, but it depends on who is doing the shooting, how, and why.

There are no rules that can't be broken, so just serve the best interests of each photo opportunity as best you can.

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