Tuesday, 21 June 2016

You Can’t Believe Photography Anymore

The above is a plaintive cry I hear so often from students and people I run into that I’m quite sure if each of them gave me a dollar I would have a really nice nest egg for some indulgent purpose, like buying a new lens or ten.  But is it true?

The underpinning concept of course is the belief that somehow a photograph should be a forensic recording of a slice of life and any other purpose for photographic images is somehow outside the acceptable usage for the medium.

Of course photography is not simply about recording events and reality in an accurate unvarnished way, though of course some genres do demand such an approach, for example reportage or real estate photography. Generally though the need for a totally literal interpretation of the original scene is not an imperative and achieving a completely literal representation is pretty much impossible anyway.

Lets think about the realities of photographic capture.

First the camera is only a rough approximation of the human eye and for a long time to come I doubt it will approach the amazing capabilities of human eyesight.  Consider that the eye can easily see detail well into the shadows and highlights all at the same time, it can see colours and shades the camera can’t, it can focus (at least give the impression of focusing) on all parts of the scene with absolute accuracy.  The eye can adapt to very low light and of course with good eyesight we can see much more than the camera lens can from a detail perspective, (though the difference is rapidly shrinking).

So straight off the bat, the camera is at a distinct disadvantage and your photos will always be a pale imitation of the reality you experienced at the time of capture, how often have you taken a photo only to find the final print looked flat, dead and colourless in comparison to how you saw it.  It could of course be you saw the scene with “rose coloured glasses” or maybe your memory is just deficient, but in truth you probably just came hard up against the limits of the capture system.

Consider also that the final image will often be printed, but a print can have a contrast range no wider than the black of the ink/dye used and no brighter than the paper base, this limited range pales in comparison to the natural worlds range of brightness values.

So photographic capture is nobbled to start with and the challenge is to edit and adjust the image and then print it so that it more realistically reflects our original real world viewing experience, and trust me for the pedantic photo editor like myself achieving this is more than just a minor challenge.

Moving beyond the limits of capture we then have the non-realities created by the system and tools.  If you chose to use monochrome film or digital, then you are already well beyond human reality/truth and into the territory of your dogs' world before the image gets out of the camera.

And ponder if you will your lens choice, a a slightly shorter than standard focal length lens will show the world more or less naturally from a perspective point of view, but any other focal length will be quite different to your eyesight’s reality and as yet humans have not evolved zoom eyes, I assume this is likely to remain true for a some time yet.

But wait there’s more, what about cropping, we see the world with a sort of semi-spherical view with quite a bit of peripheral vision but the camera crops the scene to a really neat oblong and then of course you will likely crop some more.

There is also the simple fact, barring a nasty accident, we see in 3D but the camera (normally anyway) is a 2D device.  I could go on and on about the deficits and differences, but this is my point…..the whole photography capture process is anything but reality right from the get go.

With the easy availability of editing programs we are able to alter the image captured by the camera in limitless ways, some of those ways will bring the image closer to our initial vision but editing can just as easily distort that vision further away from the initial reality, is this new and is it a problem?

Photographers and darkroom workers have been distorting reality since the very inception of the medium, it has just become a lot easier.  Many photographers in the film based trade had collections of negatives of moons, suns, skies etc that were composited to lift images beyond the uninteresting and banal, it's just that the average punter didn’t know this happened, so radical editing is anything but new, though its probably now quite a bit harder to detect!

Clearly for reportage, legal needs and truthful advertising purposes, photographs should be as "true a record" as possible but beyond that photography is a highly creative medium/art form and it seems crazy to limit it to some artificial standard that will never exist anyway due to the real limits of capture and printing.

None of the above is to say photographers should lie and deceive, for example many of my works are not straight photographs, they are my interpretation of the world and a result of my imagination.  But I don’t ever claim these particular works to be reality, they are what they are because I like the way they look or the message they convey.

I do have a big problem however when photographers claim something is reality and untouched when in fact it's obviously anything but.  For example, I really take a keen interest in landscape photography and have seen many Australian and overseas exhibitions, and more than a few of those photographers have claimed their images are unvarnished realities, that the colours are real etc.  But the images are obviously nothing like reality, with this aspect I share the same disdain as many of my students and acquaintances…..it's just not right.  If they said  “yes, this is my interpretation of the scene”, then that’s fine, that is the licence of the artist, but to claim it is a reality that was only captured because they had the great fortune or planning to be there at just the right time and used gear that somehow had magical qualities or used some super dooper film blessed by golden pixies and were touched by the hand of the God just moments before pressing the shutter....well that is just a fraud. 

So up front I am stating, there is not a photo I have offered for sale or taken on commission that is not edited in some way and I have never taken a photo that did not need some editing and I doubt I ever will.  Fortunately that’s OK, I’m not a photojournalist and I know when to draw the line between creative editing and correcting technical issues. 

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