Creation vs Portrayal of reality in photography

The artist cannot transcribe what he sees; he can only translate it into the terms of his medium.
-Ernst Gombrich

How well does photography capture reality? Ask yourself a further question; how many times have you looked at a photograph you took and said “I like this, but it doesn’t quite capture what it felt like to be there…”

Photography cannot replicate reality. It’s one of the best technologies we’ve yet invented for duplicating reality. It’s certainly the easiest, fastest, and most accessible medium for the task, and yet, photography has several things working against the goal of perfect portrayal of reality. Technically speaking, the camera’s lens and medium are very different than the eye and the brain. Field of vision, depth of field, perception of color, tonal range; there is a great disparity between how we experience a scene and how a camera records it. There is also the fact that photography is a still image. Life is certainly not experienced in indefinitely frozen moments. However, all of this likely seems very simple. Of course photography isn’t reality. What’s the point of bringing all this up?

I think, despite our understanding that photographs are imperfect depictions of reality, it’s easy to lapse into a mindset where photographs are not critically viewed and the artist’s hand is lost in the photographic process. Or, an even more harmful trend emerges: the thought that, given expensive equipment and the ability to go to exotic locations, anyone could make beautiful photographs. My response to anyone who says this to my face is “I’m happy to let you borrow my camera for an afternoon and give you some tips on how to use it.”

Photography has always seemed to be regarded as an “easy” medium. There is some truth to this. People spend countless years, even lifetimes of practice creating with a pencil or paintbrush the detail and realism that someone can capture in five seconds with an iPhone. If one thinks of art only in terms of realism, then yes, photography is an easy medium. However when one realizes that photography cannot exactly recreate reality, there are two ideas that stick in my head which redeem photography as an artistic exercise rather than a technical one:

  1. If photography is generally perceived as the close but not literal replication of reality, the photographer must ask themselves what kind of reality they wish to portray and what techniques they want to employ to create that reality.
  2. The photographer must give careful consideration to the curation and display of their work in light of the idea they want to communicate.

From these two principles spring all of the artistic decisions a photographer makes in order to create a reality (which seems to me to be the fundamental exercise of representational art) rather than simply portraying reality (which we’ve established is impossible). There are the boring technical decision such as what camera, lens, aperture, exposure time, ISO, film, B&W/color, framing, editing processes, file type, paper, enlarging technique, etc. to use. However there are also other important decisions to make, which often times get overlooked. Questions like “What do I want to take pictures of?” “How many pictures?” “How do I want to portray what I’m taking pictures of?” “Why do people need to see pictures of this?” “What will the very final finished product look like?” All these questions constitute the “why” of photography, and are just as if not more important than the “how”.

The responsibility of the viewer, then, is to remember that every photograph taken for an artistic purpose is essentially a reality created by the photographer. Whether images were carefully planned and manipulated in order to create a reality which does not physically exist or exists only as a result of our perception or images were taken of the world in a very straight manner, the photographer has created a physical depiction of the world as they see it. Photographers accomplish this with varying degrees of skill, and depending on the person, their experiences, and their artistic insight, they may or may not be seeing the world in an interesting way. But the importance of remembering that any given photograph is as much about the photographer as it is about the subject cannot be understated.


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