This quote from Alfred Stieglitz captures perfectly the essential piece of the grand puzzle that is photography as not only a mode of recording information through time, but as a means of expressing ourselves and the human condition through art.
Much like poetry, writing, theatre and film, photography reaches beyond a captured moment of reality and in to the world where time no longer exists, freezing an emotion, a feeling, a thought or an idea, void of time and fully expressive of who we are as a people.
However, this moment of time still exists, and this will be my argument for the reality of any picture taken on a camera at a time an place. If you've been following along this week in my newsletter and on my blog, I’ve opened up a question to the community of photographers and artists that surrounds me: “What makes a photograph a REAL photograph?” That is, where do we draw a line between reality and surreality, and at wait point on the spectrum does a digital photograph forever relinquish it’s right to the original name?
Here’s the video that sparked the controversy:
Within hours of posting the video on my Facebook page, I had a variety of comments ranging the spectrum of color - from notes of praise and messages of astonishment, through the simple “wow’s” and “nice’s”, and on to the more asinine thoughts in the mixed bag of reactions to the video. My favorite derogatory was this one:
“Bad photographer but good editor.”
I’ve been seeing many, many posts lately about Steve McCurry’s images and the controversy surrounding them, but I’m not here to argue the ethical merit or morality of whether an image should be processed in photojournalism. I’m here to tell you this:
“No matter how deeply processed a photograph is, it is still a photograph if it was taken on a camera.”
But this isn’t the question, and some of you are surely up in arms. That’s okay, I understand your position because I held the same position for a very, very long time. For years, even, I didn’t consider my own work to be comparable to a “real” photograph. Clearly my position on the subject has changed. To gain more insight and hear what other photographers around the world thought, I reached out to the community and asked them to tell me what THEY think made a photograph a REAL photograph.
Here are some of the responses:
Each of these quotes from photographers in the industry have an underlying theme among them: it is that whether or not a photograph feigns reality by it’s post-processing technique, it remains a real photograph, and that the question then changes from “is this real?” to “what are you trying to tell us with this piece of art?” It’s a distinction that hinges on the INTENTION of the image, not on the merit of whether you or I call a photograph real. By that standard, I am currently floating 10 feet above the sand, sipping wine on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And I can fly. Anywhere.
...the question then changes from “is this real?” to “what are you trying to tell us with this piece of art?”
My point is this: our collective understanding of what makes a photograph a “real” photograph throughout the industry is not collective at all, nor should it be.
With a background in different intentions through photography, we are unable to determine what makes a “real" photograph. Instead, our intention should be noted and understood as we progress to show it through what we place in front of our lens, and what our viewers eventually see on their screen or printed in their laps.
Is a documentary photographer or photojournalist expected to capture and process images that tell a story different to the one that was captured to tell a story happening here and now, on the ground, as tangibly as the computer screen you’re reading this from?
Is a conceptual photographer or a fine art photographer expected to to simplify and reduce their process to the point where the surrealistic story, while rooted in real emotion and human understanding, becomes a puddle of bland taste relegated to someone else’s perception of reality?
Is a wedding photographer supposed to make me float in the air on a broom stick? Is my daughter’s senior portrait photographer supposed to take a photo of her sitting in her class at school, so they capture her “in reality”?
Photography should not be completely and entirely focused on whether or not a created image is a genuine fake. It should consider who we are and how we feel when we see that image. Emotion is the most incredible and quite possibly the most REAL “thing” any human will ever experience. It is the driver of action and the motivator of souls. This should be our first thought when creating photographs. Beyond this, we must understand our intention in creation.
In our ever-growing digital culture and ever-connectedness, we must stop drawing lines, and instead begin to understand who we are as creators and what we want to say to the world through the images we craft and create. Are we trying to capture the harsh reality of the conditions of the fishing villages of Southern Uganda? Do we want to show the beauty of a figure skate suspended in air, dangling over the ice? Are we trying to reach people emotionally to give them hope through a symbolic photograph?
If we as a group of photographers (read: artists) can understand WHY we create, we can stop calling names and start enjoying the images we’ve created. We only cross the line when we falsify a reality we are aiming to highlight. Anything beyond that is freedom from the difficulty that is reality in it’s own right.
Are the photographs you create real? Stop asking. Instead, begin wondering why you create, and try to understand why others create, too.
In this way, I hope we see more peace and appreciation for the photographs you and I create.
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I'm on a mission to show that the light will always pierce through the darkness.