Volume 6 • Number 2 • June 2013
by Huntington Witherill
In my view, one of photography’s greatest strengths is its ability to render stylized interpretations of reality. Actually, if you think about it, a stylized interpretation of reality is arguably the only type of reality that a camera is capable of rendering. So of course, it stands to reason that a photographer’s ability to create stylized interpretations might well be one of the medium’s most compelling attributes. Yet, in an act best described as one of virtual blind faith, why is it that we so often place such an unwarranted level of trust in the evidentiary truth of a photographic image? (By the way, I don’t actually have a definitive answer to this question because I, too, am still occasionally drawn to the flame.)
Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC mounted an exhibition titled: Faking it: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop. And, in a review of the exhibition written by Richard Woodward for the Wall Street Journal, Woodward speculates that the show itself is “… assistant curator Mia Fineman's response to a persistent question she has been asked over the past five years: Have digital technology and software programs that alter an image with a few clicks on a computer keyboard destroyed faith in the evidentiary truth of photography?” Now I don’t want to spoil the outcome for you, but Fineman’s reported response was: “Not nearly as much as we’ve been led to believe.” (The entire article can be found: here.)
In truth, photographs have never possessed the attribute of being able to depict intrinsic truth, much less that of sufficiently defining any reality, as we know it. (That’s a lovely picture of your wife, but isn’t it a shame that she’s only ten inches tall and, dare I say… flat?)
Photographs are stylized interpretations of a given reality that lack the fundamental factual information with which to confirm or deny the absolute truth or reality of anything depicted within the frame. Rather than attempting to pass off photographs (especially fine art photographs) as some form of unassailable evidence of truth or reality, I prefer instead to consider that photographs are better suited to serve as a uniquely capable means of telling a visual story. And, as Mark Twain so aptly put it: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!”
With the above in mind, and during a recent trip made with my long time friend and colleague, Jim Ginney, to photograph that gem of the desert known as Las Vegas, it occurred to me – as we were pounding the pavement in 106º temperatures for two days – that Las Vegas is one of those special places where one can actually use a camera to create stylized interpretations, of stylized interpretations of reality! (Do two unrealities mathematically cancel one another to achieve a single, unassailable reality?)
For those few of you who may never have experienced Las Vegas, I like to describe it as a virtual reality tour of Disneyland for adults.
Talk about fantasizing reality... so much of what is seemingly there to be seen in Las Vegas is, in reality... simply not there! (Just rap your knuckles on one of those impeccably crafted marble columns to discover that it’s actually made of… wood and plaster!) The whimsical unreality of being able to stand in one place while surveying a scaled replica of the Eiffel Tower, an erupting volcano, and a pirate ship – all within the same field of view – this fact alone should demonstrate that Las Vegas is most assuredly a place that begs for a visual story to be told.
As an aside, I also think the city of Las Vegas is too often given a bum rap. While it does experience some of the same kinds of problems associated with virtually any medium-to-large sized city in America, it’s a city with a surprising amount to offer. With some of the world’s most outstanding restaurants, live entertainment, shopping, and five-star accommodations – not to mention, some of the most unique architecture that I’ve ever seen – it remains one of my favorite urban destinations. And to sweeten the pot, Las Vegas is a tourist and service oriented destination. As such, one is always made to feel welcome, regardless of whether you’re dressed in blue jeans and a tee shirt (my uniform of choice) or in formal evening attire.
As some of you may know, over the past fourteen years I’ve been working on an extended series of photographs of the Las Vegas Strip titled: Virtual Reality. And I find that each successive trip continues to provide new and exciting photographic possibilities to explore. Suffice it to say, if you’re looking for a destination in which opportunities for creating stylized interpretations of stylized interpretations of reality are as ubiquitous as slot machines and wedding chapels – in the words of Vince Vaughn, from one of my all-time favorite movies: Swingers – “it’s Vegas, baby… Vegas!”
I hope you’ll enjoy some of the new work from the Las Vegas Strip that’s just been posted in the Virtual Reality Gallery. And, as to the evidentiary truth of photography… the photographic reality is, that reality is often not nearly as “real” as it may, at first and in reality, seem. Yet, in reality, whether real or not, the possibilities for inspiration and ideation are virtually limitless.