Volume 7 • Number 1 • February, 2014
Some Guy Behind a Computer
Some Guy Behind a Computer
by Huntington Witherill
With your indulgence, I’d like to share what was, for me, a rather thought provoking exchange overheard while photographing in the Gorge at Watkins Glen, NY this past fall. The unabridged conversation went as follows:
She (lamenting): You know… this place isn’t nearly as pretty as the pictures we saw in the gift shop. He: Oh, you can’t trust those things anymore. It’s just some guy behind a computer! She: Oh!
Apparently, the art and craft of photography (not to mention the landscape, itself) can no longer be trusted. Truth be told, I’ve never trusted photographs to reflect much in the way of unassailable truth or reality. Photographs are wonderful vehicles for communicating personalized and stylized interpretations of reality, but absolute truth and reality... not so much. At the same time, I’ve nearly always trusted the landscape, itself. And (to stick with the characterization, here) I’ve always found it to be… pretty.
I suppose that some landscapes are indeed “prettier” than others. And of course, specific lighting and atmospheric conditions, together with variable weather patterns, and ones emotional state of mind, can each tend to heighten (or lessen) visceral reactions, emotional responses, and overall attitudes that are brought to the landscape as it is being experienced, first-hand. Yet, I continue to find that the landscape remains consistently compelling from a purely visual standpoint. To me… it’s always pretty!
Not every landscape is conducive of a great photograph. Yet, every landscape has its own unique personality. And, some days, that personality will continue to reinvent itself on a moment-by-moment basis. In my book, that makes every landscape downright pretty, regardless of what the light or atmospheric conditions may be doing at any given moment.
I wonder… has the tendency to “buy-in” to an erroneously perceived notion – photographs inherently depict truth and reality – caused us to now distrust both the photograph and the source of that photograph? I surely hope not… in both cases!
Say what you will about the specific tools and techniques used to produce a photograph, the picture itself is no more a direct manifestation of any kind of unassailable truth or reality than is the perception that was creatively conceived, by the photographer, to bring that photograph to completion. And by the way, the foregoing holds true regardless of the kinds of tools, materials, and methods used to produce the photograph, itself. The resulting print may (or may not) depict a perceived reality that the photographer has coaxed to life. But, the document itself will continue to be of, shall we say, less than sterling evidentiary value.
Believing that any photograph conveys unquestionable truth or reality is no different than believing a story to be unquestionably true... simply because it has been reduced to the written word.
At the risk of repeating myself, I’m once again put in mind of a rather witty comeback (attributed to Pablo Picasso) in response to a student who was extolling the virtues of the “reality” conveyed by a particularly captivating photograph of the student’s spouse, to which Picasso replied: Well yes, 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? The truth is that 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.
Surely a photograph can suggest a particular truth or reality (and can admittedly do so in a uniquely compelling way). But, beyond that mere suggestion we’re talking about a decidedly individual interpretation of reality and not about actual truth, or reality. Just beyond the hint of truth within any photograph lies a minefield of politics, propaganda, social expectations, cultural traditions, learned behavior, personal prejudices, life experiences, and let’s not forget occasionally poor eyesight and a progressively failing memory.
If you're ever out in the landscape and find that it does not (at first glance) appear to be as pretty as the pictures you may have seen in the gift shop, don’t forget that it is the job of the photographer to tell a story by exaggerating the scene in very much the same way as an actor is charged with projecting his/her voice and expression while performing on a stage. It’s all about a personalized interpretation of the story at hand, and not so much about the unassailable reality inherent to the subject of the story itself. We’re talking about art, here… not about statistical reality.
With such an extraordinary abundance of visual beauty in the world around me, I just hope that I never become complacent enough to take that beauty for granted. And of course… I also hope that my imagination will continue to permit me to follow Mark Twain’s sage advice by never allowing the facts to get in the way of a good story!