by Huntington Witherill
Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be.
– Duane Michals
Reality can be such a tricky proposition, particularly when it comes to photography. Despite photography’s ability to deal exquisitely with appearances, the oft-repeated axiom: a camera does not lie seems the antithesis of its own pronouncement. After all, is there any circumstance under which the visual characterization of an expressive photograph remains impervious to individual interpretation, personal bias, and/or illusory misperception?
In reality, cameras seem remarkably well suited for telling some of the most convincing (and truly fantastic) lies that one could possibly imagine. And come to think of it, aren’t we indeed fortunate to have such a wonderfully expressive tool with which to visually communicate what, in reality, are uniquely personalized interpretations?
I’m often amused at the lengths to which some photographers will go in order to defend their photographs as depicting unassailable truth and/or reality. “Well, it was exactly like that when I took the picture!” It was? Really? Do you suppose there is any chance that you might have significantly distorted whatever reality may have existed, simply by depicting that reality through means of a two-dimensional photograph? Yes, of course. The photograph itself (as an artifact) is, in and of itself, its own reality. But more specifically, whatever an expressive photograph may or may not depict… that will always remain subject to individual interpretation. Seems to me that a unique and personalized interpretation of reality remains the very goal we ultimately hope to achieve through expressive photography. Is it not?
The practice of artistic self-expression should be focused upon telling our own unique stories as a means to communicate and share individual life experiences. Arguably, the core purpose of that expression ventures well beyond the task of simply contributing to an increasing body of mechanically gathered and, frankly, objectively questionable visual evidence. In short, the photograph, itself, will continue to be of less than sterling evidentiary value when it comes to the absolute truth or reality of anything depicted within the frame.
What is it about unassailable truth and reality that causes those attributes to be ascribed to photographs? And more to the point, why are those attributes so often being prescribed as a prerequisite to what is clearly a consciously controlled act of personalized artistic self-expression? Aren’t the chances that my own perceived reality will significantly differ from your own be all but self-assured? At the risk of repeating myself (here, and here) photographs simply do not depict any form of unassailable truth or reality. They are stylized interpretations of reality.
In my opinion, embracing the foregoing inevitability tends to free one from the constraints of objectivity, thereby allowing for a more deeply rewarding means to better understand and connect with the world around us. Now, of course, that doesn’t mean that I am suggesting we ignore reality.
What I am suggesting is this: If you can let go of the idea that photography is to be used predominately as a means to mechanically record objective reality, your chances for greater understanding about how a given reality may actually inform and enhance your own life and circumstance will greatly increase. And further, I submit that the overall aesthetic value of your own photographs will, as a result, also greatly increase. As my mentor, Steve Crouch, used to say: “We don’t want to see what it is that you have seen. We want your photograph to show us what you actually feel about what it is that you have seen.”
Many years ago, I had an opportunity to photograph at our local SPCA for purposes of helping to visually illustrate (within a promotional publication) examples of some of the projects that were then being sponsored by the Community Foundation for Monterey County. A number of photographers based in the Monterey area were invited to select among a variety of ongoing projects that the foundation was involved in, and I chose The SPCA for Monterey County.
The experience was truly rewarding, and one that presented a unique challenge: How to communicate (through photographs) the immense value and worthiness of the work that is being done by the SPCA. Well, admittedly, there are likely few individuals who don’t already understand and appreciate the value of the SPCA. So, my job seemed pretty simple and straightforward. It wasn’t.
So many of the pictures that I took (which I ultimately rejected) competently depicted (actually, exquisitely, as Duane Michals suggests) the appearances of what I had found at the SPCA. But, unfortunately, too many of those same pictures lacked the ability to visually communicate much of anything beyond the fact that I had affirmatively visited the SPCA… with a camera, in-hand.
Thankfully, not all of those pictures were quite so shallow but, to be fair, the vast majority of them were. The whole experience served as a great opportunity to begin to look beyond the “reality” of what it was that I was objectively seeing, and attempt to use the camera for purposes apart from producing a mere visual record of whatever was being presented to my eyes. And of course, producing those more meaningful kinds of pictures continues (to this day!) to be a far more challenging, yet significantly more rewarding, proposition.
The next time you pick up your camera – before you snap the shutter – take a few extra seconds and give some thought to what it is (specifically) about whatever has caused you to stop and take notice of the scene in the first place. Try to zero-in on that aspect of the picture, alone, and pay little attention to the perceived reality associated with the scene, itself. Only then… snap the shutter.
Taking those few extra seconds, prior to taking the picture, will tend to cause you to more deeply reflect upon not only what it is that you are photographing, but also why you have chosen to isolate and transform that particular reality as a means to communicate your own stylized interpretation of the scene, itself. And, as an added bonus, that extra thought can also help you to identify, more precisely and effectively, what it is that you are actually trying to communicate to your audience.
The relative unreality that is inherent within each photograph reveals precisely the attribute that allows us to distance ourselves from what would otherwise be little more than an act of mechanically reproduced reiteration. And let’s face it… absent that unique ability to achieve a more personalized interpretation of reality, our pictures would otherwise be expressively indistinguishable from one another. I trust you can imagine how boring that would be?