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Author Topic: Photography and The Death of Reality  (Read 6780 times)
David Sutton
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« on: April 15, 2014, 06:03:22 AM »
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A subject that has vexed folks with too much time on their hands for the last 150 years.
I suppose manipulation by staging photographs and deciding where to point the camera has always been with us, and outright fabrication since at least 1846 with Calvert Richard Jones' image of Capuchin monks on Malta. But I think most "editing" has been to make up for the perceived limitations of the camera.
People had trouble with daguerrotypes that were seemingly so realistic, but were in black and white, which after all is highly abstracted. A whole industry evolved around wonderfully skilled hand tinting. I just googled "hand tinted Daguerreotype" to find an example and came up with a surprising number early Victorian naked women.
The camera couldn't manage the depth of focus of the human eye and from about 1850 negatives were cut and pasted making an image that was both a total fabrication a faithful rendition of the subject.
In the 1800s photographic emulsions were so sensitive to blue and violet light that landscapes either had the sky blown or the land would be hardly visible. The solution was to either paint in a sky or use multiple exposures and "stitch". Some took it further. When Oscar Rejlander applied to have his picture "Two Ways Toward Life" (a 30 x 16 inch print created from over 30 negatives) exhibited at the Photographic Society of Scotland, it was rejected. The judges said it wasn't a true photograph because it was modified , not “as seen by the camera”. It was critiqued as “a vicious and illegitimate application of the photographic art”. The battle that resulted amongst the society’s membership resulted in many members forming a separate society.
Well, as Picasso said, summing up art's complex relationship to reality,  it is "a lie that tells the truth".
The inevitable reaction is still with us. The aesthetic of straight photography (a term coined by the art critic Saadakichi Hartmann around 1904) that was really taken up by Alfred Steiglitz and Paul Strand and influenced the f64 group, has lead I think to an unfortunate separation between theory and practice. So called "straight photographs" mostly haven't been. As Paul Strand himself blurted out at the end of his life "I've always felt that you can do anything you want in photography if you can get away with it".
Photographs have been looked on as more accurate and factual than pictures from any other medium. And of course they are not. They are bits of blackened silver or dye on a piece of paper, or dots on a screen. They a human constructions. As Henry Peach Robinson wrote in 1869: "Cultivated minds do not require to believe that they are deceived, and that they look on actual nature, when they behold a pictorial representation of it".
I think we need to regain the Victorians' sophisticated view of the art of photography. I'll step off my soapbox now.
I enjoyed you photographs and article Rick.  Smiley
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Harlem22
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« Reply #1 on: April 15, 2014, 06:56:01 AM »
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What is reality? The light beams which reach my retina? Obvious not. Imagine a marvelous sunset at the sea. First time when you're in hurry, sitting in a car and being distressed because you're missing a deadline and second time sitting with a beautiful woman/men of your choice in a sea-side restaurant having a dinner. Same sunset but completely different feelings.

So why not use all technical capabilities in order to sculpture your intended feeling in the mind of the viewer.

Harald
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michael
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« Reply #2 on: April 15, 2014, 07:20:51 AM »
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There's a likely apocryphal story of an American art collector who visited Picasso's studio during his cubist period. The visitor commented that the woman (Picasso's wife at the time) in one particular painting looked nothing like real life.

Picasso's reply was to ask the visitor if he had a photograph of his wife with him. Yes, the visitor replied, and took a photograph from his wallet. Humm, said Picasso. "Look how tiny she appears", holding the photo in one hand, and then turning it sideways added, "and look how thin".

Michael


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graphius
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« Reply #3 on: April 15, 2014, 09:38:36 AM »
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I think one of photography's issues is its insecurity. Because it is based on ever advancing technology, photography is constantly marketed as easier to "capture" more "real" images. Kodachrome, Velvia, and many (most? all?) other films were touted as producing images closer to what you see. Look at the marketing from Nikon, Canon, Leaf, or anyone else. They may talk about the ergonomics of the camera and how it feels in your hand, but the images they show are better, stronger, faster and more real than before ("pure photography" anyone?)

It seems to me that other forms of art, such as painting and sculpture are moving away from straight depiction and moving to more abstract. Maybe the push in photography to be more realistic* is in reaction to the loss of pictorial painting.

*whatever that means, but that is a different conversation
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Isaac
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« Reply #4 on: April 15, 2014, 11:34:17 AM »
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Photographs have been looked on as more accurate and factual than pictures from any other medium. And of course they are not. They are bits of blackened silver or dye on a piece of paper, or dots on a screen.

You haven't shown why photographs could not be both "bits of blackened silver or dye on a piece of paper" and "more accurate and factual than pictures from any other medium".
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Isaac
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« Reply #5 on: April 15, 2014, 11:51:12 AM »
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What is reality? The light beams which reach my retina? Obvious not.

Obviously, the light beams which reach your retina are one aspect of reality :-)
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peterpix
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« Reply #6 on: April 15, 2014, 01:26:12 PM »
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If the Wales image  is supposed to be reality (how the scene looked), then it fails, but as an art image then it's great. How much one changes a scene depends on how the image is to be used. Adding something that is not there does not work for  saying "here's what this place looks like." As altered by Rick, the Wales scene is more akin to a painting and artists usually have "artistic license," to add or subtract as they see fit. The problem with photography is that  we can record a scene as it is or we can add and subtract, etc., but as Rick points out, we then have an obligation to state what we have done.
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Peter Randall
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« Reply #7 on: April 15, 2014, 01:58:09 PM »
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I think one of photography's issues is its insecurity.

I like that.  Photography is the only art form with self esteem issues. Smiley
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Telecaster
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« Reply #8 on: April 15, 2014, 02:15:32 PM »
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It seems to me that other forms of art, such as painting and sculpture are moving away from straight depiction and moving to more abstract. Maybe the push in photography to be more realistic* is in reaction to the loss of pictorial painting.

*whatever that means, but that is a different conversation

I think it's kinda the other way 'round. The advent of photography has driven the move to abstraction in painting & sculpture. Historically these two things pretty much coincide.

IMO in any creative endeavor anything goes, given the limitations of your tools (and your imagination). Also IMO working within a framework—that is, imposing limitations on yourself—is very useful, maybe even essential, in doing good creative work. Just don't turn your framework into a dogmatic straightjacket...this not only tends to annoy other people, it also kills your own creativity.

-Dave-
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Misirlou
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« Reply #9 on: April 15, 2014, 02:26:14 PM »
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I think it's kinda the other way 'round. The advent of photography has driven the move to abstraction in painting & sculpture. Historically these two things pretty much coincide.

-Dave-

Wasn't that stated rather explicitly by the Impressionists? They were consciously reacting to photography; trying to convey things the camera couldn't.

There's something about the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari that just begs for HDR (at least to those of us with untreated HDR syndrome). Here's my own very non-realistic interpretation from a few years back.
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R.M. Service
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« Reply #10 on: April 15, 2014, 02:27:55 PM »
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The author is spot-on:  Photography has never been about reality, despite all who might believe otherwise.

I would add some other points, too:

-  When I hear people decry the lack of 'reality' in much of today's photography, I'm always tempted to ask them if they believe every image ought to reflect a human's Field of View ( 140 Degrees ), or only that Field of View which human's see in sharp focus ( 15 Degrees )?  After all, those two vision factors are the ones that define our sense of 'reality'.
-  When they criticize HDR/Fusion photography as 'unreal', I want to ask if they'd prefer to go back to only seeing 50% of the dynamic range of the human eye, ala non-HDR images?
-  When they view a perspective-controlled image and praise it's 'reality', I want to point out that it's the brain's software that corrects the convergence issues of 'reality'.  Convergence is what is 'real';  Perpective-Control is 'unreal'.

And lastly:

   -  99% of photography, from the moment it was born, has been skewed toward making reality 'better' than reality actually exists.  Yes, there is that school of contrariness that tries to make the images look 'worse' than reality, but that's the rare exception.
   -  In the process of making reality appear 'better', the short term results might, indeed, be preferable to the alternatives:  Cars and dresses get sold, makeup artists make a living, jewelers sell baubles, faces get immortalized, etc.
   -  In the long term, however, I believe the crowd-generated result has been to diminish our valuation of 'reality',  instilling a depression amongst those living 'real' lives that their's ain't as beautiful, sensuous, loving, etc., as the rest of the World's, that their's lacks the romance, the power, the mystery, the drama of everyone else's.  
   -  It's not an overt, demonstrable point that I'm making.  I cannot point to seven studies that back up my opinion.  It's a lot more of a gut reaction.  I just think that compared to 'media reality', everyone's actual reality looks pale, washed-out, desaturated, unexciting, boring.
   -  Lastly, I wanna point out that the vast, vast majority of our lives are spent in seeing reflected light. . . . that 'reality' is represented to us from photons bouncing off of objects.  In the last 20 years or so, an increasing share of the media we consume has been backlit, deepening the chasm between boring old  'reality' and the feast-for-your-eyes media, intensifying the disenchantment that I'm concerned about here.
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Alan Klein
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« Reply #11 on: April 15, 2014, 03:11:30 PM »
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Quote
99% of photography, from the moment it was born, has been skewed toward making reality 'better' than reality actually exists.

While I'm a fan of not faking pictures, notwithstanding oversaturation and other similar edits that often look fake anyway,  there  are no landscape pictures that exceed the view of the actual subject.  Who has duplicated photographically the awe you feel from Inspiration Point in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon,  or other similar views?  So our attempt usually is to equal the actual experience of being there.  But the result is only a fraction of the experience.
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Philip Weber
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« Reply #12 on: April 15, 2014, 10:44:24 PM »
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What is reality?

The student asked the Zen Master, What is Reality?

The Master replied, That which is real, is that which never changes.  Huh

Phil

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Telecaster
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« Reply #13 on: April 15, 2014, 11:33:39 PM »
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   -  Lastly, I wanna point out that the vast, vast majority of our lives are spent in seeing reflected light. . . . that 'reality' is represented to us from photons bouncing off of objects. In the last 20 years or so, an increasing share of the media we consume has been backlit, deepening the chasm between boring old  'reality' and the feast-for-your-eyes media, intensifying the disenchantment that I'm concerned about here.

Just to be an annoying pedant: there's actually no such thing as reflection. Light is either emitted or absorbed. "Reflected" photons are emitted with a trajectory and probability distribution (wavelength) such that they appear to be the same as photons striking (and being absorbed by) the "reflecting" object...but they're different photons. Look up Quantum Electrodynamics for more info. In the everyday world, consider it a bit of party trivia.

Now to your actual point.   Smiley  It seems to me there's always been a gap between the vividness of imagination at its best and the not infrequent mundanity of everyday life. This is part of why art has appeal. Lately we've become very good at creating even better than the real thing—or at least bigger, louder, sharper, more saturated than the real thing—multimedia worlds. I guess we'll either have to do a better job as a species when it comes to everyday life or experience a future where people devote more & more time to their virtual lives. I'm not sure which will be harder: creating a better real world or building a virtual one rich enough to match or even exceed the best of the real world. In either case we have a long way to go...

-Dave-
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stamper
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« Reply #14 on: April 16, 2014, 04:07:20 AM »
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That is a novel theory....Quantum Electrodynamics alongside the rule of thirds? I am surprised that this subject has been aired again and again and..... I suppose it livens up the forum for a few days.  Undecided
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ednazarko
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« Reply #15 on: April 16, 2014, 07:10:38 AM »
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I was part of a group of people studied by some medical and transportation safety researchers years ago.  During the research I learned how much of our visual reality is "colored in" by our brain.  The area of accurate color perception is much smaller than the area that our brain thinks it is.  Being shown a stoplight in your peripheral vision, when the top light lights up you'll see it as a red light... even if it's a green one. However, the speed of processing information in the center of your visual speed is so much slower than in your peripheral vision. The huge dynamic range of our vision is also created to a great extent by our brains enhancing what our eyes see - we have our own HDR processing algorithms.

Even the automatic white balancing that our brain does is somewhat suspect, as you find out when photographing under some cheap florescent lights that have bandy emission spectra - some colors just aren't there but our brain puts them there.  In my case, my brain doesn't auto white balance very well, I'm kind of permanently set to daylight WB, and to replicate what I see, so are my cameras permanently set to daylight WB.  I stopped arguing with people about that a long time ago.

You won't see crazy 6 foot white rabbits march through a scene if you're not expecting them to be there (see some of the very cool perceptual research referenced in Daniel Kahneman's books.)

Trying to judge reality by using a visual system that's intensively bending, shaping, even creating content, is a fools errand.  The heaviest hand in post-processing a photograph can't match what our brain is doing.
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Jonathan Cross
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« Reply #16 on: April 16, 2014, 08:34:11 AM »
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This seems yet again to be a somewhat sterile discussion that will come to no real conclusion, because we are all different.  IMHO altering a photograph e.g. by cloning out people, or inserting one that was not there, or changing a sky in post processing, is altering reality.  In documentary or newspaper photography it should definitely not be allowed.  Altering white balance, changing contrast etc is minor tinkering, and is probably no more than our brain does when filing a scene in its memory bank.  And anyway, did not film alter reality, e.g. by being black and white, just being for daylight, or having specific saturation properties? 

Personally, I do not like highly saturated images, but others do.  What is wrong with that?  A friend refused to take photographs of the Grand Canyon, because he felt no photograph could convey the awe felt when actually there.  Is there no room for personal preference?

Get out there and enjoy image making.  Revel in the mist, the golden hour, the drama, and all that this world has to offer.  Make great images that you and others appreciate, but you will not please all of the people all of the time.

Enough of this, it is time away from my camera.

Jonathan
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Colorado David
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« Reply #17 on: April 16, 2014, 08:38:58 AM »
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When I first showed the Grand Canyon to my then teen aged daughter, she said it didn't look real.  To her it looked like scenery made for the theater.
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ndevlin
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« Reply #18 on: April 16, 2014, 09:54:50 AM »
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Here's my own very non-realistic interpretation from a few years back.

I like this image a lot. I can really 'feel' it. The limited DR of the human eye means that a slightly 'processed' image often better conveys the real life experience. 

- N.
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Nick Devlin   @onelittlecamera
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« Reply #19 on: April 16, 2014, 11:00:34 AM »
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Speaking of what and how the brain sees, here's my favorite.  Please don't reveal the results in your posts here. 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY
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