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慕麗来簡集 / letters from mali

photography and the "real"

photography and the "real"

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Regarding this article (okay, David Pogue's blog entry) in today's New York Times: Photoshop and Photography: When Is It Real?

So, the basic issue here is - when does photography cross the line from "photography" to, well something else? Something "fake" or set up or constructed? In other words, to put it in the simpler words of the headline - when is it photography and when is it just Photoshop?

I have to give David Pogue a lot of credit for taking this issue on seriously and critically. He doesn't fall into the trap of just trying to find a dividing line. He points out the very nature of photography itself: that it is not "real" no matter what the processing medium is. He asks, which of these makes something no longer "real" photography: setting up a scene, putting makeup on a model, using unnatural lighting, touching up photos in the darkroom with dodging and burning?

The way I might pose the question, in the same vein (which I admire but don't think goes far enough) is: Why do we expect this mediating device, the camera itself, to produce something "real" or something that is truthful?

This question is fascinating because it is something that has been raised since photography itself was invented. Is it a replication of reality? What can it capture? I think this question ranges from visual representation on the one side of the camera, to its impacts on the other - the ways in which we hold or pose ourselves for the camera that we otherwise would not do, and the question of what the camera "captures" - is it some kind of visual surface or something deeper in us, in our very souls? Can the mediating technology of the camera take something from us and transfer it to the person on the other side?

We might think it's silly now to think this way. After all, isn't it some kind of 19th-century belief that the camera can steal our souls?

But think of it in another light, one that adopts the wording of contemporary academics: what is the power relationship between photographer and photographed? How does their relationship play out through this mediating technology? I don't think it's as straightforward as some kind of exploitative relationship between taker and giver; as in any arena, the party being "captured" on film, being saved for the uses of the photographer, plays his or her own part in the relationship. Pose, facial expression, turning toward or away, meeting eye contact, dress, and of course that frequent direct intervention of a hand over the lens (or over one's face).

You may guess where I'm going with this. Photography is not "real." It does not capture truth or some kind of objective reality. It captures what the camera can see, what kind of sight this specific technology can create. The camera is important for the very reason that it sees in a way we cannot. Why does the camera add 10 pounds, as the saying goes? Because the image it presents does not match up with the way in which we perceive things in space with our own eyes.

How does taking photographs on film, or on plates in a large-format camera, or on slides - developing it in a darkroom, or in a color laboratory - how does this constitute "real" photography as opposed to digital photography developed in Photoshop? Composite photos did not suddenly appear with the advent of the computer. And it isn't like photographers haven't been messing around on the film and in the development process in the darkroom with their own hands and their own tools.

As Mr. Pogue asks, is the overlaying of several images in HDR (high dynamic range) photography making it... no longer a photograph? Is there a difference between "developing" in Photoshop and - what, digital art? What does it mean to say that?

It looks like the photography magazine in question in this article - the one that created controversy for giving awards to heavily Photoshopped photographs, ones that could not be representations of reality "as it is," - is going to in the future divide awards between "real" and "Photoshopped" photography.

I guess my take on it goes to the heart of that division. I've already said it, but how can you say out of one side of your mouth that there is a certain kind of "photography" that goes after "reality." And that there is, at the same time, a kind of photography that is nonetheless not-quite-photography - too far from some ill-defined "real" to still "count."

As a photographer, I can't reconcile this. To pretend that photography is all about timing and some kind of nebulous talent for composition is ludicrous. With this kind of philosophy wedding photos wouldn't be photography; portraits wouldn't be photography. Landscape photography is does in a very specific way and at a very, very, very specific TIME of day (just before dawn). What about the use of a tripod as opposed to handheld shots? Different film speeds and resulting graininess or noise (if digital)? Different lenses? How is the use of these physical tools to create the intended or desired result any different from doing the same thing with software?

Are we going to take this so far as to say that digital photography isn't as "real"? The very act of making a photograph with a digital camera, transferring it to your computer, saving it, putting it out there for others - this is the "Photoshop process." As for me, I take most of my planned (like when I'm out taking pictures on purpose) shots in camera Raw format, which means I get the full menu for "developing" these photos in Photoshop. I tend to get lazy this way and take very underexposed shots without worrying about white balance, because I can "correct" them in the developing process.

Doesn't it say a lot that the word "correcting" comes right out of my mouth as naturally as anything else? That I might "correct for" underexposure or for color balance or saturation or noise or white balance or black tones?

What am I "correcting" for? It's not reality. It's, at the closest, my memory of what my eye saw, my own interpretation of what the "real" scene looked like. But I say it is this in the end: achieving an ideal we have in our heads, no matter what it's based on, that neither corresponds to "reality" nor what our eye sees.

And can we even say what our eye sees captures "reality"? Doesn't that sound crazy? But before you suggest I be institutionalized, don't we also think it's hilarious that someone might think an object doesn't exist because they can't see it? That the world doesn't disappear in the night, or when we shut our eyes? The eye is no more a capture of reality than the camera; no more a capture of reality than any of our limited senses. The most we can get is a composite - yes, a composite, doesn't that sound similar to what we say about Photoshopped images? - that is a combination of these senses, biased toward the ones we think we can trust more than others.

No technology - including our own bodies - is neutral. The camera is not neutral. And the composition, developing, and presentation of images that it mediates - whether they be snapshots, carefully planned fashion shoots, or composite images creating the "ideal" rather than the "real" - are no more neutral than the camera can be.
  • Fascinating reads, both your post and Mr Pogue's. I love your choice of phrasing - you're absolutely right to point out that there is a power relationship between photographer and photographed, a social/emotional element added by the camera, all kinds of things that could be said about the photographer or later viewer as voyeur.. As it pertains to 'truth' or 'reality', a photograph, even completely unstaged and un-edited, could present any number of different stories or different emotional impacts depending on the context in which it is presented, the preconceptions of the viewer, etc.

    A lot of the same questions about reality pertain to painting and other forms of art as well. Does reality obey one- or two-point perspective? There's a famous Chinese quote (I apologize, I don't know who said it or when) that refers to Western Realist oil painting as a cheap trick and argues that Chinese ink painting (which most Westerners would consider highly stylized, anything but realistic) far better captures the essence of its subject - the essence of mountainness, for example. Do any paintings represent reality? Do ukiyo-e prints represent what Edo actually looked like? Or some idealized version? Do bijinga paintings represent fashions actually worn by courtesans, or fantasy designs that were never made?

    In any case, returning the point, when it comes to the "art" of photography - photography contests and that sort of thing - I think you and Mr Pogue both raise excellent points. However, one must nevertheless ask what is it that's being contested in such considerations. Is the master photographer the one who captures the best shot totally unstaged, with no makeup, no lightboxes or umbrellas or anything, but purely with her talent for finding beautiful sights, interesting compositions, etc and photographing them? Or is the master photographer the one who is most skilled at deploying lightboxes and whatever to set up the best shot? Or is the master photographer the one who has the best Photoshop skills? Which skills or talents are being measured?

    It seems to me that these are three (or more) different arts. Is your photography like life-drawing, depicting what already exists in front of you? or is it like a kind of mixed-media sculpture or installation which is limited by the materials and tools you have available? Or is it like painting, or digital media, creating anything at all, limited only by your imagination?

    ....

    This comment is getting quite long, and I apologize. But I also wanted to say one more thing - Pogue makes a great point in saying “It depends on the purpose of the photo.” Photography may not be reality, but an untouched, unstaged, unedited photo is the closest approximation of a genuine record of reality that we have.

    I don't want to think that news photos or other documentary photography is edited - maybe just for contrast and the like, but not for content. And I don't want travel photography to make a place look better than it is, fashion photography to make a celebrity look more perfect or more beautiful than she really is, or food photography to make food look better than it is. We make decisions based on these kinds of images, and we want to (need to?) be able to trust them.

    Art photography, on the other hand, of course, can be whatever it wants to be.
    • Yay, I was hoping you'd reply to this. Thank you for such a long and
      thoughtful comment. I love talking with issues like this on my journal
      with you. :D

      You make excellent points regarding visual art and painting, and I was
      thinking about that while I was writing my post. I thought it was too
      much to go into at the same time, but I completely agree with you.

      In terms of photography and purpose, you have a good point. But I
      still disagree with the fact that any photography can be untouched and
      unedited. I say this as someone who is moving from total beginner to
      almost-not-quite-amateur with photography over the past few years.
      Part of that process includes familiarity with and skill in using what
      on digital cameras are "advanced" features - exposure, white balance,
      aperture, manual focus, lenses, and so on.

      But on current digital cameras, there is "default" mode - auto mode -
      where the camera is supposed to make all of the decisions for you and
      supply you with an "optimal" photograph that you don't have to modify
      to make it look good. This is enough for most people because most
      people are taking snapshots - recording reality as best they can, just
      as you said.

      There are other modes, right? And they are ever increasing.
      Underwater; night view; landscape; portrait; kids; action; sports;
      etc; etc.

      But the thing is, none of these, automatic mode included, are any more
      or less objective as my using manual mode and adjusting the "film
      speed" (fake of course), size of the image in pixels, exposure, and
      white balance. My DSLR takes a different "reality" record from my
      point-and-shoot Canon because its sensor is bigger, so it has higher
      quality even though it's lower megapixels (hence the images can't be
      as pixel-big as the Canon's). The auto settings on both cameras are
      not up to my standards, so I'm often in manual mode. But I don't use
      full manual on the DSLR because I don't know what I'm doing enough. I
      have to use Program Mode which takes care of aperture and shutter
      speed for you, while I adjust exposure only. I go back and "fix"
      things in Photoshop later because I don't adjust any of the settings
      to be appropriate to my environment - in other words, I'm taking
      "unmediated" shots of "reality" with a technology that is going to
      misrepresent it.

      I guess I'm rambling on about this because even auto mode, default
      mode, film or digital or slide or anything, none of it is an
      unmediated technology, even if you don't touch it up later or fiddle
      with any of the settings or use any fake light. It's not a record of
      reality. It's a record of what hits the camera's sensor through a
      filter of settings and lenses that are no more reality than our eyes
      are.

      I also don't think there's such a thing as 'unedited,' and in fact
      newspaper and magazine photos do get faked. (There was a famous case
      of this a few years ago when someone used a Photoshopped image of some
      missile launchers or something in the news, and it was amateurish
      enough that people identified the launcher that had been put in right
      away - but it had been done to make it look like Iran had more weapons
      than it really did, if I remember right.) Also, National Geographic is
      going to have standards for the photojournalists that work for them -
      they want vibrant, high-saturation images that are going to convey the
      emotion (exciting, sad, sympathetic, worried) of the article that
      accompanies them. Photos of celebrities are "edited" by choice of
      technology depending on whether they're taken in the studio, by
      paparazzi, or a family portrait at home.

      So that's why I am still sticking to there being no way to have an
      unedited, most approximate version of reality with one kind of
      camera-shooting over another. All photography can be anything it wants
      to be - it's more up to us to decide in what ways that is acceptable.
  • (Anonymous)
    I didn't read the article, but the questions you posed here really made me think. I think I've on some level always known that photography is a very interesting medium for exactly the questions you've raised. The best photographs I can think of evoke some sort of naturality and unnaturality, through some combination of subject, lighting, angle, distance, focus, digital manipulation, etc. Sure, I can easily simplify this and classify all these elements as always being "realistic" or always "unrealistic", but I know that's not what my brain is doing when I look at a given photograph. My brain tries to put these elements one way or the other, i.e., this lighting makes it look more realistic, this focus makes it look more abstract. Like you said, how can one reconcile the broad grouping with what my brain wants to do? But that's the amazing thing about photography! I might even say it's the point much of the time.

    I think I've pretty much just summed up what you have said here in my own words. :P I will add that in contrast to other art forms, which mostly play on our expectations of other works or "rules" of the art form, photographs heavily play on our expectations of reality.
  • NATO takes over command of military operations in Libya

    (Anonymous)
    [b]NATO is taking over command of military operations in Libya from coalition forces, world media reported Sunday.[/b]

    The UN Security Council imposed the no-fly zone over Libya on March 17, along with ordering "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi's attacks on rebel-held towns.

    The 28 NATO ambassadors met on Sunday to decide on further military plans in Libya.

    The United States transfers command for a no-fly zone over Libya to NATO, while coalition forces will continue to protect civilian population from attacks by Gaddafi forces.

    The military operation in Libya, codenamed Odyssey Dawn, has been conducted so far jointly by 13 states, including the United States, Britain and France.

    NATO members decided on Thursday to assume responsibility for the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya, but could not agree on taking full command of all military operations in the country.

    Meanwhile, leaders of the 27 European Union states on Thursday issued a statement saying the EU stood ready to assist in building a new Libya "in cooperation with the United Nations, the Arab League, the African Union and others."

    MOSCOW, March 27 (RIA Novosti)

    http://en.rian.ru/world/20110327/163235937.html
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