Saturday, June 27, 2015

Photographs and Reality

This is something people love to go on and on about. You can take either side of the "a photograph accurately represents reality" debate and make yourself look smart, at least to the rubes.

As Sally Mann remarks, a photo is only the reality within the frame at an instant. I reply that it is nonetheless what was actually in front of the lens, that is, reality, at that moment. We're both right, so we're both smarties, right? And so on.

It hardly matters.

What is undeniable is that a photograph's power as a photograph derives from some sort of deep connection with reality. If it's just an easy way to make a drawing of whatever pops into your mind, then photography is a subset of drawing, and surely a lesser one. If photographs are to be a thing in their own right, that connection with reality has to count for something -- because there isn't anything else.

We, the viewer, tend to make two mistakes. The big one is that we confuse the 1/30th of a second of reality with something larger and longer. How often have you heard someone exclaim, about a photograph of someone they do not know, "Oh, you really captured her personality" when, of course, there's not a shred of evidence that is true? As I have remarked elsewhere, the skill in portraiture is not in capturing truth, but in creating a picture that feels true, that feels like an embodiment of someone.

The second mistake we make is to assume that what we see is, at least, the truth of the 1/30th of a second. This is also untrue, of course. There's stuff outside the frame, there's manipulation within the frame, etc. See any internet forum on a Wednesday, for a complete discussion of how RAW files have to be manipulated to even be viewable so there!!!1!!1!!

I maintain that the first mistake is built upon the second. We trust the truth of the captured instant, and extrapolate from that. When we find the frame itself to be untrue, the whole charade collapses.

Now here's where it gets interesting.

The generation after mine is, to a large degree, distrustful of the contents of the frame. They assume all photos are 'shopped, are manipulated and edited. Half erasures and half composite, all untruth. They don't seem to mind this, but the result is that we as a culture are starting to view photographs as quickly made paintings, with no more truth or reality in them than the maker chose to put in. The deep connection with reality is being, I think, broken.

The influences here are many. We have photorealistic digital effects in movies. In virtually every movie, in fact. Hardly a day goes by when some hapless nation on the Pacific Rim is not outed for some crudely photoshopped propaganda photo. Photographic "artists" litter the web, as often as not crowing about how heavily they use photoshop. The standard $100 portrait session results in pictures that are so obviously faked as to be painful. We are literally steeped in fakery, it would be incredible if we continued to believe in the reality of photos.

The consequence is that the photograph is, perhaps, doomed to become nothing special. Just a sort of quick way to sketch something, true or false hardly matters, it's a quick sketching method. As I've mentioned elsewhere, it's already ephemeral, cheap.

Perhaps this is at the root of why we see some people returning to film, to print. Perhaps they're looking to recover that verity that we seem to have lost along the way.

Me, I'm not gonna worry about it much, but I pretty much ain't give a fuuuuck.

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