It’s the real thing – or is it?
Be warned --- I’m gonna wax philosophical in this post. You’ll have to work to follow it closely.
There are still people who whine that digital manipulation is somehow cheating, that it distorts the reality of a film camera shot, and it’s somehow too easy. I say nuts, for two simple reasons. 1. No camera captures reality. 2. The final photograph depends on the vision and skill of the photographer both composing and taking the picture, and in the lab afterwards.
So to begin with, let’s take a look at the “reality” of a film exposure. A film camera sees only what is there, and sees it only in terms of light and shadow (and color, though that’s a separate argument). It does not see trees and hills and soccer balls and smiling Uncle Jack. And it is at best a representation of what it sees; it’s not the thing itself. Heck, a picture’s not even three-dimensional, let alone four-dimensional.
The camera – any camera – does not see context. Only humans do that. That’s because an exposure is typically very short. Portrait photographers like to claim they capture a moment in time – but in fact, it’s usually something around 1/60 of a second or less. Pretty brief moment, and says nothing of what happened right before it or what happens right after it.
It’s the before-and-after part that creates a story and gives meaning to human life. Movies tell stories. Photographs only imply them – and frequently they’re lying. Take the picture of the little girl and her dolly. She looks so sad! In fact a few seconds before this shot she was grinning and skylarking about, and a few seconds after it she was smiling again.
I had asked her to “love the dolly.” Click.
The reality is – at that instant the child looked like that. But in terms of her overall personality, it’s not the reality. It’s not related to anything beyond that instant. Anything we might say about this kid is all made-up, an invention. It’s a story. Humans make up stories all the time. We do it to bring order and meaning into what would otherwise be chaos and senseless.
But it’s all fiction.
A successful portrait generates a story in us that we like to tell. If the portrait actually generates a story that reminds us of OUR fiction about the person in the picture, it’s a really successful portrait.
So, I ask again …. What’s reality? To a camera, it’s photons flooding a receptor, whether film or pixels sensors. No subject, no context, no story, no reality. Reality, one more time, is defined by people’s experience of life (which includes their experience of science experiments, so nyahh, nyahh, nyahh to you measurers and quantifiers out there).
The so-what of this is that since there is no human reality in a photograph, what on earth can be wrong with constructing a more artistic or human-oriented version of what the camera saw? No great moral sin is being committed. Removing the inadvertent tree trunk from Sister Helen’s head is no lie. Taking it out of there (or blurring it in photoshop) lets the viewer concentrate on Sister Helen, who is far more important to the photographer than the tree trunk. All you’re doing by taking out the tree trunk is creating the reality you THOUGHT you saw or WANTED to see when you took the picture.
The picture now corresponds much more closely to your view of reality.
The tree trunk appears to be coming from Sister Helen’s head for two reasons. The first is that the camera’s lens treated head and tree as both in focus with no space between them. The second reason is that the photographer didn’t see the tree. He saw Sister Helen, and mentally blocked out the tree. Surprise! It was there all along! Skilled photographers learn to see the tree trunk, and to check the corners of the frame to make sure nothing’s there that shouldn’t be.
Watch those telephone wires! They’re the dark lines you don’t see looking down the street – but the camera sees them just fine. If you want to take that scene, move where the wires are out of frame, or be prepared to bust your ass in photoshop later!
END OF BIG ASIDE
So, to finish up, cameras see only a very limited version of reality. All the richness and wealth of reality comes from the photographer – and he or she made it all up in the first place!
Don’t be shy. Just admit what you’re doing with a film camera or a digital one is only step one in expressing the reality that’s in your head …. Then go for broke back in the lab or on the computer!