Just Like Being There (And Chocolate Versus Strawberry Ice Cream)
When people look at a good image, they sometimes describe the experience as just like being there. That has a nice sound to it but can't be literally true. Yet it's worth considering just how close we can come, and how it can make us better photographers.
When we're out and about, life comes at us from every direction, and via all of our senses. We are surrounded by the world. We are an active part of it. We see a beautiful vista that looks like it might make a good photograph. We feel the cold, winter breeze on our faces and hear the crunch of hard-packed snow under out boots. There may be little to hear other than our own footsteps and the sound of our heavy breathing, toting around a heavy camera bag at such an altitude, but that very silence has an impact. Even if the world does come to us via separate entrances we call sight, sound, taste, touch and hearing, it does so collectively, as the totality of our experience in the moment. Even if we tried to, we can't separate what we see of the world from what our other senses tell us of the world.
Don't believe me? Back in the early 1990's, Pepsi introduced a clear version of its normally caramel brown colored Pepsi Cola soft drink. After achieving initial success and despite heavy advertising, sales slumped, and Crystal Pepsi was discontinued after little more than a year on the market. Despite tasting the same, it just didn't look right. The public preferred the identical taste of the traditional brown cola. Similar results have been confirmed from multiple scientific taste tests using pools of volunteers. It seems that what we perceive as "taste" is heavily influenced by our expectations of appropriate color. This is equally true for our other senses as well. Although we believe we have five senses as we were taught in school, the truth is a tad more complicated. The input from those senses are combined, associated and categorized, and the resulting impressions then carved apart and labeled as specific concepts and ideas. We only think we live in the real world. From experience though, we live in our impressions of the real world.
To complete the package, we overlay our real-time experience with our recollections of past, but similar experiences. Fond memories of growing up on a farm? I'm guessing you'd love shooting in eastern Washington's Palouse region in the fall. I didn't, so I tend to prefer the Palouse in the spring for the blooming flowers. You say you didn't like strawberry ice cream much as a kid? I'd wager you still prefer chocolate. Confession: chocolate is my favorite. You could argue that some taste preferences have been shown to have a genetic component, but that explanation seems far less applicable in relation to childhood associations of life where you grew up. Whatever the cause though, we're rarely even aware of how our memories color our perceptions of the present. It's been internalized as just a part of who we are.
There's just no way of getting around it. Our perceptions of the world aren't always strictly objective, nor, I'll dare to suggest, would we want them to be. The world is a much more interesting place if we allow our definition of it to include our subjective impressions and feelings about it. Such impressions are inherently personal and private, yet at the same time, we also need to acknowledge that we tend to share preferences with those we share backgrounds with. We learn them from others growing up to some extent, but beyond that, they simply rub off on us from those we spend time with. This makes for an interesting arrangement whereby we tend to share communally reinforced opinions and preferences, even when such preferences have no intrinsic, objective existence. We tend to enjoy the food of the region or country where we grew up not because it is more nutritious or anything, but rather simply because we associate it with fond memories. Like chocolate versus strawberry ice cream.
But if we like chocolate ice cream more than strawberry, it stands to reason that other people do too. If we like the look of one composition better than another, it stands to reason that if we shoot it that way then other folks out there will like it that way too. Trying to come up with a reason why we like it better can serve as a shortcut for finding similar compositional possibilities in the future, but at some point, we need to trust that it's safe to jump off and go on feel, safe in the confidence that there will be at least a few folks out there that will feel the same way and like it too.
For it to be meaningful, "just like being there" has to include what it felt like being there, not just what it objectively was at that place and at that time. Because that's the way we, as the photographer who shot some particularly favorite image, felt like when we actually were there, fortunate enough to shoot it.
Yet a photograph is limited to conveying only visual information, and by its nature, has to squeeze this information to fit within the confines of a single rectangular frame. Some cameras do have a square frame (although of course every lens actually projects a round image that gets chopped off on the sides to fit the sensor or film geometry), but unless we include movie cameras in our discussions here, each frame/image generally has to stand on its own. For the sake of this article at least, let's just agree to a traditional definition of photography as creating still image photographs. That forces a significant constraint on us as photographers, or more to the point, as artists attempting to convey our sense of being there in the images we create.
Luckily, subjectivity is both privately individual by nature and publicly sharable through commonality of experience. We're not the only ones who like chocolate ice cream. Its reasonable to assume other people had similar upbringings as we did, or at least share enough common touchstones that we both relate to similar things. What's your favorite book or movie? Mine too. What a coincidence.
So, if we find a particular image pleasing, at least the possibility exists that others will too. And the more honest we are about how we really feel about an image the more likely we will be able to create images that have deeper feelings for others as well. The more likely they will be to say an image of ours is just like being there.