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Resolving The Conflict Between Objectivity and Subjectivity

Sometimes, photography comes in for criticism as being too easy to manipulate, that it doesn't show things as they actually are, objectively. But good photography has always been an exercise in expressing point of view. Hasn't It?

The medical examiner presents a series of photographs as part of a court proceeding in a murder trial. Each image is evenly well lit and includes a ruler clearly indicating scale. This is the pinnacle of objective photography. It's supposed to serve as evidence of something that actually was. Any manipulation either before or after the shutter was pressed would call into question whether the case against the accused was as solid as the district attorney claimed it was. There are rules for the entire chain of evidence that must be observed. And that includes the photography.

But the rules for other types of photography are less well regulated. Most of us operate under competing demands for accurate but interesting photography. Images shouldn't be made up or manipulated to the point of not representing honest portrayals, but they should be compelling and visually interesting. Good objective photography stays true to life. Good subjective photography takes greater liberties and often exaggerates life. Objective photography is intended to rationally make its case. Subjective photography is designed to appeal to the emotions. Every image you take falls somewhere within this mix.

But who among us strives to take evidence photography? Myself, I prefer images that show me things in a new way, or perhaps evoke a feeling deep within that perhaps I had forgotten about.

Freeman Patterson, a well-known Canadian nature photographer has said that the "camera always points both ways. In expressing your subject, you also express yourself." I agree wholeheartedly. There's a little piece of you in every photograph you take. Even evidence photography is in fact subjective since it conveys the intent of the photographer. There's no escaping it, even for forensic photographers, we are all caught in (or held comfortably safe in) the realm of subjectivity. It comes with being human.

The camera takes pictures where it is pointed by the photographer. It composes as you compose. It exposes as you set it to expose. Even if you set it on fully automatic, you set it on fully automatic. It's impossible not to make choices even when the choice you make is delegate choices to your camera. Photography is always subjective.

So what about manipulation? Every one of the decisions that are made when a photograph is taken manipulates the outcome. A camera doesn't take pictures of what is cropped out of its field of view, and even a fish eye lens takes in no more than around half of the 360 degrees that surrounds us. Most lenses crop out far more. Every press of the shutter includes something of what was there at the time just as it excludes other things.

Is a long exposure shot of a silky waterfall more subjective or objective? What about a fast shutter speed shot that freezes every droplet of that waterfall in time and in space? Or must the only thing that qualifies as objectivity be the exceptionally ordinary rendition that falls midway between these two? The image you make is the image you take. The choice is still yours.

And once you get that image onto your computer in the digital darkroom, there are still choices to be made even if again that choice is to allow your software to decide everything for you. Objectivity is a myth. Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop point both ways just as the camera does. You are there in so many ways in every image you produce.

There's no denying that you can take this too far. I'm not sure by who, but it's been said by someone that if you are good enough at Photoshop you don't even need a camera to create a picture. I know I've said it before anyway. This kind of manipulation is beyond what I'm talking about here. Where the line not to be crossed is is something each of us needs to decide. Mind you, it's still manipulation. it's still a subjective rendering and says something about the person who made it just as it does about the subject it represents.

There really is no conflict between objectivity and subjectivity. When you really look at it subjectivity won from the very beginning. Any attempt at true objectivity is just another form of subjectivity however seemingly muted.

Embrace the subjective nature of your image making. Manipulation is an integral part of art, and photography is an art. Decide for yourself what too much manipulation is and live by that guidance in the images you create. Recognize that you are there in every image you make, and strive for that. Look for what compels you to be interested in your subject and accentuate or even exaggerate it. Make your photography about you as well as what you thought you were pointing your camera at.

Date posted: November 24, 2013


Copyright © 2013 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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