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Two Versions of Photographic Reality

The word "photography" derives from the Greek for "painting with light" and clearly photography itself is a visual medium for representing a subject. But it's more than just that.

2001: A Sea Stack Odyssey
This looming sea stack reminded me of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey

On the surface, a photograph is something you look at. It doesn't matter whether that photograph is printed, viewed on a screen, or projected on a wall. Whatever a photograph is, it must be contained in how it looks. To accurately portray its subject, it should look like its subject. If you want to know what a famous person or rare species of spider looks like, you need a photograph that looks like the real thing does. They say that reality is in the eye of the beholder, but for a photograph to succeed at accurately portraying reality in an objective fashion it must look like reality.

But to succeed as an artistic endeavor a photograph needs to go beyond that in much the same way that successful story telling needs to go beyond just printed words on a page. In its written form, a story has to be conveyed through the words used to write it since that's all that will be available to the average reader. And to the extent that a story accurately conveys real life events those words have to live within the bounds of journalism. Journalistic reporting colored with excessive subjective opinion risks failing to accurately conveying its message to at least some potential readers. Reality, in at least this sense, must strive for objectivity rather than subjectivity.

There's another way to think about reality though. There's a difference between reading about something and living it yourself. There's a difference between looking at a photograph of something and being there to see it for yourself first hand. When you think about it, a photograph or the telling of a story are both just representations of reality. They describe reality and can never substitute for it.

No, there's no way to actually bridge that gap and fully convey experience over appearance, but it is possible to strive toward narrowing it. This necessarily entails a shift from objectivity to subjectivity. To communicate subjective reality a story must help the reader visualize what it must have been live to be a part of the narrative. To communicate subjective reality through photography a photographer must attempt to convey what it is like to see their subject first hand. A successful image in this sense needs to convey at least some of the feeling and wonder felt by the photographer themselves. It should attempt to make clear what drew the photographer to choose that subject in the first place.

Objective and subjective reality needn't be mutually exclusive either, but striving for one often results in minimizing the other. It is generally necessary to decide which you want to strive for and put your all into it. If you end up capturing both so much the better, but one shouldn't preclude the other either.

To make good objective images with a camera, a midrange focal length lens will often be the tool of choice to match the focal length of human vision. The use of anything too much wider than midrange is generally done only to permit framing in situations where everything won't fit otherwise. On the flip side great subjective images often employ extreme wide angles to intentionally exaggerate some aspect of a scene, even when a well framed image may be perfectly possible with a stock 50mm lens. A similar analysis and comparison can be made for shutter speed and other photographic variables. One type of image strives to represent subjects as they appear to a typical objective observer. The other type intentionally strives for unique vantage points and techniques so as to go beyond the objective view and go beneath the surface even at the expense of strict literal accuracy.

Fishing in Echo Basin
Echo Basin is big, but it looks even more so when shot with a fish eye lens

When I get right on top of a single flower with a wide angle lens it looks huge in comparison to its surroundings. When I blur flowing water I know water doesn't really look like cotton candy, but the way it flows around the rocks in the stream feels as if it does.

German film maker Werner Herzog coined the phrase "ecstatic truth" to describe the depths of meaning possible that go beyond the realm of cinema vérité and purely documentary ways of looking at the world. Says Herzog, "cinema vérité is the accountant's truth — it merely skirts the surface of what constitutes a deeper form of truth in cinema." I like this idea. Perhaps this speaks to why I like many of Herzog's films.

I think still photography has the same potential to go beyond the surface as what Herzog's ecstatic truth points to in motion picture photography. It isn't always possible to put this level of added meaning into words either. But it is often apparent when you look at an image that there's something in it that goes beyond the literal objective view.

If you like this type of photography as much as I do, I'd encourage you to look deeply into yourself and not just at your chosen photographic subject in front of you. Aim for images that view the world though yourself and not just through your lens. Look for a way to frame your subject that accentuates your own take on what you are photographing. This can often include the use of extreme vantage points or focal lengths, but don't employ them only for their own sake. The way you approach your subject should aim to put as much of your own perspective into the resulting images as you can. Your choices as a photographer should be part of your images not merely a means to an end. To succeed in this endeavor, subjective reality should be your aim rather than objective reality.

Date posted: November 2, 2014


Copyright © 2014 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Seeing What's in Front of You
Wherever You Go, There You Are
Reality in the Eye and Camera of the Beholder
Painting Versus Photography

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