photography and the real

originally published 2010.03.02 at

Regarding this article (okay, David Pogue’s blog entry) in today’s New York Times: Photoshop and Photography: When Is It Real?

So, the basic issue here is – when does photography cross the line from “photography” to, well something else? Something “fake” or set up or constructed? In other words, to put it in the simpler words of the headline – when is it photography and when is it just Photoshop?

I have to give David Pogue a lot of credit for taking this issue on seriously and critically. He doesn’t fall into the trap of just trying to find a dividing line. He points out the very nature of photography itself: that it is not “real” no matter what the processing medium is. He asks, which of these makes something no longer “real” photography: setting up a scene, putting makeup on a model, using unnatural lighting, touching up photos in the darkroom with dodging and burning?

The way I might pose the question, in the same vein (which I admire but don’t think goes far enough) is: Why do we expect this mediating device, the camera itself, to produce something “real” or something that is truthful?

This question is fascinating because it is something that has been raised since photography itself was invented. Is it a replication of reality? What can it capture? I think this question ranges from visual representation on the one side of the camera, to its impacts on the other – the ways in which we hold or pose ourselves for the camera that we otherwise would not do, and the question of what the camera “captures” – is it some kind of visual surface or something deeper in us, in our very souls? Can the mediating technology of the camera take something from us and transfer it to the person on the other side?

We might think it’s silly now to think this way. After all, isn’t it some kind of 19th-century belief that the camera can steal our souls?

But think of it in another light, one that adopts the wording of contemporary academics: what is the power relationship between photographer and photographed? How does their relationship play out through this mediating technology? I don’t think it’s as straightforward as some kind of exploitative relationship between taker and giver; as in any arena, the party being “captured” on film, being saved for the uses of the photographer, plays his or her own part in the relationship. Pose, facial expression, turning toward or away, meeting eye contact, dress, and of course that frequent direct intervention of a hand over the lens (or over one’s face).

You may guess where I’m going with this. Photography is not “real.” It does not capture truth or some kind of objective reality. It captures what the camera can see, what kind of sight this specific technology can create. The camera is important for the very reason that it sees in a way we cannot. Why does the camera add 10 pounds, as the saying goes? Because the image it presents does not match up with the way in which we perceive things in space with our own eyes.

How does taking photographs on film, or on plates in a large-format camera, or on slides – developing it in a darkroom, or in a color laboratory – how does this constitute “real” photography as opposed to digital photography developed in Photoshop? Composite photos did not suddenly appear with the advent of the computer. And it isn’t like photographers haven’t been messing around on the film and in the development process in the darkroom with their own hands and their own tools.

As Mr. Pogue asks, is the overlaying of several images in HDR (high dynamic range) photography making it… no longer a photograph? Is there a difference between “developing” in Photoshop and – what, digital art? What does it mean to say that?

It looks like the photography magazine in question in this article – the one that created controversy for giving awards to heavily Photoshopped photographs, ones that could not be representations of reality “as it is,” – is going to in the future divide awards between “real” and “Photoshopped” photography.

I guess my take on it goes to the heart of that division. I’ve already said it, but how can you say out of one side of your mouth that there is a certain kind of “photography” that goes after “reality.” And that there is, at the same time, a kind of photography that is nonetheless not-quite-photography – too far from some ill-defined “real” to still “count.”

As a photographer, I can’t reconcile this. To pretend that photography is all about timing and some kind of nebulous talent for composition is ludicrous. With this kind of philosophy wedding photos wouldn’t be photography; portraits wouldn’t be photography. Landscape photography is does in a very specific way and at a very, very, very specific TIME of day (just before dawn). What about the use of a tripod as opposed to handheld shots? Different film speeds and resulting graininess or noise (if digital)? Different lenses? How is the use of these physical tools to create the intended or desired result any different from doing the same thing with software?

Are we going to take this so far as to say that digital photography isn’t as “real”? The very act of making a photograph with a digital camera, transferring it to your computer, saving it, putting it out there for others – this is the “Photoshop process.” As for me, I take most of my planned (like when I’m out taking pictures on purpose) shots in camera Raw format, which means I get the full menu for “developing” these photos in Photoshop. I tend to get lazy this way and take very underexposed shots without worrying about white balance, because I can “correct” them in the developing process.

Doesn’t it say a lot that the word “correcting” comes right out of my mouth as naturally as anything else? That I might “correct for” underexposure or for color balance or saturation or noise or white balance or black tones?

What am I “correcting” for? It’s not reality. It’s, at the closest, my memory of what my eye saw, my own interpretation of what the “real” scene looked like. But I say it is this in the end: achieving an ideal we have in our heads, no matter what it’s based on, that neither corresponds to “reality” nor what our eye sees.

And can we even say what our eye sees captures “reality”? Doesn’t that sound crazy? But before you suggest I be institutionalized, don’t we also think it’s hilarious that someone might think an object doesn’t exist because they can’t see it? That the world doesn’t disappear in the night, or when we shut our eyes? The eye is no more a capture of reality than the camera; no more a capture of reality than any of our limited senses. The most we can get is a composite – yes, a composite, doesn’t that sound similar to what we say about Photoshopped images? – that is a combination of these senses, biased toward the ones we think we can trust more than others.

No technology – including our own bodies – is neutral. The camera is not neutral. And the composition, developing, and presentation of images that it mediates – whether they be snapshots, carefully planned fashion shoots, or composite images creating the “ideal” rather than the “real” – are no more neutral than the camera can be.

One thought on “photography and the real”

  1. I see photography more as a spectrum of reality. I agree that usually, photography is nowhere near the real end of the spectrum, and that’s perfectly fine. But there is a real end of the spectrum.

    What about scientific imaging? Correctly done it must be said to depict reality, or otherwise there’s no point to science. The objective truth that science explores must be able to be captured by the instruments of science, right?

    The science part of it also touches on another aspect that I’ve been thinking about — automated photography. When there’s no direct human involvement, what’s captured by security cameras and space probes? I would say it’s a depiction of reality. If not, my definition of reality becomes quite useless and postmodernist. 🙂

    The quality, colors and other such characteristics of photography aren’t that important to me for the reality or lack of it of photos. Our brain has its own exposure, white balance and color settings. We could see the world as a manipulated photo shows it, with different brain settings. Since our specific settings aren’t somehow more or less true than other settings, changing settings in Photoshop or creating false color doesn’t necessarily affect the reality of a picture.

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