How real is a photograph?


I apprenticed to two professional photographers when cameras were mechanical things which used film. I learned about the different qualities of films, both black and white and colour, and how to process them. I learned how to affect the developing of the film by the strategic uses of the chemicals, varying the temperatures and age, seeking slow and fast development, which brought less and greater evidence of the grain in the photograph. I learned how to project the image from the film onto the photo paper, how to “feather” the effect, “burn” some images and block others, and how to use filters and screens (literally) in cooperation with the papers. I learned about the qualities of contrast among different papers, and as with film, how to develop the prints using the chemicals strategically, warming some parts of the print by rubbing with my fingers causing the heat to develop one part faster than others, and so on.

I learned all the usual stuff about cameras, lenses, focal lengths, filters, solenoid shutter releases, battery-operated flash guns with varieties of bulb sizes and brilliances, electronic flash, coordinated flash or constant light with additional light sources, light meters, and so forth. I learned about portraiture, including the pose, the amount and directions of the lights and shadows (always keeping Karsh’s work in mind} and to project in my mind how the final print would look (i.e, screened, dark contrast, heavy matted paper). I learned about commercial photography (industrial sites, automobiles, etc.) and wedding photography. I tried sports photography but just never successfully anticipated the dramatic moment to have my camera ready. I learned to use 8”x10” film portrait cameras and 4”x5” Graflex and Speed Graphic, as well as roll-film Roleflex and Welta. To me this will always be “real” photography—it captured what was really there. I know, I know: you can already see that I was quite willing to manipulate the image, and you may wonder why I call it real. I think it is because I had the informed consent about the subject, informed consent about the product, and felt that I knew enough about the whole process to control it. The product and process were as honest as I was. There was nothing between me and it.

Yes, I have spent almost an entire day standing in one location, taking successive photographs of the scenes as the light changed. And I have studied the people whose portraits I would take, to predict the message about them which would be projected by the portrait.

I have adapted to non-film photography, particularly using digital cameras, and have begun accommodating myself to smart-phone cameras, learning what the algorithms will and won’t do (no informed consent), watching for the lens distortions and learning my way around electronic telephotos but also using an actual telephoto lens. I have a long list of the comparative advantages and disadvantages of non-film photography, using “real” cameras and using smart phones. I understand that “pixel” is not the same across all systems. I have evaluated the good and bad aspects of letting a “camera” do things automatically. Sometimes I chose to do everything “manually” including adjusting for colour balance (which, after all, is what I used to do when choosing between warm- and cool-coloured films and different weights and texures of paper – of course, I still choose the paper for printing from my computer). That is, I try to preserve informed consent while doing what I still don’t consider “real” photography.

As you read all this, whether an experienced photographer yourself or not, you probably perceive a measure of hypocrisy in my attitude. I feel that non-film photography is a deception because there is never a real image in the camera – it is all computer code composed by a sensor. There is never real colour, for the same reason. But is that really different from my projecting what I wanted the final film product to be? Unless taking a picture with a simple box camera, I was never really recording the subject as it really was, and putting it into the final print. I was always doing something artificial.

Two of my great heroes of photography are Ansel Adams and Edward Burtynsky. At an exhibit at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in 2013, Ansel Adams: Masterworks and Edward Burtynsky: The Landscape That We Change., I learned much about their ways of working which utterly destroyed my assumption that there is any great photography which captured the subject simply as it is. In one of the videos about Burtynsky, whose work seems so dramatically persuasive about how things really are, I learned about not only his way of emphasizing some colours over others so as to dramatize the effects of the processes he photographed, but I actually saw him direct his technicians to emphasize some things for that purpose. What I had thought was what my eyes would see, was really something which would not normally be available to my eyes. I understand that this enables my learning; it leaves me uncertain about what is real and true.

Hastily, I repaired to Adams for salvation. But in the exhibit was a very large negative on which he had imposed a grid of many squares, with notes about bringing out the silver or black in each square. Of course, he also paid attention to the light on the real subject, and took hours and sometimes days, waiting for just the real light. He had films and papers custom manufactured. He could control the development process. He used several different types of cameras.

Both these greats were selective about their subjects; chose what they wanted to make into the final products, but also learned as they used their techniques what there might be that they had not initially perceived with their eyes. So they used their technologies (see Creating Things that Matter, by David A. Edwards) to learn more about what was in front of them, but also used them to manipulate the story told in each photo. By contrast is contemplative photography (The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes, by Andy Karr and Michael Wood), wherewith one does not compose or contrive while taking a photo – one photographs what is there without preconception. I understand the point of this approach, but I must admit that I see many uninteresting photographs in this genre.

You have probably had this experience: you see a scene and something catches your eye; you snap your photo, sure that with proper framing and perhaps enlargement, you will call forth into the photograph, that which you have seen. Later you bring up the photo on your computer, and cannot for the life of you understand what you wanted to show. I’ve learned that is may have to do with affordances. Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes our Lives¸ by Sarah Williams Goldhagen, explains that the body perceives more around it than the eyes do alone, i.e., the body perceives that there may be something behind that door; that a two-dimensional person has actually three dimensions; that there is a chiaroscuro beauty in the wavering of light caused by moving leaves’ shadows on a subject. The eyes or a camera lens do not do these things. So I may have taken a photo for the sake of affordances I could perceive, but the lens did not perceive them nor bring forth the potential for that. In this case the lens is more truthful than I would wish and thereby fails me. It did not leave me the opportunity for informed consent, and there are no adjustments I can make (aside from falsifying the photo) to bring out what I thought I saw. Not having holography, I have no way to compensate. Perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to return and look at the subject again and take another photograph which may somehow show the affordances my body longed to experience. I may regain informed consent.

So what do I conclude? I as the photographer can choose what I want to emphasize, just as I a story-teller, can fashion a truthful tale to emphasize certain matters. I can exercise informed consent to everything that I do, by understanding the processes and technologies I use. I can refrain from showing my work if I am not satisfied.

The viewer can exercise informed consent by disregarding my work or not perceiving or agreeing to the beauty or message which I want to place before his or her eyes. Really, that’s true whether I use a “real” camera or a digital tool. The point is not what is “really” there; the point is the story I want to tell because it enhances my life to have found it.

2 thoughts on “How real is a photograph?

  1. This photography post reminds me of something that struck me back when digital versions of previously analog devices were just starting to appear. The example was a digital replacement for an electronic filter that determines which parts of signals from one’s stereo should go to the ‘tweeter’ speaker and which should go to the ‘woofer’. The analog version seems matter-of-fact–and can be visualized somewhat tangibly as diverted flows of current, etc. The digital version (i.e., code) doesn’t “look like” anything, yet somehow it captures in its own way the same “essence” of what the filter is for. This thought, in turn, led me to wonder if Plato may had something like this in mind with his idea of “Forms”: If there’s a “really real” version of a “filter” (what Plato would call a “form” of a filter), this “form” is only reflected–imperfectly–in whatever devices we come up with in practice to capture or embody the idea. There’s no perfect reflection. Similarly, in Glenn’s post: No one can put their finger on the “really real” version of the scene that lies in front of us. What we see with our eyes is not exactly the ‘truth’, nor is what an analog or digital camera generates. And manipulations with these devices, may better capture some aspects of what’s really there, while distorting others. Although I’m not familiar with Karr and Wood’s “The Practice of Contemplative Photography”, cited in the post, but I’m wondering if their focus is not so much the photograph that’s created, as on the opportunity, while photographing, to contemplate the ultimately-not-photographical beauty of (or ‘behind’ or ‘in’) that moment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.