In case you missed it, this week marked the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. An interesting thing, about how this relates to photography-how our notions of “reality,” photography, and all have changed through that historic milestone. There are many people out there, for example, who don’t believe we actually landed on the moon and many, many others who only believed it once they saw the pictures-that picture, that image, gave them their intangible proof because a photo never lies, right?
Photography has always been dogged by the notion of “reality.” That is, it must be real if it exists in a photo, right? And photos only show us things that are real, things that really exist, right? If only things were that simple.
To the artist, or the fine art photographer, photography is light sensitive media, nothing more, nothing less. There’s not really a built-in basis of “reality” anymore than there’s a built-in “blue.” Photographs are what you make of them and reality exists, independent of that likeness. Sure, you can take photos of things that really exist, just as you can paint things that really exist, but, at the end of the day, both of these things are just likenesses-they are an artist’s representation of what he (or she) saw at one point in time. They can have a basis in reality, yes, but they are “colored” by the artists representation, the artist’s belief, the artist’s vision.
You can, for example, “paint” with photographic emulsion. You can also take photos that resemble paintings more than photos. You can also paint photo realistic paintings-there are entire schools of art surrounding this, the trompe l-oeil and the photorealism movements both give us paintings that are so “real” you could almost reach out and touch them.
There are also many photographers, Crewdson is one example, who go to great lengths to stage photographs, going so far as to paint backdrops, hire actors, make “fog” and the like. Between the combination of special effects, staging images, and now, yes, even Photoshop, a photograph does not have to have any real basis in “the real.” Yet, somehow, the notion that photo = real has survived generations and doggedly lives on.
The photojournalists out there, I suppose, go to great lengths to preserve that tie. I mean, they dodge bullets, fight wars alongside soldiers, capture images of the starving, the poor, the forgotten, just to bring back memorable shots from the field, right? That’s their genre and, for them, that intrinsic tie between photo and reality serves them well.
But, for the fine art photographer, this antiquated notion of photo = real is a nuisance at best. I’d just as soon take a picture of Swiss cheese and call it “the moon” if it looks more like what I think the moon should look like. Why should I care what you think “reality” is? Where you think “reality” begins and ends? It’s not my job to find “reality,” I just work with light, that’s all.
All this talk of Swiss cheese has me hungry. I think I shall go and eat a moon pie in honor of the 40th anniversary.
Until next time…
Growing up in the Life Magazine generation, I was always struck by how the framing and freezing of a moment in time somehow romanticizes it or heroicizes it…makes it somehow larger than it was. The moment frozen, transcends the moment in its real passing. For me, the shadow figure walking you have posted today is like that.
I always thought that Bono (from U2) was secretly a photographer. He sings that song "even better than the real thing" which is a modern take, sort of, on that same idea. The photo, the image, the likeness becomes larger than life. It was captured and now lives on.
You're right, Mythopolis, a lot of my work is like that. I've taken many photos of my guitar, for example, and almost everybody who sees my guitar and sees the images looks at my guitar and says, "where's the guitar in the photo? This one looks like crap." I always try to get something to look better than it is in "real life" and much of the reality of what I shoot is very boring or uneventful (at best) when you see it in person.
I guess it's all just another way of "finding beauty in the ordinary."