What we photograph is never the same as what is capture in the photo. A photo is not reality (except as the reality «photo»). A photo is never the truth. A photo is never objective. Many will even say that a photograph is not a representation of reality. Of course, this quickly becomes an intellectual and philosophical discussion, and maybe not of much value for any practical uses.
Still, understanding what a photograph is does have quite important for anyone working with photography as an artistic or visual expression. However, it’s easy to disconnect from an abstract discussion about some intangible characterisation of the inherent properties of photography. Here is an attempt to maybe make it more tangible.
I have a couple of times in this blog mentioned the book The Photographer’s Playbook. One of the contributors is Will Steacy, a photographer who’s work has been featured in publications such as New Yorker, Esquire, Time, Wired, The Guardian, just to mention a few. In The Photographer’s Playbook he has written a little piece about a really fundamental understanding of photography, which I want to quote fully and unedited:
«It’s all a big lie. All of it. The sooner you know this and accept it, the better off you will be. We, as artists, photographers, writers, academics, etc., spend our whole lives and careers devoted to the impossible task of chasing truth, a fruitless attempt to translate life into a tangible commodity.
A monarch butterfly flapping its wings in frantic spasms against the window of an uptown A train at 1:47 am on a Tuesday night in July.
Sitting there on that train with exhausted workers and drunks waiting for the next stop—when the doors will swing open and that trapped butterfly will have twenty seconds to make its escape. That is art, that is life, and it will never exist as you experience it on a canvas, in a photograph, or in these concoctions of letters we call words. The best you get is a memory.
Never forget it. Never stop allowing yourself to be there on the train and notice the silent struggle of a caged beauty flapping its wings in a desperate fight for survival.
And never forget, that despite our best efforts—despite the tireless fight to capture the details and tidbits of life and attempt to share these experiences with the world in some abstracted form, from which the world will know exactly what it felt like that night in July on the subway—nothing will ever compare to the feeling of being there. Just like the hopelessly optimistic butterfly flapping its wings, the artist in us will never stop trying to capture and share the world as we experience it. Your greatest asset is an endless inventory of Tuesday night train rides. This is the only morsel of truth in the big lie.»
Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Canon EOS 5D with a 28-135 mm set at 75 mm zoom. Shutter speed: 1/60 of a second. Aperture: f/5,0. The photo was processed in Lightroom, Photoshop and with the apps On1 Effects and Niksoft Color Efex.