Is this controversial for a photographer to say? I hope so. 🙂 Photography used to be the land of total realism. Not so any more. Photography for me is purely artistic expression, with little concern for reality. That’s because reality is overrated.
Reality – the good
There is a long and honored tradition of highly realistic landscape and street photography. When you think of landscapes, you might think of John Fielder or Art Wolf or Ansel Adams. For street photography maybe it is Henri Cartier-Bresson or Jay Maisel or Elliott Erwitt.
All of these artists were true to the reality of the scenes they found. Of course they looked for the best composition or the right light or the dramatic expression – that is why they are recognized artists. But the photographs they took were not modified at all, other than routine spotting or color corrections.
Is their work good because they only shot reality? No, their work is good because they are great artists. I could walk outside and shoot a picture looking down my suburban street and publish it. It would be absolutely real and unmodified. Would it be good art because of that? Not to me.
Reality – the bad
Following up on the point about shooting down the street, a picture isn’t good just because it is reality. Reality can be boring. It can be depressing. It can be dreary and banal. While there may be a time and place for these things, they are not where I want to spend much time.
I am not a critic or authority. I would never say such subjects do not constitute art. But don’t get caught up in the post-modernism depression where you don’t view art as worthwhile unless it is depressing or banal. That is just one passing movement led by some people with a very dark world view.
Be yourself. Express your own values. Like, and buy, what you like.
Assume no reality
Photography has become much wider and more diverse than it was a few decades ago. It used to indeed be true that “a photograph didn’t lie”. You could believe what you saw. Not anymore. Photojournalism may be an exception, but in today’s climate, I wouldn’t rush to ascribe too much credence to any particular image you see on the news unless you know the circumstances. News has become just a business, not a guardian of truth.
A lot of artists, including myself, no longer consider it necessary to represent reality. Now, some of my work is extremely detailed, with sharp, crunchy texture and edges. I actually like doing these sometimes. It is almost reveling in the detail that can be captured by my sensor and lenses. Quite the opposite of some of my blurred, low texture images.
But if you see one of my images with super sharp detail, don’t necessarily assume it is reality. Even when I am going for crisp and detailed, I am not at the same time representing to you that it is reality. It could be manufactured. Even if I know that it is real, it could look so abstract to you that you could not describe exactly what it is.
It is art, not a documentary
My point being that I am making art. I think most “artists” are making art. Enjoy it as art. Don’t be disappointed if you find out it is not reality. I’m not sure there is much overlap between art and reality.
Art may speak to universal truths and bring deep insights into our lives, but it does it through its metaphors and imagery. It does it by touching something within us. In the same way that Shakespear gives us a lot of insights about life, even though his stories are fiction.
So don’t assume photography has to depict reality while painting does not. Both are art.
It is art, not reality
I will go out on a limb and state that art is not reality and it cannot be. Art might show a representation of reality. Even a very realistic representation. But the art is not the reality. Art is a 2 or 3 dimensional object you look at.
To take an example that may be easier to comprehend, it is like a book. An excellent work of fiction may create a reality in our mind, but that reality is what we interpret from what the book describes. The places may seem real. The characters may seem real and alive to us. But they are feelings the author has communicated to us through the words. Not reality itself.
I am drawn to joy
On a personal note, I am drawn to joy and things that are uplifting. Even when my images are dark or showing bleak mid winter scenes, they are not depressing. At least, not to me. I try to find a hopeful angle on my art.
For instance, I love finding certain types of old rusty trucks and cars. After surviving for 50 to 90 years, it seems these relics have something to tell me. They have resisted the elements far longer than most things. They may be beat up and rusty and out of service, but they are still there defiantly. That is the joy to me in old things like this. They are still standing and making a statement; they are not junk. There seems to be something significant about that generation. Some quality that makes people want to keep them. A 1952 truck is often still around in 60 years. I don’t expect that many 2022 trucks will still be in as good a shape after 60 years.
The picture with this article is composited from shots of some old vehicles. It is detailed and sharp, but it is not “real”. No object I know of in the world actually looks exactly like this. That doesn’t keep me from creating it. I could even represent it as something that could be, even if it does not currently exist. But realism or potential realism is not an important consideration for me. I only care about if I like it. I do.
What do you think?