Did It Really Look Like That?

“Did it really look like that?” is not an uncommon question. But it is tricky to answer. Sometimes I try to probe to find out what question they are actually asking. But really it comes down to their point of view.


There are many possible reasons for the question. Most are probably innocent. Some, maybe not.

Looking at it generously, many people simply are expressing that they have never seen anything quite like that and wonder if it is really real. It may look too good to be true. Has it been there all this time and they’ve just missed it? Maybe they have been to this place or one like it and they did not bring back any pictures that looked like that. They are impressed, but maybe skeptical.

I will take this as a compliment.

On the other hand, some ask suspiciously. Underlying the question is the implication that it is a fake. If it looks too good to be true then it is probably not true. Therefore I must have manipulated or over-processed the image to the point that it no longer represents reality.

This is an interesting concept to me. Sometimes I like to engage them in a dialog, but most of the time I just ignore them rather than trying to educate them or get into a heated exchange.

Look like to who?

One of the simplest responses to the question is to ask “look like to who?” If the questioner was there at the same time they may have seen something different from me. Another photographer also probably would have gotten something different out of it. If a painter was there, they may well have interpreted it very differently.

That is one of the things that makes art. Each artist brings their own unique interpretation of a scene or event.

Underlying the “did it look like that?” question is the assumption that I am supposed to represent exactly what the scene was. That is your assumption, not mine. Get over it. I spent decades believing a photography should faithfully record a scene. I have grown well past that.

I have never promised you I am trying to bring you images that are absolutely, exactly what a scene looked like. As a matter of fact, I promise that is not my goal. Unless it is what I decide to do. 🙂

The negative is the score

This is a great and classic observation from Ansel Adams. I refer to it often. As I have observed in another post, I consider that technology has brought us to a re-interpretation of the statement.

The digital capture is raw material. It is no longer processed like a dance in a real time performance. It is edited and processes at leisure on the computer. We have the tools and the technology to go far beyond what could be considered in the film days. Alain Briot uses the French term esquisse. I believe it refers to an artist’s rough, preliminary sketch of a piece. This sketch would only hint at the composition and details of the final work. He relates the raw material of the image capture to this artist sketch.

What a wonderful time to be an artist! Our imaginations are less constrained. We have more freedom to let our creativity reinterpret the raw material. Why constrain yourself? Don’t stop with the basic capture. Continue on to make it conform to the vision you had that compelled you to take the picture in the first place.

What does it matter what it looked like?

At the risk of offending some people, I will say that a reproduction of what a scene looked like can get pretty boring. Once you have seen it you know everything about it. There is no challenge. No mystery. Nothing to draw you back to look at it again and again.

Unless I, as an artist, am able to bring something unique to it, what is the image worth? When I bring you my point of view, though, you have something more to consider. You may not agree with my point of view. It may not speak to you. But I want you to know that this is mine.

I hope, of course, that my viewpoint will challenge you, make you think, make you see at least a small part of the world differently, maybe even open up your perception to other things. That is my role as an artist.

Art is

So I would challenge you that “did it really look like that?” is not the right question. It would be better to ask “what is the artist saying?”, “what does it mean to me?”, and “how can this help me see the world differently?”

Art is art. It is a unique work of human creativity. It does not have to mean something. It does not have to faithfully reproduce a real scene in nature. It cannot be fake unless it is a mindless copy that brings nothing of the artist.

Art is art. It is not truth. Any truth you find in it is what you derive for yourself from what the artist has shown you. It is a communication between the artist and the viewer. Both have to do their work.

Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.
David Alan Harvey

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