As an artist, is reality our goal? Should we focus on depicting reality perfectly? Is art just a representation of reality, or is it something more?
Reality leaves a lot to the imagination. – John Lennon
Can a great image be “real”?
To be honest, no. A 2 dimensional image expressed using pigments or pixels is not the same as a real scene. But you say, “yes, but the image ‘looks just like’ the original”. Actually, in most cases it looks either the way the artist remembered it or how they wanted it to look or how they wanted you to think of it looking.
All photographs must be processed a lot to be presentable. Even Ansel Adam’s famous prints are based on many hours of darkroom work for each one. And for Ansel or any of us, the prints produced of an image change over time. So either reality changes with time or art is not reality. That is, as the artist’s vision and taste changes, the processing of an image changes to reflect it. This represents the artist’s interpretation, not reality.
Is reality the goal?
I don’t know of any genre of art where reality is the actual goal. Let’s say you are shooting images of birds for a birding book. Is reality the goal? I would say no, you want images that allow the reader to see the important characteristics of the bird. If that means distracting elements must be removed or colors enhanced or “corrected”, then these will be done for the sake of clear communication.
The beautiful landscape print you bought to hang on your wall because it reminds you of a favorite place is not “reality”. Colors are enhanced, contrast is boosted to make it more dramatic, even mountains may be “stretched” some to make them more pronounced. None of this makes it a fake. It resonates with you as the way you remember it.
This article will use a lot of quotes. I want to make the point that this idea is not just my ravings.
“My goal as an artist is not to try and replicate reality , but to cross into the world of fantasy. This is a much easier sell because reality is what we see every day. The world of fantasy is a way of escape.” Joel Grimes
“Fine art photography should be an escape from reality.” Joel Grimes
“A photograph is not reality, it is at best, a representation or illusion of reality.” Joel Grimes
One reason Joel Grimes has credibility with me on this topic is because he is color blind. Yes, a color blind photographer. And he is famous and well respected. Rather than considering it a handicap he uses his color blindness to further his artistic vision. He is obviously not trying to duplicate reality when he does not even see the same reality most of us do.
I’m not suggesting we all try to copy Joel Grimes’ work. I will not. It is very good, but it is not me. My hope is that you will see that reality can be a false goal.
Did it really look like that?
I get asked this a lot and I often struggle to answer. The obvious answer is “no, of course not”. But I have to try to read the questioner to try to determine what they mean by the question. Is the questioner just naive because they do not understand the process of art? Do they really believe that the picture should look like the reality? Are they wistfully hoping there is a place that really looks like that? Or are they trying to “trap” me into admitting that I “faked” the image?
Usually I reply with a fairly generic answer like “that’s the way I saw it.” When the question is asked like this it is probably not the time to get into a long discussion of art vs. reality.
But you probably understand that reality is not my goal and that all images are heavily processed. Never accept a picture as truth.
What, then, is the purpose of an image? In a way this is another way of asking what is real. I will go out on a limb and say that the artist helps bring reality to an image by their interpretation. The great Australian photographer Tony Hewitt says to “Look at the everyday ‘real’ in an entirely different way.” And he does this very successfully. His images are “of” real scenes, but they don’t look like what you would have seen standing there with him. They are more.
A photograph is more than its subject. The real challenge is to make something out of nothing. Geoffrey James
It is my responsibility as an artist to try to make you feel what I felt about the subject. If you see an image that is just a factual portrayal of a scene it will not hold your interest for long. But if I can give you an emotional connection it will have lasting power.
Let me introduce the concept of resonance. In physics it is sound emitted from an object based on its vibration. That’s precise, but cold.
Think of a bell. Strike it and it rings with a certain sound and it continues ringing for seconds. That is the bell’s response to the energy you gave it with the strike.
In an artistic sense, I see resonance as the thought or feeling or memory invoked by a piece of art. Something about the work “resonates” with you – it, in effect, makes you vibrate or tingle. This resonance can happen when I am able to convey to you the emotion I felt when I discovered this scene and captured it.
A resonance like this goes beyond the surface image. You feel a connection or it produces an emotion in you that makes you keep coming back to look at it. This is what I seek to do.
This resonance is different than just “reality”. It is more important than the reality. What you feel is what you will remember. This is the significance of the image.
So, perhaps the “reality” of an image is the way it made you feel. This was your subjective reaction to what the artist gave you. It is your interpretation, your internal processing that lets you buy in to it and embrace it. It becomes reality through your personal response.
Do not confuse what is visible with what is real: despite a degree of overlap, they are not the same thing. What’s real about an expressive image is never its objectivity, but how it is subjectively perceived. – Guy Tal
It may be a misconception to talk about art as “real” or not. Art cannot, of itself, be reality. The reality is what you create for yourself based on your emotional reaction to the work that the artist put his effort into.
So, the “Real World”, what is it? Where is it? I believe that for art, the “real world” is our personal reaction to the piece. Was the artist successful in making you feel what he felt? Did you feel something completely different but meaningful to you? If you didn’t feel anything, you won’t remember it or have any attachment to it. We create our own artistic reality through our personal reaction.
I believe it is my duty as an artist to help you feel my emotional connection to an image. If I can do that the image will become reality to you in a whole new way. If I cannot do that, I have failed and the image will be unimportant to you.
So in a sense, reality is my goal. But it is not the reality of a faithful rendering of what was in front of the camera. It is the reality of trying to have you share my emotional reaction to the scene, and having you reawaken this feeling whenever you see the picture.