Eerie headstones

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.

Did It Really Look Like That?

Creative modification of a simple capture

“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