The Power of Photography

Photography isn't like other forms of art. Painting, sculpting, drawing: they all start with nothing—a blank canvas or sheet of paper, or an uncut block of stone—and through the creative thought and actions of the artist, something is produced from nothing. These forms of art are creation media, and spring forth, not unlike Athena from the head of Zeus, solely from the mind of the artist. Not so with photography. Unlike creation media, photography springs forth from the real world around us, relying on actual light coming from illumination sources or reflecting off of objects and reacting with film or a sensor. As such, it is a capture medium, making it unique among art forms.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that photographers cannot take an active role in the creative process. It's just that, for a photographer, the creative process is very different from the processes used by painters or sculptors. To be sure, a photographer can stage elements in the scene to his or her liking, or add artificial light to achieve a desired look. On the flip side, a painter can base his or her work on a scene in the real world. But, at the end of the day, the painter creates art from scratch, progressively building it brush stroke by brush stroke, whereas the photographer triggers a shutter and captures a selective slice of the surrounding world.

The photographer's creative tools, therefore, are rooted in this capture process. Filters, lenses, aperture, shutter speed, choice of perspective, and patiently waiting for pleasing convergences of light, color, composition, and mood—these are how a photographer leaves a creative imprint on his or her work. It is by engaging in the photographic craft that a photographer creates art.

This connection with reality is not merely a technical detail. It is, above all, what gives photography its power to move people. If you display photographs long enough, you will inevitably hear one question over and over again: Is this real? You quickly come to realize that for many people, a photograph creates a vicariousness that transports the viewer into the scene, tying them to the frozen moment, engaging their interest on an emotional level. In large part, it is photography’s tether to reality that creates this emotional response. Although painters probably never get the “is this real” question, photographers likely always will. Like it or not, most viewers equate photography with reality, to some degree or another.

In this day and age of prolific computer-manipulated photographs, I think this fundamental point is often lost. There is, of course, plenty of subjective "wiggle room" as to how each of us might interpret reality, and, when processing our digital files, we can exploit this wiggle room to some extent as we make decisions about color saturation, contrast, and white balance. But if you use computer techniques to exploit this wiggle room too far—such as by adding colors that weren’t actually there, or maybe even adding a beautiful sunset sky from another photograph—you stray (maybe even charge headfirst) into the realm of digital painting. While I don't think there is anything wrong with this, I do think—assuming that you are honest about your process with your viewers—that by doing so you may diminish or destroy the vicarious connection with viewers, inherent in photography, created by its tether to reality. You may gain other magic in doing so, but you lose that magic which is unique to photography: the magic of plucking a fleeting moment—a real moment—from the living world, and freezing it for posterity.

I’m not drawing any lines or telling people how to think or what to do. I’m just raising questions that I think are worth pondering, and I encourage everyone to come to their own conclusions—after all, artistic choices are by their nature personal ones. That said, the next time you trigger the shutter of your camera, or sit in front of your computer processing a digital photograph, think for a moment about how you will answer the inevitable question: Is this real?

To learn more about the image above, visit my daily photoblog.

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23 Comments

    I just removed a comment from a poster who is clearly an internet “troll” – someone who intentionally posts malicious and inflammatory comments for the sole purpose of stirring up trouble. Trolls are easy to spot – they hide behind false identities and never have anything constructive to say. I have no patience for such people, and I will remove their comments whenever they pop up. If you have something constructive to add to the debate, then I will never censor your comment, even if you disagree with me or think I suck as a photographer or writer. This is a place for positive discussion and debate, but if you can’t maintain a civil tone, go somewhere else – you’re not welcome here.

    Ian this is an absolutely beautiful shot. Love the blog as well. Even though I love doing HDR photography in cases where the scene is completely contrasted, there is nothing like the feeling of pulling the shot right off the memory card and it being what you wanted with little or no post processing. Keep inspiring us Ian, thanks.

    Hi Jerry, thanks for the kind words. To be clear, I am not saying that something like HDR is wrong, or that processing one’s image is a bad thing. In fact, HDR, done right, can actually render a scene more “real”, as the eye might see it, than film or a digital sensor might render the scene. There’s a lot of “gray area” out there, and I’m just raising some stuff to think about. The definition of what is “photography” is changing day by day in this new digital era. I just think it’s worth remembering what has made photography special in the past, and trying to find a way to retain that magic going forward.

    Thank you, Ian. This is one is exquisite – inspires many different emotions and a desire to keep looking!

    I agree about HDR and post processeing and in no way was I trying to indicate that it was a bad thing. I love doing HDR processing. I was just trying to anchor your words by emphasizing how much I love it when the actual image out of the camera shows what I was after without any other processing. Like you said, that’s what makes photography special.

    Ian – Terrific shot. But it is revealing that you use it to make a case for truth in photography, as if you expect viewers to mistrust your beautiful picture, taken in spectacular light, as some sort of trick. You’re right, the saddest words a photographer can hear are “is it real?.” When that question is asked, something precious has already been lost.

    Ian, Great shot. Inspiring. As a fairly involved amateur photographer all I really want is just plain honesty. How hard is that? Some people find it very hard unfortunately. I don’t care what one does to the photograph but just plain tell the truth. Is it HDR, did you clone something out, merge two or three photos? I just want to know. I tend to assume, because I still believe that most people do tell the truth, that photos are true unless I see a comment otherwise. But I know this not to always be the case. It’s simple, I think, just tell if something was done. Anyway, as always an interesting topic and again, love the photograph.

    Exactly the type of shot that I as a newbie aspire to accomplish some day. This is a thing of awe, however accomplished.

    Thanks Ian for the inspiration.

    I’ve been pondering this subject alot as of late. I took some shots of the super moon last Saturday night. Later I’d wished I’d gone over to the pasture beyond my barn to include the barn as part of a skyline. I did not. I missed that opportunity.

    Later this week I viewed some photographs of the super moon taken by various photographers around the world and wondered at a few of them. It occured to me I could blend a photograph of the barn at moonrise with one I had taken of the super moon and arrive at the photograph I wish I’d taken but that bothered me so I did not. I missed my chance, should have thought about it earlier – will have to remember the idea for the future.

    I never want the legitimacyor integrity of my work to be questioned. To be sure the question “is it real” will be asked. I want to be able to say without hesitation yes.

    Hey Ian! Great thoughts and insight into photography. Your images are inspiring, and as we strive towards producting that perfect print, I think it’s vital to put some serious thought into your photographic philosophy. Good article.

    Hello Ian,

    Thank you for capturing this glorious moment “Los Cuernos del Paine” – Torres del Paine, Patagonia photo.

    Amazing photo, I cannot find the proper words to describe the wonderful feelings from looking at this.

    Great shot Ian… This is exactly why I am working so hard on my Photography, to create shots like this. Being this kind of artist is what I want. Thanks for shearing.

    Rebecca….it’s great to hear you “draw the line” on what photography “is” for you. You might have missed your chance with the Super Moon and the barn…but you learned that you could do it better another time. When I miss my chance on taking that great photograph or mess one up with a skewed horizon, I think about what Imogen Cunningham said when she was asked which one of her photographs was her favorite. Her humble reply was:”My best picture is the one I will take tomorrow”. The belief in your own talent and that the best is yet to come will help you to achieve your greatest images. Cheers

    Ian, your image above is a great capture, I love the way you’ve capture the light. As a newbie to the photo world I have been reading with great interest the many great photo blogs out there. Your topic has been raised alot the last 2-3 months and is really thought provoking and I want to thank you for your wonderful insight. I’m trying to be a better photographer not only by honing my skills but also by learning more about the art world to not only learn where we’re headed but where we came from. I try to visit art receptions and meet other artists but I have to say I think it’s sad how other art mediums (in my area) look down on photograpers as kind of the low person on the totem. It would be nice if we could all put our ego’s on a shelf and respect each other for what we add to the art world. Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing.

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