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?
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