You’ve heard the saying “seeing is believing” and that is one reason why purists constrain the creativity of photographers. They think they are preserving the “truth”.
The biggest truth in photography is that you and your subject were there and even that can be misleading. The fact is that there is little truth in photography. Photography is full of partial truths. Each image is an interpretation of truth; its the photographer’s perception. Image manipulation from camera to print distorts truth and creates a fiction, a story that is told by the photographer. With the power of digital photography and photo editing software like Photoshop, distortion of the truth is easier than ever before but it is not new.
The photojournalism industry created the myth of truth in photography and called it “pure photography”. But what does pure photography really mean. To most editors, it means no changing the image… minimal enhancements to the way light fell upon the film or digital sensor. Minor adjustments to contrast, brightness, and cropping is permitted; but nothing else. But even this is not truth. The photographer manipulates the image in camera beginning with the selection of film, lens, shutter speed, and f-stop. Then the point of view changes the truth. Shoot high, shoot low, shoot into the light, step to the right or left, step in close or back off the subject. Decisions about how to frame the subject within their environment, how to exploit the light, and ultimately when to freeze time and space for the intended effect. All of these techniques distort the truth.
Printing is another way that truth is distorted even within the limits of pure photography. Most prints, especially those made with light sensitive paper, are highly manipulated in terms of contrast and brightness. The most dramatic documentary images are printed with excruciating attention to burning and dodging details. The images feel amazingly real but do not reflect the actual light conditions. They are baked full of half truths. The photographer and subject were there and the camera captured an image passing through a lens of the photographers choosing. The view is from a perspective only the photographer can see. Another photographer, there at the same time and place, could tell a different story by selecting different tools and shooting from a different perspective.
The real key to photography is seeing what could be; using the tools to capture a story when time and space are frozen. At a microscopic level, every photographer must anticipate what is going to happen and act to capture it. The photographer never actually sees the image that was captured. When the shutter button is clicked, the image is redirected to the light sensitive surface and the photographer’s view is blocked. The photographer sees the image after it is developed. With film that may mean hours or even days. With digital cameras gratification can be almost instantaneous, but rarely fast enough to reshoot something that was not staged. Even with highly styled studio photography, the dynamic nature of a live subject will never allow a remake that was just one second off.
Advocates of pure photography place constraints on the creative outcomes. They declare that advanced methods of image manipulation yield “non-truths”. They simultaneously deny that “allowable” image manipulations distort the truth. These purists argue that neither space nor time was manipulated, only light; therefore the image is true – pure photography. For example, it is permissible to increase contrast and brightness on a celebrity’s face to bring emphasis or character into the story; but, it is not permissible to remove the head of a waiter whose untimely pop up behind the celebrity distracts focus on the story about the celebrity. The logic is that “space and time were manipulated” and therefore it is not a true picture. “If only you had clicked the shot two seconds earlier, it would have been perfect.” It doesn’t matter if contrast is manipulated on a poorly lit image to affect the same outcome.
In the big picture, the photographer must envision an outcome. The photographer must not only anticipate where moving objects will be in the future and how they will look in that future space as everything converges at the precise moment, but he must also imagine things that could be that are not there. The most basic level of pre-visualization begins with black and white photography. Try imagining a color scene in black and white. Seeing patterns and shapes in a somewhat abstracted way as they will look with a monochromatic gradient. Imagine the effect of altered contrast on the perception and mood. Understand how colors are transformed into shades of gray and how color filters alter the contrast and emphasis on various subjects in the image. These forms of artistic interpretation and image manipulation are legitimate distortions of truth in pure photography; but this is only the beginning stages of creative pre-visualization.
Photography advances to a higher level of creativity as tools evolve to manipulate images. After much hesitancy, new tools are embraced as standards in the photographer’s tool box. Now with digital photography, there are so many tools available to enhance images that it becomes difficult for the purist to define the permissible tools. The purist will always say, “It may be hard to define an absolute set of rules that define true photography, but I know it when I see it”. Its time to stop constraining the creative process. Since we agree that every image is a perception, not a truth; lets focus on perceptions. Only then can we surface our true feelings to drive our creative process.
The next level of creative evolution for the photographer is to allow himself/herself to see what could be. To extend the imagination beyond the basic tools of brightness, color, and contrast to include the full spectrum of digital image manipulation tools available. Embrace the capabilities of panoramic image seaming, high definition, high dynamic range processing, color filters, spacial distortion, creative compositions, and many more. Use these tools to express your perceptions but don’t use them without cause or reason. Understand why you are using them and plan to use them while you previsualize an outcome with camera in hand. See what could be.