The Truth of Perceptualism in Photographic Art

Is Photography Truly Art

Photography began in the early 1800’s as a tool to record visual experiences as “truths” to be believed because of their documentary quality. The first photographs captured images in a grainy monochromatic format. As the science progressed, photographic images increased in resolution and contrast providing much more realistic images. But soon after the invention of photography, the debate began as to whether photography could also be art. As early as 1869 Henry Peach Robinson created realistic but imaginary images by combining numerous negatives into a single composition. Robinson’s images were artistic creations though they looked like “truthful” photographs.

Robinson’s When the Day’s Work is Done (1877). Combination print made from six different negatives.

Pictorialism – an artistic deviation from the truth

Artistic expression in photography evolved with somewhat distorted, toned, or blurred images specifically designed to imitate the art of painting. Photographers desiring to create art would manipulate the chemistry of the process and experiment with various media for the light sensitive emulsions. Many people attribute the soft focus, grainy, toned photographic images from this era to the imperfections of the technology, not realizing these images were intentionally manipulated for this effect. This movement known as “Pictorialism” reached its peak in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.

“Struggle”, a gum bichromate photograph by French photographer Robert Demachy illustrates the Pictorialism style of photography.

Modernism – back to “truth”

By 1930 much of the Pictorialism movement was in decline and a new movement of Modernism was emerging. A group of California based photographers, known as “Group f/64”, founded by Ansel Adams, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston began pushing the idea that photographic art must be sharply focused with strong contrast. The group advocated making photographs with extreme depth of field obtained with the smallest possible f-stop (f/64). Adams developed his now famous “zone system” for printing images with the widest possible range of contrast. Much time was spent in the darkroom manipulating the contrast of prints. The Modernism movement continued to dominate the mainstream of photographic art throughout most of the 1900’s as magazines like Life and National Geographic provided documentary style images of the world.

Photograph by Ansel Adams of Grand Tetons and Snake River illustrates the high contrast and depth of field characteristic of the Modernism movement.

Surrealism – true, unadulterated lies

Although Henry Peach Robinson was the first to use multiple negatives to create artistic images, Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida, is widely recognized as the master of multiple-image darkroom manipulation. In the late 1960’s, Uelsmann’s work broke all the rules that defined photography by creating surreal photographic images through complex darkroom printing processes. Uelsmann created high contrast realistic images with extreme depth of field typical of the Modernists but his images were unfathomable fictions. Like many surrealists, his images take the spectator to an imaginary world so removed from reality that the perceptions may be disturbing though fascinating.

Surreal image by Jerry Uelsmann illustrating a significant deviation in the use of photography for artistic expression.

The advent of the digital camera and Photoshop now make it easier for photographic artists to create images in the “digital darkroom”. The technical challenges of film, photographic emulsions, image masking, and analog printing no longer limit the possibilities of the creative photographer. Sophisticated editing tools, filters, and plug-ins allow extremely fine levels of control over all aspects of the image including perspective correction, photo stitching (panoramas), exposure adjustment, lighting compensation, sharpness, selective color adjustment, toning, image editing, and more. Camera phones with photo filters and applications such as Instagram have rapidly increased the interest of special effects in creating digital photographic art. Software programs that combine multiple exposures to compress a high dynamic range (HDR) photo have automated and improved upon the high contrast printing techniques of Ansel Adams. Availability of these tools has allowed me to experiment with this new dimension of photography which I call “Perceptualism”.

Rossio Square Train Station

Perceptualism – “truth” as I see it

Perceptualism is my technique of pushing color, contrast, and sharpness to new limits where the image borders on surrealism. The image may be pictorial as some details of the photograph are abstracted, obscured or distorted while the overall perception is starkly realistic. Color saturation and contrast may be increased to the point that gradients turn into pixelated patterns reminiscent of impressionist paintings. My overriding goal of Perceptualism is to create an image that amplifies the mood inherent in the photograph much as a mild hallucinogen hyper-stimulates the senses to create an altered perception. Perceptualism is neither surrealism, hallucinogenic realities, nor pictorialism but it does tend to fuse some of those concepts with impressionism and modernism to derive a new style of photographic art.

For the sake of argument, I will state that there is no such thing as absolute “pure photography” or “photographic truth”. Because people make pictures based on their moment of inspiration, there is always some level of interpretation of reality which brings us to the definition of perception. We all perceive things slightly differently and filter events through our encyclopedia of experiences. All these experiences infer variations of truth rather than the absolute. Perception is truth and truth is in the perception. So I conclude that my style of perceptualism is as pure, truthful and legitimate as any other photographic expression.