Thursday, October 26, 2017

278. Photography is the art of the real

I have enjoyed photography for several years now; it’s something I do purely for leisure.

While I do enter photo contests such as the Lorain County Fair and Erie Shore Photography Club, it’s really just for fun. I appreciate the feedback and the chance to improve my skills. Honestly, I am interested in learning beyond the basics of photography but not the intricacies of professional photography. I favor taking my camera with me when I travel to get photos but do not normally engage in “photo shoots.” I take the best photo I can.

Occasionally I get a good photograph. But then, the odds are on my side — the ability to take thousands of photographs with digital cameras and get a few good ones is simple math.

I took a college course that included developing our own film a long time ago. But even with the digital camera, the more I learn about photography, the more I feel like an amateur. In this age in which almost everyone has a pretty good camera on their cell phone, good photographers are underappreciated.

People will sometimes say, “That’s a nice photo, you must have a good camera.” That’s both true and a little simplistic. Good photos by good photographers take a lot of skill and preparation. There are many factors that go into a great photo. On the other hand, the “auto mode” on cameras is pretty good and the distinction between professionals and amateurs is often subtle.

For me, there are several aspects to photography. One aspect is to preserve the moments in our lives. These are the natural photos captured in the spontaneous course of an activity. These might include birthdays or graduations. The goal is a nice photo to commemorate the event, not necessarily to get an award-winning shot.

There is also photography for documentation. If I saw the extinct Dodo bird in my backyard, I’d sure want a photo to document it. Similarly, photography can document the activities of our lives. While I would like to get the best photo ever of the Grand Canyon, my photos also serve to record my time and experience there.

But there is some controversy within photography. I learned some tips at a talk given by a professional photographer and he described the extent a photographer will go to get his or her shot. He described an advertisement he did portraying a volleyball player diving in the sand. Of course, in reality it was a model, lying on a bench (out of sight) angled into the sand and dozens of takes of someone tossing the ball to her.

Photography competitions often permit photographers to take advantage of the tools available in post-production. These tools have a wide range of detail, effects, and alternations designed to improve photos. Some are simple, such as cropping or converting a photo to black and white. Others are more complicated and dramatically alter the image. At a recent competition, there was a beautiful photo of an owl with a badly injured eye. A judge suggested that a photographer could copy the good eye and cover up the bad eye. When the images are altered to the extreme, it perhaps represents more of an image of art than a product of photography.

Similar to many perspectives in life where science and technology can modify reality, photos can be changed so much that they are no longer authentic. For me, a photograph should represent truth as the visual depiction of a place in moment and time taken to be preserved, treasured, or shared. Enhanced pictures should maintain the integrity of that being photographed. If an object or landscape is photographed, it should exist in reality. A picture of the Empire State Building should represent the truth of the building at the moment in time. When a photographer starts adding clouds and removing people, it no longer represents the reality of the moment.

If the photo is altered to the point that it is no longer represents that which it purports to have photographed, it has, in my opinion, crossed over to art — and represents how the photographer interpreted the moment and not what is inherently suggested by the photo itself. It succeeds and is appreciated as art, but the distinction should be noted.

Declan O’Neill, writing about a photographer who was stripped of his title as “Photographer of the Year,” noted the distinction: “But for the ‘purists’ his accolade would have reinforced the idea that we can alter images in the name of ‘art’ and still claim they are photographs.”

However, he also notes that “many photographers do not object to using Photoshop to enhance photographs but they do object to its use in altering photographs.” If an owl only has one eye, then he only has one eye. Life is not perfect.

I appreciate and sometimes engage in the artistic aspect of photography. It is enjoyable and gratifying to take a photo and turn it into a creative “work of art.” I am not taking a moral stance on the issue — only that is difficult to know when a photographer has crossed that line. Regardless, the photographer should be honest as to the true nature of the picture.

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