editing reality

by julie posted April 27, 2007

Are you trying to say something with your pictures? Do you think you can say something with a photograph, and have your message ‘read’ successfully by the viewer?

I recently started thinking a lot about what my pictures are about. Yes, more pointless navel gazing, you might say… but it gets a bit empty after a while, mindlessly shooting stuff that just looks pretty in a rectangle/square on the screen/paper. I know I’ve tried to discuss this before but I don’t think that I got anywhere near the real issue – but I found an example recently that made me think:

Hiding in Plain Sight – Michael Kenna

For those who can’t be bothered reading, the gist of it is contained in the paragraphs:

‚ÄúI don’t think I have ever seen a Kenna picture with which the word “beautiful” could not reasonably be associated. Is this a good thing? It depends, I suppose, on what is done to attain beauty, and on what is neglected. Kenna typically photographs scenes in which natural imperfection is obscured in one way or another, whether by the enveloping presence of snow or mist, by the less natural smoothing effect of long exposures on clouds and water, or by frank manipulation in the darkroom. Nothing wrong with any of that. Or is there? I think maybe there is. Implicit in every Kenna photograph is a statement that the world as it is just isn’t good enough. That it can be improved upon by stratagems such as cottony skies and weirdly smooth water (tricks that, regrettably, have spread well beyond Kenna to become ubiquitous among a certain class of “artistic” photographer.”

I think it’s fairly safe to say that the majority of us lot are inclined to try and present this romanticised view of the beauty we find the in the world. I’m particularly guilty of straying pretty far from the real scene in front of me through the use of shallow DoF, narrow field of view (no wide angle lenses here) and yes, I freely admit to ‘gardening’ – moving a stray blade of grass or holding a branch out of the way to get that perfect scene in front of the lens. Then, in photoshop, I’m guilty of cloning out twigs or leaves that are in the wrong place, or changing colours, cropping and dodging and burning in order to present my idealistic representation of the subject. That’s because I’ve always been focused on the visual, even removed from a pure representation of the subject on screen/paper, for the sake of creating something aesthetically pleasing in itself, rather than trying to capture the inherent beauty of the subject.

I get enough stick from friends and family about photoshop being ‘cheating’ but beyond that, before that, is the inclination to edit out the (perceived) imprefections in a scene necessarily a bad thing by default? (At this point, I’m well aware of my previous ramblings on how good/bad right/wrong etc etc are completely subjective but putting that aside, for a moment) Is there any real meaning to be had, beyond pretty, in pictures that have had the imprefections – the real life – edited out of them through all the methods I talked about? And then, do we even care? Do we want our pictures to say something, or just look good on a wall? I’d rather not look at those pre-framed pictures in Dunnes/Next/Roches and think that’s the level my photography is at. But at the same time, I’ve never really been trying to ‘say’ anything about the world, my thoughts, my views, through my photographs, apart from “Here’s a nice collection of shapes/lines/textures/colours arranged pleasingly in a rectangle/square” that holds the attention for all of two seconds – if I’m lucky. Unfortunately I see the inclusion of these elements that I would otherwise have edited out as a compromise on the graphic design, or compositional element of the picture.

Most of the photographs that are held up by society (or maybe just art critics or pretentious photography geeks who like obscure photography) as examples of pictures with meaning seem, to me, to be far less visually engaging than those who have the sole purpose of being aesthetically pleasing. It makes me feel like I don’t get it, and stupid, and maybe that’s what they want. But should you really need to learn how to ‘read’ a picture to be able to appreciate it? Is the intent of the photographer important? That’s a whole other subject that I’ve got a bit of thinking about, so you can probably expect another post on that subject.

But anyway, does anyone have any thoughts on this? On editing out reality? On the meaning of pictures?  On learning to read photography?

4 Responses to editing reality

  1. Can I reuse the comment I left here.

    : D

  2. Can I reuse the comment I left here.

    : D

  3. Julie, it does appear that we have been (or are) on similar sojourners….

  4. Julie, it does appear that we have been (or are) on similar sojourners….

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