“It’s a little underexposed!”
I read this critique of an image recently and it re-awoke in me the vague plan that I’ve had to write about subjectivity and reality in photography.
What does it actually mean when someone criticizes an image as being underexposed? I know what they mean technically; that on a histogram the tonal range is stacked too far to the left (the blacks), but what is it about the image being dark that is actually wrong?
So it started me thinking, could the same thing be said about a painting? Could Goya’s Pintura’s Negras be faulted for being too dark, having too much black in them? For being “underexposed”?
Of course not, because the “rules” of photography are different to those of painting. But why? Although, there are some forms of photography, particularly editorial and fashion, which are considerably less constricted by the call for an image to be realistic, in general reality is the yardstick by which most photography, certainly landscape photography, tends to be judged.
Capturing the scene “exactly as it appeared to the eye” seems to have particular kudos among landscape photographers, and for a long time I’ve wondered why that is. I suspect that in part it might be a reaction against all those “did you photoshop this?” comments that all landscape photographers get at some point. Maybe it’s a defense against claims that an image has been Photoshopped (meaning, “it wasn’t really like that, you’ve changed the colours, removed something, pressed a magic button in Photoshop that makes everything look fantastic etc”)
It seems to me though that perhaps striving for absolute reality is futile. I’ve never really believed that photography is about replicating the world as our eyes see it, but more about taking our personal artistic interpretation of the world and using the way a camera sees the world to record it. A camera doesn’t see the world in the same way our eyes do. Our eyes don’t see the world wide angle with sharpness front to back in the same way that a 17mm lens at f16 will record it. Neither do they compress landscapes, bringing distant and near objects closer together in the same way that a telephoto lens does. Our eyes don’t freeze a moment in time, stopping water drops in mid air, as happens when you shoot with a fast shutter speed, nor do we see the world with movement blur as we do when we use a long exposure of 30 seconds or more. I’ve also often shot the night sky with the camera set to high ISO and the lens wide open at f2.8, recording stars and light that were completely invisible to the naked eye, so no, I don’t tell myself that the images I record are exactly as they appeared to my eyes at the time..and why would I want them to be?
If we were to follow this philosophy of recording the world as authentically as possible, then what would be the difference between the images of two photographers standing in the same place at the same time? If both photographers are of a similar level of technical skill and meter to capture the balance of tones evenly across the histogram, if we’re not going to use long exposures as a creative choice (as opposed to when light levels make them necessary) then the creative decisions of the photographer are significantly reduced to lens choice and composition. Granted, composition is an art form itself, but why should a photographer as an artist limit themselves so much? So if our two photographers choose similar lenses, lets say they both shoot wide angle, and both choose to shoot similar compositions, how can they imprint their artistic personalities onto the photo? What is there of “them” in the image?
It seems to me that if absolute reality is the ultimate goal, then an image is defined by the technical capacity of the photographer, the prevailing weather conditions, and the only aspect that reflects the artistic vision of the photographer is the choice of composition. Personally, I’d like to put a bit more of “me” in my images which may be arrogant, but really, what’s wrong with wanting to create a photograph that is unique to you and represents your vision, the way you see a particular scene? Isn’t that what art is? Or is it an attempt to use technical skills to capture the scene as faithfully as possible? I would argue that the latter is more about documenting a scene, recording for posterity, but less to do with creativity.
The scene at the top of this piece is a good example. Before I went to the Sahara, I’d seen lots of images of dunes, and I already had in mind an idea of how I wanted to shoot them. However, upon arriving at the edge of the desert, I was struck by the essential form of the dunes and the undulating curves that you see everywhere. A wide angle shot would have shown a more “real” view of the dunes, but I found an area of the dunes where compressing them with a telephoto lens really exaggerated the shapes, making what is almost a two dimensional image. There was a sandstorm blowing, which removed the background, and as the sky was white and featureless, I didn’t compose it in the shot, leaving me with a very abstract shot, made even more so by the black and white conversion.
So this shot has very little to do with reality, someone standing in the same spot on another day looking with their eyes wouldn’t recognize this scene, but for me, that’s not what interested me. I wanted to attempt to capture the essence of the dunes in a whiteout, and this was my personal interpretation.
Of course, this philosophy could be taken as advocating an “anything goes” approach which opens the doors to radical post processing, image manipulation and compositing. Personally, I have no problem with any of those things, as long as the photographer is honest and open about the processing that’s gone into creating the image, and doesn’t claim that the image is recorded “exactly as it appeared to the eye”. This doesn’t help anyone, and as I said above, I’m not sure why anyone should feel that their images are somehow more worthy because they are faithful to reality.
I think everyone has a limit as to what they feel is acceptable to do to an image. In my case, I’m perfectly happy to step away from reality, but prefer to do it in-camera through the use of different focal lengths, long exposures and deliberate over/underexposure. I rarely change an image much in post processing beyond tweaks of contrast and colour, and I don’t see the point in compositing different images together (for example, switching in a more interesting sky). However, those are MY limits and go towards being part of my vision and how I like to create images. I don’t see any problem with people making larger changes in post processing, as long as there’s no attempt to fool people into believing the photograph is something it’s not.
Likewise I have great admiration for those who do genuinely attempt to capture reality as faithfully as possible…I just don’t for one second believe that those images are in any way more worthy than those of us who are happy to take reality as the staring point, as the the raw materials to create something personal and in line with our own artistic vision.
So perhaps when an image is “a little underexposed”, maybe that’s exactly what the photographer wanted. Maybe, the photographer wanted to instill their own artistic vision into the scene, to attempt to capture it as they see it in their minds eye, and create an image that is unique and personal. Maybe then, the image tells us as much about the photographer as it does about the reality of the scene recorded…and maybe that’s part of what art is all about.
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