The camera never lies, right? I wonder where we came up with this idea that the camera always captures truth. Where we picked up the idea that a photograph represents reality.
Maybe it’s because the camera gives a representation that seems like reality. Maybe it’s because the edges are sharp and the likeness to what we are looking at is closer than most art brings us. But what we what the camera captures is not truth. A photograph is not reality.
Reality encompasses a much broader range of the senses than a photograph can. Sight and sound and touch and smell. Reality encompasses a three dimensional world that is experienced with more than just the eyes. Reality is everything, everywhere in the moment. The whole truth.
A photograph starts with the photographer. As humans we can’t handle the whole of reality, so we filter. We filter based on our interests and our knowledge and our experience. We decide where to look, what to experience, out of everything that is available in our environment. So right there, we start to alter reality.
Next, we alter reality with our cameras. Think about it, we are taking a three dimensional world and collapsing it into two dimensions. We take the whole of the sensory experience and collapse it to visual alone. That’s a drastic alteration right there. Not only that, but as we study photography, we learn the camera itself is an imperfect tool for capturing even visual reality. It can’t capture the range of light and dark we see with our eyes. It can’t capture the form and the depth that we experience. So we learn to adapt through our exposure and optics and techniques. We make choices about the lens we want to use, the aperture and shutter speed, and what is in or out of the frame.
The photograph, as captured by the camera, is already significantly different from reality. The viewer can’t turn their head left or right and see what is happening beyond the edges of the frame. They can’t walk closer or further away. They can’t reach out and touch. They only see what the photographer has chosen for them to see. A slice of the photographer’s reality; a partial truth.
Then, we get into post-processing. It’s funny that this is often maligned as the part of the photographic process where reality is removed. In my view, post-processing is only a continuation of what we started with our cameras, since the as-captured image is not reality either. In post-processing, we can further adjust the photograph, to try to shift it to what we perceived as “reality” visually or to better express the feeling we had at the moment it was taken. We can create a new feeling with it, if we so choose. We can create an experience that is completely unrelated to our own experience when we took the photograph.
The “reality” that is presented in the final image is all in the choices made by the photographer, from the moment of capture to completion. It is not reality at all.
Take this photograph of light on the leaves in the forest, for example. The camera could not capture the shifting range of light and dark that I saw in those leaves. It could not capture the feeling of the breeze cooling my sun- and hike-warmed skin. It could not capture the rustle of the leaves, or the sound of my husband and son playing with the dog down the trail. It could not come anywhere close to my reality, but I did the best I could at capturing one thing: The light filtering through the canopy of leaves. I could find a scene that framed one single leaf in the light, and filled the background with the repetition of leaves in light and shadow. In my post-processing, I could add warmth through the tone, softness through a texture, and depth through a vignette. I could express my feelings about this one particular piece of my experience of that moment and that day. Beyond that, what you feel as you look at this photograph depends on your own reality and experiences in the past. Your filters and perceptions kick in, altering what I’ve presented further.
Is this photograph the whole truth? No.
Is it reality? No.
A photograph never, ever will be.
I think it’s time that we leave behind the idea that the camera never lies. It’s time to shed the idea that in photography, alterations to reality come only in post-processing. The alterations to reality start in the photographer’s mind, and continue from seeing to camera to post-processing.
Instead, let’s focus on the one truth that we can express with photography: The truth of the experiences, feelings and emotions of the photographer.
Expressions of the artist, practicing their art.