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Behind the Curtain — Truth, Lies and Art

February 12, 2011
In A Chill and Wind-wracked Place, Abraham Lake

In A Chill and Wind-wracked Place, Abraham Lake

Over at his blog today, photographer Guy Tal has published a post called Lie Like You Mean It! If you’re interested in the relationship between concepts like reality, creativity, objectivity and interpretation when it comes to photography as an art form, I encourage you to have a read of Guy’s post and the comments that go along with it.

The documentary form of photography has a long and noble history, with the occasional gaffe as frauds are exposed. But generally speaking, the frauds don’t seem to undermine the credibility of photography as vehicle for documenting and reporting about reality. On the art side of the house, however, things seem to have been more fraught. From the very beginning when the established art community challenged the idea that a mechanical “reproduction” tool like a camera could ever be used to create art, to the modern day when the stigma of “Photoshop fakery” can make it difficult for a photographer-as-artist to feel confident about disclosing aspects of his or her creative process, the concepts of photography as art based on elements of reality (or as objective record with overtones of artistic expression) have experienced an uneasy co-existence.

Personally I think the matter is both less complicated and in some ways more profound than the long and winding dialog has made it out to be. It comes down to understanding that if a photographer self-identifies as an artist, and we agree that the job of the artist is to interpret reality rather than to record it, then the matter becomes clear — that photographer’s works are artistic interpretations first, and depictions of reality second (at best).

In his article, Tal writes, “If you want your work to represent your own truth, embrace the lies and lie like you mean it!” I agree, in the sense that he means. (It’s the same sense Picasso had when he stated, “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.”) But a caveat — I must have the integrity to be clear to viewers that I am making art, not reportage, so that what I show can be properly interpreted. Some photographs that are portrayed as documentary records are the sheerest of manipulative, staged fabrications; while some images that appear to be pure flights of fantasy may be quite unvarnished records of incredibly rare moments in time. Or commonplace occurrences that simply defy human vision because technical innovations in image-capture make it possible for the camera to “see” things that human vision has never directly seen before. Integrity comes from the photographer, it’s not an inherent property of the photograph. The integrity of any branch of photography can only be maintained via the integrity of photographers.

Now, Tal points out the difference in something that is romantic vs. romanticized, or beautiful vs. beautified. Others have drawn the contrast between the ideal and the idealized. For myself, I like to keep in mind the line between art and artifice. These contrasts highlight where there is a balancing act in photography as an art form compared to many other visual arts where there’s no question that what is being viewed is, in its tangible form, an entire creation of the artist. Even photography as art does bear some sort of relationship to reality — the source material from which the constituent elements of the art work are drawn. Whatever impression the art work is intended to convey can’t happen if the form or style of the work is a barrier to the viewer’s experience of the work.

Still, in the end, the primary goal of the photographer as artist is to take in the reality, respond to and interpret it, and use creative expression to present something beyond the baseline  of observation and reporting. Equating the results precisely with reality is a disservice both to the role of the artist and to the value of photography as an art form.

Do you have a strong opinion on photography as art? Should “anything go” or should the portrayal of reality as it is be enough for any photographer? Should anyone care? Feel free to comment…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2011 01:37

    Guy’s article, as always, is a great insightful read. As is yours. I recall having many conversations with you over the years about Truth vs Reality in our images. After our last time together in Canada, we came back to China and I was struck by how difficult it is in Chinese Landscape Photography to be honest. I developed a style called “Lying by Omission” as I always had to be aware of stray elements creeping into the frame that diluted my theme, or even destroyed it.

    Now, as we live on the north coast of Spain, that is easier to avoid, but I am still aware in my night photography, of light pollution, and have decided to work with it.

    The messages I try now to convey in my images are the human relationship with landscapes, and the night sky being washed in an orange glow are a clear sign.

    This is a really worthwhile topic. It covers many levels of debate, from over-processing, cloning, outright lying, through to the more subtle deceits already highlighted.

  2. February 13, 2011 07:00

    A good add-on to Guy’s post, Royce! I have never seen that Picasso quote before – it’s a great one.

    I think this discussion amongst photographers is much like “preaching to the choir” a bit. The other side is trying to engage the general non-photographer public. Many have expectations of what photography is “supposed” to represent, as in simple snapshots. Many of them probably couldn’t care less about artistic expression, etc. In such cases, it is likely the argument is a bit futile.

  3. David (Wherefore Art thou?) permalink
    February 13, 2011 21:56

    Here is the key comment for me in your article:

    “But a caveat — I must have the integrity to be clear to viewers that I am making art, not reportage, so that what I show can be properly interpreted. ”

    If a photographer removes a blemish from a model in a “Playboy” photo, so I am able to enjoy the model in totality rather than be drawn to the blemish, the photographer has done his job. He is allowing me my “fantasy” girl.

    If a photographer removes a policeman hitting a protester from a photo in order to maintain the image of a dictatorship to the world at large, the photographer still is doing his job, though one could say this has been done deceitfully. He is excluding facts which should and do bear a meaningful and necessary component to the photo.

    Nice contemplations here.

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