Saturday, February 14, 2015

"What is truth? " Pontius Pilate

A while ago on the Online Photographer blog Mike Johnston posted about truth in landscape photos. As an example he posted a photo of a barn in Steamboat Springs and posed the question of whether the photo was truthful. It was a posed promotional photo of a classic barn with two riders on horseback coming down the slope through deep snow in front and mountain slopes behind. Mike's point was that there was only one spot from which that photo could be made without including a lot of other less classic structures and other things.

There was a fair amount of discussion and it was clear that a number of commenters favored a journalistic standard of truth in photographs as did Mike. I have to say that as a landscape photographer that kind of stuck in my craw leading to my revisiting the idea here.

My first and broadest objection to photographs as truth is that the medium takes a 3D world where the photographer is standing in a 360° reality (both horizontally and vertically) which includes sound, smell and touch (temperature, rain/snow falling on you, wind blowing your hair, etc.) and from that selects out one small section of the visual part to show the viewer in 2D. The rest is at best implied, snow tells you it is cold, etc.. So no, a photograph is never "truth", it is never reality. It can convey one small slice of the experience of being there but that's all.

My other objection is that all artists and photographers select from the available subject what part(s) they wish to show their viewer. The artist simply leaves distractions out. The photographer chooses where to stand. Ansel Adams once said that a big part of being a photographer was "knowing where to stand". The tree in the photo above is near one corner of my barn, down the slope behind it is my garden shed and some other evergreens. I didn't want to show you them so I found an angle that moved the barn out of the frame to the right and hid the other trees, one behind this tree and the angle of the slope hides the smaller one. The chosen angle also left out the garden shed. Because I deliberately left those things out of the image I suppose one could look at this and assume that this tree was standing alone somewhere in a field with nothing around it. But that would be their interpretation. It certainly wasn't my intent to give that impression. My intent was simply to show you this tree. The things I left out were simply irrelevant and would have been a distraction. I'm not lying by leaving those things out. I'm directing your attention to what I want to show you.

Artists have always left out distracting elements but because photography was considered a literal view of the world photographs have often been assumed to be a "truthful" representation. One of the main objections to "Photoshopping" an image is that is considered by many to be untruthful. The f.64 group was all about the literal image. I know some photographers who insist on "getting it right in the camera" all the while ignoring that the camera does not "see" like a human does (a whole other discussion) and that the things they do "in camera" are arguably manipulations as well.

Today I went snowshoeing in back of my house. The trip started by the tree above. It also passed the barn and the garden shed but this tree was the only thing on that first section of the jaunt that struck me as something I wanted to share. It's not what my whole back yard looks like but it is an accurate representation of the tree as it impressed me to photograph it. It and the photos below are as truthful as a photo can be even though I did leave some things out of each of them and you can't feel the wind blowing snow in your face while you look at them. All were made with a Canon G11. It was a good outing. I needed to get out. Winter here feels like it is never going to end.

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