Photographs Are Not Real
by Jeffrey Sward
Photographs are not real because the photographer makes subjective decisions both when making the photograph and during post-processing. Image altering subjective decisions made at time of image creation encompass what to include, what to exclude, posing, emphasis, composition, and when to push the shutter button. Image altering subjective decisions made during post-processing encompass adjustments for cropping, tonal placement, vibrance, saturation, contrast, and selective removal of distracting elements.
Photographs are not real. Rather, photographs are merely an abstraction of what might once have existed. - Jeffrey Sward
In one way or another, all photographs are surreal, too, since that isn't actually Uncle Frank smirking on the beach, but just a little slip of paper coated with chemicals. But some photographers insist on being official surrealists. The harder they try to put things together in odd and unsettling ways, the more miserably they fail. The problem is that life as we know it is already odd and unsettling. - Judy Jones and William Wilson from An Incomplete Education
To prove the above assertions, the following example is offered.
Consider the photograph "The Teton Range and the Snake River" by Ansel Adams. This photograph by Ansel is completely unrelated to reality. Consider "regular" photographs taken from the same vantage point. Finding the vantage point for Ansel's photograph is easy. Starting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, travel North on highway 89 (191). Shortly there will be an exit marked "Ansel Adams Memorial Exit." Park in the Ansel Adams Parking Lot. The exact vantage point location is marked by an 18% gray sign labeled "Ansel Adams Picture Spot."
The following photographs were taken from the same vantage point, except for a difference in height. The recent photograph was taken about 6 feet above ground level, while Ansel's photograph was taken about 15 feet above ground level. Ansel used a raised platform on his automobile to place the vantage point far above ground. Rental car companies have been known to object to photographers using the roofs of rental cars for tripod platforms.
Here is what the Snake River looks like in person:
Here is what the Snake River looks like in person, converted to black and white:
Compare this to "The Teton Range and the Snake River" by Ansel Adams.
Obviously Ansel's photograph is far more appealing than the actual scene viewed in person. Photographs are not real. Rather, photographs are merely an abstraction of what might once have existed. Case closed.
Here is Ansel at work on the roof of his car:
Detail: Time of Initial Creation
For anyone operating under the illusion that any part of photojournalism is real, the following observations of Steve Schapiro are illustrative. Steve Schapiro was a noted photojournalist for Life magazine and an associate of W. Eugene Smith, also a LIfe magazine photojournalist.
W. Eugene Smith did major humanistic photo essays ("Spanish Village," "A Country Doctor"), which appeared to have been shot in a purely candid manner. Later we learned that many of his best remembered images were manipulated and set up to appear natural when actually they were heavily posed. Smith felt his responsibility was to present an image that people would relate to and would best express his personal felling about a person, a situation, or mankind, regardless of what he had to do to make that image come about. The photography is not "truth" as people often believe. It represents the subjective feelings of the photographer and his choice of when to push the shutter button. I can make an image of you as being happy or glum and if others see only one of these images, they will make a judgment about what your essential nature is. In actuality it has been my choice of how to portray you to others. -- Steve Schapiro, being interviewed by Russell Joslin in Shots #108.
Photographs, and in particular photojournalistic photographs, are not real. Rather, photographs are merely an abstraction of what might once have existed. Case closed. Twice.
All written content of this web site is solely the editorial opinion of Jeffrey Sward. All images, graphics, and written content of this web site, including the html files, are creative products covered by copyright law. All content copyright Jeffrey Sward 1975-2019. All rights reserved. No portion of this web site or its constituent elements may be reproduced in any form, by any means, without prior written permission. So there.