Since its inception, photography has been associated with the notion of realism. We even coined a word, “photorealistic”, for it. And even though we know (or should know) better, we cling to the idea that photographs basically are “true to nature”.
Manipulation, however, has been part of the photography tool set from the beginning. Already 19th century photographers replaced unpleasant skies. Photography has also followed almost all trends in art from impressionism, to modernism and abstract art. The whole point of these styles and movements was to present a modified experience of reality. And until we have free roaming drones only guided by artificial intelligence, every camera is placed and pointed by someone. Every photograph has a point of view, which robs it of its objectivity and makes it a form of expression.
There are two different sources of deviation from “depicted reality”. One is inherent in or adherent to (think: Photoshop) the photographic process. The current discussion around this form of distortion through process circles around post-production: how much manipulation is permissible before a photo can’t be called a photo anymore? Where is the divide between photography and digital art? How forthcoming should artists be about their digital manipulations? I think the first two questions are less fruitful. Why shouldn’t art genres overlap? But the third question is important regarding expectations of the public, even if these expectations or the belief in the objectivity of the photographic process are somewhat misguided. Nobody (other than scientists and security guards) would really want to look at a totally objective photograph… But I do think, photographers should be candid about their process.
For my own work I have since long decided that I wanted it focused around the camera, not the computer. But that is more a question of degree not one that is black and white (no pun intended).
But I mentioned a second source of distortion. This has to do with that we measure “realness” against – our visual perception. But how “real” is what we see? Philosophers have discussed this question for centuries without getting anywhere. Then, starting from the mid 19th century, science and especially physics, biology, medicine and psychology have piece by piece dismantled reality into something that looks utterly strange and is quite different from what we see. The more we learn about non-obvious aspects of reality the more it seems to slip out of our hands. Is a forest a collection of trees, a garden where the fungi are the gardeners, or a single complex organism? The answers have often real consequences. How thin can a forest be logged before the fungi-web is interrupted?
My point is: we have for a long time assumed that the world works as we see it. But this belief has been shaken if not shattered. Still, we are acting as if we had reality and nature under control. If we trace many, if not all, ecological problems back to its source we always end in: lack of insight. We didn’t intend to put micro-plastic particles into our drinking water. Nobody wanted Tchernobyl or Fukushima. All of this happened, because let’s face it, collectively as a species we are not very clever. We are the only known species to saw off the branch we are sitting on. The problem, it seems to me, is not that we don’t know, but rather that we think we know and act based on that delusion. The problem is our hubris.
This is not meant as an ecological rant. And I don’t have or can offer any solution. I think no single person can. I believe that only by using its very diversity mankind can even hope to find solutions. I also think, though, that all solutions come from understanding. But understanding has two aspects: one intellectual and the other emotional. Art, as I see it, does not equal lecturing but is an exploration into emotional understanding. So, even if my work fully intends to be “naturalistic”, it strives towards such emotional understanding. With time I came to think that for this to work one has to go right out to the border of what is seen with the naked eye. This still doesn’t mean “photoshopping”, sometimes a very narrow focus is enough. And we can’t focus so narrowly with our eyes. But in the end, the best pictures always seem to come from the very edge of realism.