If we see nothing, then this does not mean that nothing is there.
John D. Barrow, The Artful Universe
It is not really news that human perception is limited. We hear only within a certain frequency spectrum, we can only see within a certain range of wavelengths and only things of a certain minimum size. Our perception is also optimised for a certain time window.
No wonder then that humans have been wondering forever what it is out there that we don’t perceive. The “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” to quote a former U.S. politician. Photography can stretch into some of these unknowns but that opens questions of its own.
The physical range of our sensory apparatus has of course an explanation in evolution. Our senses are fine-tuned for detecting food and predators. Optics of all kind (like microscopes or infrared devices) have helped us extend this sensory range. So have cameras. Even without any post-processing on the computer the camera can extend our vision significantly. It can change our angle of view, the relative sizes of objects and the time window for perception – to name just a few of these possibilities. The effect can be quite dramatic. Long exposures remove the ripples in the water and make it seem calm. The picture at the top was made on a stormy morning with waves up to half a meter. Therefore even a four-minute exposure didn’t quite smooth out everything. With clouds the effect depends on the structure and speed of the clouds. In the photo cloud banks were moving very fast and thus got smeared out. With clouds moving at a slower pace instead of a general blur more dramatic movements would be revealed. We can say that a shifted time window can either erase information (e.g. removing ripples and waves in water) and or introduce new information (e.g. the path of clouds).
We often call these effects in photography “distortions” to mark them as deviations from how humans usually perceive. But are the results less “real” or “realistic” for that? I think this only true if we set the time resolution and perspective of human perception as the absolute measurement for reality. Given that physics teaches us that time can be diluted and particles could be at two places at the same time, I think that making e.g. human time perception the measure of all things seems rather frivolous.
The findings and theories in physics are however, to me at least, rather counter-intuitive. They might be intellectually inspiring but don’t change for me how reality “feels”. In contrast, the moderate extensions of perception by photography are far less radical but, I think, emotionally more accessible.
From designers I have learned the term “story”, which in their slang means context, association and impact of a design. I think at the core of “fine art” landscape and nature photography are these kinds of stories in which what see and think and feel merge. Think of hanami the cherry-blossom-festivities. As we know, the importance of the cherry blossom for the Japanese derives not only from the prettiness of the flowers or their abundance. An important part of their appreciation comes from a piece of information we know about them: that their flowering season is extremely short. This is not information one could gain from a picture of a cherry blossom alone. Instead, we know this as context, as a “story” and might react emotionally to it. At the same time, this kind of information is not “un-real”; it is actually a crucial part of the reality of a cherry blossom and one that is missing from a static depiction of the flower.
As a result I think the distortions possible by using a camera can make the results truer not less realistic. It is us that grapple with sensing reality, really. There is, however, a fine line between such distortions and effects like over-saturating colors in a picture. I think every photographer has to decide for him/herself how far they are willing to go. A good question to ask oneself might be whether the distortion adds to the story or not. But this is not always easy to answer, I admit.