A few years ago, the family and I were lucky enough to travel to Australia. This has been something we’ve wanted to do for several years and I would be very happy to return again. One evening while we were staying in Bondi, a famous beach area of Sydney, I met a local photographer. I met him because I saw some guy walking along the beach holding a Rolleiflex, I just had to say hello. He was as surprised that someone on the street knew what a 6×6 camera was let alone a Rolleiflex. So we got to talking photography. He was a local resident and seemed quite experienced. However as we got more into talking film photography he began to steer the conversation to the advancement of digital photography and finally that of photography with an iPhone. He was quite impressed and enamored with his cell phone and couldn’t say enough good things about it. I tried to be polite, but inside found this very perplexing. Here is a guy using one of the world’s most famous professional medium format film camera, and he’s more impressed with the quality of a digital image from a cell phone.
I’m not here to bash photography made with an mobile phone, but this was strange for me. I admitted to him that they are very popular and many people use them (I use one myself on occasion) but it cannot compare to the quality of his 6×6 and in the end it isn’t “real”. He said it was. Which leads us to our blog theme for today.
In photography today, due to the use of post production software and of course digital photography, I think people are always wondering if the image is real or not. My personal goal is always to get it right in the (film) camera first. I do use some post production software but really try to limit its use as I hate sitting in front of a computer for hours and hours tinkering with curves, layers, levels or whatever.
This idea of “real” is an interesting one. What is “real”? I think back to two heavy duty books, Werner Heisenberg‘s, “Physics and Philosophy” and D.T. Suzuki‘s, “Zen and Japanese Culture”. In Heisenberg’s book he talks about how a number of prominent physicists in the Copenhagen Interpretation era (mid to late 1920’s) argued against its ideas and theories. This was in the infancy of Quantum mechanics and many ideas were not fully supported (wait a second….isn’t this a photography blog? What is this?!? Hold on, we’re getting to it). One of the arguments concerned how to know, or test, what is real about particles and waves.
Next, in Suzuki’s book he deals with one of the highest goals of Zen Buddhism, that of achieving ultimate reality or satori, which literally means 'understanding'. I am not an expert in Quantum mechanics nor Zen Buddhism, but the connection between these two above mentioned ideas is striking. Both are trying to understand, to get closer to, and achieve reality.
In photographic terms I don’t know if this is possible, or to put it another way I don’t know if it is possible for one photographer to fully illustrate reality to all of us. Each of us sees reality differently. Each of us uses photography differently. You begin with a scene that only you see in a certain way. Through the controls of your camera you reinterpret what your brain processed and sent back to the eyes. What we now have is an image that is a new form of reality and we haven’t even turned on our computer yet. Add several hours of post production or traditional darkroom techniques and what you’ve got is a scene far removed from reality. So, is it real? Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe the smarter question is, “how does it make you feel?” Photography should illicit an emotional response. I don’t think it matters how you get that response. My photography mentor once told me that when you are able to transmit you’re own personal feeling into the photo and be able to receive that same type of emotion from someone who views your image, then you have made a successful photograph…and that is real.