Photographs and Reality

What's Real?
Title: What’s Real?

I don’t get into art history (or art, for that matter), so my apologies if the rest of this paragraph seems an overly simplistic and consequently inaccurate description of it. From the renaissance through the end of the 19th century (more or less), art strove for realism – the accurate depiction of a scene as it exists in reality. Then photography came along, which could do this better than paint on a canvas could ever achieve*. Art’s response was to veer away from realism, towards the surreal and abstract, stuff that didn’t exist in reality and therefore a camera could not capture.

Anyway, what’s interesting to me is how that initial perception of photography is just wrong. A photograph is not reality. At best, it’s a thin slice of reality, but more accurately it’s a perception of reality. There’s all sorts of interpretations and compromises being made in the creation of the photograph. A short list:

  1. Reality is three dimensions, photographs are two.
  2. Photographs offer but a thin slice of the tonal range seen in reality – real life doesn’t have black shadows or blown highlights.
  3. Real life is color, not black and white, not sepia, not toned. And the color in real life is a far broader range than most cameras can capture, displays can show, or printers can print.
  4. What we see is our brain’s interpretation of very imperfect image data being constantly fed through the optic nerve from photoreceptors in the back of our eye and filtered through a lens at the front of our eye. Cameras don’t do this.

So a photo might look “realistic”, but that’s only because we’ve come to define “realistic” as what a photograph looks like. In reality, they’re anything but.

Just some food for thought.

The photo is an inverted reflection taken in the same parking lot I mentioned yesterday, hopefully underscoring the point above.


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