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Wednesday, 12 December 2007


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One word: "Phenomenology."


I think what I'm talking about is quite different from phenomenology as i understand it.

Hegel is saying that phenomena are a way to understand something ultimate behind the phenomena. I used to think that was true.

Buddhism is saying that phenomenon are more or less illusory -- at least our conceptual overlay on phenomena is certainly an illusion. And the only true reality in any phenomenon is that it is impermanent, caused by countless interrelated causes and conditions.

You have some compelling images there, John.

"A good photographer is an artist, unless he or she is just a good photographer hired to document architecture or horticulture—and even then there's room for art. What being an artist might mean is too long for this post, but it means something far different from "stenographer of straight, unadulterated reality.""

Well stated, John. The same pencil and paper can be used to either transcribe or express. With a wink to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message here.

I quote Pasternak: "Beauty is the joy of possessing form". This applies to both art and people.

Another word: rhetoric. The photographs we see, hanging on the wall, in newsprint, in a gallery, on a website, or wherever, are all presented by someone to someone else for some effect. Photographs are used, for example, to achieve an effect of vividness, say, or clarity, or perhaps a mood such as desire or pity, or to support some argument, or to be a pleasing thing in itself, or to draw attention to the photographer. A photograph might be used to force the viewer to question the nature of representation, or the evanescence of experience, or to suggest monumentality and permanence. And a photograph might be used by the photographer, or an editor, or a curator, or the photographer's cousin. But in none of these cases is the photograph a thing-in-itself (or is the photograph *ever* a thing-in-itself), apart from the setting in which it is seen, the person or persons who place it in the setting, and the viewer/s. Just as you can do a lot of different things to people by using a pencil and paper, so you can do a lot with the "pencil of light".

However, there are some settings where people act *as if* the photograph had properties entirely in and of itself ... for example, when a set of people skilled and experienced in photography concentrate on the skill itself, and on judgments of excellence and accomplishment in the production of photos as such, like this forum Mike has so kindly organized for us. But even there I'd want to say that the photos actually displayed are being used in an argument, to make a case, to please, to amaze, or to edify or instruct, or all of these. So the photographs-in-themselves that we discuss are artifacts of our discussion ... which is not to say that they are not revealing or beautiful or gripping, for they are often those things and more. It's just that the reality involved is a *much* wider thing than the photograph itself or any scene that it supposedly depicts.

According to my theory, this is both a Buddhist and a phenomenological perspective, as well as a rhetorical one. Or?

Whew! Nice to get that off my chest.

"Hopefully the reality communicated by a good photograph resonates much more depth in the human heart and spirit than the merely clear and accurate portrayal of some subject in front of a lens."

You've certainly accomplished this in your image of the maple tree.........
Th impact you've made with this photograph transcends equipment, method, digital, film, etc, etc, etc........

The end results is a work of Art.
Brings me to a mood, time and place.......

Indeed, wonderful images. I would think that one of lessons to bring from Buddhism to photography would be that the photograph simply "is". Our minds are always full of this and that ramblings, musings, distinctions, classifications, verbiage, chatter but the photo when looked at - simply "is", yes, temporary for sure, but there it is. When you look at it you don't need words to understand it. Ah, but yes, this is a blog after all.

Come on fellas, this is all a bit silly. There's a substantial and obvious difference between the sensorily perceived world and a photo, and while Buddhism does indeed pontificate on matters of illusion, reality, samsara etc, the essence of such practices - as practiced - is a million miles from mere pontification. Further, deconstructing sensorily perceived 'reality' applies equally to a photo; and both are understood accordingly from the method (s) of meditation.

Joe, yes, exactly. I completely agree with what you said, except you think it's silly. For me it's central and profound, as practice as well as pontification.

I was reffering more to Merleau Ponty or Husserl's definitions. Hegel is too structured.



I really like this text. I even translated it into Portuguese and posted in a Brazilian forum:
I hope it's ok.

We -scientists and artists- are looking the same thing from different perspectives: the reality. I love the analogy between literature and photography, the most shocking tales are the ones that’s explain a reality without even mention it. And I love the (almost artistic) analogies that Einstein uses to found some reality in the nature and math. We use the imagination to find those connections to reality. Those connections with the reality and our soul that make us feel great in front of a photograph or at the end of a book or movie or a song. Everyone has a reality in the same way that everyone has its own definition of beauty or truth. The reality is not in the medium…

This seems to me to be the full resolution of Mike’s “Expressive” photographs conundrum: There’s precious little recognition of any distinction between pictures which exploit the peculiarities of the equipment/process and those which don’t – I don’t think that’s a controversial opinion. But I think we forget WHY that is, and I think it’s more insidious than we realise.

There are plenty of photographs that respect the lens image and represent the scene that was in the artist’s mind, but aren’t what the artist saw.

The trivial examples are waterfalls and seashores taken at 1/2000 s or at 15s. No one saw the frozen droplets or the ethereal probability-of-wetness envelope, but there’s no problem here. Nobody’s fooled, and our insight (and appreciation) are increased.

More subtle are the mountaineering photographs. Midday, midsummer, cloudless, above the snowline - an outrageous level of illumination. But there’s little new in mountain photographs; you know what they look like ? Right. But if you’ve been there, ask yourself, could you see the scene ? Honest answer – barely. Your pupils were straining to get smaller, you were squinting, shading your face with your hand, you put sunglasses on – polarising or otherwise.

I’m not trying to make myself out as some special hardy alpinist; same thing happens on a beach (so I’m told…)

John’s photographs are the extreme example par excellence. (The IR – not sure, I’ll have to think about it.)

In fact, of course, as I type at this keyboard I’ve got focussed awareness of a small part of my visual field; a movement outside the window attracts my attention and I’ve done autotracking, autofocus, my pupils have accommodated for the brightness and I’ve assumed a new white balance for the sunshine…

“Or the bigger questions of what is real, and what might be real in a photograph. I mean really real, from a human perspective. How we resonate with our world, and create it with our minds.”

When we (our our camera clubs competition secretaries) ask ourselves what is “straight” photography, and what is “manipulation” we should have the honesty to think through the limits and peculiarities of our own perception system; the physics of our eyes, the psychology of our brains and the biology of both.

A good (technically proficient) photographer is one who understands this system well enough to see the scene well enough to use the camera for photometry: he can visualise what the camera sees; he can transcribe.

A good artist understands the totality well enough to offer us insights about it.

A good Buddhist, evidently, brings even more to it. But I'll have to re-read and think about that !

Much of the recent discussion on here about the nature of photography and its reality has been very interesting and informative. I feel like most people (not just photographers/artists) would agree that photos certainly can be a good representation of reality. The piece here, however, I think really illustrates the difference for me between an art photograph and a documentary photograph. (Note that as defined here, these aren't exclusive terms, and one photo can be both.)

As an example of what I mean, say as a nature photographer, I take a picture of mountains, meadows, a sunset, etc. I hope that someone feels the power, or pleasure, or quietness of being there. I think of it as art. It contributes something to your thoughts or feelings, and doesn't just document.

At the same time, I show this picture to friends/family/the public, who are amazed that such a place exists, and like looking at it and dreaming of being there. Then they find out that the mountains are actually 1000 miles from the meadow, and the sky is from another continent. To them it's art, but they feel it needs to be more documentary than it may be to the photographer. So now it's a forgery, or it's fake, and they couldn't care less about it.

Now take the same photo, and hang it in a gallery, among obvious digital creations, paintings, sculptures, etc. The average person (perhaps the same one looking at photos at a fair, or a friend or relative) viewing this may ask if it's real or not; But upon knowing either way, they may judge it on it's own merits, as either a fabrication, or a camera's representation of reality (documentary). They know that it's supposed to be art. They judge it based on that only, and not necessarily whether or not it's documentary.

Based on my (albeit limited) experience with people's reactions, I think their expectations play a large part in their perceptions. Photos certainly can be a rendition of reality - as most people understand them to be straight out of a camera or on standard film. They aren't reality, but they are close in most people's minds. So anything done to them moves it more toward the "art" distinction and away from the "documentary" distinction. And a lot of people seem to like/want beautiful and amazing documentary photos.

Saying that all photos are a lie and can't be "real" is a cop out, and a semantic argument against a generally held idea. When people justify Photoshop by saying something like "a photo is 2-D and reality is 3-D, so all photos are fake", I think they are totally missing the point. It's still, in most people's minds, a close approximation of reality. Cloning mountains out and adding clouds isn't a close approximation.

I think that most people are much more comfortable with photos that are obviously documentary, or obviously not documentary, whether they are "art" or not. The in-between if where people feel lied to, or cheated.

(P.S. - Sorry for the rambling post. I didn't mean it to be so long.)

I do like your photographs but would hardily disagree with your conclusions about them. If you had just taken the picture of the barn and an unseen hunter somewhere fired a gun and the bullet had gone through your head -- an accident -- "you" would be gone, but the reality would remain all around your body, and the photograph would remain as a representation of that. And it would be unchanged by your sudden disappearance, just like a living room is unchanged when somebody turns off a TV. And when your wife or friend developed the negative from your camera, it would retain any magic that you put into it.

The only screen in person's mind is the screen of words and concepts, all that load of stuff dumped on us by history and education and religion; if you go to the countryside and look at it, and do it long enough and honestly enough, the screen will begin to go away. I sometimes think (and sometimes don't) that a camera is another screen that would best be dispensed with, so you can actually get at what's there; but then, I think, as a mechanical thing, it may make the best approximation of reality that we can get, except for total immersion...which we can't always do.

Painting and drawing, on the other hand, are a bigger step back: they are very much about the artist, and much less about the motif. That certainly doesn't make them a lesser art form, just fundamentally different.

Do like the photographs. I don't know the author, so I can't say anything about the way he thinks, but if it were me, Buddhism or any other ism, or meditation, would detract from the photographic process, rather than enhance it.


I still fail to see what the problem is with telling the viewer how the image was made. In the film only days many of us wanted to know what camera was used, what film, and what type of print. If you used digital techniques why not just say so? If you are worried that some may value your work less because of it then so be it, that's just how it is. Accept it and move on to those who don't mind how it was made. To those who have made the switch to digital, what are you embarrassed about? If you are so confident and content with your choice (no reason why you shouldn't be) why not just tell the world it's a digital print and keep on photographing?

Regarding 'reality,' consider this:
"Nothing is less real than realism."
Georgia O'Keeffe
"There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described."
Garry Winogrand

The reality for me in these photos is they seem to draw out a feeling of loneliness, isolation, aloneness, not happy. To me the best photographers are able to bring emotions to the surface for the viewer, which these do.

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