IS IT REALLY, REAL?
Steve Edwards suggests that "some have seen the advent of digital photography as representing a crisis in photography's ability to truthfully represent reality; in turn, this has been taken as a symptom for a wider crisis in social knowledge. [...] The photograph is an aid to vision and what matters is what it can be used to see, not its supposed status as a literal copy" (2006: 137-138). My question here is to consider if it is necessary for photography to remain truthful and real under all circumstances?
Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen claim that the general opinion of the public in the late 20th century was that “whereas the painter can paint whatever he wants, the photographer must depict “what is there.” The painter creates, the photographer “finds” or “captures” or “selects” or “organizes” or “records” his pictures” (1975: 148). Snyder’s and Allen’s opinion implies that photography cannot be seen as an industry that is as creative as the traditional art industry is, because of the involvement of a mechanical apparatus that somehow automatically diminishes the photographer’s artistic options. Perhaps it was so at the time the authors wrote their paper (1975), but in my opinion this view on photography can no longer be considered to be the dominant opinion of the public. With the rise of digital era and all the possibilities the digital environment brings along with it, a photographer has become more than a person standing behind the camera and just “finding” or “capturing” or “selecting” or “organizing” or “recording” his images. Multiple programs allow photographers to create images of imaginary places and actions in a similar way that a painter uses his brush. Consider the work of Joan Fontcuberta for ‘Landscapes without memory’ series. Fontcuberta created computer-generated images based on pre-existing photographs. Although the images are not real, they do contain a certain amount of reality in them. Nobody can deny that at some point in time there was an object in front of a camera. What happens to this captured moment of the object after, depends on the creative intention of the artist. The methods of creating a work may differ, but nevertheless it is the artist who is creating a certain piece of work. I believe that photography shouldn’t imply that due to its mechanical nature a photographer should always show the world as it is. During the last 150 years photographers have already achieved that, and many will continue to do so. At the same time the post-production possibilities in the 21st century are so advanced that it would be a shame if we refused to accept them. Instead they should be welcomed as a part of the process, used wisely and with reason. Depending on the context of the work, a photographer can embrace the creative process of playing with photography and create work that is detached from the reality (in a direct sense) and create something surrealistic that can still be called photographic art.
Developing a photographically illustrated story for children as a photography project also gives a lot of room for experimentation, imagination and fantasy, and invites the use of Charles Sanders Peirce’s iconic, indexical and symbolic signs (in Justus Buchler, 1955: 98-119) to which I will come back later.
If you allow me, I would like to present an example of an image that I consider less successful (or perhaps it’s better to say it’s presented in a less successful way (see Figure 1).
Fig. 1: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Example of a less successful image [digital photographic image]
This straightforward shot of a part of a tree will not hold the viewer’s attention for too long. It is easy to recognize what is showed (a part of a tree), and the viewer’s imagination, based upon the previous knowledge of the world around us, will not go far beyond imagining a tree in its full glory standing tall in a greenery. As John Berger put it: “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. […] We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” (2008: 8). In this case, the viewer has a choice to look at an image and (based on what he knows about the world) see a part of a tree, and most likely nothing more.
To catch the viewer’s attention, I believe I have to change the way the viewer sees the image. Therefore, I ‘plaid’ with the image in order to stimulate the viewer’s imagination and fantasy. Figure 2, in my opinion, being an example of a successful image, shows an outcome of this play.
Fig. 2: Kalmane Saksens 2022. The Mother Tree [a set of digital photographic images]
This example consists of two images from which one is mirrored, both are rotated and both being an interpretation/derivative of the original image, a pair in which one mustn’t be separated from the other, otherwise the intended meaning is lost. As the name of the image already suggests, the viewer is invited to see a ‘Mother Tree’, more precisely, the face of a ‘Mother Tree’, a character that I am planning to involve in the upcoming story. The existence of this character is inspired by ecologist’s Suzanne Simard’s large scale field-based experiment, conducted in 2015, (based on decades of research about trees) on how trees make connections underground and how they communicate. According to Simard, communication between trees is achieved via infinite underground pathways and fungal networks. In the introduction part of her recently published book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest Simard writes the following about the secret communication between trees: ''I discovered that they are in a web of interdependence, linked by a system of underground channels, where they perceive and connect and relate with an ancient intricacy and wisdom that can no longer be denied'' (Simard 2021: 4). When looking at Figure 2 the viewer sees two things: firstly, an actual part of a real tree, and, secondly, the face of the ‘Mother Tree’, an imaginary character. The chosen name of the character will further function as a symbolic sign of what this character is about. The concept of ‘motherhood’ and all the warmth and care it represents will also affect how one sees the image taking the title into consideration.
Landscape and nature being a subject of an easy access and generally immobile, and mostly due to their wildly acknowledged appeal have been topics of interest in relation to artistic expression already for centuries. Just for an example, in the 17th century Rembrandt often drew and painted landscapes with trees; not because he wanted the trees to become objects of fantasy characters, but because they were a part of the reality around him. It took a few centuries for the medium of painting to get to the stage of freeing an artist from the necessity of showing the world as real as possible to reach a point where trees can become symbolic signs of other things and be represented in unreal ways. Consider (Figure 3) the symbolic representation of wisdom in Jose Roosevelt’s painting ‘Autumn Story’ (2002).
Fig. 3: Roosevelt 2002. Autumn story [painting]
Clearly, the viewer is invited to see more than just a tree by deciphering signs. Even in linguistics a tree is used as a symbol to represent unity and motherhood - used as a visual representation of all languages (the concept of a language tree). The history of tree photography begins in a similar way with trees being photographed for the last 150 years for what they really are (Figure 4, Figure 5 and Figure 6).
Fig. 4: Volkerling 1867. Oak Trees in Dessau [albumen print]
Fig. 5: Adams 1948. Aspen Grove, Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming [analogue photograph]
Fig. 6: Maran 2016. The beech tree [digital photographic image]
Now with the digital era in full bloom, having reached the point in history when it has been discovered how to get the most out of cameras in terms of resolution and colours, what is there left for the rest of us? I believe we can see the world in many different ways, and it all depends on how we choose to look at it.
As for further development of the project, I plan to devote relevant amount of time each week for photoshoots and writing a manuscript for the story, as well as to continue researching the chosen area of children’s literature in relation to photography. Towards the end of the spring, the project in planned to result in a dummy book.
LIST OF REFERENCES
EDWARDS, Steve. 2006. Photography: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
BERGER, John. 2008. Ways of Seeing. Great Britain: Penguin Design Series.
PIERCE, Charles Sanders. ‘Logic as Semiotics: The Theory of Signs’. In Justus Buchler (ed.). 1955. Philosophical Writings of Pierce (98-119). New York: Dover Publications Inc.
SIMARD, Suzanne. 2021. Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. USA: Alfred A. Knopf.
SNYDER, Joel and WALSH ALLEN, Neil. 1975. ‘Photography, Vision, and Representation’. In Critical Inquiry, 2 (1), 143-169. The University of Chicago Press.
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Example of a less successful image [digital photographic image].
Figure 2: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. The Mother Tree [a set of digital photographic images].
Figure 3: ROOSEVELT, Jose. 2002. Autumn story [painting]. From The Surrealism Website [online]. Available at: https://surrealism.website/Roosevelt.html [accessed 31 January 2022].
Figure 4: VOLKERLING, Gerd. 1867. Oak Trees in Dessau [albumen print]. From Naomi Rosenblum. 2007. ‘A World History of Photography, 4th ed’ (p. 116). New York; London: Abbeville Press Publishers.
Figure 5: ADAMS, Ansel. 1948. Aspen Grove, Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming [analogue photograph]. From Andrea G. Stillman (ed.). 2007. ‘Ansel Adams 400 Photographs’ (p. 204). New York, Boston, London: Little, Brown and Company.
Figure 6: MARAN, Matthew. 2016. The beech tree [digital photographic image]. From Matthew Maran, 2016. ‘Hampstead Heath, London's Countryside’ (p.145). London: Hemisphere Publishing.