Sunday, April 8, 2012

Abstraction in Photography

Photographs tend to appear "real" to the casual viewer. We as viewers tend to imbue them with some veritas, because they are so detailed, and because they do capture in some sense exactly what is in front of the lens.

Nonetheless, there is an enormous amount of abstraction present in a photograph. A partial list:

  • A photograph is 2 dimensional, while the world is 3 dimensional
  • ... or 4 dimensional. A photograph is also an instant of continuing time.
  • Color is either altered or absent in the photograph
  • A photograph is only a section of what is seen, a rectangular view, excluding much of what was there to be seen

This does not even include choices made in post processing, in which color, contrast, brightness are altered, elements may be retouched or "cleaned up", artifacts are almost certainly introduced.

We see a photograph as "real" only because, while it contains in fact only an extremely small fraction of what is "real" it is enough to fool our neurology into treating it as an accurate representation.

This stuff matters, because it's this abstraction that allows the photographer to do more than simply record what is in front of the camera. It's this that's makes the photographer more than merely a reporter of what is. Paradoxically, we tend to view the photographer as a reporter of what is, and to feel a bit cheated when we learn that what we're seeing is not in fact what is or was. We should not feel cheated. If we want to see what is, we should use our eyes, not photographs.

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