Friday, July 2, 2010

Photography: Art vs. Reality rears its head again

Since its inception in 1839, photography has lived a dual life: is it art or a representation of reality? That it can be both doesn’t seem to quench the question, which has been answered many times but seldom to the satisfaction of the general public (as opposed to the art establishment and collectors willing to pay significant sums for some photographs.) Like a wildfire that seems to have been brought under control, every little breeze makes it flare up again.

With each new technological advance, the question returns in some form. In an article in this week’s New York Times Magazine by Virginia Heffernan, the question has been turned around. If it’s not meant to be art, how does the new photographic technology of HDTV divest itself of artifice? (Click here to read the article.)

“Reality TV” has always been an emperor without clothes. Even in science, much less art, it is understood that an experimental outcome is always affected by the role of the experimenter. A subject is at the mercy of the photographer and the photographer limited by the technology. Even back in the classic black and white days of Walter Cronkite “the news” as presented in print or on TV has always been different than the reality it reports.

Now we have HDTV, which renders reality with a “staggeringly fine-grain resolution” that reveals every pore, blemish, and wrinkle in its subject. Do we still have to ask if this is reality or not?

René Magritte used paint, but his famous image (below) would be just as true as a photograph. The words in the painting translate into the paradoxical “this is not a pipe,” but Magritte pointedly titles the piece “The Treachery of Images.” It also would be just as true in HDTV today as it was in 1929 when he painted it.

1 comment:

  1. "This is not reality", even with HDTV a director/producer makes decisions with lighting, backgrounds, focal length and depth of field that will allow a celebrity's details to be more or less accentuated. Even in HD aesthetic decisions like this are made to alter ones reality or perceived reality. I think the general public plays into the idea of something being "true" or "real" because it has been human nature to except it as such even though in photo journalism each capture has a specific thought out point of view that can influence ones reality of a subject or situation and the general public believes photo journalism is displaying reality. Anytime a human is behind a camera, weather still or motion, they are displaying a Point of View. It may not be reality but is it art?