As artists, as fine-art photographers, we are bold-faced liars. We twist the truth and distort reality and, if done well, we get rewarded for our deceptions. We burn and we dodge and we manipulate. We’re sorta like the mob, only instead of bullets we shoot frames, and instead of shakedowns and extortion, we have galleries. Okay, maybe that comparison is a bit of a stretch, but the lying part is true. The fact is that we, as creative individuals, as people with something of value to share, have to “lie” to be effective.
It is a concept that I have thought about, on the periphery, but could not concisely define until I saw the move V for Vendetta (a movie I highly recommend, btw), in which the protagonist states that “Artists lie to tell the truth.” It’s not often in today’s culture of flash-bang, action-packed movies to hear something so profound. (sure, The Simpsons and NCIS are profound almost every week, but they are the notable exception). Anyway, I was totally struck by that statement and have spent the past few weeks considering it. The more I do, the more true is becomes.
You see, as artists it is our mission, our passion, to reveal to others what we consider to be truths, our personal version of the truths. We are, in a nutshell, in the communications business and as such we have to choose the best way to be effective. Often that best way is to be somewhat loose with reality, allowing it to conform to our personal set of truths, our vision. Only then can we have a dynamic and important dialog with the viewer.
Take for example two of the most influential photographers of the past 100 years, Ansel Adams and Minor White. Both spent the bulk of their careers documenting the world around them, but did so in a way which expanded “reality” to fit the vision they had for their respective subjects.
Arguably, Ansel’s most popular and important image was Moonrise over Hernandez which, over the years, saw numerous interpretations as he printed it stronger and darker with each iteration, deviating further from reality, but nearer to his personal truth and how the scene felt to him.
Minor White started his process for person truth more towards the front end of the process, the shoot, in which he often composed his subjects in such an abstract fashion as to make traditional reality all but impossible to decipher.
With the advent of digital photography and the to-be-expected push back by some traditionalists, it’s all too common to hear or read phrases such as “I don’t do anything to my photos” or “I only set black and white and color balance before I print.” In their zeal for tradition they mistakenly think that “untouched” images are somehow more revealing or more true. In reality, however, they are neither. The images are sanitary and bland, lacking in any personal expression, replacing it instead with ineffectual mechanical and electronic sterility. It’s like a reading a poem in a flat, monotone, unemotional voice. No matter how powerful the words may be, the message will be lost.
I’ve talked to some of these people, and they do mean well, but their intentions simple don’t achieve the results that they hope for. I mean, how can we expect to evoke a response from a viewer, any response, if we don’t invest a bit of ourselves and our personal truths in the presentation of the images. And that means lying.