What Photography Isn’t

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

What Photography Isn’t

It Ain’t A Painting

A photograph is not a painting. An obvious statement but also one that can be helpful in understanding what photographyis, as opposed to what it isnot.

A painter starts with a blank canvas and adds what he thinks should be seen. This can be either from a scene in front of him, or from something that springs from the painter’s mind’s eye. If the painting is taken from reality, such as a landscape, items are included or excluded based on the artist’s preference and vision. No one ever says to a painter, "Why didn’t you include that telephone pole"?

The photographer, on the other hand, starts with whatever nature has placed in front of him. His task as an artist is toremovethat which doesn’t compliment his vision. (This is even the case when so-calleddocumentaryphotography is being done. Taking a photograph is inherently an exercise in editorial decision making.)

"The painter constructs, the photographer discloses."

— Susan Sontag

I’m reminded of the probably apocryphal story of Michelangelo being asked, while he was sculpting his David, "How do you know what to carve away"? His response was reported to be, ‘I simply remove everything that doesn’t look like David." So too the photographer must remove everything that doesn’t look like what he or she want the photograph to contain. The photographer, byexcluding, creates.

The photographer makes his choice of what to include, or not, through a number of means. Positioning of the camera is the first one, and choice of lens is the second. Together, these allow the photographer to determine perspective. The use of camera or lens movements, such as tilts, swings and rising or falling film and lens standards permits a further range of control.

Later, whether in the electronic or the chemical darkroom, the next stage of exclusion takes place. While many photographers slavishly adhere to either the format of the film size that was shot, or the paper size that they print on, I believe that a photographwantsto be a certain size or shape. Sometimes only after living with an image for a while can this determination be made. (I often will crop an image several different ways and put small versions of these on the screen or on a large print. Usually after a while the proper cropping will suggest itself.)

Canyonlands Sunset, 2000


This leads to a vexing issue, particularly for photographers using digital image processing techniques. With a program likePhotoShopand appropriate skill one is able to create almost any image, or variation on an existing image, that can be imagined. Many photographers, myself among them, are still wrestling with the issue of what this implies for our art.

We’ve all seen the grotesque images being produced of Polar Bears sitting on sand dunes and Penguins in the jungle. Where does one draw the line between the creation of such fantasies and legitimate artistic use of the available tools?

Everyone must make these decisions for themselves. I make no claim to be an arbiter of good taste. But, here is what I’ve decided. See if it makes sense for you.

Rural Farm WorkersThe Gleaners — Ontario 1996


Since the art of the photographer is by definition that ofexclusionI believe that it is appropriate to use the power of the digital tools available to exclude items. For example, I have no qualms about digitally removing an errant power line from a shot, because if I could have done so by changing position or lens when taking the photograph I would have done so in the first place.

On theinclusionaryside I try and limit myself to the range of controls that photographers have traditionally used‚ the control of color, contrast, tonality and the like. Do I add clouds that weren’t there in the first place? Possibly, though not often. But I regularly use a polarizer and split neutral density though when shooting in colour, and red and orange filters for cloud enhancement when shooting in black and white. Not much difference, I think, philosophically speaking between doing this in the field or doing it later in the lab or on-screen.

Has this got you thinking? Do you agree or disagree? Good.Let me know what you think.

Michael Reichmann

Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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