An essay on Photography, Light, Reality and Truth
Today after a fun and inspiring listen to MSPwaves's "Coffee and Philosophy" hosted by @clayboyn I remembered about an essay I wrote in 2011 about photography, computer graphics, color and philosophy.
What prompted me to write it at the time was a discussion going on in the light painting community about photos that had even the slightest edits (crop, adding a logo, raw conversion) being considered by some to be inferior or less "real" than photos that were SOOC (Straight out of camera). Needless to say that coming from a computer graphics background I was utterly opposed to any kind of barrier between art and technology. I perceived it as a form of willful technological ignorance.
As I got more experience as a light painter I started to realize that it was indeed better to get that perfect shot in camera instead of having to crop it, or increasing dynamic range, or adding flares or trails in post. Not because I acquired an aversion to computer graphics but because I found that trying to emulate the perfect camera settings, light painting performance and composition on a computer after the photo was taken yielded worse results than if the photo was already perfect to begin with.
I still love the square crop. I always shoot raw so there's always color conversion happening by whichever raw codec I choose. Black and white conversions from raw fall on that boat. Occasionally I will adjust the curves within safe margins. All of this happens in post but I still get the most satisfaction when I don't have to do anything after the photo is taken. The exception to this is 360 photography where composition happens after the photo is taken because a spherical 3D image needs to be projected in 2D and there are choices to be made.
In retrospect this essay was all about my internal struggle at the time to define my view of Art, myself and even reality. I don't occupy my mind with these philosophical conundrums as often as I did but it was worth the effort even if only a small group of friends actually read it.
Light, reality and truth
White light is the effect of combining the visible colors of light in equal proportions. You might know that a rainbow is made out of sun rays scattered through the prismatic qualities of thousands of raindrops. Each of the colors in a rainbow (violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red as described by Newton) have their distinct wavelength (from 400 nm for violet to 650nm for red). We perceive these colors as unique with a very complex set of emotions attached specifically to them. A color only 20ns away might carry a completely different connotation.
To describe color it is better to use the additive RGB color model where the previously mentioned colors are narrowed down to three primary colors (blue, green and red) and blended to make cyan magenta and yellow (secondary colors). Combining all three primary colors produces white. James Clerk Maxwell elaborated on this theory with the color triangle in 1861 after being inspired by the Young–Helmholtz theory of trichromatic color vision, developed by Thomas Young and Hermann Helmholtz, in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Maxwell went on to make the first true color photograph using this model. We see it applied today on TV’s around the world (so it must be true).
Reality according to Wikipedia: (…) “the state of things as they actually exist.” The term reality, in its widest sense, includes everything that is, whether or not it is observable or comprehensible. Reality in this sense may include both being and nothingness, whereas existence is often restricted to being. (…)
Truth according to Wikipedia: (…) There is no single definition of truth about which the majority of philosophers agree. Various theories of truth, commonly involving different definitions of “truth”, continue to be debated.(…)
I find it a bit of a paradox that living beings equipped with senses that vary per individual, can say with absolute certainty that something exists identically to them as it does to every other individual in the universe. The contradiction in this paradox is the following: How can one possibly start to define something that (even if observed) hasn’t been interpreted in quite the same way as everyone else?
I believe that reality is subjective. Some people call this “subjective reality”, truth because truth relates better to their individual perceptions than reality does. I prefer to call truth “my reality”. I’m not saying that my reality is absolute because then there would have to be consensus with all other individuals in the universe. I think it’s utopic to achieve an absolute reality or an universal truth so my efforts go toward finding my own reality while not purposely trying to discredit others.
Here is an example of how reality changes according to our perception: In ancient times it was commonly accepted that the world was flat. But then some guy named Pythagoras planted a seed in Aristotle who provided empirical evidence for an Earth that wasn’t flat by observing that travelers going south see southern constellations rise higher above the horizon. Thus the Earth’s surface cannot be flat. This has led to the presumption that perhaps it may be spherical. Reality in the making… It is real to us today (that we live on a spherical planet) because one or more individuals postulated it even if it meant contradicting what reality was at that time.
Unfortunately for the sake of philosophical consensus, reality is as we individuals perceive it: e.g. A colorblind man (with blue-yellow color blindness or tritanopia) perceives purple as being a desaturated pinkish red (his doctor told him this). He fell in love with his interior designer who painted a mural of a purple flower in his apartment. If the emotions associated with purple are the same for him as for her, and they both look at that mural thinking: “This is without a doubt the most beautiful purple flower I have ever seen”. Do they agree that it is purple even if his doctor has a different opinion? It is true to the doctor that they actually see different colors but that does not stop them from knowing that it is indeed a purple flower.
I find peace in believing that there is no purple. There are only theories of it. Purple can be an electromagnetic frequency of 410 ns, it can also be the mix of red and blue light in equal quantities, it can even be desaturated pinkish red.
There’s a graph in photography like there’s a graph in computer graphics. What some photographers forget is that synthesized photons are photons too. Photography and computer graphics are essentially the same: light representation by means of human/machine interaction. Notice I said representation and not capture. The word capture suggests that photons would actually be stored somewhere… they’re not: only a trace representation of the photons is left in silver nitrate or sensed by electrodes on a modern DSLR and translated to 1s and 0s. This is important philosophically, because if neither computer graphics nor photography are the light itself being stored, absolute and without interpretation, neither can make the claim that it’s more “real” than the other, since computer graphics is also merely a representation of light based on centuries of acquired knowledge about how light works. And yes it’s just an interpretation of light but so is photography. My point is: They’re the same, just different directions of input. Goethe had some interesting ideas on this...
I normally don’t tag my photos with SOOC (straight out of camera) even if they are because I think it’s irrelevant whether a photograph was finished inside a little box with a little display we call a camera or on a bigger box and bigger display we call a PC. Finishing photographs has historically been the job of the photographer either way. Some people believe photography is all about the ‘photos’ and nothing about the ‘graphos’.
Sometimes I like to produce images created by computer graphics but rendered through photography as it presents me with the perfect opportunity to express my stance on the matter: Stop fighting against the many interpretations of light because photography is but one of them. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I’m fine with people liking a certain manifestation of light over another.
To all my fellow light painters who tag their photos with SOOC but omit any accompanying description I think: mmkay… congratulations for using a camera in photography. Now start using your eyes and brain to free yourself of box constraints!
This is the opposite of apologizing for having post-processed some of my light painting photographs, because I’m proud of what I’ve done with most of them. It’s just a question of principle because to me they too are real light painting photographs in their fullest right. I would prefer if they were not seen as the F!#*ing Photoshoped variants that are allegedly less real.
I was discussing this with my friend who’s also interested in reality, philosophy and photography and he said the following, with which I also agree:
“You do a set up and spend hours gathering a light composition / performance then crop it in post… and I take a stock photo & add light streaks in photoshop… which is “light art”. Which is just CGI augmentation. For a purist, if it doesn’t come straight from the camera, then it’s not art. For an layman, why bother with all the work, just add a glow effect and act like you made a masterpiece. There’re levels of purity in between, but I don’t feel a bit of tweaking like a simple crop or adjusting curves ought be looked down upon."
Indeed, adding a flare is something else than enhancing tonal qualities of measured light or cropping a photo so you can have a custom aspect ratio that fits your subject and composition. I don’t get the purists that think that these two examples at least are not a part of photography.
I’ve read the passage “made without F!#*ing Photoshop” quite a lot in the light painting circles. Some even go as far as eliminating cropping altogether from their palette of tools because it is made outside of the camera… what I mean to say is that CGI and photos are all eventually manifested in the form of photons that have been created/altered by the medium they were recorded/displayed on, so on that basis I don’t think it’s important to differentiate between a SOOC photo and a computer enhanced photo because light painting photography is augmented perception too: no one can open the shutter of their eyes and record the accumulation of light for minutes at a time. That’s a power reserved to our minds that can visualize anything we imagine.
Rendering a photorealistic computer generated 3D image is creating an approximation of reality just like photography is. It’s futile to make one less real than another.. My point is I guess pure photography doesn’t exist because photons are transient. What we have at our disposal are many different ways of photons being created and recorded. That’s why if I could pick only one I’d call myself visual artist and not photographer even though I’m proud to be one too. I struggle with having to accept that photography is separated from computer graphics because to me they both require only one skill set to master: interpreting light.
Painting with words
Words are more susceptible to interpretation than images. Reading poetry, a novel or a science fiction book stimulates us to explore the realms of one of our most powerful faculties: Imagination. We can all form mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to our senses. These images or concepts are very intimate and many of us enjoy their invigorating and inspiring qualities. I would also like to add (without wanting to offend too many philosophers) that I’m a firm believer that the stuff of dreams is the same stuff that makes reality: e.g. science fiction authors inspired and continue to inspire scientists and engineers to recreate in reality what artists invented in fiction.
Art, as one of the products of our imaginations is not created only by the artist conceiving it but also by the audience contemplating it. The artist is the originator of an object that expresses his/her reality, but it is only true art when the audience perceives it as being so. Many times while reading a book, observing a painting or a photo, listening to music, touching a sculpture, we create a version of what we perceive that might diverge from the artists intentions. I hope that whatever version you perceive in my work is true to you even if I meant something else.
I am currently earning a living as a CGI artist specialized in 3D design. A fascination that arose from wanting to better understand my profession was the theory of light and color. Another earlier fascination was literature, but apparently, or so I’ve learned, being a poet wasn’t the most promissing career if one wasn’t 50+ and carrying an generous white beard. Nevertheless poetry gave me the opportunity to create mental images that I would later translate into digital paintings or journal entries. Even with the limited palette of words and mental/emotional associations available to me as a fifteen year old, I still cherish the effects that writing had on me back then. As opposed to visual arts which have an almost immediate and intuitive effect on its viewers, literature makes one think deeper and awakens latent imagery.
My objective with this essay was to clarify and develop some truths in existence, including mine, in a so much as possible matter-of-fact way but including lyric passages filled with symbols and metaphors.
If you've made it this far, congratulations! and thank you for reading.