More Than Meets the Eye


daffodil, photograph

“While the photographer cannot eliminate the object […], he still wants the photograph to be the main source of the spectator’s feeling. While he cannot erase from the viewer’s mind the implications of the subject, he prefers to depend for his effect on the visual relationships that are present in the print itself.”

– Minor White

This is certainly how I feel about doing photography but there are some that will disagree. And I’ve seen many photographs where I believe the subject was the focus, rather than the photograph itself. The cameras ability to easily render what appears in front of us can make it easy to fall into the trap of simply documenting what’s there.

As you may know, I like to compare photography to painting – having done a lot of both, it lets me bring to bear my own personal experiences. Plus I think many of us hold different views of these two artforms, both in terms of creating and viewing them, and these differences can be revealing. After all, both are about creating images, yet there are many distinctions we make between them, which I have often found puzzling.

Most paintings are more about the painting than the subject (portraits is an exception that comes to mind).  We don’t think about painting anymore as a method of simply documenting our world. Rather it is a way of interpreting our world, expressing how we feel about it.

Photography, both because of its historical roots, and because it is a better tool than painting when documentation is needed, is more often relegated, both by viewer and photographer, to being primarily a means of reporting on the world.

But a photograph, like a painting, wants it’s own identity – it wants to be more than it’s subject. That’s why, when I look at something and consider whether I will take the picture, I ask myself what I will do with the photograph to make it distinct from what I’m photographing.

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4 responses to “More Than Meets the Eye

  1. Photography as documentation — authenticity, if you will — is a wonderful subject for discussion, because so many people still do think of the camera as the means to capturing what’s “real” — i.e., “The camera never lies.”

    We are not at a loss for examples of documentation, reportage, being “doctored” for some purpose.

    With regard to photography as artistic discipline, for me, what’s “real” is not so much the object being photographed as what the photographer is seeing in his or her mind’s eye and how that internalized viewpoint is made manifest (how the shot is made, what, such as lighting, time of day, etc., affects it).

    People don’t tend to hold painting to the same qualification — as documentation or reportage, because we’ve always labeled it “art”. I don’t see it as any different from photography, however, in being, like a photo, an expression of an internalized image, viewpoint, feeling, or interpretation.

    • Maureen

      Well said! The distinction between reportage and artistic discipline is a good one and not one that has been typically applied to painting, at least for some time. Centuries ago painting certainly had other objectives than that of personal expression.

      Because of it’s nature I don’t think photography will ever completely lose the reportage association, which will always have some effect on it as an artistic discipline also.

  2. I have a cartoon somewhere of an artist set up with an easel outside painting the exact scene -landscape– and a little boy watching says: Don’t you have a camera?
    Most of the artists I know try to paint exactly what they see- no interpretation, no personal expression– I come across this in the workshops I teach– and so I try to convince them and give them ways they can be more personal and unique. I imagine it is the same with those that use a camera– but I am drawn to both paintings and photographs that go beyond the obvious.

  3. I’m not sure why, but I’m reminded of a scene from a movie where a bus load of tourists rush off the bus into a hotel lobby where they stand around a postcard rack … and take photographs. Documentation, indeed! 😉

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