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Myth or Reality or Rowell

Rio, March 2010, Tri-X

I got myself into a discussion recently about ‘art’ and ‘reality.’ Just to start the discussion off with a clear statement from me, all photography that does not claim to be ‘journalism’ falls squarely (f0r me) into the category of art, and thus the primary function of that photography is convey a feeling first and information (if at all) second. A journalistic photograph, on the other hand, has a responsibility to convey the ‘truth,’ as it is reportage. Whether a 2D artificially framed artifact can convey truth, however, is beyond my ability to judge.

Indeed, though, some photographic art contains ‘true’ information. Whether that goal be striving to convey true color or color temperature, true line or true environments (“don’t move that twig, Nathan, because that’s not how we found it”) is irrelevant. That’s part of the artistic statement, and that’s just fine with me. It’s their art, and I will never judge how anyone goes about their art, because as long as it ‘sings’ to them, that’s perfect by me.

It’s just not my approach, because I live in world of metaphor. I happen to think that symbol and metaphor are more true than any attempt to simulate truth. Students of mine often make a little fun out of this personality quirk I have, but it’s just how I see the world.

I agree 100% with this quote from Gary Winogrand:

“Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.”

He has a bunch of similar quotes, many of which translate loosely to ‘photographs are not truth, they are just photographs.’

I am so there with ya, Gary.

Galen Rowell

That brings me to the point of this post. I am reading the reprint of ‘Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography,’ published by W.W. Norton. Galen was an astoundingly wonderful landscape photographer, famous in part for shooting 35mm slide film but also for getting his Nikons to places other photographers could not (because he was an expert Mountain climber).

In this wonderful book, he says many amazing things, but perhaps nothing more wonderful or amazing than a chapter titled ‘The Doors of Perception.” The chapter, essentially, is an essay about how color is not real, but rather created in our minds. I’ll quote some of his words:

“Today, good color is almost a given in controlled studio situations, but when a whole outdoor shoot rather than the rare successful image is analyzed, perfectly colored photographs are the exception than the rule. Modern science textbooks continue to explain color vision by Newton’s three-color theory. We are taught that the cones of our retina respond to the color of objects, while the rods work in low light and see only black and white. Only a few texts mention in passing an alternative theory by another young genius who also made major discoveries in his 20′s.

Edwin Land’s retinex theory of color vision has remained out of the mainstream both because it challenges basic assumptions about color and because it never directly resulted in a marketable product.

Newtonian color theory falls on its face in outdoor situations. Most conventionally educated cognitive scientists can’t properly explain why we see correct flesh tones under a broad range of lighting conditions yet are unable to correct them in the same way when we look at photographs. [The theories] fail to account for why our vision will adjust to see the proper color of a face under the strong amber bias of tungsten light, but won’t adjust to see that face’s same color in a photograph made on daylight film, no matter what light source we view it in.

.  .  .

Although texts continue to say that the cones in our eyes see color, while the rods only see black and white, Land has turned the tables to make subjects see color strictly with their rods in extremely low light. He has also demonstrated how almost all common colors can be made to appear from information delivered by a triplet of cones that are not responsive to individual colors. In a process somewhat like merging black-and-white negatives made with different filters, the three types of cones deliver colorless responses to broad, overlapping bands of wavelengths, together with all-important lightness information about reflectivity derived by comparison from the triplet of responses. The color is in our heads.

When I was about eight or nine, I remember sitting in science class when we were talking about color. I remember thinking clearly “how do I know that when I look at something and identify it as being ‘green’ that I am seeing the same thing that you are?” While we were both responding to the same thing and agreeing it was green, how did I know the green that I saw, the shade and chroma, was being seen by my brain the same way your brain was seeing it?

Tri-X toned in Photoshop

I thought, later in my education, that the ‘wavelength’ explanation answered the question. Today I’m back to the same question I asked long ago, with no clear answer.

Posted by Chris Klug on July 17, 2010