The documentary side of photography — images accompanying news reports, say, or how-to manuals — cannot help but influence every other form. Over and over, the expectations of “reality” proposed by the one find their way into other genres. I suppose a prime example these days is the treatment of flowing water in nature and landscape photography. Long exposures, and the resulting creamy, white, or misty look of the water, can be an effective and even stunning way to interpret a scene. Not surprisingly, we now see it everywhere.
The thing is, we are often told that it is not only an alternative but a superior depiction of the scene. Water moves, after all, and this method conveys the reality of that movement. Well, maybe at one time it freshly conveyed the feeling of water movement. No quibble with that. But for me, the technique is not on the same plane as, for example, techniques (in camera or post-process) that lighten shadow areas to better imitate the range of light that our eyes can handle at one time. Long-exposure water is artistic license. It is interpretation. Think of it this way: The oddly placed eyes in abstract painting may well evoke the discombobulated human soul in modern society. But no teacher of art would argue that it reflects observed reality. And after you’ve seen dozens of misplaced eyes — or hundreds of foamy waterfalls — the interpretational “truth” begins to lose its power.
I am awed by photographs of all kinds. I may like a picture that includes a creamy waterfall, or I may not — it depends on so many other elements in the image. When I do like it, however, it isn’t because a waterfall “really” looks that way to me.
The image above (and below), “To The Perch,” is one I captured more than five years ago. Many people have been struck by it, and it still appears on my business cards. But nowadays — with mega data storage and ever-improving photo software and RAW files with their infinite Etch-A-Sketch restarts — I never regard any work as permanently finished. And so, I recently pulled this one out and wondered: Should I introduce some form of motion blur? When, after all, do we really perceive this frozen moment of a bird’s flight? Should I do something to make it more “truthful”?
I decided not. The image as it stands is about a moment, the stillness of a moment, and the tonal and spatial relationships discovered/created only after the fact. Maybe some day a brother or sister image will be born from the same RAW capture. For now, it remains a beloved only child.