What Do You Truly See?

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One of the things I learned (and found fascinating) from Tom Ang’s Photography: The Definitive Visual History is that the question of literalism vs. art/ambiguity/what-have-you existed pretty much from the time Niépce fixed the first photographic image. Was he capturing reality? Well, no. The buildings and street that showed up on that piece of paper were not objectively representative of the subject. One cannot walk down the street on the paper or enter the buildings that are depicted there. Further, what Niépce captured was one view of that scene, which was completely dependent upon where he was situated, how the camera obscura was set up, and when he made the exposure (for example, the sun would have been in a different place, changing the light in the image, if the exposure had been made, say, 15 minutes later).

Have you ever heard the story about Picasso meeting a fellow train passenger who criticized Picasso’s work, telling him that a painting should look like the subject? The passenger takes out a picture of his wife and says, “Like this.” Picasso replies, “This is your wife?” The passenger answers, “Yes,” and Picasso shoots back, “She looks rather small and flat to me.”

Most of what we think we know about a particular photographic image is not intrinsic to the image itself. I might know the circumstances surrounding Paul Strand’s iconic image of the blind woman, but what if I were to place the picture on the kitchen table for one of my kids to discover? What would my 11-year-old son make of it if he had no context to go with it? Would he have any ideas about its provenance, who this woman was, why she was chosen by whoever took her picture, if the photo was candid or staged, if she was truly blind?

Ambiguity is inherent in every photographic image. We just don’t recognize it, because we bring too much experience, expectation, and ego to the table. Flickr, Facebook, and Instagram are filled with images accompanied by words, words, and words. Everyone wants to explain. But why? Why are we so determined to control what others think?