Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Reviews of photography products that enhance the enjoyment of taking pictures. Published frequently but irregularly.

How To Read A Photo Tweet This   Forward This

4 June 2013

We were channel flipping the other night and growing increasingly frustrated. It was all either CSI stuff (CSI El Cajon, CSI Carson City, CSI St. Paul/Minneapolis) or reality TV stuff (Chef Swap, So You Think You Can ... Skateboard, The Biggest Hoosier). We started hunting for commercial interruptions.

But they were all reruns. So we flipped our way to PBS and caught some perfectly relaxed older gent in what was obviously a very comfortable long-sleeved blue shirt being interviewed on a deck overlooking a lush garden. His eyes were piercing. Brilliant little gems. He wore his white hair jauntily but like a crown. And he fielded every question with the intelligence and grace of a shortstop.

How did he get on TV?

Mesmerized we kept watching, eventually learning he was W.S. Merwin, our current poet laureate and owner of that exotic garden. PBS Hawaii's Leslie Wilcox did the interview -- and she knew what to ask.

Like: Why is it so hard to make any sense out of poetry?

But Merwin was on that before it had a chance to bounce. Because, he said, a poem expresses what can't be said.

Got that right, we chuckled. Then we thought about it. Language used to describe what can't be put into words? Huh?

To get a handle on that concept, so casually tossed into the refreshing Hawaiian breeze, we took a little leap and applied it to photography.

A photograph shows what can't be seen.

This Is Not a Pipe. They aren't flowers either. They only exist here.

Now that's nonsense, we reached for the remote, sure we'd uncovered the fraud. But bent over like that, we had to pause to catch our breath and it occurred to us in that fraction of a half hour that, you know, you never do see in the wild what you see in a photo.

What you capture with a camera is, for one thing, two dimensional. And that's just the first problem.

Then there's the problem of brightness range, the world being a lot more illuminated than any sensor realizes. And don't even mention color. Standard, Vivid, Natural?

Toss in the optics and their inevitable distortions. You're still not out of the camera.

And when you do get out of the camera there are still dozens of effects that can be applied (with great amusement) to that image. Presets boxed like sugar donuts. Crops count, too, you know. There's no cropping in the real world but there's no image without an edge.

We could go on, but you get the idea. A photograph differs significantly from what we see. It doesn't just represent some moment or location. The moment it shows us can't be seen, Doc Edgerton. The place it reveals doesn't exist, Mr. Adams.

Sure, it doesn't look that way. Photographs are convincing things. Evidence, in fact. On a Perry Mason rerun, anyway.

We believe our own eyes, looking at a photograph. We're convinced. We're sold. We're fooled.

We don't know how to read a photograph.

If we did, we'd realize that a photograph shows what can't be seen. What we're looking at was never really there. It's a thing unto itself. Look at it and be not convinced but astonished.

Because a photograph shows what can't be seen.


Certainly, Mike, I can not but agree.

Bartolomeo Aloia, the leading Italian designer of hi-fi equipment, proposed a test like this: a "music listening room" (a theater, a room...), listeners in their seats, lights out. "Something" makes a noise. When an experienced listener can't tell whether it's the real flesh and blood thing or a reproduction, then we will have achieved the goal. Recreating identical perceptions.

I've thought about this every time I hear discussions about resolution or dynamic range because a photograph doesn't permit us to even conceive of a test like that. Perceptions are visual, but can not be confused with reality (just as it isn't possible to confuse reality with a scale model).

A photograph works in other ways: it suggests, shows, documents, deceives. But it's never what my eyes have seen and my mind has perceived.

-- Frank Tagliaferro

Well put! -- Mike

BackBack to Photo Corners