Conceptual Awareness – What Is Real

How do we treat the subjects of our photography? Do we seek to express inherent qualities of the object as seen outside of ourselves, or do we use the things we photograph to express something from within us? This is one of the central questions that Minor White asked his students in order to help them get at the heart of who they were as photographers, and perhaps as people as well.

White created a five point framework while he was teaching photography in San Francisco immediately after the end of WWII. He want to give his students a framework for using the work they were creating to self-evaluate. Kind of like an archeological dig, he wanted each student to use the clues found in their own work to uncover truths about the conceptual foundation they were working from.

In this article I am going to spend time talking about the fourth point on White’s list, which talks about the inherent “reality” of the subject in the photograph.

Articles on the preceding three points of the framework can be found here:

We should think about this analysis in the context of a spectrum. How we depict the reality of subjects within our photographs isn’t a clear cut “yes” or “no” binary, but will place each photographer somewhere along a sliding scale.

At one end of this scale are photographers whom White described as using “camera-as-brush”, and were generally coming from an artistic concept in which they were using photography to create an expression of themselves, a photograph as a new art object that had been brought into existence to convey an expressive meaning. On the other end of the spectrum are photographers who use their camera as “extension-of-vision” as he put it, to capture some truth outside of themselves, channeling their photographs and presenting them to the viewer as if a conduit to something from without.

Talking about reality in our current post-modern and relativistic mindset is not such an easy task. Especially for artists, the concept of a single identifiable and agreed upon reality may be restrictive or simply misguided.

What White seemed to be focusing on, however, was something we encountered during the previous post on composition. Do the contents of the image seem to be real objects, or do they seem to have been abstracted? Perceptions of reality will be different for each viewer, which is ultimately how questions like this will be decided over time.

I have already spent some time talking about post-processing and the vast array of manipulations that can be made to am image once it has been captured. In White’s time there were also plenty of techniques at hand for that kind of adjustment. When we are talking about the representation of the subject we aren’t talking about edits or tweaks. We are talking about the fundamental capture, and whether they come across with a sovereignty unto themselves.

Let us focus on some of the essential optical qualities of a photograph, like focus, exposure and tone.

Soap Bubbles, Berenice Abbott, 1946, The MET

Though clearly an abstract image in terms of perspective and composition of the image, this photo by Bernice Abbott demonstrates White’s ideas of reality quite nicely.

Abbott has used the essential optical elements to capture with technical accuracy the elements of the soap bubbles with as much clarity as she could. The delineations between each bubble are points of focus. The tonal range is subtle and smooth throughout the image, reaching contrasting points of light and darkenss but providing a lot of information about the roundness of the forms and the tactile nature of what we are looking at.

The reality of these objects as bubbles, the sense of wetness, or delicacy, is intact. It is the nature of the object which she is seeking to transfer on to the viewer rather than impose her own agenda.

Altering, or masking reality can be as simple as over or under exposure, selective focus or overpowering compositional execution.

Untitled (View Upwards to Fire Escape), Walker Evans, The MET

This image by Walker Evans is clearly of buildings, but the sharp tonal contrasts and inky black silhouettes do not read primarily in this way. Instead, their reality as buildings resides secondary or at best alongside, the striking graphic forms of sky and shadow.

Each of these images is abstract, each is presented without post-processing, and each is arguably within the range of how a human eye would perceive the same subjects without a camera. It is in the viewer’s perception that these images seem to diverge.

All off White’s questions seem to be an exercise in teasing out whether the artist is working most broadly from without, or from within. In the case of represented reality, is the artist seeking to convey a truth that they have seen, or are they trying to communicate a truth they have within?

I think the two example images in this post are excellent representations for how using this overall framework of questions can help a photographer zero in on what is going on when they make pictures. Both photographs by Abbott and Evans fall pretty closely on the spectrum, especially as compared to some of the other aspects we have gone through in previous posts. The ways in which they diverge, and how they diverge, are what help us to see what was going on in the artists mind.

Pretty much the entire drive from Cleveland to the east coast will look the same for each driver, but taking a different exit at the end will mean ending up in Boston rather than New York.

Pretty much the entire drive from Cleveland to the east coast will look the same for each driver, but taking a different exit at the end will mean ending up in Boston rather than New York.

Imagining it from the other perspective, I could also think of a highly abstracted and even edited image in which the elements taken from reality are still preserved in such a way so that they are identified as having come from elsewhere. Perhaps this is the case with some of my own graphic explorations. I did not want to create my own lines and forms, but rather, wanted to retain the sense that there had been an external object, inspiration and link to the natural world, even if it isn’t immediately clear or identifiable.

This image “Meridian” is an example of my work in which the natural elements are not presented as we normally see them, but hopefully retain a sense of their origin. In this case, the color and context have been abstracted and do not reflect how these wild flowers and grasses would normally look, but the rhythms and textures are enough to retain the essential qualities that tie them to the real world. These textures were not hand made, and a viewer would link them back to a real plant from the real world.

In comparison to this is an image by a sculptor, Pol Bury, who cut up photographs to create this dynamic new visual.

Again, the formation of the image and the structure of the building are completely abstracted, and only vaguely architectural in the basic verticality and the base having been placed upon the street.

It is the tonal quality of the structure, the shadows and highlights as picked up in the photograph that clue us in to a scene of deeper reality. Rather than this being a fully constructed and drawn image, we are made aware of the connection to real element that exist in the world outside of the image. This tie to the physical world helps draw a sharp contrast and harmony with the dynamically unreal nature of the print.

In these examples, I hope, it is easier to see how White’s sense of “reality” in the image should not restrict us to seeing it as simply representational in a documentarian style. The way in which the reality of subjects is presented can have just as much flexibility and range as the composition or other factors.

How do your images work to highlight or mask the reality of your subjects? Do you think of yourself as trying to capture some underlying truth of the scene, or are you looking to channel something of your own expression through the objects you choose to depict? Have you learned something new about the way that you see the world, or the images you created?

The next post will cover the fifth and final piece of White’s framework, which discusses the moment(s) of creativity itself in relation to the final picture.