Assignment 4: Real or fake?

Above is my submission for assignment 4, real or fake?  From the outset this assignment has led me to explore an area of photography that I never considered before.  I became familiar with artists that I had not really known before and began to see that there are photographers who use the camera to capture what they see in front of them and then there are artists who use the camera to create something other than straight reality.  To them the camera is a tool for realizing something in the same way that the paint brush is to a painter.  Indeed I have to question the very meaning of the terms real or fake now.  Where does a photographic image actually become a fake?  Would the work of Cindy Sherman be classed as fake because although she has not used montage,  it is set up?  Is her work any more fake than that of Henri Cartier Bresson?  What is reality in photography anyway?

In preparation I read and researched several artists to explore and understand the  subject of photo montage and manipulation and also the ethical concerns surrounding it.  There were many sources, among them an essay by David Levi Strauss entitled Photography and Belief.  This essay in particular opened my mind to that no mans land where photographic reality and fake meet.  To the way we demand a level of objectivity and truth from photography like no other form of art.  Who would nowadays would ask a famous painter like Picasso or Joan Reno if a piece of work was real?  The truth of a painters or sculptors work is accepted, even where there is a large degree of abstraction involved.  Yet the same is not true of a photograph. We ask objectivity from the camera that does not exist to begin with, photography is a subjective art like any other.

There is however at least one area that digital manipulation is accepted without a second glance and that is the advertising industry.  You don’t have to look very far to find digital manipulation in advertising,  we may find an advert upsetting but it wont be because of the use of digital manipulation or the falsehood of the images.  I am of the opinion that this is because we are talking about the fictional anyway, the fantasy world.  Advertising has free reign with this type of technique because no-one expects strict objectivity and truth.  Photojournalism, on the other hand is another matter, we demand a level of objectivity of photojournalism that is, rightly very high.  Recently Michael Freeman Drew my attention to an incident that occurred in 2006 when a freelance Lebanese journalist retouched his photographs of Israeli aerial attacks on Beirut with the intention, it would seem to make them more dramatic.  The word intention is important here and I will revisit the subject of intention later.  It seems from this blog post that there is a danger now that things may well swing too far towards the insistence on truth and objectivity.

My tutor pointed me in the direction of Jeff wall at the start of this assignment and I am grateful that he did.  There is an excellent,  long talk by him here where he explains some of his work and his ideas behind the work.  In his talk he mentions that he is unable to say why the subject of the destroyed room occurred to him or for that matter why any subject occurred to him.  I found this quite liberating.  Here is an artist saying that something interested him and he decided to explore it for no other reason than that.  Thats the way I read that statement anyway.  Since I started exploring digital manipulation I have found my own self imposed creative barriers have been reduced.  I now see that I was restricting myself in terms of what and how I photographed.  Previous to now I would have looked for a  grand reason to make an image.  “It must be beautiful”, “it must matter”  or “it must say something”for instance.  I would never have considered composting to create something.   Even now my approach to “straight” photography has altered because I am more aware of these self imposed boundaries.

I considered creating a fictional landscape after I came across the work of Emily Allchurch here, I particularly like the gallery entitled Urban Chiaroscuro and I think it particularly resonated with me because of the feeling of fear present in these images.  It reminded me of a trip I took to Turin some months ago to photograph the main train station and the commuters.  I already felt like a criminal wandering around the station with a camera when I noticed all of the security cameras.  She, like Jeff Wall also takes inspiration from previous works of art.  The landscape I produced is here on my blog, I also posted it to my photographs on Face book.  I felt terribly guilty when I got a strong response from people that perhaps I had not been clear enough that it was a montage.  I decided to leave the landscape for another day, but also now I see the merit in collecting elements for montage like for instance different skies for landscapes.  My own favorite at the moment is security cameras.

Following on from all of the above I decided to explore what Jeff Wall calls “near-documentary” photography.  The basis of this, as he explains in the link above, is like the anthesis of documentary photography and the exploration of the absence of an event, of near-realism and the mundane.  I decided to portray something ordinary but like the two artists above look to another artist for inspiration.
I have tried several different versions of the final submission one of which is here on my blog.  My wife features in all of them and plays all the parts.  They are all based here in our own home, what better authentic background could I construct?  I had several ideas to start with and one of them was to recreate my own version of Diane Arbus’s photograph of the twins.  This photograph had already been paid tribute to by Stanley Kubrick in the film The Shining.  I have no idea why , it just occurred to me that it was a possibility.  I set out to make something with the look of a vintage photograph, like something one would find in an old family album.  I had a very willing conspirator, as Vicky eagerly went off to trawl second hand shops for old clothes to wear.  We had two old chairs that would do fine.  She really decided on how the twins would appear in front of the camera.  We decided that the pose would be very formal, no smiling and a very stiff formal look, like early photographic portraits where people had to hold still a long time for the exposure.

The actual montage process took me a long while to figure out.  In principle its simple but in practice there was a great deal of trial and error.  I imported both images as layers into PS.  Created a selection around one and then created a mask that revealed only the selection.  I fine tuned the mask using the brush, move and eraser tools then merged the two images into one.  After that I converted to B&W and did some retouching including removing anything that did’nt belong in the frame.  I cropped the image so as that removed some distracting background detail and added a sepia tone and a strong vignette too to give the feel of an old photo.  There were several areas that I covered detail like a door frame that intruded into the image on the right and one on the left too.  For this I used a combination of content aware fill, layer via copy – move tool- transform/skew.  The clone tool was used to touch up areas too as was the repair tool.  The overall look I was trying for I would describe as dream- like.  I used a 21 mm wide angle lens which gives some distortion to make the overall look a bit freakish, the two twins seem to be almost tilted out of the frame as if they are going to pop out of the photo.  The distortion adds to the unsettling effect.

In conclusion then there are a couple of things I need to say.  On the subject of ethics, originally I was going to leave a power point in the frame as a contradiction, to state that this is a piece of montage.  But since then I decided to add the picture frame with the photo within a photo, within a photo.  Now I feel that this is an obvious clue to the fact that we are dealing with a fictional piece of work, not fact.  From an ethical point of view I feel that this is important as it is not my intention to deceive anyone here.  Overall I think the image works, as a book cover or whatever I am not sure, but as a photograph/ photomontage it does.  It is tempting with this technology to allow the set of techniques to dominate and become the master whereas the correct approach is to use the techniques to serve the artistic intent and I think I have manage to achieve this.  I do recognise however that there are faults and technical imperfections in the final image but overall I am happy with the result.

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About briancooney123

HOW I GOT HERE Of course, I wasn’t always a full time photographer. I spent a lot of time in the corporate world. I had a job which paid well, but just didn’t excite me. I remember the day when I had had enough. Enough of selling myself short, enough of dreaming too small, enough of doing what others expected of me. I had put away my dreams and told myself I would get back to them later, but somehow there always seemed to be something else that had to get done first. A friend of mine had recommended I take the NLP Business Practitioners course, and although I was really busy, I decided to do it. During that time, I began to imagine the different paths my life could take from here. While I had a hazy picture of what this other life might look like, I had a clear picture of where my current life was going if I didn’t change. It was a scary moment, a bit like standing on the edge of a cliff deciding whether to jump into the great unknown or stay on the cliff, safe but trapped. I jumped. The transition to the life I wanted was challenging The transition to the life I wanted was challenging but I would never go back. After that day I resolved to do what I love, to follow my bliss.  Picking up a camera after several years away, I found that many things had changed, the digital age had arrived. In the intervening years, I was too busy to pay any attention to my photography, and occasionally when I took something I really liked, I would think “how do some photographs seem so captivating and others leave me completely cold?” I knew this is what I was meant to do Somehow though, I knew this is what I was meant to do. I dedicated myself to learning everything I could about being a photographer. I took many, many courses and I read every book I could get my hands on, I still do. Since then, I have dedicated myself to helping other creative photographers achieve the results they want. And what a journey it has been. Last year I qualified as a coach. My main area of interest is creativity and helping others to express their vision. WHAT I BELIEVE Along the way, I’ve learnt that there are no rules. Experiment, explore, play. My advice is to make your art from your heart, not for the praise or the money.  Lighten up. It’s important to take your photography seriously, but it's a mistake to take yourself too seriously. Finally, you get what you want when you never, ever give up so enjoy every minute of it and just do it!
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