Recently I attended some lectures on photography history at university, and the discussion evolved from the controversy from the start as to whether photography was an art or a mechanical process. Early reviews of the first photos (in this case Daguerreotypes) marveled at the incredible detail and accuracy rendered by the images. So we asked ourselves does a photo tell the truth?
The first question to address was obvious: What is Truth?
Part of that answer has to lie with differences of how we see and how the camera sees.
So, immediately there differences:
- We correct distortion & colour shift, the camera does not
- Our eyes adapt to tonal differences, the camera less so
- Our eyes scan continuously, a camera does not
- The camera has no emotional attachments, we do
- We see what we expect to see and ignore things we take for granted, the camera does not
- We see in 3D, the camera captures in 2D – we need to create the illusion of depth with composition or by using dual cameras
- Our brains isolate, the camera does not
How we isolate
We have evolved as part of our survival and social demands to be selective in we observe:
- The brightest element - particularly useful for finding food
- The strongest, most saturated, and warmest colours
- Sharp or well-defined or well-contrasted areas
- Texture – hard light vs. soft light and back light
- Contrasting movement and stillness
- The largest element
- Leading Curves and perspective lines – frame placement
- People (esp. children, faces, eyes) or animals
- We read text!
So, in the end the issue of rendering a "true" image is fraught with differences between our optical characteristics and the human intelligence and socials programming that bias and filter what our eyes present to us.
For a long time photography was held to be truly honest, yet almost immediately photographers played with images to fool us and make a point.
Henry Peach Robinson in 1858, Image Fading Away
Source: The Met
During the American Civil War photographers capturing the battlefield scenes had, by necessity, to work after the conflict, (both from a safety perspective and because their shutter speeds were too slow) so they were prone to arranging the bodies of dead combatants for effect. Photos of the living were posed for the same reasons.