Photography is a conflicting medium. With it’s detailed and accurate depictions of almost any subject, all instantly captured at the click of a button, the skillset of photographers sets them aside, creatively, from the world of fine art, painting and sculpture. This hyper-realism removes, in many ways, the feeling depicted through the textures of paint, the chosen colours, the artist’s view. Photography cannot be ‘impressionist’, or ‘surrealist’ or ‘classical’ in the way art – specifically painting – can be.
In this case, it becomes the subject of the photograph, rather than the style of the medium, that tends to draw focus. The artistic skill of the photographer is as much in choosing the subject and lighting, as it is in the technical set up of a camera or lens. So which subjects are best?
One of the most viewed and most recognised photographs is ‘Microsoft Bliss’, widely known as the desktop background to the Microsoft Windows system. High definition and strong contrast and saturation in editing present and almost too-perfect world, flawlessly green grass, a vast, open blue sky spread with breathy wisps of cloud. The scene looks sunny, although no sun appears in frame, and welcoming to the viewer. The title of ‘bliss’ is appropriate. And yet, perhaps the most valuable element of this art is the subject: in this case, a rolling section of Sonoma County, California. Charles O’Rear’s photo is almost false in it’s perfection – it looks fake, edited. Surprise comes from the discovery that it is a simple photo, no trickery, minimal editing; the beauty of the photo is in the reality of it, the fact that a place this perfect exists, and can be captured ‘on film’.
Photography is all about subject. For street photographers in a different, more guerilla practice, this is no different. On the opposite spectrum from landscape photography, Street Photography works not on the slow-form basis of capturing the ideal shot of a chosen subject, painstakingly styled and perfectly lit, but on capturing real life at it’s most raw.
‘Napalm Girl’, Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph from the Vietnam war, is far from perfect in it’s composition. There is no symmetry, or mirroring, between soldiers and children, the contrast of the film removes much of the detail from clothes and faces of the people in it, the focal point is not centred, or in the foreground. However, this photo remains one of the most iconic of the 20th Century, entirely due to it’s true and raw depiction of the subjects – a girl, mouth open, screaming; brutish soldiers lighting cigarettes beside her; a gulf of flame and smoke filling the sky as Napalm takes over. This reality, this rawness, is something that only photography can do justice: far from being interpretive – an artistic take on a real event – it presents you with the event itself. Nothing is more moving than human emotion, and no medium conveys emotion like photography.
The art of photography, at least at a base level (removing, for a moment, the edited photography arriving out of Pop Art), finds beauty in reality. It can be shocking, beautiful, traumatic, but it must always be true, if the desired effect is to move an audience. Photography’s power is perhaps that, unlike any other artform, it can evoke real empathy, or real wonder in it’s viewer, simply through it’s authenticity. It seems Keats was correct: “Beauty is truth and truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth”.