This question of realism, let it then be clearly understood, regards not in the least degree the fundamental truth, but only the technical method, of a work of art. Be as ideal or as abstract as you please, you will be none the less veracious; but if you be weak, you run the risk of being tedious and inexpressive; and if you be very strong and honest, you may chance upon a masterpiece.
~Robert Louis Stevenson
Budding writers are often admonished, “show, don’t tell,” referring to a technique of describing events and situations from the perspective of an impartial witness providing readers with descriptions of visceral sensations but without suggesting how readers should feel about the things described, allowing them to form their own impressions rather than imposing on them the subjective impression of the author.
The power of showing without telling comes from readers feeling like they are in control of forming their own perceptions rather than being told what they should feel. Readers of such descriptions are led to feel like they used their own faculties to examine raw information and to decide what it means to them, leading to a sense of ownership, authenticity, and independence from external influence. In truth, such control is often an illusion. Authors, by choosing their descriptions and words carefully, and sometimes by deliberately omitting certain information, can reliably guide readers to specific feelings and conclusions. Rather than being limited to either telling or showing, good authors (as well as good marketers, apologists, and propagandists), by appealing to ingrained and nonobvious connotations, symbols, prejudices, metaphors, and other common associations, can “tell by showing” without readers feeling like they had been manipulated.
It might seem that visual art is limited in its expressive powers to just “showing,” having no ability to “tell” anything (to force or to suggest any particular interpretation), but that is in fact not the case. Artists who are versed in visual expression know that certain colors, lines, and compositional decisions can reliably evoke predictable responses in viewers, and lead viewers to pre-determined conclusions. In photographic art, the ability to venture beyond simple representation and to imply deeper meaning in a photograph beyond just transcribing objective appearances, has been termed equivalence (originally by Alfred Stieglitz).
Because the effect of equivalence allows photographs to depart from objective representation, it is also the quality that makes photography a suitable medium for art. I think that this is an important distinction, among other things, because it is not intuitive to most people, including some very smart people who contemplated and wrote about photography. For example, George Santayana, in a presentation to the Harvard Camera Club, distinguished photography as a “mechanical art,” rather than a “creative art.” He said, “The camera cannot have a human bias, it cannot exercise a selective attention or be guided by an imaginative impulse.” (All demonstrably incorrect.) Santayana concluded that the only way one can make photographs that have an expressive, rather than descriptive, effect is by manipulating the model. Clearly he missed entirely the expressive powers of visual composition and various processing techniques.
Another example of a smart person failing to understand the expressive powers of the photographic medium is Susan Sontag who, in her book On Photography, wrote, “To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are.” But of course, photographs can very easily “depart from reality” (borrowing a term from Ansel Adams), and can be every bit as abstract as any painting, misrepresent or entirely obfuscate “reality,” manipulate perceptions, and “lie by omission” as any other creative works.
Alas, ignorance of both art and the expressive powers of photography also accounts for perceptions such as I’ve seen expressed in numerous places, referring to natural beauty as art or to Nature as an artist. In fact, the very idea—the very word—art, was conceived explicitly to separate products of human skill and imagination from things that occur spontaneously without human intervention. Naturally occurring things may be as beautiful and as important as any work of art, and perhaps by such qualifications also “artistic” in a metaphorical sense, but the one thing they cannot (by definition) be, is art. The word art derives from the same root as artificial and artifact. Artists, by literal definition, are people who produce artificial artifacts.
Without the distinction of artificiality, the very idea of art becomes meaningless, or at best synonymous with aesthetic appeal and thus useless in itself as a qualification of any work. To use the writing metaphor above, artists are people who tell, not people who show; and good artists are those who, understanding the difference, are skilled in telling by showing—in manipulating perceptions without the perceivers realizing or caring that they are being manipulated.
A critical essay I’ve read about “photographic manipulation” declared it unethical because “people don’t like to be deceived.” It’s a nonsensical statement on its face because it equates any form of manufactured meaning with deception, which is clearly not the case (e.g., nobody thinks of fictional novels, movies, and television shows as forms of deception, and nobody considers creative art in other media as deception). To suggest that photographs, by virtue of being photographs, must either represent objective appearances or be considered as unethical or deceptive, ironically suggests that people should absolutely not trust photographs, since it acknowledges explicitly the existence and proliferation of photographs that are not objective representations, and the fact that most people can’t tell the difference. A more constructive and useful approach is to teach people to judge the veracity of photographs in the same way they judge the veracity of writings, movies, and spoken words: by their context, rather than by the medium they are rendered in.
Since all works of art, being products of human skill and imagination, rely on some degree of manufactured, rather than inherent, meaning (or at least on some departure from objective meaning), two conclusions are inevitable (if perhaps uncomfortable to some photographic fundamentalists): 1) all art aims to manipulate perceptions; and 2) any work that explicitly aims to avoid such manipulation cannot be considered art.
Despite the above, when photographers distinguish themselves as journalists/documentarians versus artists, we should not assume that their works are entirely one or the other. Documentarians aim to show (objectively) and expressly to not tell; artists (implicitly or explicitly) aim to tell, if only by being selective and deliberate in what they show and how they show it. In truth, we all fall somewhere between these extremes, and to understand any photographer’s works requires that we understand where that photographer’s work falls along the continuum: whether the photographer wishes for their work to be perceived as objective and documentary, or as subjective—symbolic, expressive, metaphorical, or inscrutable. Either way, this is a matter of degree. No photograph falls squarely at one end or the other.
There are also oddities that seem to claim the impossible, such as this paradoxical statement by Wynn Bullock: “I didn’t want to tell the tree or weed what it was. I wanted it to tell me something and through me express its meaning in nature.” In the first statement, Bullock seems to suggest that his work “shows” objectively, rather than “tells” subjectively, but the second statement entirely contradicts the first, suggesting that trees and weeds have some inherent meaning of their own (or “in nature”) that is independent of the perception of the photographer or the viewer. Meaning, being a subjective construct of the human mind rather than any objective and measurable quality, comes from the perceiver, not from the perceived. Any meaning a photographer may wish to express, therefore, cannot be considered as a quality of the things photographed, only as a subjective interpretation by the photographer.
To those authors who wish to offer objective accounts, whether they be photographers or writers: by all means, strive to show and not tell, and be mindful to avoid any unintended perceptions that may be inherent in what you show or in how you show it. To those aspiring to be expressive artists, on the other hand: tell, don’t show!
By proclaiming yourself an artist, you declare yourself to the world as the proud manipulator of perceptions (if you are offended by this characterization or consider it as pejorative, you may misunderstand what art is and what artists do). To use the show/tell euphemism: you are a teller, and as a teller you may tell by telling or you may tell by showing, or by any combination of the two. Either way: you are not—should not be, and should not be expected to be—objective in your work.
(Images are from my new portfolio, Worlds Within Worlds. You may see more and purchase prints here.)