Reality vs. Subjective Experience

This incessant interplay between cognition and feelings […] produces what we call consciousness. There obviously is a different feel to a wave of intense emotion versus an abstract thought, but each conscious form is an experience that gives us a unique perception of reality. The pattern in which these various conscious forms come in and out of awareness gives us our own personal life story.

~Michael Gazzaniga

Reality is a tricky concept. We tend to judge what is real by our senses (or at least what little portion of their measurements we are conscious of) and by our ability to derive reliable predictions based on common assumptions about causes and their effects. Like all advanced life forms, we evolved these abilities not because we require a deep and comprehensive understanding of what’s “really real,” but because in truth we only require a rudimentary sense of some relevant aspects of the world that affect us in order to pass along our genetic blueprints to future generations. Scientific exploration beyond these existential needs has given us ample evidence that our beliefs about what’s real in fact are often at odds with empirical reality, and with reality as perceived by others. As physicist Brian Greene put it, “If there was any doubt at the turn of the twentieth century, by the turn of the twenty-first, it was a foregone conclusion: when it comes to revealing the true nature of reality, common experience is deceptive.”

Perhaps as an unintended consequence, by unraveling the extent of the rift between empirical reality and subjective experience, science has also given us a useful means of understanding art and its relation to reality. Having this distinction between what’s empirically real and what we perceive to be real, we can now say that science concerns itself primarily with the former, while art concerns itself primarily with the latter—with subjective experience rather than with objective realism.

It’s easy to become mired in the tangled philosophical implications of so many studies in physics, psychology, biology, and neuroscience, let alone thought experiments about whether we may be living in a simulation or hallucinating a reality different from the one we actually exist in—ideas that put to question common understandings of materiality, time, cause-and-effect, consciousness, and even the belief that we are free-willing agents.For the purpose of this discussion, I will use term like “reality” and “realism” to refer to what most people would accept intuitively as objective truth: those things that different people in a given circumstance would agree upon without question, whether they are “real” in any definitive or philosophical sense or not. For example, people standing at a scenic viewpoint likely would agree about the existence and arrangement of physical objects within their field of view, and in the majority of cases will also agree that certain things are universally worthy of being considered beautiful, impressive, austere, or some other adjective.

I think it’s fair to say that realistic views eliciting common desirable adjectives (beautiful, colorful, epic, etc.), are the primary interest of most who pursue landscape photography. Alas, this “interest in things as they are” (in the words of Susan Sontag), also fuels some people’s skepticism about landscape photography as a form of art, considering the distinction I mention above, of art being concerned primarily with subjective experience rather than realistic appearances. I think these people are mistaken, not in questioning the artistic merits of objective views (which can still be beautiful, inspiring, or otherwise valuable and useful in other ways), but in failing to acknowledge that the medium of photography, beyond just being a means of recording appearances, can also be used to transcend objective aesthetics and to express subjective concepts—moods, thoughts, feelings—as well. Whether a given photograph is art or not, does not change the fact that photography as a medium capable of venturing beyond realistic representation, is also eminently suitable for the creation of art, even if common acceptance of this fact (by both audiences and practitioners) may not be as prevalent or as mature as it may be in other media.

Largely to blame for such lacking acceptance are, unfortunately, attitudes promoted by some of the “greats” of the medium of photography. Consider that it’s been well over a century since such movements as realism and impressionism were considered contemporary in painting—about the same timescale as when pictorialism was the dominant style in photography. Still, if a painter today wanted to make impressionistic paintings, few would consider such work as wrong or invalid, and certainly not as condemnable. But try presenting pictorialist (or other non-representational) photographs in most mainstream media today and you may find yourself assaulted and accused of such grave crimes as “manipulation” or “Photoshopping.” Where other media are largely tolerant of former, contemporary, and pioneering styles, photography for the most part remains stuck in an aesthetic paradigm more than a century old, often defended with zeal rivaling that of religious fundamentalism. This is not a coincidence. The same vicious rhetoric we see today against anything other than a “straight” aesthetic in photography, goes back at least as far as the days of Group f/64 and even before that (e.g., Alfred Stieglitz referred to pictorial photography as, “the bastard of science and art” in an 1899 article, three years before Ansel Adams was born). As a result, so many would-be creative photographic artists are now trapped in the prison of the f/64 aesthetic, finding it difficult to gain recognition for any style that may be creative or evolutionary but that departs from realism.

I am a photographer and an artist, and I’m also an avid consumer of photographic art. In my own work, realism and natural aesthetics are important, but not because I feel under any obligation to remain true to them. My work is faithful to realistic appearances to a significant degree (but not always perfectly) because I choose for it to be so, given that my aim is to express moods experienced in, and inspired by, natural places. I admire others who similarly pursue such aesthetics creatively and expressively, but as a consumer of photographic art my sensibilities go much beyond just realism. In fact, I find most realistic landscape photographs—to the degree that so many are repetitive, formulaic, and predictable—much less interesting than creative photographic work in other genres, including those that place no importance on realism at all.

The photographs that interest me most today are those primarily designed to express subjective moods rather than those that venture no further than to portray fortuitous objective appearances. I don’t care at all if, in order to better accomplish subjective expression, a photographer chooses to depart from objective representation. In fact, I think that any creation worthy of the designation of art must involve such departure. The departure is needed because, for any medium to be useful to an artist, this medium must allow a generous degree of plasticity: it must leave room for subjective expression of concepts and feelings originating in the artist and not just those inherent in, or commonly associated with, the subject. In the words of Henry Peach Robinson, “to the artist there is no merit in a process that cannot be made to say the thing that is not.” The question, then, is whether photography is such a process. The answer is a resounding “yes,” if only as evident by so many discussions about whether photography should be allowed to be such a process—a moot point if photography wasn’t capable of being such a process.

Indeed, there is no medium I know of—including photography—that is entirely limited by its very nature to objective representation, having no ability to depart from it and to be used as a means for subjective expression. Presented with this truism, some photographers respond with, “people believe photographs.” I don’t think this is in contradiction with the fact that photographs often are not objective representations. People should believe photographs are realistic when these photographs are presented as realistic, and they should believe photographs express subjective meaning rather than objective appearances when these photographs are presented as art. Any other belief is patently a false belief. Put another way: people shouldn’t believe photographs; they should believe photographers. At least those photographers who present their work for what it is—photojournalism, expressive art, postmodern abstraction, or anything else.

As a photographer, the questions I must ask myself are these: Do I want to describe things or to express things? Do I want to show my viewers what they would have seen if standing next to me, or tell my viewers something about what I experienced and found worthy of sharing—something they couldn’t know otherwise, even if looking at the same things I was? Even if the answer is some combination of the two, one must be primary and the other secondary. This is because in order to do either well, I must also answer a follow-up question: if I want to describe something, what is it I want to describe? or, if I want to express something, what is it I want to express? Most people have no problem answering the former, but find it much harder to answer the latter.

There are several reasons why we struggle to articulate what we wish to express in a photograph beyond objective appearances and common perceptions. One reason for it is that some things we may wish to express in a photograph are not, or not entirely, describable in words. Another reason is that often we are not consciously aware of our own feelings, their origins, their appropriateness, or whether they are worth sharing with others. It follows that in order to be a good photographic artist, it’s not enough to just be a good photographer (just like in order to be a good artistic painter it’s not enough to know how to draw, and in order to be a good writer it’s not enough to just know proper spelling and grammar). Artists must not only be consciously mindful of their feelings, and not only be skilled in expressing their feelings using their chosen medium; they must also live and shape their attitudes such that they experience feelings worthy of expression, and have the courage to express them publicly.

Objective aesthetics are relatively easy to find and reproduce photographically. There’s no shortage of resources to guide a willing photographer to any number of scenic locations that are impressive by their own nature, regardless of any creative or expressive contribution from the photographer. There are also special-purpose lenses, filters, gadgets, and processing techniques that reliably produce interesting visual effects requiring little effort, forethought, or emotional engagement. There are well established compositional templates known to impress viewers, requiring only mechanical skills but no expressive intent. Art raises the bar. Art requires from the artist a degree of emotional investment and an elevated subjective experience, as well as the skill to express visually concepts beyond just “here’s something pretty,” “look where I am,” or, “see how lucky I got.”

There is undoubtedly value, even joy, in producing an attractive, impressive, or technically challenging photograph. It is the same kind of joy one may get from playing a game well. But this joy is different from creative joy, from expressive joy, from artistic joy, where accomplishment is not only measured in virtuosity of manual skill, volume, or popularity, but also in the degree that one’s work breaks new ground and gives tangible form to subjective experiences not otherwise available to anyone other than the artist. Winning games is only enjoyable when everyone plays by the same rules. Creative expression is enjoyable because it allows individuals to decide their own rules and their own measures of success.

Some people pursue photography as a shared passion that brings them together with others, fostering common interest and camaraderie founded in rewarding shared experiences. Others pursue photography as a means to personal creative expression, which in some ways is the opposite of sociability. To be creative is to be original, to distinguish oneself from others as an individual and not as a member of a group, to venture beyond other people’s expectations and boundaries (possibly involving degrees of risk, discomfort, or even conflict). Whereas artisanship may be a group activity, art is an individual pursuit. Art requires the courage to distinguish one’s subjective experience from others’ objective perceptions. One’s art should be faithful first and foremost to one’s own states of mind, and not be arbitrarily bound to—or by—imposed objectivity.

Just as realism in painting has been superseded by numerous successive movements while still remaining an entirely valid and useful style, so must photography come to terms with its own potential to be eminently suitable for subjective expression and not only to objective representation, also without denigrating either those who wish to chart new creative waters or those who wish to remain realistic in their work. Not only is such an attitude demonstrably more conducive to artistic evolution and progress (as seen in the histories of other media), but, as our sciences continue to unravel, even what we consider as objective reality may not be “real reality.” In the end, we all live in worlds of subjective experiences, some of which we share with others, but not all. Therefore, genuinely expressed inner feelings, even if ostensibly departing from realistic appearances, may in fact be just as (sometimes more) real in its effect than anything one may derive from realistic depictions of superficial appearances.


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12 thoughts on “Reality vs. Subjective Experience

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  1. Several decades ago there was a TV series The Ascent of Man. In one episode, they showed a Man’s cheek. Then they zoomed in and his whiskers came into focus, then the pores of his skin. Then, in an animation, they penetrated the surface and continued down to the cellular level and finally the atomic.

    This memory often comes to mind when reading an excellent essay such as yours. I believe the point is that there are different levels of explanation, among which we can choose according to our purposes. Each level has its own validity when used in the proper context.

    Thanks for another great article.

  2. I’m not sure why it is important whether a photograph is art or not. A photograph, like a word, is a sign that points to something other than itself (unless the photograph is self referential). A photograph of a landscape uses a square piece of paper with lines and shades of color on it to convey a thought. A paragraph describing the same landscape uses words instead. Neither one is even remotely similar to an observer’s view of the same landscape much less the thing itself.

    I think is what matters is whether photograph accomplishes your goal of communicating a though. Of course some photographs are better than others – more complex, more interesting… the same with words, i.e., they carry more freight or more complex thoughts, some are plain while others are exceptional, but who cares if it is art or not?

    1. Thanks Martin! I think the distinction is important for a couple of reasons. It gives viewers a premise to interpret the work as intended, rather than within the confines of some limited perception of what photography is, which may suit some photographs but not all. It’s the same reason we distinguish chefs from line cooks, journalism from creative writing or poetry, etc. It adds necessary differentiation and nuance that are common in other media but that has so far not taken root in photography. Until it does, photography remains hobbled by prejudice and ignorance about the many purposes it can serve.

  3. Hello Guy, I totally agree with your essay and your answer to Martin.
    As a “creative” photographer I have been trapped in the “prison of… aesthetic realism, finding it difficult to gain recognition for any style that may be creative”. When I have knocked on the doors of photographic venues, they recommend to try art venues, and when I try art venues they recommend photography. My work and interest is on the “occult” and “ephemeral” and anything that is not easy to perceive and the result has been innovative images.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and perspectives. Your words have been “éxtasis” to read.
    Please excuse language errors… my language is Spanish. Do you do reviews or any other way to exchange ideas and artwork?
    Haydee Yordan

    1. Thank you very much, Haydee! I have heard several other accounts of this “catch-22”: photographers don’t consider such work as photography, and art venues don’t consider it as art… because it’s photography. Photography has been beholden to the “representation is the only kind of ‘real’ photography” myth for too long. We need to grow up. It’s a bit embarrassing that we are constantly playing catch-up with other artistic media when we have so much potential for leading our own evolution.

  4. I’ve spent much time recently in an attempt to develop a reasonably articulate description of reality in photography, or the “myth of reality” as it has been evolving in my mind. Imagine my delight when I decided to catch up on your blogs this morning and saw this post. I enjoyed it very much. Thanks.

    As often happens for me, the writings of Ansel provide nuggets of wisdom. I believe many of his quotes have become trivialized because they get used so much, but the original works often yield surprises to me. For example, I recently purchased a copy of “Ansel Adams in Color.” I enjoyed it very much and two quotes really stood out for me:

    “I do not want postcard realism but would enjoy color enhancements that are not possible today. The scope of control with the electronic image has not been explored, but I feel confident astonishing developments await us in this area.”

    “I believe we should encourage non-real explorations into worlds of color hitherto restricted to painting. Only the technical rigidities and the fear of the unreal have held interpretive color photography to rather narrow paths. It now appears that the horizons are opening for new creative-emotional concepts that can be achieved in the domain of color imagery in the photographic mode.”

    I don’t pretend to offer quotes you don’t already know. These are probably familiar to you. Ansel wrote them in 1983 near the end of his life. The words resonated for me and I found a certain degree of liberation in them. Your images, essays, and other writings do the same. In particular for me, I found this essay liberating as well. Thanks for the nuggets of wisdom, Guy, and keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks, Steve! It’s good to hear from you. It’s interesting to see how Adams’s rhetoric has evolved and softened in his elder years, especially considering his earlier vicious attacks against pictorialists (especially his assault on William Mortensen).

  5. I feel like I have “discovered” you again. Similar concerns, similar personal process… art…expression…creativity… About the creative process I believe it is a much more democratic process than it has been perceived. When an artist plans, discovers and finally execute… the art object is completed but the creative process continues with each observer and with each reaction, thus making the creative process a circular and never-ending process. Do you see it this way?

    1. I agree completely, Haydee. I think it’s a way of life, and I agree it is circular. It’s how you engage with the world, assimilate experiences, and responds to things. In turn, the things you experience and respond to creatively shape how you evolve as the person, and how you will respond to future experiences.

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