IMG_0833 2I was recently working on some spectacular photos of a blueberry crisp. The photos were great. The photos of the finished dish were…stunning. The berries looked juicy and the topping was golden and the light coming into the room was just so. But, the crisp didn’t make the cut. Basically, an unseen force, the thickener I chose, wasn’t quite right. I fixed the problem on a later iteration, and I think the recipe I have now developed is really nice. But that is not the recipe I shot and the photos are now just playthings. That is fine. The practice is invaluable, always. Sometimes there is a moment where I say to myself, oh, nobody would know. But I know. And so I don’t recycle the dish shots. But photos like this I will keep coming back to because it is timeless, or place-less, if you will. It is a portrait of a berry, and not dependent on the outcome of the dish.

But, I was looking at my photos of the blueberries and I thought to myself, what is a blueberry if it isn’t blue? Can you make a black and white picture of a blueberry and still get its essence? Can you still taste it? And that is the fun of digital photography and post production play. I can toggle back and forth between radiant color and black and white all day long. But, it certainly begs the question, what is a camera, really? A camera can be manipulated a thousand different ways to show the story that a photographer would like to tell. This isn’t a bad thing. I take very tight photos that don’t show you the state of chaos in which my kitchen perpetually exists. I’m not lying, but the filthy kitchen doesn’t tell you about blueberries. It might, however, tell you about me. And a photographer can shoot one thing and then an editor can decide that it doesn’t tell the right story and adjust or crop things to fit the needs of a publication. Artificial lights can let you live in a world without shadows…or a world where shadows tell you nothing about reality. Shadows tell you a lot in their natural state.

Do you ever see a photo of a lovely person that doesn’t do them any justice whatsoever because without their actual presence you miss out on a majority of who they are?

Ah, but the human eye…what a gift. The eye senses all of the subtleties of the soul and the tone of a voice and the twitch of an eyebrow, and those little tells that every person has if you only spend enough time with them to figure it all out.

Not a perfect tool, we also can fool our eye and adjust it with our biases, good and bad, the way we can a camera. At least our camera adjustments are volitional and we know we are adjusting the photo, whereas an eye can be clouded with horrible notions that we aren’t even aware are changing our perception.

But, I often see photos that are so twisted in post production as to be comical. Skin without flaws, worlds with no shadows. One expects a unicorn to come dashing across the field behind the subject. In the end, I suppose cameras are just tools. And you should judge a photograph not only by the content of the photo but by the character of the photographer and you should have some notion of whether a photographer is trying to transport you to a world of whimsy or is trying to get you closer to reality. Because photographs are rarely perfect depictions of reality. Even a very “real” photo can only capture the very moment that it is capturing, and the context of that moment is up for grabs. This is to say nothing of the biases of the person interpreting the image.

This is not a critique. Many photographers truly open up windows on the world for us. They document suffering and joy and beauty that we may never have the opportunity to witness in person. But, the photographer is in the photo. Study photos and you start to be able to guess who has shot what. There is a style. There is mood. I love this about photography. But I think it implies that photos are not exactly objective, so to speak. It is not mere transmission of information, usually. And that makes it great and powerful, too. And even if the photo isn’t different from 100 others, if we can guess the photographer, it likely will trigger your own biases in that regard.

We may know that we exist because we think. But we should not always trust that we know because we see, in a photo or otherwise.

Either way, my daughter, Lily, 9, says the photo is dead without the color. I tend to agree.

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