Photograph Less, Draw More

The School of Life has posted another awesome video – this one, on photography.

(Side note: I love the way the English pronouncing “drawing.“)

The video is titled Why We Should Draw More (and Photograph Less), which is really quite interesting to me since I always thought of photography as drawing with a camera. The thesis comes down to two points:

  1. Taking many photographs of beautiful things around us often gets in the way of appreciating those things.
  2. Drawing and sketching draw our attention to the beauty of the world in a way that solely observing it does not.

This is really interesting to me, and I want to focus more on the first point – that even though we take photos as a way to remind ourselves later of something beautiful, this process often leaves us feeling unfulfilled.

The video remarks that this phenomenon that taking photos often leads to a later melancholy that wouldn’t have existed had the photo not been made. We look at a photo and we get sad and wistful. I believe that this is due to photography’s location in an ”uncanny valley” of recollection: it sits between the fuzziness of our memories (that make us happy) and the substance of the moment (that made us happy).

The fallacy, then, is that by making photos more accurate – more realistic – we will solve our unhappiness.

Photos have never accurately reflected the reality of the moment in which they were captured. Photographic objectivity is an illusion and it always has been.

A photo has never been a perfect snapshot of time – it’s always been a shadow of a moment. There is no such thing as an “unmanipulated” photo – the process of making a photo itself requires choices to be made. The difference is that in contemporary times, manipulations are no longer made by photographers; we’ve moved from artful compositions and thoughtful additions of contrast to algorithmically generated images.

Every photo you’ve seen online has been processed from its raw data to the visual representation that you see with your eyes. The trend has been to show how good cameras are by how “real” their photos seem. Camera manufacturers are in an arms race to make sure their cameras can make any photo “look good.” One can hardly blame them for giving us what we want.

But when the real world around us underwhelms our senses and fails to meet the expectations set by hyperrealistic photohraphs, who is to blame? When “clarity” filters and HDR make photos more realistic than the reality they’re conceived in, what else can the human brain do but be disappointed by the world around it?

The solution is not to move photography forward toward a more accurate depiction of reality. Nor is it to move photography toward a more impressionist medium. The solution is to educate ourselves and to remember that photographs are never depictions of reality – and they never were.

We get tricked by photographs’ apparent accuracy. We see photos that seem accurate and we forget to approach them the same way we would approach a painting: one perspective of many on the subject it depicts.

Photograph less and draw more. Yes. But also remember that photographs aren’t manifestations of reality – they never were. A photograph is one perspective of many; photography and drawing have more in common than not.

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