What is reality in photography anyway?

I am participating in the Lighting Essentials 52 Week Project. This past week’s assignment was “a product shot with a twist – eggs.” I had an image I did a couple of years ago based on one Bert Stern did.

Since past work is acceptable, I submitted it as I was busy and couldn’t get past this one in my mind anyway.

My version:

In the image comments for the group post I made a general statement that I used a lot of post processing in Photoshop. While not specifically mentioned,  the horizon, the background color, and the image of the sun (which was missed, BTW, during the critique) were all done in post. I shot the base image against white seamless.

During the critique, (was was positive, BTW) it was mentioned that “Bert Stern wouldn’t have used post.” My immediate reaction was: “so what?” I appreciate the critique, but this comment struck a chord with what I have always believed: that photography is not real. Never has been, never will be.

By this I mean that there is nothing objective (the photographer always influences the results, much like a writer influences his prose) about a photograph, no matter how many rules you put in place regarding lens choice or what you can or cannot do in post processing. For illustrative, portrait, landscape, and other such uses, I would argue that extensive manipulation – whether in camera or not – is required in order to properly render the subject. As marvelous as our eyes are, it is our brain that creates the image we see – and that image is a function of everything from the emotions we are feeling at the time to the shortcuts our brain makes in minimizing the effort to render a recognizable image for us. Our brains do an awful lot of post processing whether we realize it or not. Does this make what we see with our eyes less of a reality for us? Does what a photographer does to present his image make it any less real?

Now Bert had at his disposal at the time perhaps the largest photographic operations in the world: big expensive studio in New York, lots of assistants and hair, makeup, etc, multiple projects underway at once, video as well as stills, the works.

I have perhaps the smallest.

So how I achieve my homage isn’t really the point, is it? It’s the final image, isn’t it?

Now I’m not saying I am as skilled as Bert Stern, nor that my image even approaches his. What I’m saying is that the image itself is the reality, not the means to achieve it. And in the end, isn’t that what really matters?

I won’t be so presumptuous as to know what the reviewer’s intentions¬† were in saying this. My interpretation was that he thought that Bert was skilled enough as a photographer to achieve a final image with little to no post production (which is not true BTW, for at least some of Bert’s images. He used extensive post production – he just didn’t have Photoshop but had to use layers of film, etc). Fair enough. But if we are talking about an image, isn’t the image itself – not the means used to achieve it – what is important?

If so, to what relevance did this comment have to the critique?

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