What is a Photograph?

A photogram – or photograph made without a camera – created by Flickr user mak0672

At first glance photography appears to be primarily an automatic medium – automatic meaning “operating in a manner essentially independent of external influence or control.” You point your phone in a direction, you preview the image on your screen and you press the button. What you see is what you get. For this reason, it has been easy for many to arrive at the misconception that photography is almost inherently an uncreative and highly limited medium. The camera can seem like reality’s version of a print-screen button, as photographers travel around making copy of the world. For many, the realm of possibility in the photographic world comes down to what has and hasn’t been photographed. Whereas painting and drawing can be used to express one’s inner world or visually reinterpret life in a fashion that best reflects their vision of it, the camera merely captures and records the appearances of the world as it is. Sure, we still choose to photograph one thing and not another, or shoot from one angle and not another – and surely a photograph of the Himalayan mountain peaks will look a lot different than a photograph of a mouse in your backyard – but even then, we are still just pointing the camera in a direction, from a chosen position, and pressing a button; mechanisms in the device will take care of the rest.

The public is largely aware of what has been and can be done with paints and pencils, from realism to impressionism to abstraction. Through mastery of those media, artists and craftsmen can imitate reality, or translate fabulous scenery and subject matter from their imagination into a visual reality, all within the confines of their studio, never needing to travel the world to do so. It’s possible to paint or draw anything, and to make anything look the way we wish it to look, or to make beautiful compositions that represent nothing at all. Sure, we can photograph distant galaxies and microscopic creatures, things invisible to the human eye, but what can we say about the medium when it comes to portraying what doesn’t exist outside of the imagination?

There’s nothing wrong with this automation. This ease of use has made photography accessible to billions of people across the world, and this has allowed us all to share our perspectives and lives with one another, to bring attention to important issues and to share new discoveries and document our achievements. It’s not simply that photography has been automated, but that it’s been automated to achieve a specific result: to depict as accurately as possible what we see with the human eye. If this result of photography is all that the common person has been exposed to, then it’s fair that this all they will come to expect from the medium. With the entire sequence of events between tripping the shutter and viewing the image being black boxed, all its potential for experimentation and creative discovery remain hidden to the unaware.

Yes, photography can create accurate and finely detailed images of the world before us. That is exactly what made it so useful to the modern world, and doing so has been its job ever since its invention, overtaking other media in the documentation department. The ability to imitate the world so precisely, so objectively, that we use photographs as reference and information, is a characteristic of photography that I call ‘believability’. But photography is not inherently limited to imitate reality any more than painting is. It too can be used to bring visions of the imagination to life, which when coupled with that very same trait of ‘believability’, makes it conducive for generating mind-bending works that speak in a way that the other media cannot. It only calls on us to set aside what we have come to expect from the medium and to begin to approach the medium with an understanding of its distilled essence in mind.

The definition of photography:
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of photography is “the […] process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface.”

The term ‘photograph’ itself is a combination of two word forming elements: photo-light” + -graph “[…] writes, marks, or describes; something written.” In other words, drawing with light. It’s been said that photography was invented to mechanize drawing. Rumor has it that Joseph NiĆ©pce, a man who grew very interested in lithography but was appalled by his own lack of artistic skill, decided he would create a medium that would do all the drawing for him. His experiments lead to some of the very first photographs.

My simple working definition of a photograph is that it is an image rendered by the recording of light. The primary material used in the medium is light and a light-sensitive canvas. Instead of rendering an image on a surface by drawing with ink or graphite, or by painting with oils or acrylics, you’re using light, and light can be manipulated and controlled. This is why light painting is a thing. The light used or captured by the light sensitive canvas doesn’t need to visibly represent the objects that it came from, no more than Cochineal red pigment paints need only to be used to paint images of Cochineal insects. Heck, photography doesn’t necessarily need to involve a camera. In fact, you could create a type of photograph by simply using a laser pointer to “draw” on a photosensitive material. This would result in a type of photograph we call a photogram – or a photograph created without a camera.

A photograph by Jason D. Page incorporating light painting techniques.

My simplified and not totally accurate summation of events that occur when you take a photograph with a digital camera:
When you use a camera to create a photograph of a dog, you’re not capturing the dog’s “likeness” or “soul”, you’re recording photons that originated from a light source, which reached the animal, some of that light was absorbed (the basis for color) and the light that wasn’t absorbed bounced off and away from the animal. Some of that light traveled toward your camera, entered through the lens, the lens then “bent” the rays of light (or redirected the photons) to form a focused image onto the sensor. The sensor contains millions of photo sites – one for each pixel in the resultant image – and as photons land on these photo sites, the photo sites react by producing electrons which are measured and then converted into a digital signal. The more photons received by the photo site, the greater the number of electrons the photo site produces, which ultimately determines the brightness of an individual pixel in the resultant digital image. Then we can look at the image on the back of the camera and think, “This looks like the dog!”

But what happens if, say, you decide to photograph the dog in the dark? To make up for the low amount of light, you set the camera up on a tripod and take a 30 second exposure. 15 seconds into the exposure, the dog decides to walk over a couple feet and stand still again. For 15 seconds, the camera is recording light bouncing off of the dog in one position, and for the remaining 15 seconds it is recording light bouncing off of the same dog in a different position. In the resultant photograph, it may look like there are two dogs, or that the very same dog is occupying two places in space at the same time. The dog will also, most likely, appear somewhat transparent, as the camera records light reflecting off the background whenever the dog is not blocking it. The resultant image looks quite different from how we see things with our very eyes, and the photographer is now beginning to depart from the territory of the purely representational.

By experimenting with light and conceptualizing photography as a medium of recording light as opposed to recording reality, we can begin to head in a very exciting and interesting direction with our work. There are so many tools and techniques out there that we can use to our expressive advantage as well. I’ll have to write up on those in the future!

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