Part of me applauds. Enthusiastically.
Part of me objects. Strenuously.
I know why I’m applauding, but I can’t quite explain why I’m objecting. That’s why I’d enjoy some input from other photographers as thoughtful as Maris. I’m not going to say I completely understand his unique post, except to say that I think it gets across a critical point about one type of photographic reality – at the unhappy expense of another type.
The critical point it gets across, I think, is made with his strange but effective analogy between film and footprints. To paraphrase it as best I can – “film is never a transcription of reality, just as a footprint can never be a foot.” Very nice. But then the next point that should be on its way never arrives.
First the reason why it’s missing, then what I think that point is.
When one uses the precise language of science to show the relationship between film and reality, even as well as Maris does, one runs the risk of overlooking a more important type of reality – one that science has no business describing, and that photography has every business to capture and communicate.
Film – if it’s not a transcription of reality, as Maris makes plain – is always, I think, an abstraction from experience. I really should say “an abstraction from human experience.” You’ll note the detour I’ve just taken from “reality.” But no need for fans of “reality” to worry. My detour from that word is only apparent…
For I’m still thinking of a reality that falls under the heading of human experience. And this reality, I think, is the one that matters to photography – and more generally, to art. For simplicity sake, I might call it “psychological reality.” (I’m sure a better term exists, so I hope I’m being clear.) The abstraction of which the photographer might try to create on film in the field, and communicate in a print back home. Or the abstraction of which a viewer might respond to in a photograph on the wall, in a book, on the screen.
If film or a photograph can be such a thing – an abstraction from psychological reality – then do the observations in Maris’ post still apply? That is, would film still be an “absolute certificate for the reality of its subject matter”? Or better, if film can be such a thing, might it transcend Maris’ restrictions, and do what he says film can’t – “guarantee reliable identification of subject matter”?
And finally, would it be a good idea after all to divide the “reality” of photographic subjects into two types – the scientific kind, the psychological kind – and remember that famous remark, “Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point” [“Let’s be careful before we let reason try to describe every kind of reality”]?