I’ve always been fascinated by the debate as to how truthful a photo or artist must be. This debate most often comes up when discussing post-processing with Photoshop (check out Is Digital Post-Production Killing Photography? Debunking the Purist Myth). Such debates are often centered around the core question, “Is photography the factual reproduction of a subject or the interpretation of that subject by the artist?” In a recent interview Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, discusses the intellectual nature of magic in an interview at Smithsonianmag.com. After reading the interview I couldn’t help but think how magic and photography, in the terms Teller speaks to (see below), share a common impact to the viewer. Photography like magic is a playground for the intellect where the viewer must both have suspension of disbelieve, but also comfort with an experience of dissonance. Take a look at the quote below before I dive deeper into the topic…
How does magic fit in with other forms of performance, such as music or drama?
…magic goes straight to the brain; its essence is intellectual.
What do you mean by intellectual?
The most important decision anyone makes in any situation is “Where do I put the dividing line between what’s in my head and what’s out there? Where does make-believe leave off and reality begin?” That’s the first job your intellect needs to do before you can act in the real world.
If you can’t distinguish reality from make-believe—if you’re at a stoplight and you’re not sure whether the bus that’s coming toward your car is real or only in your head—you’re in big trouble. There aren’t many circumstances where this intellectual distinction isn’t critical.
One of those rare circumstances is when you’re watching magic. Magic is a playground for the intellect. At a magic show, you can watch a performer doing everything in his power to make a lie look real. You can even be taken in by it, and there’s no harm done. Very different from, say, the time-share salesman who fools you into squandering your savings, or the “trance channeler” who bilks the living by ravaging the memories of the dead.
In magic the outcome is healthy. There’s an explosion of pain/pleasure when what you see collides with what you know. It’s intense, though not altogether comfortable. Some people can’t stand it. They hate knowing their senses have fed them incorrect information. To enjoy magic, you must like dissonance.
In typical theater, an actor holds up a stick, and you make believe it’s a sword. In magic, that sword has to seem absolutely 100 percent real, even when it’s 100 percent fake. It has to draw blood. Theater is “willing suspension of disbelief.” Magic is unwilling suspension of disbelief.
Photography is a fascinating medium because unlike magic the aspect of photography most often seen is one where it portends to be factual, for the sake of news. Yet photography is in most every other niche anything but fact and is most often interpretation of fact if not fiction. Darkroom, digital darkroom effects and even non-darkroom effects on some level always overlay the interpretation of the subject by the artist (photographer, photo stylist, touch-up artist, etc.). In each instance where someone’s interpretation is being overlaid onto the image we cross over into the world shared with magic.
Photography is both what we see and what we want to see. Where edits are made most convincingly viewers enjoy the “illusion” and overall experience all while their suspension of disbelief is maintained. The end result being this relationship (what we see versus what we want to see) never creeps into conscious thought, but the moment something looks off it might as well be the same as if we found out how a magic trick is done. The magic is ruined when our experience of believing is disrupted. Some may even argue now that photo manipulation is so pervasive that viewers require even more convincing to first “believe” as opposed to first looking to see how the “magic trick” is done. Artistic interpretation via cloning out or moving elements of a scene, pumping up saturation, blending image to enhance dynamic range or focus, warping subjects, etc. are all creative options for artists and can now easily be applied in such a way that many viewers who love nature subjects will want to believe that nature can be so extra special and beautiful. The difference with magic is that the illusion becomes realized with in a short timeframe of the performance where as the illusion created by photography can be delayed for extended periods of time if not forever.
As I visit more and more online photo forums that tout the best photography on the web I see more and more heavily manipulated photos. It makes for great art, but I do wonder how many people are finding the photos so convincing that they think such scenes can actually be found as opposed to made. Will those interested in the outdoors for example be let down when they visit a location first seen online in a heavily manipulated photo that turns out to be impossible to witness firsthand, or will they be excited that they have an opportunity to make their own heavily manipulated photo? It will be interesting to see when outdoor photography enthusiasts begin to see the magic trick first and whether that will sour their enthusiasm to experience nature.