Posted by: David Vernon | July 24, 2009

I’m too in touch with my feelings

Wildcat Canyon 1Feelings. Nothing more then feelings.

I was reading an entry on the superb New York Times Photography “Lens” blog about the controversy over one of the most famous images of all time: Robert Capa’s “The Death of a Loyalist Militiaman”. The article, written by Philip Gefter, a former photo editor at the Times, is an adaptation of a recent essay. It starts out:

“Truth-telling is the promise of a photograph — as if fact itself resides in the optical precision with which photography reflects the way we see the world. A photograph comes as close as we get to witnessing an authentic moment with our own eyes while not actually being there.” — Philip Gefter

Now I read that first sentence and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up a little. And that’s because I come at photography with a completely different perspective and a completely different end goal. I think truth-telling is one small facet of photography as told by photojournalists who practically swear an alligiance to the truth – as it can best be represented in a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world  (more on that below). I think for the rest of us I’d prefer this sentence:

Feeling is the promise of a photograph – as if emotion itself resides in the optical precision with which photography reflects the way we experience the world.” — Dave Vernon, borrowing a lot from Philip Gefter

This is not new ground I’m covering with you but the fact of the matter – as I go on with my own photography – done for me – is that I don’t give a fig about truth. If I’m producing art then I’m 100% about elicting a feeling – an emotional response. The picture we see here today – I made it yesterday in Wildcat Canyon at Starved Rock State Park. Did it look like this? Well – yes and no. I cloned out a piece of litter on the beach area and I cloned out a small stick that was reaching out of the muddy area down left. Otherwise – that’s what the camera saw. That’s the truth of the scene – as far as what was physically present. Nothing else added or taken away. But did it look like that? The answer is not really. The light was so-so; the energy and emotion flat. My job as an artist – again as I see it – is to take a scene that may be emotionally flat and give it some life – by playing with the light and the color. I want to look back on this scene – whether it’s 99.9% of what was there or significantly less – and breathe in what my heart feels in places like this. Uplifted. Excited. A yearning to be there.

I think me and a whole lot of other artists. We want you to feel. Screw the rest.

Now I’ll be a bit of a coward and suggest that when I’m shooting for a client the rules are different. We’re there to deliver what the client wants – be it truth or not. It’s a mixture of my vision and their vision but they’re paying the bills (and hopefully they are familiar with my vision going in). When I shot for the little tractor company in town, truth was a golden rule – as it should be. You don’t want to sell someone a tractor for them only to find out they didn’t get what was in the picture. But the realization can hit you is that if you’re good – and you have control over the environment – you can be both truthful and elicit an emotional response. That’s the trick. Somedays – in the art world – that’s easier said then done – but that’s what you can strive for. I really prefer the 99.9% – it’s less work on the computer and more time spent behind the lens.

As for the Capa pic – there’s a big argument going on over its authenticity. The article on the NYT blog, entitled, “Icons as Fact, Fiction, and Metaphor” is about truth-telling in photography and is a very interesting and important read, even if truth is only a close second to your artistic vision. And Gefter does bring it home with this close:

“Still, somewhere between fact and fiction — or perhaps hovering slightly above either one — is the province of metaphor, where the truth is approximated in renderings of a more poetic or symbolic nature.” — Philip Gefter

And thanks to friend of the blog Stacy – I’ll leave you with a series of images from the place that hits those homeruns every single time. The folks over at pulled together 31 images from National Geographic that speak truth and get you to feel. It’s something we can all aim for.


  1. i agree totally

  2. Very well thought out and written, Dave. I’m beginning to see how much photography can depict truth as well as fine art.

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