Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Photography as Nonfiction (What the Pictures Really Say)

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Photography as Nonfiction (What the Pictures Really Say)

Photography is the nonfiction of the visual arts, something of a cousin in the art world to the fraternal twins of realism and abstraction. Digital photography will completely transform and reframe this relationship. What we are witnessing today is the birth of an entirely new art form, one already challenging our understanding of reality and the form it presents to our senses.

The metaphysics of how art and philosophy can best apprehend the “real world” has been with us since well before the dueling philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. But go back far enough, and any fine differences between a thing and its image become less apparent, part of a sacred or mysterious connection in which the image fully partakes in the reality of the thing portrayed.

This is how photography should be understood and appreciated. Susan Sontag best describes it in On Photography: “What defines the originality of photography is that . . . it revives . . . something like the primitive status of images . . . No one takes an easel painting to be in any sense co-substantial with its subject; it only represents or refers. But a photograph is not only like its subject . . . It is part of, an extension of that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it.”

With photography, its imagery gives every appearance of things literally existing in more than one place at a single time. Both the mystery and duality of that appearance are at the heart of photography’s newest transformation as it transfers over to its new world of digital imaging and image editing software. In many ways the art of photography is at the same position (or re-positioning) that nonfiction is in current critical essays and theories – see my previous two entries on “The New Future of Nonfiction” and “Further Adventures in Nonfiction”.

Digital Photography takes us several steps beyond simple, static notions of original and copy; what starts out as a photo of vegetation (as in the image attached to this entry) can quickly change into a haphazard collage, a digital painting, which in turn becomes the simulacrum head of a fish. The growing fluid nature of this digital art, like that of nonfiction writing, draws upon myriad sources and tools, transforming one thing into another, juxtaposing others, yet retaining always something of its original core. The layers pile up, fragment, accumulate, bend form and genre in a way that its comprehension is both familiar and elusive.

It’s clear that digital photography and image editing software are rapidly expanding the borders and the potential for a whole new form of art. We become a part of what we know through the capture and manipulation of what we see. This digital world becomes an art of visual metaphor, balance and motion, controversy, and eloquence.

1 comment

This is an intriguing and, I think, correct approach to what digital photography implies. It's interesting to consider that, once photography achieved a level of reliability, it began to be used as evidence in criminal cases; now that digital editing software is widely available and seamless in operation, photos can be too easily faked to be unshakeable evidence of anythin g. At the same time, the artistic possibilities of photo-based work are limited only by the artist's imagination, not by what can be "captured" by a lense and film.
John Oughton

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Edward Carson

Edward Carson is twice winner of the E. J. Pratt Poetry Award in Canada and is the author of three books of poetry — Scenes, Taking Shape and Birds Flock Fish School.

Go to Edward Carson’s Author Page