Lie Like You Mean It!

| February 12, 2011

“Why do most great pictures look uncontrived? Why do photographers bother with the deception, especially since it so often requires the hardest work of all? The answer is, I think, that the deception is necessary if the goal of art is to be reached: only pictures that look as if they had been easily made can convincingly suggest that beauty is commonplace.” –Robert Adams

A few weeks ago, I commended a fellow photographer on an image of remarkable beauty: a pristine alpine lake reflecting a blazing red sky and rugged granite peaks. It looked so peaceful and inviting; the kind of place that might move someone to sit by and conjure poetry. His response was a casual and blunt “oh, the mosquitoes were terrible up there.” Not long after, at a formal dinner party, I sat next to a someone who turned out to be a mathematician. We both had a few glasses of wine by then and I inquired about his work. Rather than mathematics, I got an earful about university politics and the challenge of securing grants. He then was silent for a moment, as if contemplating a difficult question, looked wistfully into the glass and said quietly “people don’t realize that math is so beautiful”.

I realized then that the two conversations, though seemingly unrelated, were, in fact, very similar. While we often tend to glamorize what we do, when considered objectively it may be quite far from ideal. Even in the presence of the grand, the mysterious, and the majestic, it is all too easy to miss the thread of  true beauty woven into the fabric of what is a much larger experience and never quite so pure and obvious as we might like our audience to believe. In that sense, all photographs lie by omission.

I remember being criticized a while back when suggesting that the answer to the not-uncommon “did it really look like that?” is almost always “no”. In fact, most photographers I know will respond with a very confident “yes” without giving it a second thought. These are the same people who personally set the saturation slider at 100, cloned out a rogue branch, or even the ones clearly recalling the sound of vehicles speeding along the road 50ft. away as they were carefully composing their “wild” scene to keep out the pavement. To be fair, most of them truly do believe the answer is “yes” because, while others may not have perceived it the same way, in their mind’s eye it really did look “like that” to them. Right there is the crux of what we like to call visualization. Much like the photographer and mathematician, their passion for their work allows them to draw a clear line between the mundane and the beautiful, letting them filter and compartmentalize the two as distinct and separate dimensions of the same experience, that can be easily set apart. These are the true artists.

Then there are those who lie about lying; those who are unable to distinguish fact from interpretation but still try to pass their work as representing objective reality, rationalizing in their minds that their embellishments and shortcuts are acceptable because they are commonplace in the industry and despite knowing full well that their images, in fact, look nothing at all like what they saw; and their impact amplified orders of magnitude from what they actually felt. These are the artists in name only.

The casual viewer may never know the difference but it is most certainly there. As the old saying goes: it takes one to know one. Anyone harboring an artistic spirit will immediately recognize those works conceived of passion, contemplation, and love; those that carry meaning beyond their literal representation rather than a veneer of hype and artificiality. The difference may not be visible or quantifiable, but it is real and intuitive. You have to feel it to know it.

The most effective art tells the truth not by being literally descriptive but by representing the true state of mind of the artist. There is a vast chasm between images that are “romantic” and ones that are “romanticized” even if they appear similar or were created using the same methods. Try telling someone they look “beautiful”, and on another day tell them they look “beautified” and you will experience the difference first hand.

If you want your work to represent your own truth, embrace the lies and lie like you mean it! No product of human conception can objectively contain all the dimensions of an experience. And if it could it would not be art since it will leave it up to the viewer to decide for themselves how to interpret and feel about it. In my mind, art and objectivity do not mix. An artist is one who creates meaning, who expresses their own personal sensibilities and relays their own inspiration through their work. If an image represents “reality” in an objective fashion, by definition it cannot be “art” since it expressly excludes the artist’s personal interpretation.

Determining what amounts to “objective reality” is the business of scientists, journalists, and priests. Artists work in the subjective.

Icy Subway

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (27)

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  1. Jim Bullard says:

    Sometimes what you experience looking at a scene isn’t about the objective reality in front of you. Rather it is a transcendent connection or reality that uses the objective reality as a window to an inner experience. It works only when you are in the proper frame of mind and being too strictly faithful to the objective reality can impede the ‘seeing beyond’ that is the real experience. Editing, whether framing in the viewfinder or post exposure work in the darkroom/Photoshop is what we as artists do the guide the viewer to the experience rather than just the objective scene.

  2. Al Capizzo says:

    Many of you have probably seen this quote from photographer G. Dan Mitchell that sums up pretty well how most of us feel about the topic (“manipulation”) Guy is covering:
    “If the goal of photography was to make objectively accurate reproductions of real things… I wouldn’t bother.”

  3. Derrick says:

    ….. I’ll be thinking about this one for a bit. Thanks much for the post.

  4. Mark says:

    Objective photography probably sits in many people’s minds as “snapshots from my vacation” and unfortunately that seems to create some type of baseline. Many probably don’t realize the chasm between that and being engaged in a form of expression.

  5. “Determining what amounts to “objective reality” is the business of scientists, journalists, and priests.

    Artists work in the subjective.”

    What a statement Guy! Thoroughly enjoyed the post. Very thought provoking. I was reading arguments on similar topic on another forum and the way you have explained it here is just like hitting the nail on its head!

  6. Rob Tilley says:

    Rather than saying I “lie” with my photographs, I prefer to think of myself as an editor. When I create images I try to take out all of those things I prefer not to have in the image. Of course the act of editting does create a new reality. Winston Churchill once wrote that “memory is the editor of time” so I think it is fair to say that everyone is an editor, but photographers do edit more actively than most people. Hopefully the result of all this editting is artistic. Creating photographs is also a way to allow others to see through your eyes and in a successful image one can immediately see exactly what the photographer was trying to accomplish.

  7. Excellent article, Guy. I couldn’t agree more. It seems that the general public still has trouble accepting that, for photography to be art, it can not just be a recording of what the camera sees.

    It took me a long time to get my head around that concept as well. It was Marc Adamus that finally got me to understand it. Several years ago, after we’d spent a week shooting together, he spent a lot of time reviewing my portfolio and then he sent me an email which I still have to this day. It changed my photography forever. Here is an excerpt:

    “Try to focus on the emotion you are trying to evoke from a scene, and learn to identify the qualities both within that scene and with your processing skills that will help you achieve that. Don’t rely on your camera to simply ‘capture’ an image – you should try to impress your vision upon it, make it YOUR image. A reflection of yourself as well as the landscape. An image with a story to tell or a strong emotional quality, not just a strong composition. Composition itself is a means to an end, not an end in itself. There is far more to landscape imagery than strong lines and depth – those are the basics. The higher levels involve developing your personal vision and conveying that to the viewer.” –Marc Adamus

    Wise words, indeed.

  8. Scott Bean says:

    Great post! I think people tend to forget that when we ‘see’ something we are experiencing so many other things, the sounds, the smells, our emotions, etc. All of that goes into a photograph (hopefully). I love this line “No product of human conception can objectively contain all the dimensions of an experience”, well said!

  9. > …Determining what amounts to “objective reality” is the business of scientists, journalists, and priests…

    …priests??? :)

  10. Guy, this is a great piece of writing on a key part of what goes into making art in photographic form. There have been some thoughtful responses so far, and I look forward to further comments on this subject.

    I think a lot of photographers are uncomfortable on this point because of the apparent relationship of photographs with some notion of “objective reality”. Also because of many years of confused dialog and expectations about the confluence of photography, art, creativity, ethics, digital and so on. It’s made worse by those who claim of their creative works that “this is how it looked to me”, “I process but I don’t manipulate” or “I got it right in the camera”. It’s not necessarily easy to sort out photography as an art form, short of grasping the nettle; as you put it, embracing the lies.

    Looking at what’s really going on, it’s never the photograph itself that has integrity (or lacks it). A photograph is an object, it is only what it is. Rather, integrity comes from the photographer, and part of that integrity is acknowledging my active, intentional role in the creative process. You hit the nail on the head that art works are personal truths — the job of the artist is in fact to interpret reality. My works are my interpretations that viewers will in turn interpret further through their own lenses of memory, experience and belief. Reality is involved, because photographs are derived from reality using (in part) technical tools in a way that isn’t the case for most other visual art forms. But that overlooks the fact that the work isn’t limited to reality or only about objective facts.

    Encouraging photographers to “lie like you mean it” aims squarely at the same point called out by this statement from Picasso — “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” When I bring this statement up amongst photographers, it often provokes a strong reaction. :)

    I don’t see it as a debate about lies or truth, in a moral or ethical sense (at least as long as I have integrity about my intentions and what I’m doing with my work). Casting it in these terms is just a tool to highlight the contrast in the approaches of the documentarian vs. the artist. Let’s not sugar coat it, but also not get hung up over whether photographers-as-artists are purveyors of “lies”. For me the real core is the dynamic tension between the subjective and the objective — what was, what I want to say about it, and what someone else hears. It’s the contrast between the factual or informational, and the almost galvanic effect of evoking a resonant response. Creating something that abstracts or edits specific details while remaining true to the essence, and therefore is worth believing in or being passionate about.

  11. Tim Newton says:

    Thank you, Guy, for this very interesting, thought-provoking post! Thank you for sharing your insight, along with your art!

    I wonder if wrestling with the issue of “objective reality” in photography is only a temporary preoccupation, and currently at maybe even already past its historical apex. Viewers rarely challenge the “authenticity” of a scene presented by a painting. Mostly everyone understands now that great paintings are fully and intentionally “constructed” scenes, usually only “inspired” by reality. Photography, on the other hand, is still saddled with the (very recent) history that believable image manipulation was once exceedingly difficult, requiring genius and years of dedication to master, even then remaining confined to very limited image subtexts. So will the photographic authenticity question fade going forward, as it becomes fully clear to all viewers that – as with paintings – photographs are, more and more, constructed scenes? We all know painters use brushes, paints, easels, and canvas to produce their images, and yes, it is still possible to meticulously construct an “objectively realistic” painting, but virtually nobody any longer professes that to be the standard against which all possible paintings are to be judged, or that the image is any more or less “authentic” because of the painter’s particular choice of tools. More and more, perhaps it will be similarly “understood” that photographers use their own kinds of paints and brushes, too. Perhaps the digital super-nova which has made photography and its accompanying tools for image manipulation accessible and usable by anyone with the least interest, will allow future generations to grow up fully and “automatically” appreciating photography as art, without having first to wrestle through the issue of authenticity. A few decades hence, and thereafter, perhaps most viewers of photography will be wrestling with the issues of “objective reality” and “authenticity” about as commonly as viewers of paintings wrestle with these issues today. Lucky for them, I say. :-)

    A counterpoint would be that new photographic tools also make ever easier the production of objectively realistic imagery, while creating an objectively realistic painting is not getting any easier. So on that account, the issue might never quite achieve quite the low level of attention as it receives in the world of painting, but I think that may still be the asymptote.

  12. Brad Mangas says:

    I contemplate such things in my own artist approach to my photography. After some years I have come to realize that it is and has to be “My” creation of a scene and when asked if anything “hokie pokie” was done to it I have no problem saying why yes, I done xyz to it in photoshop or whatever the case may be. I have no illusion of making photographs of “just” what my eyes see my imagination will not allow me to do that (not to mention a camera doesn’t work that way either) I want them to be visually appealing according to how I interpreted the scene. Of course I want others to enjoy what I create but the bottom line is I “have” to enjoy it or I wouldn’t do it. Documentary nature and landscape photography has it’s place and I actually enjoy and can be inspired by it but it is typically not in the “art” category. I choose to be a photographer (or maybe more correctly, a creator who uses photography to create) not a documentarian.

    As for “all photographs lie by omission” no truer words have been spoken. Some people just refuse to admit it.

  13. Nice blog. I started to take exception to the statement “If an image represents ‘reality’ in an objective fashion, by definition it cannot be’art’ since it expressly excludes the artist’s personal interpretation.”. Reason being in that while I understand how “by defintion,art, etc” implication, I still thought of how nature can present so perfect a scene whether it is on a typical, a microscopic or macroscopic level that it could be deemed art…and then it hit me – this still includes “The Artist’s” personal interpretation!!

  14. Russ Bishop says:

    Another very thought provoking post Guy. As others have said, I feel the word “lie” is a little harsh but the meaning is well taken. I perfer to think of myself as an interpreter of my subject matter, using the tools I have both at the time of capture and after to render a scene as it is fixed in my minds eye. It is a purely subjective realm we work in and in the end the only truth that matters is whether our vision has struck a chord with others.

  15. “Anyone harboring an artistic spirit will immediately recognize those works conceived of passion, contemplation, and love” – well said! I always enjoy your writing. The depth of your thinking and the way you translate them to words is amazing.

  16. Alister Benn says:

    A very thought-provoking article. I have dealt with many of my own situations where the final images hardly reflect the reality! Not through excessive post-processing, but through selective truth. I am in the midst of writing on a similar theme: Lying by Omission” where I consider the art of composition to include what we want to include to strengthen our message, whilst eliminating anything “inappropriate”

    Well written Guy..

  17. Glenn says:

    There is no such thing as ‘Objective Reality’

  18. “Reality” is an illusion. A photograph is always a “lie” anyway because it shows only the photographer’s perspective, that is, there’s nothing objective about it. Photographers have manipulated photographs throughout the history of the medium. Darkroom photographers “lied” with their prints just as Photoshop users do today. More attention has been brought to the issue currently because those who don’t use Photoshop much try to say their images are the “true” representation and in the tradition of straight photography, etc, whereas those who do use Photoshop skillfully usually don’t have to defend their work because it doesn’t look “false” or “unreal.” People who use Photoshop poorly, or overuse certain controls, have brought the same kind of skepticism on the entire creative digital photography process, just as photographers and the general public at one point became sick of the posing, stilting, enhancing, and falsification that many of the pictorialists, not all, but many, showed in their work. This is why the world embraced straight photography, not because the straight photographers never manipulated their prints, but because they were dedicated to a certain aesthetic of “realism,” clean lines, sharp focus and creativity within the medium, not through adding other mediums to the medium, which if I read correctly is what Guy is calling art. Documentary photography or journalism can also be art, but not in the same context. To put it simply and summarize my thoughts, I saw this quote recently by Edward Weston, “To photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” Photographers could use this simple guideline to find the balance in this conundrum.

  19. Jerry DaBell says:

    Embellishment: As my story-telling cousin says, embellishment is the truth—only better. —JLD

  20. Great post! Thanks.
    For me as a photographer, i see the world in a rectangle, as in what will be in my photo. If i come to a scene and leave out the sidewalk to make it look more scenic, then the scene actually looked like that to me within my box.
    As a wise man once told me ‘what you leave out of your image is just as important as what you leave in’. So choosing what goes into my little rectangle and afterwards saying that was how it looked like to me is true! I just included the right parts in the photos and excluded the irrelevant parts leaving you with part of the scene that is now the whole scene.
    We make art, if we are trying to document what is all there i would ask my friends for their holiday snaps of the scene.

  21. Ed says:

    Hey All,

    Guy Tal writes “Lie Like You mean It! “Should we teach our children this and isn’t this what we expect (and get) from our politicians?

    That said Taylor Davidson wrote about this in a blog entry called:

    “Photographs Tell Lies Through Slivers of Reality”

    [I’ll simply quote Taylor as he expresses my thinking as well as I could.]

    “Photographs tell lies independent of a photographer’s intent, a function of the disconnect between creation and interpretation, the distance between points of view, aided by information and knowledge asymmetries and the transaction costs of context.

    Lies told through slivers of reality; constricted frames of view and snippets of time: the beauty and the beast of photography wrapped up together.


    To start, the inescapable: wherever we go, we always bring ourselves.

    Any photographer knows that there is a world outside the frame and the moment; any traveler instinctually understands that a fellow traveler’s perception of a place says more about the traveler than the place; any writer knows that comments and reviews say more about the commenter then the post itself; all of us naturally listen to people with one ear on the message and half a mind on their potential biases.

    Bias is inescapable. But despite common wisdom, transparency isn’t the solution; interpretation isn’t easy, creating and delivering context and relevance is expensive and difficult to scale.

    [I’ll not belabour the issue of context and relevance which is as stated by Taylor expensive and difficult to scale – and as most of the posts above are all about at least a small part of context.]

    How do we move forward?

    Embrace lies as slivers of reality, ready to be pieced together to tell cohesive stories.”

    That last line says it all.

    How do we often catch liars? One tried and true method is ask the question “is the story cohesive”? Children aren’t generally very good at this and Politicians aren’t a whole lot better. The cohesiveness, plausibility, value and relevance of the stories adds to the credence of the lie(s).

    The question becomes what cohesive story do your collected body of lies (photographs) tell? Is the theme plausible, of value and relevant in today’s society? If it is you just might get away with it!


  22. Jim Elliott says:

    The ability we now have with Lightroom and CS5 to improve images and select or unselect to reform,reshape,inhance color and sharpness allows us to create a more true image. we can adjust sky, remove people or objects to reveal the subject. We can make a sunny day, or a cloudy day. That is only improving the scene to a better time. This is no more a lie than wearing nice clothes, or combing your hair. Making something look like it should, or as you wish it did, or as you want it to look is all an artistic choice. We each see things differently, some like bright High Definition photos, some prefer soft foggy dim photos, some black and white. Art is when we express our photos the way we like them. One person’s lie is another person’s truth. Jim

  23. Preeti says:

    This was so great to read. I don’t have vast thoughts to contribute, but I just wanted to say that I really appreciate you sharing this!

  24. I recently had a related thing happen. I was out shooting a very nice sunset with big surf, when some family members walked by and I said “Look at this picture.” They looked and said “That’s awesome (and other superlatives), when did you shoot that?” I said, “Just now, right here.” They looked out and said almost in unison, “but it does not look like that!”

    They have constantly pestered me about”Photoshopping” my images, since my photos often have a lot of color and/or drama in them. I said, “See? This is right out of the camera so don’t bug me about this one!”

    Even if it is right out of the camera with minimal processing, an image never really gets close to reality and sometimes looks more dramatic due to limited dynamic range and a wide-angle of view. I think that when someone asks if it “looked that way,” they really want to know if I cranked up the saturation slider to make it into something that it never was.

    Great post,