I have a photograph hanging on my wall which I took on a beach during a trip to Cape Cod. In the picture a thick bank of fog is moving across the background while in the foreground the wind has combed the dune grasses up against the sand and one of those barrier fences meant to keep people off of the dunes. Many have commented that the detail of each blade of grass reminds them of an Andrew Wyeth painting. I am by no means as talented as the master but it is a masterful picture in a way. To me the picture represents the ability we have as photographers to make a scene appear better than it really was. For what my viewers don’t know is that the bank of fog is hiding something. While they see a pristine beach, I know what the fog erased- two huge satellite dishes and a stone tower which an eccentric millionaire bought and moved to his estate on the Massachusetts coastline. If the people who look at this picture could see what was behind the fog, I am sure they would have a different opinion on how beautiful this view is. For me the thousand words of this picture are about illusion and the art of manipulation too but my viewers would probably use different words.
I also have a collection of pictures taken at LeFevre family gatherings. In each of those pictures we are smiling and enjoying each other’s company. The ones of my brother-in-law Scott are generally capturing him entertaining us with his creativity and crazy antics. He’s smiling and having a great time. But Scott had the ability to manipulate his appearance just as easily as a camera can manipulate a scene or post-processing can manipulate a subject’s flaws. In spite of the smiles and happy moments caught by the camera, it never captured what was going on inside Scott. We lost him to suicide in 2014. A picture is worth a thousand words? Yes. The camera never lies? No. The camera always lies, even when the picture is for the most part realistic.
I remember as a young parent being interested in learning about the best ways to encourage and help your child to flourish and grow. One particular expert emphasized that negative words would encourage negative behavior, but positive words would build self-esteem and reap all sorts of benefits. Needless to say positive words were spoken quite frequently in our home! If a picture is worth a thousand words, what kind of words do we want to portray in that picture, even if there is some illusion behind its production? True, the camera will manipulate the image somewhat virtually by the direction we point the lens. True, the image can be doctored or improved by post-processing or through HDR. True, the camera will not capture what lies beneath a smiling face. But it is equally true that images can and do evoke a response from those who view it.
Every serious photographer knows their picture will have some sort of impact on the person who views it; that it will draw out some sort of emotional response. I sat through a presentation once in which the speaker applied the Gestalt Theory of Perception to photography. It was a thought provoking lecture in that the two components of how a person reacts to what they are seeing when looking at their world at large, studium and punctum, applied extremely well to how a person reacts when they look at a picture on a small scale. Studium is the components in a view, i. e. picture, that cause a positive response such as, “That’s pretty!” Punctum is the components that go deeper. It is the “Wow!” factor of a photo that evokes a strong emotional response from the viewer and that response can be either positive or negative. The Gestalt theory begs the question, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, and the viewer is the one who composes them by how they react to the image, what kinds of words do I want them to write?” The thought that the camera can lie is a sobering reminder that the camera is also a powerful pen in the hands of a photographer.