Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs

Thoughts & Photographs #001


Literal versus Expressive Representations:
Is this color Real?

by Alain Briot & a note Uwe Steinmueller


The Grand Canyon, 2005

I am often asked if the color of a specific photograph is real or not. My answer is always the same. Yes, it is real. The reaction from the person asking the question is usually one of disbelief. They beg to differ. To them the color is not real. To me it is real. Who is right?

The answer is we are both right because in the absence of the actual subject to compare the photograph to we are left with our personal memories of this subject and, as we all know, memories are by nature subjective. Let me explain.

Photographic representations can be divided in two categories when it comes to veracity in regards to the subject being photographed: Literal and subjective representations.

Literal representations are images whose goal is to comes as close as is humanly possible in terms of representing the subject. The example I often take is having to photograph a box of Kellogg cornflakes as assignment while being hired and paid by the Kellogg's company. The expectations that are placed upon you, the photographer, is that you will photograph this box of cornflakes in the most literal manner possible so that when this photograph is used in an advertising viewers will be able to recognize this box and find it on the shelf of their local supermarket. The colors have to be right on and so does the shape, dimensions and overall appearance of the box.

Furthermore, both customers and Kellogg's executives will compare the appearance of your photograph to that of an actual box of Kellogg corn flakes so that if the two differ in a significant manner you will be asked to re-photograph this box until you get as close to a perfect match as possible. This process is easy since the executives have both the box of cornflakes and your photograph side by side.

In contrast take a look at the photograph above. How can you actually compare this photograph to the real subject, i.e. the Grand Canyon? There is no way that I can provide you with the real thing. And, if you go to the Grand Canyon yourself and take my photograph along with you, the weather will most likely be different on the day you are there than it was on the day I was there.

Furthermore, and definitely more importantly, what does it matter? The goal here is not to sell boxes of cornflakes. The goal is to share my vision of the Grand Canyon. My goal, to return to the title of this essay, is not to be literal but, on the opposite, to be expressive. My goal is to express how I feel about the Grand Canyon on the particular day I photographed it.

So, is it real? If you mean real in the sense of being a literal representation of the subject the answer is no. I made no attempt to duplicate the exact color of the rock formations, of the sky or of the grass and pebbles in the foreground. However, if you mean real in the sense of being faithful to my perception of the Grand Canyon the answer is yes, most definitely.

One definition of fiction that I very much like goes like this: "Is it real? Yes. Did it happen? No." In other words, and according to this definition, fiction has all the qualities of reality with the exception that facts, characters and events are imaginary. Maybe this is how we should approach expressive photographic representations?


Note by Uwe Steinmueller

First of all I clearly share Alain's view and want to thank him for opening this discussion.

He used the term "expressive" and I find this an important notion in the context of photography and especially color photography. Whole generations if film have been developed to provide the photographer with "expressive" colors. Nobody would use Velvia to reach a truthful color. In the digital world we are more on our own and have to create a personal and hopefully expressive color palette. Of course each artist (here photographer) will chose his/her own personal palette.

Venice, Italy 1977

This is one of our earlier scans from Kodachrome 25 slide film. We love this photo and have a 20" wide print in our hall way. We think that the colors are probably not truthful but definitely expressive. This picture shows the essence of this dead/living city: Venice. Could we check the facts in Venice? This is not possible as the scene is long gone. Either by renovation or further decay.

We like to photograph many scene (e.g. rock patterns) in overcast light. This results in images like this without further processing:

Flat image

For us this flat image does not represent the spirit and reason why we took that photo although it maybe very close to "real". We don't care whether it is real but want to recreate the scene as we anticipated it.

Some more contrast

More contrast brings such photos to life.

Note on Printing: As you cannot see the right color on a screen and in small magnification you have to fine tune your colors with sample prints.

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