Moments of Reality

Let’s begin with this classic question: is it true that photography always records reality?

The shot that Martine Franck took of the swimming pool (Pool Designed by Alain Capeilleres, La Brusc, South of France 1976) is the example of the right decision to capture the image at the right moment and in the right context. The image shows a figure lounging on the hammock with the reflection of the mid-day sun of August. In the distance, another figure with a lift-up hip as if preparing for push-ups is seen. When scrutinizing further regarding the composition of the photo, this was not the one single shot that Franck took. It was indeed the only shot that she selected.

Martine Franck Pool designed by Alain Capeilleres. Town of Le Brusc. Provence, France. 1976 © Martine Franck | Magnum Photos

Martine Franck Pool designed by Alain Capeilleres. Town of Le Brusc. Provence, France. 1976 © Martine Franck | Magnum Photos

The film’s contact sheet revealed that Franck took the pool shot from various angles. The image before this masterpiece happened to include a swimsuit in the right corner which she didn’t want to crop out and destroy the whole proportion. Also, the guy in the distance who was about to do push-ups was in a banal pose. The image after the one she took, meanwhile, accidentally featured a towel placed on the hammock in the left corner while the shadow of the hammock figure was way too close to the photo edge. Eventually, the photo she chose exemplified the balance of all components.

Franck may be known for her realistic documentary-like photography. Her realisticness is nevertheless reflected through the eyes of an artist who spends every single moment in the perfection of composition. Take a look at the legendary photos like “Town of Purî, State of Orissa, India”, "Théâtre du Soleil": "1793", at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes. Paris, France (1972), or Kyoto, Japan 1978, and the creation of perfectly systematic composition in actual events manifests before your own eyes.

Would reality, perfectionated by deliberate composition, still be considered reality?

Seascapes is the set of black-and-white photo set that Japanese artist and photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto began to compose in the 1980s. Sugimoto traveled around the world to capture the beauty of the sea and the sky. Those images may “appear easy”, yet in every aspect of that simplicity, the meticulousness (to the extent of obsession) in image composition is striking.

The composition of each photo featured in the series placed the component of the sea and the sky at equal proportion, with the skyline setting the two apart. Every photo was captured by a large format camera, applied with the long exposure technique for around 3 hours. These resulted in a calm sky and a serene sea as if paused in the lasting moment of time. (One of the most known images in the series is The Boden Sea that U2 used as the cover of their No Line on the Horizon album.)

Caribbean Sea, Jamaica, 1980 | Ligurian Sea, Saviore, 1993 | Boden Sea, Uttwil, 1993 © Hiroshi sukimoto

The techniques of long exposure, repetition, and the play with proportion are famously recognized as Sugimoto’s signature. His work “Theaters” in 1978 was a great reflection of his style. The work began with the idea of what would happen if he took photos of the whole film from the start to the end before presenting them in one single shot. He then traveled across the US taking photos of the screen at cinemas with, of course, his large format camera and his long exposure technique from the start to the end. The outcome was what he expected: the bright movie screen stood in contrast with the surrounding darkness of the cinema. Throughout the series, every photo was repeated in the same repetitive style.

Playing with the perception of reality and the sign of time are the essence that can be discovered in Sugimoto’s work since his debut masterpiece Dioramas from 1976. In simpler words, Dioramas is the virtual image showcased in a three-dimensional background such as the diorama of rare animals displayed in museum. In Sugimoto’s mind, the diorama was plainly fake when looking at it with both eyes. But when one eye is closed (just like when we see through lens), the diorama surprisingly became more realistic. Therefore, he began to capture photos of the diorama display at American Museum of Natural History. The shots were later compiled into the Dioramas series.

Evidently, the attempt to create a photo that is close to perfection is the key that transforms “normal photo” into “spectacular photo.” Both Franck and Sugimoto were not only very precise when it came to the moment of snapping the shot; their detailing focus also went beyond that aspect from the stage of concept formation prior to the shoot, the composition arrangement to the photo manipulation and the selection during the post-production stage. All these are to achieve the photo’s closer step to perfection.

Looking at the story from this point of view, the contact sheet is not so different from the Camera Roll, and the obsession in choosing the right composition, the choice for selection and the photo manipulation before posting them on Instagram. Those are the gestures that people addicted to perfection all follow. (Even if it’s just perfection in the virtual world.) They are not that different from what artists like Franck and Sugimoto did.

1976 © Martine Franck | Magnum Photos

But, another aspect that turns that “spectacular photo” into a “work of art” is the questioning with those with passion in art appreciation.

Is it true that photography always records reality? Would the perfect images that have been through cropping, coloring, and editing process be considered the record of reality?

Maybe so. It is, however, the reality with the footnote that this is the reality the photographer “chose” to let people see. Maybe it is not even reality in the first place when the photographers try to perfectionate the photos.

Let’s face the real deal: there’s no such thing as perfection in this world.

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