Photography is characterized by a set of choices. Some are usually made before beginning to shoot. Initially, for example, you must decide if you want to work with digital or analog technology, color or black-and-white photographs, and low or high definition supports. The focal length of the lens, the exposure methods, and the type of framing are normally chosen just before clicking. Once you have clicked, a series of decisions must be made concerning printing (in the case of analog photography, developing also plays a crucial role) before reaching the final stage, which is the presentation of the photographs.
This list of choices (all obligatory, and we could add others) highlights how making a photograph inevitably involves interpretation.
To illustrate this, we could think of two extreme situations for the same scene.
In one case a photographer might use analog technology, a very sensitive black-and-white film, a telephoto lens, fast time, an open diaphragm, high-angle framing, and printing on a large sheet of paper with a mat finish for a final photograph that will be exhibited on its own.
In the second case, we could think of a photographer faced with the same scene using digital technology, a high-resolution camera, a wide-angle lens, slow time and closed diaphragm with a “neutral” frontal frame, for a color photograph printed on gloss paper in a small format to be exhibited with others.
Obviously the two final outcomes will provide two very different interpretations of that same scene. Leaving aside these extreme examples, the subjective aspect can also easily be found
in the type of photography described as photojournalism, generally considered as reproducing a given scene in the most faithful way.
But rather than “faithful” photographs, it would be better to speak in this case of photographs that manage to grasp and describe – i.e. interpret – the essence of the situation. And their success will also depend on the right choices, beginning from framing.
In short, a photographic record can never be separated from the will to interpret: this element can be reduced to a minimum but can never be completely eliminated.
Accepting as inevitable the interpretative aspect of photography is tantamount to saying that photography is always inspired by a plan.
This will characterize the results in a more or less conscious way. And this is true of all types of
photography: from photojournalism to abstract expressions, from family albums to explorations of landscapes, from animal pictures to wedding albums, and so on. In other words, the photograph expresses the idea that the author has had of the scene, obviously within the limits set by the technical choices. Having said this, we can hardly leave out of this interpretative process a further stage which modern technology now makes available: the electronic editing of the image. We would like to think of this process as a kind of second click after the initial shot, a second click modifying the first one and creating a new relationship with the scene in question.
We might say a kind of “armchair second thoughts” about a series of choices already made about reality.
The author can thus calmly revise his photography
(at times taken in a great hurry) and create a version much nearer his own sensibility.
This is not a question of having a special eye for reality, but having a special eye for an image of reality. The actions involved reflect different attitudes.
The operations made possible by electronic editing range from minimal adjustments right up to large-scale changes that can completely transform the original image.
As at the time of taking the photograph, here too the various solutions inevitably reflect different plans. Yet again it is a question of making a personal interpretation of the image. But in this case it is an option and no longer an obligatory choice.
Given the wide range of possibilities, it is firstly essential to decide on the degree of electronic intervention.
I believe this intervention must be limited: all the resultant effects may go so far as to reconstruct the plausible but should not go beyond its limits. Within these confines, the changes introduced must not be subject to any kind of censure and they may lead, for example, to the elimination or addition of certain elements as well as color adjustments.
Examples of this are the correction to some “faulty” forms (mountains, stones, lakes, roads, etc.), the removal of undesirable elements (electricity lines, branches, reflections, pebbles, etc.), the introduction of some suggestive components (shrubs, clouds, birds, shadows, etc.), and the choice of the best colors (for flowers, the sky, ground, water, etc.).
A fundamental condition is that unreal situations or atmospheres are not created and that the final image is plausible in the eyes of the observer.
Touching up with artificial hues (for example, adding something in an utterly unsuitable place) would attract and concentrate attention on the touching up and its implausibility, thus preventing or impairing the “natural” enjoyment of the image.
In other words, the aim should be to create a scene that might have existed and at the same time, compared to the scene at the time of shooting, is closer to the photographer’s sensibility. This kind of operation enables the photographer to hone the scene reproduced so that it reflects his or her taste.
We might describe this process as a kind of “expressionism of the plausible”, in which the photograph shows the sensibility and the taste of the photographer, who interprets and represents the surrounding world from a plausible point of view.
What is particularly important is the idea that the photographer has of reality and not reality itself. If a given reality for some reason turns out to be unsatisfactory compared to a plausible ideal model the photographer had in mind, that reality can be adjusted to reflect more faithfully that ideal model.
In this sense we may speak of the search for and the actualization of an “ideal realism”. We must obviously add that imagining and creating an alternative plausible idea of a given reality is a prerogative of those who have a profound insight into that reality.
Only someone with the right knowledge is aware, for example, when removing a shrub will not falsify the landscape but create a possible variation, producing a plausible ideal model.
It should also be remembered that in his mind’s eye the photographer may shape more than one
ideal model, correcting and supplementing observed reality. The photographer can in fact imagine various alternative changes giving rise to different final outcomes. The result is that the same reality can conceal various plausible variations, in a play of different levels with multiple superimpositions, transforming the world into a great kaleidoscope.
Once the image has been completed according to the logic just described, it must be printed and presented, with all the variations involved in these two operations. Think, for example, about the kind and size of paper (if other media are excluded) or the ways of presenting or exhibiting the photographs to the public (matting, frames, book, exhibition, individual photographs, pairs, in sequence, etc.).
We would stress that the various stages of the process outlined here require skills that we might
schematically associate with three “organs”: the eye, the mind, and the heart. The eye observes and chooses, the mind reflects and elaborates, the heart gives soul and is capable of arousing feelings.
The simultaneous presence of these functions will ensure a photograph has basic quality while the absence of even only one of them implies an unsatisfactory result. The choice of a landscape, for example, may be striking but, if it is not aided by the mind, the construction of the image may be badly organized and, if the heart is not involved, the image, even if chosen well and excellently structured, may turn out to be cold and lifeless.
Similarly, the photograph may be well constructed, but may have no aesthetic values and be soulless, or it may have feeling but may be badly organized and lack taste, and so on in a
variety of insufficient combinations.
Here an example may be enlightening. Family albums often contain photographs that are the outcome of a good eye and passionate heart, but often lack the elaboration typical of the mind. In this case it takes a few correctional touches to make those pictures more captivating.
In all of this, technical perfection is not a necessary and, even less, sufficient condition for the purposes of producing a successful photograph: but obviously any possible shortcomings must not undermine the final outcome of the image.
Lastly, I should like to say that most of my photographic activity has never had the exclusive characteristics typical of the full-time professional world. My photographs have usually come from my travels, often with my family and friends, and sometimes for study, when I took
some occasional shots without being able to wait for any great length of time, make deliberate visits, or repeat shots several times.
I have initially used Kodak slides (usually 200 ISO) and Nikon cameras (Nikkormat and Nikon FM2) with 50 mm and 135 mm lenses (in some rare cases I have used a 24 mm lens) almost always equipped with a polarizing filter. The images have been scanned from slides using a Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 scanner. Recently I have used a digital camera: a Nikon D300 with a 18-200 mm lense.