Photographic images, in whatever form, can arguably never represent reality. Photographers, particularly perhaps those closely associated with amateur photographic societies and camera clubs, are often heard debating whether a particular Photoshop technique enhances or devalues the "reality" of an image. However, reality never existed in the image in the first place. Photographs probably acquired their "reality" label because, at the time the necessary technology came in to being (around 1850), it offered exponents of the dark art the best means of producing a seemingly accurate record of a scene. For the first time it was relatively easy to obtain an immediately recognizable image of an place, event or person, but the resulting image was never real. Was it not black-and-white? Is not the world perceived in colour by human beings?
Cameras of every description are tools for recording an image falling momentarily on a light-sensitive medium, typically a film or sensor. But an image captured in this way has only a passing resemblance to the reality of the world. It reduces a dynamic, three-dimensional, living and breathing subject or environment to a frozen, two-dimensional image that is limited in form and scope by the specifications of a particular camera devised by admittedly talented scientists and engineers. Had they specified their camera in a different way, the "reality" captured in the same situation might have been markedly different. So which would have been the real reality? The answer must be neither.
Human beings perceive the world in which they live in an intuitive manner. We are all unique warm-blooded creatures of the Earth, and each of us has a different background and experience of life. Some see the world as a cruel or evil place, whilst the experience of others is gathered through rose-coloured spectacles or perhaps based upon a deep faith. How does one decide which of these perceptions has more validity? If people from each of these broad groups were witnesses to the same events or situations, it would be easy to establish, by examining their detailed recollections, that each and every individual experience was different. A significant part of the explanation for this is that every witness will have interpreted what they saw in the light of their own background, environment, beliefs, experiences and feelings. Each will have seen, at least to some extent, what they expected to happen or what they feel they can reasonably explain. Where does reality lie amid all this? Does an image captured by a photographer who witnessed the same situation come closer to representing reality? Probably not. The photographer's image would certainly not capture the same atmosphere, sounds, smells or feelings experienced by first-hand witnesses and might, for instance, exclude any record of a strong gust of wind that started a particular sequence of events. So if we accept that reality does not exist in photographic records, where can it be found? The answer is surely that reality is now - and only now. Then it has gone and is replaced by another reality.
Many photographers are unfortunately far removed from the anything resembling photographic art. They are technicians, lovers of superbly-crafted cameras capable of performing complex functions at incredible speeds. They occupy themselves with the details of new gadgets and technologies but produce little that might be described as creative. The contents of photographic magazines, at least in many countries, confirm this trend. Three quarters of the pages, or more, may be seen to be devoted to advertisements for hardware or articles debating the detailed merits of new products. There is nothing whatever wrong with this, but it is surely important to recognize that owning a sophisticated camera and a bag filled with expensive lenses does not make anyone a photographer. Such machines are just the tools of the trade. Does someone who buys an expensive stainless steel spade get any closer to becoming a first-class gardener? Probably not. Creativity comes from another place altogether, and can be seen in abundance in people who know nothing about flash guns or depth of field.
Photography is surely more akin to a means of expression - an art form that can be used to express how the artist felt or reacted in a particular situation. It can be used, by those who develop appropriate skills, to convey to others how they as an individual human being responded to a situation. It may also be possible to transfer to the viewer some elements of the experience through which they passed. But it is never possible to return the viewer to the "reality" of the situation. That was lost in the instant after the shutter was released.
A further stage of the reality discussion is also commonly encountered within photographic societies. Members are heard discussing, or even furiously arguing, whether a particular type of image manipulation destroys the reality of an image. A penguin is placed in the middle of a desert and everyone throws their hands up in horror. However, if we accept that neither the penguin nor the desert were real in the first place, surely all that matters is whether the resulting image has significant aesthetic value. In some environments, rules are introduced to categorize members' work or limit what may be accomplished in particular ways. The justification is typically to produce a reasonably level playing field for the killer of all creativity - the competition.
Photographic competitions certainly serve some purpose, but they also tend to stifle creativity. First and foremost they seem to provide purpose and direction for those who need it. They also provide a limited and sometimes blinkered environment in which one landscape can be compared with another. Unfortunately, competitions also tend to produce conformity and uniformity across participating groups. The same groups that express disapproval of significant manipulation of images may sometimes also be heard comparing monochrome and colour images in the same context, and often without any apparent awareness of the contradiction. Black-and-white images apparently represent reality despite being different in almost every way to human perception. Perhaps they are merely accepted because they have been around for a long time.