Friday, October 17, 2008

Understanding Realism in Photography and film

I have always considered myself a realist. As mentioned earlier, I have been inspired by Bresson, who is considered to be the father of Photojournalism (which I believe will always remain an example of realism) and is the inventor of the term “the decisive moment” in photography.

Bresson mentions in his books and in interviews that it was never the photography that he was passionate about. What interested him was life as it unfolded to him. His photography was an attempt to capture the experiences over time; in a fraction of a second, of the lifeworld as experienced by him.

“For me the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to “give a meaning” to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry - it is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression. One must always take photographs with the respect for the subject and for oneself.

He goes on to say this,
“I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to “trap” life- to preserve life in act of living. Above all I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.”

It is not completely evident whether Bresson adopted a very phenomenological approach to clicking his photographs or a structuralist one. When he talks about the composition it almost appears that there is the structuralist approach, whereas when he talks about the entire experience that he wishes to capture in the photograph, it is a phenomenological approach.

There are far more challenges being a realist, as a photographer than a film maker. With a photograph (and I am not talking about a photo-story comprised of multiple photographs) you have to create a story out of that situation you are in and in which you had an embodied interaction; to the outside world. Then you leave it for interpretation to the viewer. This is another difficult part. It is just one photograph. There is no music to lay the emphasis and neither any cut shots. There is no timeline and no other cues in the later frames to lay significance to a particular metaphor used in the frame. Thus in this frame it is equally challenging to know what signifier to not put in the frame. To do photography based in realism, is all the more challenging as the real world is changing all the time. The challenge is to perceive this reality, almost simultaneously recording in the sketchbook (camera).

Another misconception that I generally had was that Realism always meant something that was in black and white. While on one hand it is true that it prohibits us from seeing the distractions and that the essence of a composition (be it of a real life as Bresson , or of the real Nature as Ansel Adams would like to) is brought about only when looking at the images in its Black and White form.

I have nothing against color photography, and perhaps I do propagate the usage of it when necessary. Bresson however himself was not too inclined towards using color.
He mentions:
“I am half afraid that this complex new element may tend to prejudice the achievement of life and movement which is often caught by black and white.”

I do think that realism is not in the medium of the black and white or the color. As, how can one think in black and white, when they are viewing the world in its true color. Its kind of a paradox, of having to deliberately having a mismatch in the real and the perception. It is just that the interpretation of the cultural expression changes.

In order to illustrate the point above, while in the black and white one, my focus is on the abandoned house and a photographer on an abandoned path; which is situated in a hilly area. My interpretation says that the photographer is perhaps lost or is going to unfamiliar territories.
This same artifact when viewed in color, creates a different impression. Apart from the above, the presence of the color enhances the other things like essence of nature, the time of the day, the season of the year and hence results in a more complete understanding of the situation.

The Photographer

My understanding of reality in both these situations seems to be different, even though the subject is the same.

I am not propagating that Realism (in color or in b/w) is good or bad. In the end its all about the technique. Technique is important insofar as one must master it in order to communicate what one sees. Thus in the case of Bresson, it happened to be those decisive moments. In the case of Kieslowski it was the longing and the grief which he was trying to convey.

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