The human brain is the most complex structure we know of in the universe.  And visual perception is one of the most complex processes the brain undertakes.  The area of the brain that deals with vision contains a huge number of specialized cells that register vertical lines, horizontal lines, shapes, motion and so much more.  It has addition systems that put all this information together and creates our conscious perception of what we are seeing.  This is aided by circuits that take that is essentially BW info that comes from the eye and does a computation to give us the experience of color.


But we don’t experience brain activity directly.  What we experience is MIND.  Mind is our experience of what a small part of what the brain is doing.  We tend to experience though and emotion as separate.  But in reality the process is thought/emotion intertwined, working together, to the point where we cannot define where one starts and the other ends.  In point of fact we don’t see or hear or feel anything directly or “objectively.”  Everything is filtered through the mind, the emotions, our personalities, mitigated by your experience, memories and prejudices.  We construct a reality based on the raw materials of perception that that is highly subjective, very personal and frequently results in an experience of reality that can differ widely from what other observers would agree was “true.”

What this means is that we never directly perceive images like photographs or movies.  We experience them.  We react to them.  We take in the  information, process it and create our own reality based on it.  That’s why I think the statement “I’ll believe that when I see it” is not how we usually operate.  The better statement would be, “I’ll see that when I believe it.”  And I think the term belief needs to be more carefully looked at than we usually do.

Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  He pointed out that something doesn’t have to be true to be accepted.  It has to seem to be true. When this suspension of disbelief is does not occur, you get things like action movies with such extreme CGI images that despite seeing crowds of people killed or hurt the audience doesn’t actually care.  They don’t believe anyone is at risk.  But show a scene where somebody is preparing to torture a puppy and everyone in the audience gasps.  They “know” it isn’t really happening.  But the movie maker  has caused them to suspend their disbelief and treat the scene as “real.”

Who can look at that famous photo of the little girl in Viet Nam walking down the road, her clothes having been burned off her, without being move.

In my opinion, too much photography nowadays is simply not believed (in the emotional sense) by viewers.  But looks too much like illustration and so doesn’t have that illusion of reality that people experience when they say “photographs don’t lie.”  Photoshop is a wonderful tool, as long as it isn’t too obvious it is being used.  There are exceptions, of course,  Sometimes deliberately abstract images are very effective.  But photographers and art directors need to be aware of the dangers of producing images that nobody really reacts to or cares about.  Especially when it comes to advertising, where the point of the effort is to get people to react in a positive way.

HDR is a frequent problem.  This is the technique of extending the tonal range of a photo by shooting different exposures and combining them to best preserve the dark, light and mid tones.  A very useful tool, except that taken to extremes produces an image that the eye and the brain of the view know for certain is not real.  No actual photo we have ever seen has that concurrent super detail in the shadows, highlights and everywhere in between.  Which makes it an illustration, not a photo.  Which can have consequences.  (We also know inherently that a movie sequence that follows a bomb all the way down to explode on the desk of a ship is CGI and not real.  How could a camera plane have captured that shot?

Spencer Tracy once advised that the best technique for an actor was to make sure the audience never catch you at it.  In other words, don’t call attention to the technique or you damage the illusion of reality.  The suspension of disbelief.  The same is true (in most cases) for photographers and movie makers.  It might not be real, but if you can make it seem real you can usually connect with the viewer at a deeper level.  While there have been photographers over time who have had success with many different approaches, there is a certain, common, classic approach that you see in most of the best.  Look at the pictures of Steichen, Weston, Adams, Horst, Penn, Avedon, Newton or Herb Ritts.  The photos they did for commerce have almost universally ended up in galleries and museums.  Works of the masters, whether in photography, painting, music, poetry or any other art form never go out of fashion.  At least, not in the long run.  (Mozart was considered a lightweight for much of the 19th century, but that low opinion inevitably changed.  Ansel Adams was for most of his career was thought of as just a maker of pretty landscapes, not a master artist.)

I saw an ad agency executive being interviewed on TV.  The interviewer expressed the opinion that advertisers were obviously looking for commercial images, not art.  The executive disagreed.  “Art is terrific at reaching viewers.  Who doesn’t know what the Mona Lisa looks like?  Who doesn’t recognize an impressionist painter?  Who has reached the public more effectively in recent years than Andy Warhol?”  The problem, he went on, is that art is very hard to get when it comes to creating ads.  At least, it is hard to recognize.  Because few of the art directors and agencies who use photos by people like Irving Penn thought of his images in terms of art.  They just knew his images were highly effective when it came to selling products.

Media guru Marshall McLuhan quoted a culture in Southeast Asia as saying, “We don’t have any art.  We just do everything as well as we can.”  And that’s what photographers and those who make use of their images need to use as a guide – just do everything as well as you can.  But keep in mind that tradition and experience show us that certain kind of images are more believable than others, are more likely to impress, persuade and convince. And that is less likely to happen by relying on tricks, gimmicks, extremes and too much post-production and retouching.

The brain takes in the information, the mind tells us what is real and what is important.  You can’t fool Mother Nature – and you can fool the mind either.  And that is something the number of failures in creative efforts like movies, music albums and ad campaigns should make us all highly aware of.

Bill Dobbins

BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY: http://www.billdobbinsphotography.com

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