Early one summer’s morning when I was a child, I saw a fuzzy image of my border collies on my ceiling.
They were outside in the yard and their image was being projected through a tiny gap in the curtains; I had my very own camera obscura.
It’s believed that this effect was known about in Neolithic times, and it is not hard to imagine tiny cracks in caves, or holes in tent covers, acting like a pinhole camera projecting an image onto an opposite surface.
The moving, distorted pictures would have seemed like magic. Perhaps they inspired the elongated figures in cave paintings.
The first written accounts of the camera obscura date back to China in 400BC and there has been mention of them in records ever since. Aristotle and Euclid; Al-Kindi and Ibn al-Haytham; Anthemius of Tralles and other great minds from around the world and throughout history experimented with them.
During the Renaissance, artists drew around the shapes projected on paper and canvas. Leonardo da Vinci frowned upon this. He used a camera obscura for demonstrations, but warned against mimesis. He wrote that bad artists set out to copy nature, while a true artist knows how to invent from their imagination.
Does that opinion sit comfortably with photography today? The majority of photos are a very close approximation of reality – they are what the photographer perceived when he took the shot. Would da Vinci consider that to be art?
For some photographers, trying to accurately reproduce reality is all important. For them, mimesis is perfection.
Others find images compelling when they are more than just a record of what was seen. Setting their cameras to produce particular effects, and exploiting environmental conditions, such as darkness or fog, their images change from being a precise record to something imaginative and creative.
Chiaroscuro, using strong tonal contrasts to emphasise light and dark, exceptionally fast or slow shutter value, a very narrow or long depth of field and unusual camera positions all involve another creative step beyond the conventional photograph and produce results the eye cannot perceive.
A further stage of creating photographic art is in the developing and editing of photos; black and white and HDR are examples.
To achieve consistently great results required learning skills. However, now we can add digital effect filters in the camera and with just a single click on an electronic device, we can produce really good looking pictures; automation replacing manual skills.
Editing brings controversy. Shouts of disdain can be heard about altering photos and some purists don’t believe we should edit at all. Then retaliatory cries of snobbery come from photographers who enjoy producing images with lots of saturation, cartoon noses or swirly impressionist effects.
Guard against those prescribing what you must or must not do in photography. It’s your art.
If you like what you produce, that’s great. If someone else likes it, that’s rewarding. When someone doesn’t like your work, that’s their problem, not yours.
All that really matters is that you enjoy your photography, so keep on clicking.