The camera always lies – and we love it for that

This is not me - Ivor Rackham
This is not me - Ivor Rackham

A few prints by the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte once hung on my wall. The Treachery of Images depicted a pipe, and written below ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ – this is not a pipe.

Look at a picture of yourself and think, “this is not me”. It is just a shallow representation of you. This becomes more apparent when you view a portrait taken in your youth. It’s an image of someone very different from who you are now.

Portraits are incomplete in what they reveal. Show one to a stranger and ask them to describe the person. They are unlikely to go further than a physical description.

The limitations of photography are much more than that. Visible light from red to violet is a tiny droplet in the deluge of photons that shower us; we perceive less than a ten-trillionth of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Yet, the full range of colours most of us see is wider than that recorded by a camera.

The camera also captures things we cannot see. Look at a sparrow in flight. To your eyes the wings are blurred. Take a photo at a 4,000th second and the movement stops. The depth of field and perspective is also different; we don’t see that blurred smudge in the background.

Wedding and landscape photography are not about reality. Photographers are deliberately creating artistic and aesthetically pleasing images. One photographer missed a stray hair across the bride’s face in several photos. For the couple, it made a mess of their album. They were not looking for photo-realism, but an illusion of perfection.

At the other extreme, photo journalists strive to achieve truth, facing derision if they deliberately mislead. Paradoxically, the full truth is something they can never realise. A photo just tells a tiny part of a story. Alone, it can be misleading, especially if used out of context or excludes things happening around the shot.

Politicians and celebrities use photography for self-promotion. It helps them project what they stand for.

A photo’s story depends upon the viewer’s opinions too. Your thoughts about images of a protest march may be very different from someone on the other side of the political fence.

Long or very fast exposures, black and white, distorted images of kittens and puppies with overly-large noses, even artificially smoothed complexions on models, all appeal to our aesthetic values.

Contrary to the old saying, the camera always lies and those lies are what we love.

Our challenge words this week are ‘Reality’ and ‘Happiness’.