Creating Reality

A year ago I traveled to Haiti. This is a scene I remember from a visit to a bay:

 Photo 1

Photo 1

But this was not a photo I captured straight out of the camera. The following two photos are the one straight out of the camera (RAW) and the one with some basic processing:

 Photo 2

Photo 2

 Photo 3

Photo 3

What happened was, before I was able to take a boat on the sea and take photo 2, the scene looked something like photo 1. Unfortunately, light changed when I positioned myself and took the shot. I hammered the photo with burn and dodge and local color temperature adjustment, and ended up with photo 1. I tried to re-create the scene I saw before I clicked the shutter button.

Of course photo 1 is in no way an exact match of my memory back then. I can't exactly remember what the actual scene was like; the photo probably looks nicer. I believe photo 1 has already altered my current memory about the scene. Did I kill the reality in a photograph and fooled myself?

Jing Hao (荆浩), in his Bifa Ji (笔法记) , claimed that one of the six essentials of painting is "Scene", which means "to have regard for the changing times, catch the exquisites, and create reality" (“景者,制度时因,搜妙创真”). For a landscape scene, different angles of view,  different seasons, different times of day, or different human activities, can lead to dramatically different looks. You may pay attention to some things and ignore others. This may because those things are more salient in nature, or you are guided by your knowledge, emotion, or mood. Reality as human experiences it, has always been in between the sea of mind and the wind of material world. It is dynamic. However, it also exists statically in one's memory, in the form of a composite of experiences through time. A painting, in a lot of cases, is a reflection of this composite. For example, it may be a combination of views from different angles, lights from different times of day, colors from different seasons. The composition, color, or moment in a painting may not actually happen in the material world. But it could be real.

The same principle could be applied to photography where one is just using different materials to paint.

For photo 1, maybe I could have gone to the location a little earlier, or waited a little longer at that position for the lighting to change back. These possibilities are potential shortcuts I could have taken to create the reality in my mind. Without the shortcuts, I had to rely on photo 2 that I had at hand. 

Things will go a little interesting when a photographer is forced to rely on the photos at hand. This is a photo I took in New York City last year:

 Photo 4

Photo 4

It is a composite of five photos. At the time my attention was at the kissing couple, but I also noticed the moving traffic on the street. The kiss only lasted a few seconds but I was fast enough to capture it. After that I took a series of photos at the same position, with different exposure times, only trying to capture light trails of the traffic. When I inspected these photos, I thought, why don't I make a photo to show the contrast between the frozen kissing couple and the moving traffic to emphasize a sense of a everlasting moment? The result was satisfying to me. And the process of creating this photo, was exactly like what Jing Hao said - "have regard for the changing times, catch the exquisites, and create reality". I was not keen enough to have everything planned at the time of shooting though.