Here is a photograph of a sculpted figure decorating the exterior of the Duomo in Milan, Italy. When you look at it, maybe you see the graceful lines of the carving, or the way the proportions of the figure blend harmoniously with the alcove in which it is set, or maybe you feel the sense of serenity seen in the figure’s face or are uplifted by the movement conveyed in the outstretched arms and tilt of the head.
What you don’t see is how small this figure is from where you must stand to observe it. It must be, if I recall correctly, two or three stories above the ground (I had to use a long telephoto lens to get this close to it in the photograph). You also don’t see that this is one of a dozen or more figures of this kind decorating this wall of the cathedral, all of which compete for attention with one another and with the other various busy decorative embellishments and designs on the building’s facade. You definitely don’t hear the noise of the traffic on the nearby city streets, feel the jostle of the crowds that gather around the Duomo at all hours, nor feel sleepy from the heat of the late summer Italian day that lingers on long into the gathering evening.
In short, the experience of standing and looking at this figure on the side of the Duomo was nothing like what is depicted in the photograph. But that’s okay. No photograph can ever really document what it was like to actually be there in the specific time and place in which it was taken. It’s just lines and shadows on a flat piece of paper, after all. To the degree a photograph presents a reality, the reality presented is only that of the photograph itself – a two-dimensional scene, in your hands (or on a screen, or hanging on a wall), at the particular time and place you happen to be at when you look at it. The reality presented is that which the photographer wants you to see, nothing more and nothing less. It can be related (maybe even highly related) to what was there when the photograph was captured, but it need not necessarily be related to that at all.
Myself, I like to think my photographs reflect my particular way of seeing the world. If you were to stand ten different people in front of the Duomo in Milan, sure, they would all see the cathedral, but my guess is they would have ten different individual experiences about seeing the cathedral, all embodied by different aspects of the cathedral that they saw. This photograph is what I saw when I looked at the cathedral, is this what you would have seen? The way this photograph makes me feel is what I felt when I looked at the cathedral, is this what you would have felt? The reality of this photograph is not at all like the reality of standing in front of the cathedral, and almost certainly not like what your individual reality would be if you stood in front of the cathedral. But it was my reality, maybe even my reality alone, and it is what I have sought to embody in the reality presented by this photograph.