Tag Archives: reality

Photography In Situ

San Jose de Gracia Church No. 1, Las Trampas, New Mexico

San Jose de Gracia Church No. 1, Las Trampas, New Mexico

To me, northern New Mexico is one of the last places in the United States that retains a distinctly regional cultural flavor.  Among the things that contribute are the many adobe structures that dot the landscape.  The church that is the subject of the image in this post, San Jose de Gracia in Las Trampas, is a well-known landmark and is a popular subject among photographers and painters.

When you take the time to see how this church has been represented in painting and photography, a certain theme becomes apparent.  The depictions of the church in fine art painting and photography tend to place it in a pristine, unobstructed environment.  Fine art photographs rarely include the telephone poles or the dirt road in the foreground.  Paintings often take even more license, such as by changing the arrangement and proportion of the church to the ridge in the background, either to profile the church against the sky, or to position it in the shadow of the surrounding mountains.

I certainly don’t have a problem with any of this.  An important element of art is interpretation of the subject.  Most people probably take this kind of manipulation for granted with paintings, where the term “artistic license” is well known and understood.  It may be less known (among non-photographers, anyway) that photographers also can take quite liberal and substantial artistic licenses with their subjects.  Techniques such as framing, camera placement, lens selection, etc. routinely are used to make photographic subjects take on attributes and characteristics that don’t necessarily reflect the reality of how the scene actually looked.  I myself work hard to present the subjects in my photographs in very considered ways designed to communicate a specific vision I have of the subject that I want the viewer to see.

Nevertheless, I am surprised that I don’t see more attention paid by artists to the environment surrounding their subjects.  If you were to survey the body of fine art paintings and photographs of this church, you might come to the conclusion that it sits on an isolated hilltop, surrounded by rolling meadows that gently and perfectly blend into a magnificent mountain backdrop, with nary a telephone pole or dirt road in sight.  It’s as if this way of presenting the church, while certainly valid, is the only way.

I hope that’s not the case.  I think that showing this church in the context of its surroundings – it’s contemporary surroundings – is not only valid, but has a dignity and beauty of its own.  While not appropriate for every photograph, the in situ approach of using surrounding elements to show the subject in its natural environment is a powerful and often underused mode of presentation.  This is especially true where the subject is a popular and frequently depicted one, as is the case with the San Jose de Gracia church.

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Magical Realism

White Trees, Series 2, No. 2Wikipedia, my favorite non-authoritative source of knowledge, defines magical realism as “a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment.”  It’s most often applied to literature (my current thinking about it stems from recently reading some of the works of Japanese author Haruki Murakami), but I was interested to learn that it is used in connection with visual art as well.  Again from Wikipedia, “in contrast with its use in literature, magical realist art does not often include overtly fantastic or magical content, but rather looks at the mundane through a hyper-realistic and often mysterious lens.”

This idea of magical realism resonates with me.  My goal with photography is to walk the fine line between reality and interpretation.  On the one hand, one of the great characteristic hallmarks of photography is the inherent realism of images made with a camera.  However, photographs that hew too closely to realism often become merely documentary or journalistic in nature.  On the other hand, image editing software such as Photoshop allow one to take a photograph and manipulate it to look like just about anything the mind can imagine.  This can result in images that look artificial, fantastical, or fake.  Walking that fine line is to achieve a balance between the two extremes, where a photograph can show both the realism of the subject it captures, as well as the magic that characterizes the less perceptible, more sublime qualities of that same subject.

As a medium, I’ve always felt that photography holds an almost unique place in the arts as a means to achieve this balance, but I never knew quite the name to give for it.  “Magical realism” is as good as any, I suppose.  I hope the image in this post, “White Trees, Series 2, No. 2,” strikes the balance I’ve described herein, and if it does, I’ll be happy to call it a work of magical realism.

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