‘Photography isn’t looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.’
Best-known for his war photography, Don McCullin is a photographer walking the line between recording what he sees and capturing his feelings, or emotional connections with his subjects. His focus on ensuring his subjects are depicted with dignity and compassion, not merely as flat pictures for the news image industry, but real people, real places, gives his images an arresting expressive energy. He gives you the strong impression of seeing through his eyes and feeling what he felt on meeting that person or encountering that landscape.
I would argue that this expressive power comes in part from how we think of photos, a sort of unwritten agreement about the truthfulness of photographic images. Somehow in the back of our minds we cannot shake the feeling that what you see in a photograph is real and true.
With the rise of digital photography, the ubiquity of photographs must take its toll on this uncanny feeling of the photo – that it is real and not real, there and not there, memory and object. However I don’t think enough of us are digital natives yet for us not to continue to feel something about the veracity of the photograph.
Though we know photos can be doctored, airbrushed, touched up, Photoshopped, we still see them as real. Our head tells us to be cautious, look closer, analyse what we see, but our heart cries out It’s real! I am seeing it with my own eyes!
This feeling of truth is I think strongest with portrait images. For those of us old enough to have loaded a film in our camera and seen the negatives come back from the developers, we cannot shake the idea that the light touching that person has been crystallised, saved, by the taking of the photo.
In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, she explains this:
a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image); an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.
The old thought that on first encountering photography, people may have thought a photo steals a bit of your soul only has continued credence as we all feel a little that it might be true; that a photo of us shows something inherently truthful about us – we cannot believe that the camera CAN lie.
With a painting or a sculpture, no matter how lifelike, we still see the touch of the artist. In a photograph, we see the touch of the subject. The photographer’s hand seems more distant than the painters, though their eye seems closer.
Do you agree? Does the real-ness of a photograph make it more expressive than painting or sculpture?
Tate Debate aims to open up new discussions around art, museum practice and wider culture. The topics debated are chosen and written by a range of people across the organisation.