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Relativity and the Context Within: Thoughts on Power and Responsibility in Photography

Relativity and the Context Within: Thoughts on Power and Responsibility in Photography
An unedited photograph I took in the Santa Cruz Mountains and posted on Instagram got a decent amount of feedback. People asked questions about where this was, what kind of dream world I had uncovered, and if they could repost it in some form in different areas of the web. I loved this image, too; but naturally, I began to wonder what it was that was so special or engaging about this photograph? I almost never take anything but "people" shots.

 So what was so great about this? While I have an answer, I also have an extremely experimental thought piece on the power of photography and the responsibility we as photographers have to "protect" our viewers and the potential harm our photographs could pose.

Since people want to know where this was taken and how, I added quite a bit of background on this matter. Whether you hate or absolutely enjoy "thought experiments" such as this, please let me know...
I grew up in Los Gatos, California, for a good portion of my life. The town is nestled in the foothills of what will eventually lead you to Santa Cruz if you head west through them. And Skyline Blvd. is the road that runs along the top ridge of the mountains north to south. Skyline is as famous for its beauty as it is infamous for its draw for teens and hot heads to go too fast. But I was lucky to have what I've long considered to be one of the greatest and most beautiful roads in the world right in my backyard. It's where my uncle took me in my first car for my first drive when it was just days before I went from "permit" to "license."
In the early morning, right at sunrise, the mountains suck down the moisture from the air like a giant fog magnet. I don't know enough to know if it's something about the ocean air on the other side or if it has more to do with the evaporation of the nightly grown heaps of dew that cover absolutely everything in the morning. But those that live in the Peninsula of the South Bay Area are especially familiar with the site of that same fog ominously rolling over the hill from Half Moon Bay on their morning drives to the city.
In any case, many mornings out of the year, the fog is just the right density to catch the rising sun's light and hold its rays within it in mid-air. That mist is constantly and quickly shifting to the pressure and temperature changes in the morning, so the areas that you can shoot at various spots along the road (which gradually and slightly rises and falls on the drive as well) are rarely the same. Sometimes the fog becomes to thick to let the light in at all other than to let you know it’s no longer the middle of the night. And other times it's too thin to keep the light from passing through the air entirely and wholly un-extraordinarily.
On this morning, rays came down on this spot of bushes/flowers/plants/weeds in a perfect, hyper- and beyond-realistic sense. I would say — almost — that it's an unrealistic view of the true world — that this doesn't really exist. But then I chose to take this shot. I saw it. And to my recollection, it really was like this when I shot it.
Of course, the Portra (400 or 800?) that I shot this on gives its own color and aura to the photo. But as fleeting as the light may have been, it absolutely was there.
I see other photographs that include snippets of the world's most beautiful places the same way a woman might tear out just the head of a model in a magazine page to get the hair color color while leaving the rest of the model's body and wardrobe behind. But then that's the thing about photography: everything is a crop of the world around us — a carefully selected tear sheet or more carefully selected tear of that tear sheet. Photography is infinitely macro- and microcosmic. And it is absolute in its relativity.
Despite partially knowing better, I wonder if these other photographed places really exist in the same capacity in which they're presented to us. And yet, in all this time, I've come to the conclusion that they do. However fleeting the moment might be, each photographer that caught these images saw that moment and captured it for a reason. It did exist, whether or not you'll ever get the chance to see it. And that's the other part...
We'll see these dream-world images and wonder, "How can I get there? I want to take that photograph." Or, "I want to take this beautiful girl I'm just now getting to know and beginning to fall in love with to that magical place right there..." And again, "How can I get there?"
And that, I've decided, is simply not possible.
As beautiful as this image is, if you were to go there, it would look different. Even if you could miraculously go at a time when the light was the same way, your eyes would see beyond the frame. They'd be tired and sore from waking so early in the morning. They'd see the power lines that hung just above the top edge of the frame. They'd see the road they're standing on is asphalt and rather well paved for its relative remoteness. They'd see the other cars, whizzing by, each just a hair away from missing the apex of the next curve ahead. The magic, while you can still see it in your mind, is gone. The place that you imagine truly existing just outside the frame absolutely does not. THAT is the reality.
I don't tell people that there's a mini world out there that more or less repeats itself outside the confines of this single frame. I don't tell them they can go there and live or at least spend a day surrounded in the same peace on all sides as they see within the confines of this single frame. Yet they certainly do believe that nonetheless.
And when they discover or at some point assume or are told that such a world does not exist, I become the liar. I become the cheat and the creator of a dream land that should exist (because it's photography, which is real, right?) but that I somehow merely faked. Yet it is their imaginations that created this reality — not mine, not my image, not any words surrounding my image. And this is the double-edged power of the photograph and our imaginations.
The photograph can allow us to revel in a dream that we might imagine could become reality. A dream that we believe might actually take the form of true existence becomes more than merely a dream. Now you — they — have hope.
You didn't ask to give them this hope. Nothing you said or wrote gave it to them. It is wholly manufactured in the viewer's mind. But it's something we, as photographers, still have to consider with a conscience and with a good mind for ethics.
Luckily, this photograph is rather inconsequential. It's not politically charged, nor will it be shared with Congress because it includes (or does not include) information about who has what kinds of weapons and when.
But however beautiful and magical it may be, others may still see it as a disappointing lie after the initial excitement wears off. Somewhere, they know absolutely that they will never get to that place in the photograph. But the hope will live on in some small way.
The reason doesn't matter. Who should really be faulted doesn't matter. We know this happens. And we have to be conscious of it in a journalistic sense. Thank goodness this is just art.
Adam Ottke's picture

Adam works mostly across California on all things photography and art. He can be found at the best local coffee shops, at home scanning film in for hours, or out and about shooting his next assignment. Want to talk about gear? Want to work on a project together? Have an idea for Fstoppers? Get in touch! And, check out FilmObjektiv.org film rentals!

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I simply find solace in viewing photographs of these stunning images of momentary beauty. I don't feel cheated, or lied to. I find myself in awe, and envious of the photographer who was there in the moment that the world decided to pull back the curtain and to show it's brief , and moving glory.

I really like that way of looking at it. Thanks for sharing... I find myself in that position quite often as well...

Often times people don't look past the every day things like power lines or asphalt to see the magnificence in front of them. Photography can show people that beauty is everywhere. It can teach them that the charm of life can be found in seemingly unlikely places. Never think yourself a liar for revealing to people an elegancy they might not have seen otherwise.

That is my outlook to what I love to do!


Have a big fat like and comment buddy!

This site needs more thought provoking posts and less bag reviews!

Bag reviews are still good.

You are right.

But the ratio of insightful and interesting comment to bag reviews could be tweeked. Alot.

So you don't want to hear about the one Tenba just sent me? ;)

I really don't... It's a tissue pocket that hold stuff and may or maybe hydrofuge.

Nailed it.

Yep, I agree. There's no way to replicate landscape photographs. Try and try, but there's no way to replicate Ansel Adam's work. Sure, we can go to the exact spot, same phase of the moon, but conditions will be different.
Catch it while you can because it will disappear. As photographers, freezing time is our superpower.