In the late 1920’s, Belgian painter Rene Magritte shocked the art world by painting a realistic pipe for smoking, printing underneath it, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which is French for, “This is not a pipe.” You look at it and ask, “If it’s not a pipe, what the heck is it? It sure looks like a pipe to me!”
Factually, his painting, entitled The Treachery of Images, is not a pipe, it’s a painting of a pipe. A picture is never the object that is represented on it, but a facsimile of that object. Rene said of his painting, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture, ‘This is a pipe,’ I would have been lying!”
This is an important point for photographers. No matter how real an image may look, the fact is that it is a photograph and not the actual scene. It’s a likeness, and a heavily biased one at that. The photographer makes all sorts of decisions before and after opening the shutter that effect the outcome. Whatever it is that you are photographing, you could print underneath it This is not a [insert name of scene being photographed] and you’d be absolutely right. As a photographer, you are making a one-sided representation of a scene. It’s not possible for the viewers of your image to step into the scene and touch things or move stuff around. It’s a picture, and that’s all.
This revelation is liberating! Because it’s not possible for you to photographically make whatever the scene is, only a biased portrayal of it, you can make it look however you wish. You are the artist and you get to decide everything. You are not merely capturing, you are interpreting. You are creating something unique. You are communicating through the picture your thoughts and emotions about the scene in front of the lens. There is no need to be accurate, unless that’s what you, the artist, wants. More important than accuracy is having something interesting or important to nonverbally speak to the viewer.
I copied Rene Magritte’s idea, and made double-exposure photographs that say, in French, “Not a [name of object in the picture],” to remind myself and others of his imperative point. This was a very simple in-camera combination. The first exposure was of black paper with white writing and the second exposure was of the object itself. I did give the photographs some post-processing because, straight-out-of-camera, they’re a little flat.
This was an interesting project that I did over the course of a couple of days. What I appreciate about it is the message. The pictures are nothing more than representatives of the objects, so how I compose, what my settings are, and how I edit are my prerogative, and if you don’t like it that’s fine. I’m the artist, not you. I’m simply communicating through my pictures what I think or how I feel about the object in the picture. Those are my thoughts and my feelings, and I’m allowed to have them. I’m free to create pictures that express myself through them, things that I might have a tough time communicating with actual words.
Besides, this was a fun project and I find photography in general to be fun. If it’s not enjoyable, then why do it? I get a lot of satisfaction from creating images. I hope that others like them, as well, but it’s alright if they don’t, because that’s not why I created the pictures. I hope that my intended message is meaningful to you. I hope that you appreciate these photographs as much as I do. It’s alright if you don’t because it’s not a pipe and you are entitled to your opinions. Sometimes there aren’t any right or wrong answers, and sometimes what seems untrue is actually true and vice versa. Simply put, create what you want to create how you want to create it, and don’t worry what others will think or say about it.
See also: Multiple Exposure Monday, Part 1