Taking a photograph is not a natural act. We were not born with a compulsion to take pictures and an innate sense of composition. Give a camera to a toddler and many photos will be of strips of sky through blurred, pink fingers. Children must learn how to operate a camera, how to select an interesting subject, and how to frame a picture.
Though it is a common convention in photography to erase the photographer, to pretend he or she does not exist, the photographer is always present. The very act of choosing a subject is a manipulation of reality as it emphasizes a particular object or space above others. This paint spill on the sidewalk was just a paint spill until I took a photograph of it. The photo suggests that the paint spill is worth examining as you might an abstract painting, drawing attention (I hope) to shape, color and texture. It changes the spill. A photographer can never capture an unadulterated moment.
(Mural in Lower Haight, San Francisco.)
So, I have no compunction against adding clarity to my photos, enhancing the color or using a filter. Omar Rodriguez-Rodriguez (known as Omarrr on Instagram), who took the pictures in the the right column, once saw me move a leaf and a twig to recompose a picture and told me, jokingly, “Hey! You can’t do that! You are cheating.”
(Sculpture at Ducca, San Francisco.)
But I was only cheating if it were possible to capture an image without affecting it. As we learn from modern physics, the very act of looking alters what is seen. Quantum particles, for example, behave differently when observed. And light is a wave if we look at it like a wave. It behaves like a particle if we study it as a particle. A photo can ever be a transparent window on the world.
(At Cafe Flor.)
I do not believe naturalism in photography is natural. Nevertheless, I like naturalism. My photos in the left column (follow me on Instagram under the name ronosaurus) are examples of naturalistic photographs because they hide the photographer. When I look at art, I usually don’t want the artist interrupting my experience. I just want the artist to move aside, so I can look directly at the subject. I don’t want their bodies to get in the way. I like naturalism, but I know it is a lie.
(Bridge in Portland.)
A metaphoto, on the other hand, is more honest. It does not pretend to be a natural artifact. A metaphoto draws attention to the artificiality of photography and to the presence of the photographer. In the photos on the right, Omarrr took pictures of me taking pictures. He has always been fond of pictures of people taking photos. Since he became Instagramaddicts a couple months ago, his metaphoto habit has expanded.
(Stripped poster of stripper in Portland.)
These metaphotos make you aware of my process, as you can see me squatting or standing on tip toes, carefully framing my photo. They make plain the artificiality of the act of picture taking.
(Totem in Portland, Oregon.)
However, Omarrr’s metaphotos are also guilty of artificial naturalism. You’ll notice that their is no evidence of Omar Rodriguez-Rodriguez in any of these photos. Although he has alerted you to my presence, he obscures his own. (But you can see him in some of his Metaphotos of a Metasculpture.)
And again, we cheated. Sometimes I have realized that he was taking a photo of me, so I held my position a few moments longer. I have even asked, frozen over my subject, “Did you get it?” These pictures were not all candidly candid. I was participating in the process. I had begun to imagine a post on metaphotos and had even discussed the collaboration with Omarrr.
(Sea wall at Ocean Beach, San Francisco.)
Does this make us liars? Yes, but all artists are liars. Art is the lying truth. Of course, we need reminders from time to time that naturalism in art is not the same as nature and realism isn’t real. However, at some level or other, we like to put away self-reflection and enjoy the art for its own sake. We buy the lie and get paid back with aesthetic enjoyment.
(Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.)
So, don’t feel guilty about hiding yourself behind a camera. Taking pictures is a lot of fun. I used to criticize people who spent their vacations taking pictures, claiming they were missing the events themselves by only experiencing the world through a camera. I mistakenly assumed that the lens separated the photographer from the subject.
(Mural on Hayes Street of the painted ladies in San Francisco. This last metaphoto is by Alejo Sauras. Follow him on Instagram under the name alejosauras).
Actually, the act of taking pictures does not separate the photographer from his or her surroundings. The camera becomes a means of interacting with the environment. To make this point clearer, compare photography to education. Students passively listening to a lecture do not learn much. If they can respond, ask questions and express their opinions, they gain more from the experience. A photograph, whether a metaphoto or not, is all of these things: a response, a question, and an expression.
(Visit Omar Rodriguez-Rodgriguez’s blog omarrr.com. Follow Ronosaurus Rex on Instagram! See and read more about my photos and those of Omar Rodriguez-Rodriguez in the post Photo versus Metaphoto: Ronosaurus and Omarrr on Instagram . Check out my abstract photos in the book #abstract.)Check out more metaphotos on Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest, and Tumblr.)