or more appropriately, the Art is in the details…
When I was in Art College, my photography instructor suggested reading the book “Looking at Photographs” by John Szarkowsky*. The basis of the book is dividing photos into various types. While you can make many fine distinctions on types of photography (especially based on subject) I would like to place photographs onto a scale based on the intent of the photo.
Some photographs are intended to show the subject. Scientific and many snapshot type pictures** fall into this category. To paraphrase Mr. Szarkowsky, the photo is about the thing itself. The image we see would be quite the same as the view we would see if we were standing in the right place (I am, for the sake of simplicity, ignoring such things as telephoto lenses, microscopes, and other things that make “standing in the right place” problematical). Back in the film days you would stive for “realistic” colour, now with digital, minimal post-processing is required. These photos are meant to represent reality. Detail, in these types of photos, is defined as more of what was there…
On the other end of the spectrum are those photos where the subject matter is largely irrelevant, or it has been changed in such a way that there is no way it could be called “reality”. Think of some of the classic work of Jerry Uelsmann. The point of the photograph is not to blindly mirror what is in front of the camera, but to evoke an emotion, or maybe just tickle the optic nerves. Here detail is defined as all parts that add to (or subtract from, if poorly executed) this overall emotion.
Most good photos fall somewhere in the middle, of course, representing some aspect of reality to evoke an emotion**. In my photography I tend to be closer to the abstract side of this spectrum. While most of my photos are recognizeable, and I rarely combine multiple images, I do however apply filters, adjust contrast, and change saturation to get closer to what I feel the images “should” look like. I also tend to take photos where the viewer says,” wow, I never noticed that before…”, or at least, “I never thought to take a picture of that…” I really enjoy getting people to notice the details they never noticed before.
*Unfortunately, my copy of the book was destroyed in a flood quite a few years ago. My landlord at the time offered to replace it, but it was out of print. I notice however that it is back in print. I may have to break down and buy another copy.
**I understand that some snapshots “evoke an emotion.” Mom may shed a tear when she sees a school picture of her son at graduation, but the general population will not experience the same emotion.