Contract or assumption: what do I owe the viewer?

Is it realistic to expect a photographer to concern himself with his viewers expectation about the nature of photography?

River mouth, Northumberland

Earlier this year there was much discussion concerning morality and honesty in photographs. It was triggered originally by Guy Tal writing in OnLandscape in Morality and Realism in Photography, and again on his own website in The Implicit Contract. Subsequently, Tim Parkin responded, again in OnLandscape, in his piece “Realism and Honesty in Photography“.

The discussion revolved around the responsibility for educating viewers that landscape photographs might not necessarily be representations of real situations. Guy Tal reckoned that photographers could not be held responsible for teh assumptions made by people who viewed their work.

Tim Parkin responded that, in the act of looking at a photograph, there existed an implicit contract between the photographer and the viewer. He describes this as “the ‘fair’ expectation that what you are being presented with meets certain criteria even though there is no explicit contract.” However much the photographer repudiated any such contract, nevertheless one still existed in the minds of the viewers.

The implied contract dictates that, especially in the case of landscape photographs, a photographic image is expected to depict “reality”, and that over-processing and compositing of images from elsewhere will be viewed negatively.

While there was much of interest in the various interchanges, I was left feeling uncomfortable with the concept of an implied contract with viewers of my landscape pictures. It seems to me that rather than there being a contract, implied or otherwise, viewers may be making a number of assumptions that might or might not need challenging.

Assumption 1: the picture in question is a real landscape. In other words, it is a picture of some specific place.

Well, my pictures are real landscapes. Typically I pressed the shutter button while in a place: everywhere is somewhere after all. Whether that is important and whether the pictures are about a particular place, is questionable.

Assumption 2:  the picture is a likeness and it would not be unreasonable to see what has been captured in the picture if you visited the place.

Spittal Beach, Berwick upon Tweed

This one needs unpicking as well. I don’t set out to create images that are likenesses. You can get postcards to do that job. Just because I use a camera, why assume the result will “match reality”? Many of my pictures are monochrome; how real is that? If you visit the location where I pressed the shutter button, how likely is it you will see an unsaturated place?

I use neutral density filters from time to time to smooth out the waves in the sea. You’ll rarely see that in the places I take photographs. The effect is an artefact of the equipment I use.

Expecting the output of some photographic activity to meet some apparently reasonable expectations is, ironically enough, unreasonable. 

Assumption 3: the viewer has a right to feel aggrieved that my work doesn’t meet his or her expectations for photographs they perceive to be of landscapes.

Pilgrims’ footsteps, Holy Island

Life’s like that, isn’t it?  But actually, you can feel as aggrieved as you like when you look at my pictures. Whether I choose to do anything about it is another matter entirely. Guess what I’m most likely to do?

Assumption 4:  … and worse: the viewer has a right to describe my work as immoral if it does not meet his or her expectations for photographs of landscapes.

Penken, Mayrhofen

Immoral? Really? By what route has morality got into this? The use of the phrase implied contract shelters question of morality in its depths. To say I’m misbehaving if I process an image to emphasise certain facets that reflect the impact of the scene on me is to misunderstand what I aim to create.

A picture may be given a title. The title may include some indication of where the image was captured in a camera.  But what if part of the photographer’s intention was to question the notion that “pictures that depict a location are representative only of the location, and nothing else

But clearly, there are people for whom the idea of a landscape photograph without a literal connection with the location it was taken in is upsetting. They might go as far as to call the photographer misleading. However, unless you have been told anything specific about the intentions of the photographer, you have no right to consider you’ve been deceived. You certainly have no right to infer a contract.

You, as a viewer, may wish there to be an implied contract between us. 

I, however, a photographer, owe you, the viewer, nothing. I reject that implication out of hand.

As ever, photographs say far more about the photographer and the viewer than they do about the apparent subject of the image, and not necessarily the same thing.

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