Unhide the Hidden Truth

by Carlo Levy

Realism, considered one of the oldest theories in art, was championed by John Szarkowski, who argued that “the world exists independent of human attention, that it contains discoverable patterns of intrinsic meaning, and that by discerning these patterns, and forming models or symbols of them with the materials of his art, the realist is joined to a larger intelligence”.[1] Essentially, Szarkowski believes that realists have the challenge of capturing an image with elements that exist naturally without manipulation – either in setting the shot or in post-production – to unhide a hidden truth that they feel needs to be seen.

Paul Strand is such a realist. He believed that a photographer must have “a real respect for the thing in front of him…the very essence…of absolute unqualified objectivity”.[2] In analyzing one of his famous photographs, Blind Woman, we see that Strand captures a real blind woman (who appears to be blind in her right eye) wearing a paper sign around her neck with the word “blind” written in bold capital letters.[3] Her gaze is off to her left, avoiding the camera’s line of sight. It is in this technique and composition that Strand captures the hidden truth – the average person is blind to things or people that are different. Going deeper, Strand argues that the average person in fact turns a blind eye towards these different people, in effect turning them into outcasts. The sign is a blatant attempt on the part of the woman to publicize her disability. This is effective is successful largely due to the fact that the average person has become conditioned to be drawn to signs with bold letters and high contrast, as commonly seen in advertising and print. She is advertising her disability. Yet in doing so, she is forcing her viewers to look straight on to what they are reticent to behold – a woman who has lost her sight, a woman who is different.

Strand did nothing to manipulate this subject as he photographed her, nor did he manipulate the image in its development. He captured what was in front him of him, thus capturing the “the very essence of absolute unqualified objectivity”.[4] Realism in photography can seem simple enough; after all, how hard is it to point a camera at a subject and shoot? The real difficulty lies in finding truth in what is in front of you. What is even more difficult is successfully conveying that truth through your photograph. Thus is the challenge of a good realist photographer – unhide the hidden truth.

[1] Szarkowski, John. Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960. Catalog of Exhibition Held Museum of Modern Art, July 26-October 2, 1978. New York: Little Brown & Co, 1978.

[2] Barrett, Terry. Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. Textbook, p. 133.

[3] Strand, Paul. Blind Woman, New York, 1916. Aperture Foundation, Inc., Paul Strand Archive, 1971.

[4] Barrett, p. 133.


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