Reality: The Only Camera Filter

The article “Doings of a sunbeam” by Oliver Wendell Holmes details how photographs brought home the gruesome reality of the Civil War in a way that had not been possible before. When describing photos of the war, Holmes writes, “It was so nearly like visiting the battle-field to look over these views, that all the emotions excited by the actual sight of the stained and sordid scene, strewed with rags and wrecks, came back to us.” But photographs cannot literally transport someone into the scene that they represent. A photograph is only a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional world. Photographs can only represent what fits within its field of view. And the image that is represented in the photograph has been chosen by the photographer to suit his or her needs. According to the Holmes article, the cameras of this era can take up to 20 seconds to expose the negative. Therefore the only reality that can be captured in these photographs is the reality that can sit perfectly still for at least 20 seconds.

The blurred image of the dog in this photograph demonstrates how the subject matter must be carefully chosen to avoid having a ruined product. Also the composition of this photograph implies that the photograph was staged. The figure on the top left of the photograph complements the figure on the bottom left posing with the dog. The fence cuts the photograph almost exactly in half, and it directs the eye from the first figure to the next. Since the photograph took 20 seconds to take expose, the photographer likely posed these soldiers to get the effect that he wanted. While the camera was able to bring home a greater since of the realities of war, it also brought several more ways to filter reality.

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The blurred faces of the two people in the center add to the credibility of the photograph below as the capture of an un-staged event. If the crowd had been assembled just to take a photo the two men would have been instructed to stand still and their faces would not have been blurred.

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This  next photograph reminds me of Walt Whitman’s “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” but not just because they are both depictions of masses of soldiers crossing a river. Whitman’s poem sets up a snapshot in time. The entire poem is one sentence. The first line of the poem is a description only. The comma at the end of the first line as well as the capitalized letter at the beginning of the second line fool my mind into reading the first line as a sentence fragment. As a faux-fragment the line flashes in my mind as a stagnant image. Each following line adds another flash of image. With the use of words like hark and behold, Whitman further conjures the idea of a captured moment to pay attention to. This “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” seems to capture the candid feel that even this photograph can’t quite get.

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