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Truth Idealized Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

10 June 2019

When it gets hot around here, we like to put the big green sun umbrella out on the patio and sit under its shade with a big fat book we've been reading with pleasure a few pages at a time for years.

Iris. Nikon D200 with Vivitar 70-210mm Series I in macro mode. Captured at f5.6, 1/320 second, ISO 400 and processed in Adobe Camera Raw.

Boswell's Life of Johnson is one such tome. Bashō's poems are another. But in yesterday's 90° heat we succumbed again to Eugène Delacroix's Journal translated by Walter Pach.

In his July 3, 1858 entry, Delacroix praises Mercey for observing "the beautiful in the arts is truth idealized." This sets Delacroix off on what may, at first, seem to be an obscure elaboration:

The reason why bad painters cannot attain the beautiful -- that truth idealized of which Mercey speaks -- is that, aside from the lack in their work of a general conception leading to truth, their accessories, instead of contributing to the general effect, misdirect it, on the contrary, through the almost invariable effort to bring out certain details which ought to be subordinated.

By "accessories" Delacroix means the peripheral objects in a painting, like drapery or a the objects on a side table or even the hands of the person whose portrait is being painted.

We immediately thought of the obsession for corner-to-corner sharpness in a lens. As if anyone (other than the new lens owner) looks in the corners of an image for detail.

And then we thought about a few of our favorite historical photographs and how the subject stood out from its surroundings. He may be onto something, we thought.

He goes on:

There are several ways to reach this bad result: on one hand, excessive care in bringing out these details, as a means of displaying ability; on the other, the general habit of copying from nature all the accessories designed to contribute to the effect. When the painter copies all these fragments from actual objects, leaving them as they are and making no effort to modify them, how can he add or subtract, and give to these objects, inert in themselves, the power needed for the impression?

Detail, he is saying, should be reserved for the main subject, not everything in the frame.

But he is saying a great deal more than that. Which is why, in the heat, we only read a few passages, slip our bookmark back in, close the cover and our eyes to ruminate on what we've just read.

Truth idealized?

Does restricting detail to the main subject idealize truth? Is that what makes something beautiful? Simplifying?

It's an interesting question, we stalled. Particularly now when Truth itself is under siege in our public discourse. Can there be anything more fake than a president elected by dint of a foreign adversary's false infiltration in the public discourse, a man who confidently utters nothing but lies himself? And yet there he goes again, pointing to anything unfavorable as fake.

We, in our time, have a renewed appreciation for truth. We no longer take it for granted whether we see in a tweet or a sound bite.

In his Ode to a Grecian Urn, the young John Keats quotes the figures on his vase:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Well, we know lies are ugly -- and we need to know that, too. Even if we've fallen for the bit about legitimate news being "fake."

So where does idealizing truth come in? For photographers, that is.

Photojournalists have been debating this for a while now, particularly in regard to news photo contests. Rules have been devised to ensure entries do not fake the situation or the rendering of it.

But it's still acceptable to idealize truth with a wide aperture, minimizing the accessories, as Delacroix would put it.

And for a fine artist behind the lens or at the computer, idealizing truth is the name of the game. It's something we do in post.

Our iris above is idealized. It emerges in heightened contrast and texture from shadows subdued with a vignette. The color dulled by the shade is enhanced with saturation after being warmed up a bit. We are painting the light of the flower over just the hint of its environment.

Truth idealized, in short.

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