True Stories

Most people realize that tabloid photos aren't real. There is no Bat Boy, and World's Largest Cat is not riding shotgun in an RV with Elvis Presley. They're familiar with the wonders that Adobe Photoshop can create, even if they don't know what the program is called. But there was a time when all photos were considered real--all strict, true-to-life documentaries of the real world. And all photographs are true to some degree. They capture only what is in front of them, but scenes can be staged, negatives can be altered and modern software can change colors, correct mistakes and more. But it goes deeper than that. If you ask two people to photograph the same tree, one may focus on the twisted, knotted roots as a symbol of growth and endurance, and the other might just take a snapshot of a tree. Point of view affects everything--before Photoshop even has a chance.

Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, will discuss these degrees of truth and the effect of the photographer's framing during Beauty Is in the Feet of the Beholder, her slide lecture that she calls "sort of a skip and a dance through the history of photography." She will give examples from the museum's collection, dividing them into the traditional art genres of landscape, portraiture, nudes and architecture and including works by photographers from the 19th to 21st centuries, from the famous (Man Ray, Edward Steichen) to contemporary or lesser known artists (Sandy Skoglund, Yanagi Miwa). One of her examples from the architecture genre is to compare a "straightforward, beautiful but documentary 19th-century picture of the tower in Pisa to a very moody architectural photograph by Steichen of the Flat Iron Building in New York on a rainy day--misty and low light." One looks real; the other surreal. Tucker, named "America's Best Curator" by Time in 2001, says, "The idea is to look at the kinds of choices that photographers have made that show you the tremendous range of images and styles that are possible when you use the word 'photography.'" And it might just change how you see photography.

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Shannon Sutlief