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What does "natural" mean?
Posted 5 years ago
My preliminary thoughts to be shared and criticized.

The word “natural” has several layers of meanings:

(1) The story is natural (I do not mean all pictures must have a story). When we make stories, they can be very bold or wild, but they need to be convincing, not far-fetched. For example, we can make a monkey speak, but his behavior should represent some personality and we feel that he is a live person. Another example: we can make a person fly, but his hair and dress should look like flying as well (the wind blows them, etc.) That is one meaning of "natural". The idea is that the story does not need to be true, but all the supporting elements should look real, that makes the story more acceptable.

(2) The image is natural (for realistic approach). We make selections and do editing, but the purpose is to make the images look typical, not to distort the reality. Copying nature or the external world is not necessarily natural. For example, we can find all sorts of funny and illogical scenes in the street. But they can be accidental occurrences, and when captured, they may look unnatural, although we may deliberately capture these for humor.

(3) The approach is natural. Use composition of still life as an example: if we arrange the components too neatly (except with a purpose), they may look artificial. Similar ideas for lighting and colors, and etc. In realistic work, being natural is important. We manipulate things, but we do that based on our observation and understanding of the world surrounds us.

(4) The creation process is natural. In painting and drawing, we appreciate brush-strokes and pencil lines. These are certainly not what we have in nature. But how to use a brush or pencil also have an issue of being natural or not. Free-hand drawing is often more natural than if we use a ruler to draw a straight line. Natural in this sense is natural to our hand movement and our being a person with certain mental qualities and skills. This is relevant to abstract art or the formal aspect of realistic art. In photography, it is also exciting to create effects or picture textures that do not exist in nature. But all the manipulations need to be controlled and based on a good taste. We do as much as it is needed and as much as it looks good. Art is a matter of degree and properness. Overdoing things will be destructive. Cultivating our senses is crucial.

There may be other layers of meaning. My points are:

(1) To be natural is desirable and make the art work more convincing.

(2) To be natural does not mean copying nature, and copying nature is not necessarily natural. It is the understanding of nature that is the key.

(3) To be natural does not rule out abstract photography, and abstract works also have their own issue of being natural or artificial (point 4 above).

(4) Photography is like painting; there are no rules but preferences. We do whatever we want as long as the images are believable and powerful. We can have different types of works and styles. No one should dictate what the way it should be. We just make judgments and choices.

(5) All art works are artificial in that they are human creations and inevitably carry our marks. Pictures straight from cameras are not necessarily less artificial than those with post-processing. On the other hand, all shooting and PS efforts may need to aim at being natural (in different senses).

(6) For different types of photography, different meanings of "natural" may apply. Their commonality is that they are all opposed to "artificial," meaning: cheating, far-fetched, superficial, crying for no reason, overly exaggeration, excessive processing, meaningless manipulations, innovation for the sake of causing sensation, and lack of true understanding of our life, our surroundings, our concerns, and our needs.

This post was edited 4 times. Last edited 5 years ago by Zan Zhang
Posted 5 years ago
your wise words remind me so much of a quote from Georgia O'Keeffe:

"Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things."

I strive for this in my abstract photography. I don't always achieve it, but it is an excellent guidepost.

As you say, it is the understanding, not the copying, of nature that is the key. To me, that means understanding (in whatever fashion we can) the process by which our brains make sense of the universe around us, and in so doing, find beauty and meaning.