While many of us get into photography shooting realism, there can be far more to photography than attempting to capture realism.
The entry point for most of us is realism. We attempt to capture what we see around us in as realistic a way as possible. This remains the passion of many photographers, and that is fine, if it suits you. But realism is not the only way.
One danger of realism as an aim in photography is the risk of confusing an aspiration with an absolute. Photography can, at best, only create a representation of reality. This should be clear since it is only creating a two-dimensional representation of a moving, time-changing, three-dimensional reality. When you add all the manipulations of shutter speed, aperture, depth of field, selective framing, etc., the resulting image is only one of an infinite number of possible interpretations of reality.
Sadly, some photographers forget this. They set some arbitrary standard and define that as real photography, then use that standard and definition to limit other photographers with other viewpoints.
However once you come to terms with the interpretive nature of photography many creative possibilities open up. First, unless you are shooting for a specific form, such as forensics or reportage, where you need as straight a representation as possible, you can stop stressing about the ‘rightness’ of anything and just do what works. Likewise, concerns about manipulations, whether in the darkroom or desktop, drop away.
Your approach to actually shooting and your subject matter can also change. Freed from any pretensions to realism, you can shoot completely surreal scenes either by staging them or by shooting the components and assembling them together in the darkroom or Photoshop.
Surrealism offers you a kind of super-alternate realism that allows you to create your own realities, your own worlds. You are completely free to do what you will and create any type of reality you want. You can break any rules of reality you like. To pull it off requires as much effort and skill as any other form of photography.
This image, entitled Incorrect Conclusions, is from my "Road to Elysium" series about directions, choices, and wrong ideas.
Beyond surrealism you can step into abstraction either with your camera or by leaving the camera behind and working purely in the darkroom or on the computer. In-camera abstraction can use de-focusing, extreme close-up, extreme exposure or special equipment like the lensbaby.
Abstraction is the removal of one or more aspects to allow the viewer to more closely focus on what you have kept. So by removing all line, shape and form through defocusing, you allow a great attention to be placed on color and tone, for example. In this sense monochrome photography is a form of abstraction: we remove the distraction of color to better concentrate on tone, line and shape.
Abstraction is a great and wonderful approach for photographers, but, like surrealism, is as hard to pull off as a stunning ‘straight’ photograph or a surreal one.
So photography offers you the choice: realism, surrealism or abstraction. All are good, all are valid forms of photography and all are equally hard to do well. Isn’t photography grand?