OR THE TROUBLE WITH REALITY
I wrote this essay in March 2006 for a Philosophy of Art course at the University of Bath.
The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms (edition 2003) defines realism as Art that aims to reproduce reality exactly. There is no entry for reality.
Photography is the process of making images by recording light onto a sensitive medium through a timed exposure: Light falls onto a sensitised piece of material, causes a reaction and leaves its traces in the form of a visual memory. This process is initiated through mechanical devices – with or without electronic aids – and carried out through chemical or digital (electronic) processes.
“The word [photography] comes from the Greek words phos (light), and graphis (stylus, paintbrush) or graphê, together meaning drawing with light or representation by means of lines or drawing. Traditionally, the product of photography has been called a photograph. In digital photography, the term image has begun to replace photograph.” (wikipedia.org, 2006).
It is generally believed that the first permanent photograph was created in 1825/27 by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. The photograph was a landscape that required eight hours of exposure.
When photography was first invented, it was seen as a replacement for painting, much like digital imaging today is perceived to be a replacement for photography. In the early days of photography, many photographers came from a background in painting. Many digital image makers today are photographers. Today, painting and photography are two distinct disciplines, neither having replaced the other, each existing in their own spaces. This process has yet to be completed with photography and digital imaging.
In the early 19th Century, one of the convincing arguments for this new medium was that a true depiction of reality could be created with relative ease. A photograph was considered of good quality if it showed a good likeness of the subject it captured.
Despite the advances of digital technology, which allow for convincing manipulations of photographs, and despite the fact that it is acceptable, currently even required, for a person to look younger and better in a photograph than in real life, it is still a commonly held believe that the camera never lies.
My personal view has always been that photography is neither about creating a good likeness nor that the camera never lies. In my view, photography is a speculative interpretation of life which questions perceptions of reality, making reality something relative and subjective. In this essay, I want to research whether my claim that reality is an illusion is credible.
It should be noted that, for the purpose of this essay, the term reality is used as referring to the object which is expressed in realism.
… tutto s’immagina – nothing is certain, everything is imagined. This quote, attributed to the Italian film director Frederico Fellini (b. 1920 Rimini, Italy, d. 1993 Rome, Italy), is the title of Susan Gluth’s 2002 film, in which she presents a visual journey through Italy with its people and places, with Fellini as the guide in the background.
In his essay on Reality and Appearance, Rob Campbell states that “reality can usefully be defined as that which exists” (course notes, 2006). He points out “that we can apprehend reality only through the intellect”. Campbell paraphrases Plato’s general idea that the arts cannot represent reality itself but only the appearance of reality, or a subjective version of reality. Plato believed that it was possible, however, to recognise reality through the intellect.
I would argue that the intellect is an unreliable tool to gauge reality because (a) the viewer cannot detach himself sufficiently from his own temporary emotional state and (b) intellect itself is coloured by the viewer’s upbringing, social background, education, etc. and, of course, the social norms and beliefs of any given period. Therefore, intellect is subjective.
Representation and reality are overlapping, “because conventions of representation or language (‘signification’) are learned and internalized so that we experience them as real. Especially in an age when television and the other mass media play such a significant role in creating human consciousness, what we perceive as real is revealed to be always present in and filtered through representation”. (Christopher Reed, Postmodernism and the Art of Identity, in Concepts of Modern Art, 1993).
If the human intellect can never be fully detached from the environment in which it exists, it follows that it is not a suitable, objective tool to discovering reality. It can only interpret reality, not recognise pure reality itself.
In order to eliminate the human inadequacies and the subjective and normative interpretation of what may be reality, we need a vehicle which does not suffer from these shortcomings. It would appear that a machine may be the closest to an instrument which is better suited to judge reality objectively.
I therefore want to begin my investigation into the perceptions of reality with an experiment that was devised by Claus Pias for his article Das digitale Bild gibt es nicht – Über das (Nicht-)Wissen der Bilder und die informatische Illusion (the digital photograph does not exist – about the (non) reality of pictures and the illusion of information), published in zeitenblicke 2 (2003), issue 1 [08.05.2003].
Whilst Pias’ highly controversial and much misunderstood article also deals with reality in photography, it will not be analysed for this essay. I will, however, use his experiment to demonstrate a point.
You can see a red square:
Now, I am going to show you the red square again, together with a second red square:
You are accepting my comments as fact and, therefore, my statement that there are two red squares as true.
What you cannot know is that the square on the right is not a red square at all. It is two red rectangles of different shades of red between which you cannot differentiate because neither the human eye nor the computer display is capable of recognising the minutely different shades of colours.
The human eye can differentiate between approx. 16 million colours and an average modern computer monitor can display about the same number – but the computer can produce and measure more than that.
What you do know but subconsciously decided to ignore is the fact that you cannot see any red squares at all because they are reproduced in grey – but you probably accepted my claim. (Note for this post: The original paper was printed in black & white.)
Embracing Nietzsche’s view that truth and morality are relative perspectives, this experiment is an indication that – even with the use of machines incapable of interpretation – reality itself only exists through the subjective interpretation of a number of different factors, all of which we only believe to be true. In this specific case, my narrative.
To understand realism in photography, it would appear desirable to investigate realism and reality in the wider context of art. To develop an understanding of the movements in photography, the history of photography would need to be examined. All this is beyond the scope of this essay. I therefore have to limit myself to some brief, general comments and some facts which seem indispensable.
It is important to distinguish between (commercial) photographers and photography artists. In historical terms, a photographer would create life-like images of people, objects and events, whilst a photography artist would use photographic techniques to create original works of art. They did not try to represent things as they are but to create a world as they saw it.
Whilst this divide still holds true today, the borders have become blurred in some photographic applications, such as editorial photography, fashion photography, portraiture and even advertising.
When photography was first invented, one of its main objectives was to reproduce reality (a landscape, a person, an object, etc.) accurately, creating a good likeness.
From around 1900, photographers (or rather photography artists) began to experiment with new techniques and new uses of photography. They were no longer content with simply depicting what they saw and creating a likeness of it. Rather, they would create new images by applying a variety of techniques, such as sandwiching two negatives, partially printing different negatives on one sheet of photographic paper, collages, and using creative lighting techniques, to name just a few.
This style of photography was influenced by the surrealist movement and its claim to having a right to fantasy. René Magritte and Paul Delvaux are two painters who seem to have stimulated developments in photography profoundly.
From around the early 1960s, a new style of photography – fantastic photography – began to emerge, which interpreted rather than represented reality, employing a composition, lighting techniques and – very significantly – a reportage style of photography to make a statement and to create an interpretation of the facts and an idealised version of reality. Reality in photography was no longer a permanent copy of what the eye could see. It had become a condition in its own right.
“It is certainly no coincidence that fantastic photography, which was born at the beginning of the 1960s, gained in importance at a time when illusions were destroyed: In America with the defeat in Vietnam, in Europe with the defeat of the 1968 revolt.” (Attilio Colombo, Fantastische Fotografie, 1979).
Fantastic photography is still influencing many photographs we see today, particularly in portraiture and editorial photography, but also fashion and, to some extent, advertising.
Before investigating how fashion photography interpreted reality in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I want to consider two very well known reportage photographs from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both photographs deal with human suffering, suggest reality beyond imagination and may appear similar to the casual viewer.
I have chosen the genres reportage and fashion because superficially, they represent very different areas of photography and because reportage is seemingly real whilst fashion is seemingly artificial.
The photographs in my selection behave in an unexpected way: They do the opposite of what they are meant to do. The photographs appear in disguise and interpret (reportage) and create (fashion) a situation in a way which only suggests rather than communicates reality. This technique creates a sublime atmosphere which makes the viewer perceive the photographs as real and accept their content as reality.
I do not have permission to reproduce this photograph. Please use this link to see it and then return to this article.
The photograph shows the South Vietnamese National Police Chief, Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executing a Viet Cong officer with a single pistol shot in the head (Saigon, Vietnam, 1 February 1968. Photograph Eddie Adams).
The most striking aspect of this photograph, for which photographer Eddie Adams won a Pulitzer Price in 1968, is its overwhelming brutality. The viewer cannot escape being gripped by this photograph, yet is not drawn into it and finds it hard to experience a sense of shock, compassion or even justice or injustice. On the contrary, despite the fascination that the photograph exudes, the viewer feels a strange sensation of detachment. This divergence of what we feel from what we think we should feel makes us feel deeply uncomfortable.
The subject matter is gruelling – a young man being photographed at the precise moment of his death, as a bullet from another man’s handgun enters his head. The viewer knows that one man has to die and another has to live with the consequences of his actions but is unable to care about either.
For me, the key to this photograph is the detached and careless expression on Loan’s face. Loan’s apparent detachment, which swaps over to viewer, must be caused by the style in which the photograph was created.
What looks like an ad-hoc execution is, on closer observation, a planned act of violence: The victim’s hands are tied behind his back.
There can be no doubt that the photographer had more than a few seconds to set up this photograph: To choose his angle and determine the correct exposure. And yet, there are no interesting angles in this photograph, no dramatic framing and the exposure is not particularly good.
The viewer knows that what is happening in the photograph is real, but cannot feel it. It is just a factual image that relates evidence, which should make it a purely realistic image.
The photographer making this photograph was as detached and indifferent as the executor. In his mind, he was photographing just another death and not a human tragedy. In the viewer, the photographer’s detachment translates into the discomfort that we feel when we look at it.
However analytically reality may be presented, it only feels real when an emotional component is present, therefore dismissing the claim that reality and interpretation can be treated as unconnected entities.
The proof of my claim, and the explanation of the style of the photograph, lie in the photographer’s comment that he felt the execution was justified because the Viet Cong officer had killed eight South Vietnamese. It was the photographer’s moral judgement that made him create a cold image which, ultimately, did not tell the whole truth.
I also have no permission to reproduce the other image I want to show in this essay. You can view it here.
In this image, photographer Nick Ut documents five children running from a napalm attack on their village on 8 June 1972 in South Vietnam (1972 Nick Ut). In the centre, a crying girl who had her clothes burnt off by the fire.
This photograph shows another side of human brutality. The viewer is not presented with the person committing an atrocity and the victim side by side, but only the victims.
In many ways, this photograph is very similar to the first example: It shows the face of war and what humans are capable of. Even the camera angle is somewhat similar. Compared to the first photograph, the photographer almost certainly had far less time to consider the image, yet the composition and exposure are very different: The photographer is no longer the detached observer who wants to get close. On the contrary – the photographer is standing back. He wants to get this shot but he does not want to exploit the victims’ suffering.
There is an abundance of the photographer’s own emotions and compassion contained within this photograph. It communicates a far higher level of reality than the first example exactly because of the emotional involvement of the photographer., which swaps over to the viewer.
I believe it is fair to conclude that reality in photography requires involvement, reaction and an emotional response in order to exist.
This has consequences on the scope and the role of photography. Neither photograph communicates pure, unadulterated reality. They document something very real but in very different ways and with a very different moral message. If the photographers, who must have been under great pressure and very likely in personal danger making these photographs, did not manage to capture a cold, analytical reality under these circumstances, then it must mean that photography – because it requires a human operator – is not a medium capable of dealing with reality in an objective way. Photography presents a pseudo-reality.
Fashion photography is important in considering realism in photography because it reaches such a wide audience. Today, as much as 50 years ago, fashion photography is tied in with values such as lifestyle, buying power (“retail therapy”), happiness and success – much more so than other status symbols. For the purpose of this essay, the term fashion should be taken loosely, simply meaning the desire to own and the ability to buy what is considered fashionable at the time.
Whilst the early examples of this genre only aimed at showing the product to be advertised (the clothes), the face of this type of photography changed from the 1930s and more radically during the 1950s to suggest a lifestyle that could be achieved with wearing certain types of clothes. This trend seems to fall in line with the developments in advertising.
Looking at the 1950s, we think of the image of a young house-wife with a healthy smile and perfect teeth, awaiting the return of her husband for whom she has dressed up after doing the washing, cleaning the house and preparing a three-course meal. Her image communicates happiness and fulfilment.
During the 1960s, this image changed to focus on the emerging youth culture, employing a reportage-style of photography, which was glamorous at first but became grittier as the decade progressed.
In the 1970s, fashion photography aimed at the same individuals who, by now, were all ten to fifteen years older and had taken their place in the establishment. The style of photography regressed to display a perfect take on glamour once more, albeit in an updated version that reflected the style of the period.
It was not until the late 1980s that a change occurred in fashion photography, when British style magazines The Face, Arena and iD attempted to tear up conventions with a new hormone-laden teenage view of life. The aim was not to rattle society but to recruit a new generation of readers. This style period should last about ten years.
The image with the perhaps greatest recognition value of the period is one made by German photographer Jürgen Teller of a model with a tampon string peeking from between her thighs. Teller’s “messy pleasures of a sexuality with consequence” (ArtForum: Flasht rack at findarticles.com from Artforum International Magazine, 1997) suggest reality with intensity. Other photographs by other photographers would exploit the ideas of drugs dependency and all things messy, including urine, faeces and vomit.
These images should be viewed as another form of fantastic photography. They do not deal – as was often claimed – with reality. They merely present an idealised concept of individual yet isolated events in society and can therefore be classed as pseudo-realism. Nevertheless, the photographs were reality to a generation of readers.
The relationship between art photography and commercial photography seems relevant in the context of realism. The two genres had a brief fling during the 1960s with the emergence of fantastic photography, and attempted a sexually charged affair in the late 1980s. From the mid to late 1990s to the current day, however, we are experiencing yet another 1950s revival, not in style but in attitude. The fashion industry’s new client intake is not a rebellious generation. Existing clients have matured, are economically more secure and are again treated to a mellow, glamorous style of photography which puts a glossy layer over life’s harsh edges. As in the 1970s, the style of photography has been updated to reflect the current lifestyle but it is equally difficult to recognise the artistic merits.
The title of the concluding chapter of my essay refers to René Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe which states that the pipe in the picture is not a pipe. The painting highlights a very important concept of the principles in abstract art. It is not a pipe – it is a painting of a pipe. The concept can be applied to realism in art generally – it is not reality but a representation of reality because it can only be a representation.
The appeal of realism in photography is not grounded in pure reality. It is about giving “the observer a feeling of intrusion on privacy when looking at it.” (Trewin Copplestone, Modern Art, 1985).
Examining the works of art quoted in this essay, it has become clear to me that reality is a question of relevancy. The most insignificant event and the smallest action has an ultimate consequence. A situation or action with no ultimate consequence may not exist at all because it is uncertain whether it has happened. Reality can therefore not exist without the interpretation which is made possible by such a consequence.
In photography, the camera can capture reality but it is only the interpretation of the photographer and his emotional involvement that make a great photograph which communicates truth and therefore reality. If this emotional level is missing in a photograph, the viewer is not able to correctly interpret the reality in the photograph and to comprehend its consequences, which would therefore make this level of reality irrelevant and non-existent.
If the only reality we know is an interpretation of reality, if a camera is not able to capture reality objectively and realism in photography is only an illusion, then it may be not so daring to suggest that reality itself is an illusion.
Campbell, Rob (2006) Course Notes for Introduction to the Philosophy of Art, Bath
Colombo, Attilio (1979) Fantastische Fotografie, Paris: Contrejour (imprint Rogner & Bernhard, München)
Copplestone, Trewin (1985) Modern Art, USA: Simon & Schuster (imprint Exeter Books)
Pias, Claus (8.5.2003) “Das digitale Bild gibt es nicht – Über das (Nicht-)Wissen der Bilder und die informatische Illusion”, zeitenblicke 2 (2003), issue 1
Reed, Christopher (1993) “Postmodernism and the Art of Identity” in N. Stangos (ed, 1993) Concepts of Modern Art, London: Thames & Hudson
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