Photography: How Real Is Real?
Leo Segedin   |  8/8/2001   |  Print this essay


About 40 years ago, I introduced the Art in Society course at Northeastern with the observation that “Modern man sees more images in one day than medieval man saw in his lifetime”. If that statement was true then, it is far truer today. We are now immersed in an environment of images without which our culture could not exist. Most of these images are photographic in origin. In recent years, the development of new photographic technologies has almost overwhelmed the old, hand-painted kinds of image making. We live in a world, not only of ordinary snapshots of people and scenes, of photogravure and other mass-produced photo-prints, of high quality reproduction of artworks, of TV and film, but also of telescopic and microscopic, x-ray and infra-red, video, zerox, e-mail, fax, radio transmission and computer images. Photographic images have influenced our thinking about everything from the origin of the universe and genetics to love and sex, art and politics, parenthood and childhood, war and violence, law and justice…. They determine what choices we have as to what we eat, drink and wear, the medications we use and the autos we drive…. It may be that many of us still prefer to get our information from what we read, but photography has become such a pervasive part of our cultural environment, that, in so far as media gives form to our experiences, I will argue that photography more than print has become the primary way we realize our past and our present existence. More than we might want to acknowledge, for better or worse, photography now forms the basis of our culture’s sense of reality.

By media, I mean any means of communication. I include not only speech, writing and any kind of image such as photography, but also their transformations in print, TV, film, radio, telephone, e-mail and other electronic media. I assume that such media not only communicates information, but also gives form to that information. They determine how we experience that information when we receive it and how we shape it when we send it. They determine what kinds of information can be included and what is excluded. Without getting into any theoretical (pace Whorf, Sapir, McLuhan) debate, I think we can agree that we respond differently to different media. Most of us accept the idea that exposure to TV to the exclusion of reading books can be dangerous to children. What works in a novel often does not work when turned into a movie, even though the dialogue may be the same. We do not respond to reading a description of a scene as we do to seeing it on the screen. Scale and detail, close-ups and long shots that work in a movie seen on a large screen in a movie theater are lost when seen on a small TV screen, affecting our response. Reading a script of a Shakespeare play is different than hearing it read in person or on radio, seeing it performed on a stage, in a black and white or colored film even though the words may be the same. Students do not respond the same way to a lecture in a classroom as they would to one on TV. A letter written in the 17th century with a goose quill pen would not only have a different form than an e-mail message; it would also have a different kind of content. Some people still prefer to use a typewriter or a ballpoint pen on paper rather than a word processor because they feel that such technology will change the way they think as they write. In the same way, I think that immersion in photographic images affects the way we think. This is not to suggest that electronic media has replaced the book as a means of communication or that such media work in isolation; they are obviously all part of our present culture, but certainly words in books are relatively less important. They are no longer the primary means by which many of us give form to our experience of reality as they were 50 years ago. I am claiming that photographic technologies have become this primary means.

In fact, I would even go so far as to question our idea of the extent to which general American culture has been based on print. All of us will acknowledge the increasing importance of photographic technologies such as TV in our culture, but we also assume that, previously, we lived in a primarily print culture, that most of us received our knowledge of the world through books, newspapers and magazines. At least, the people we know did. But just how literate is the American public actually?

  • 20% of American adults are functionally illiterate: another 34% have only marginal skills.
  • 50% of American adults cannot read an eighth-grade level book.
  • 44% of American adults do not read even one book a year.
  • 75% of unemployed adults are illiterate.
  • 75% of employed adults have difficulty reading and/or writing.

In a 1985 study of 3,600 adults age 21-25: 80% could not read a bus schedule, 73 % could not interpret a newspaper story and 63% could not follow written map directions.

(From EastSide Weekend Newsmagazine, Cincinnati, OH Vol. 9, #2, 1/14/98, p.12 Source: Laubach Literacy Action)

But at least 98% of families in this country have at least one TV set.

Although the great accomplishments of Western civilization could not have occurred without print, it would be an exaggeration to describe our general American culture as a print culture. The ability to read allows most Americans, at best, to follow instructions on the job, operate household appliances and play Video games. It is not, and has not been, a major source of information or knowledge of the world for most Americans. It would be more accurate to say that, rather than replacing print, photography replaced memory as the primary means of giving form to our experiences of the past. It “replaced the world of immediate testimony.” (Berger) And, during the last several years, the new photographic technologies, primarily film and TV, provide the images for our imagination.

It is hard to imagine what our lives would be like without the photographic images in TV advertising, entertainment and the 10 o’clock news. What would celebrities and politicians do without photographic images; what would we think of them if we knew them only through their words? (In a recent essay in Harpers, Arthur Miller, in describing contemporary political candidates as actors on TV, points out that the candidates not only paint their faces, but “ the lens magnifies everything; one slight lift of an eyebrow and you look as if you are glaring.” so stay cool. The issues you are debating become almost irrelevant.) More and more, photographs dominate magazines and newspapers. Can you imagine sporting events without photographs of the action? We can read about the cultures of foreign places, but it is photography that makes these places real to us. We can visit these places, but what would a trip be without its photographic record in snapshots, slides and now the video pictures that we take away with us and which ultimately become our memory - the reality - of the trip. Even our awareness of our family histories consists primarily of photographs in albums arranged in chronological order. With photography, we have even learned to see beauty in the ugly things in the world and perhaps we are prevented from wanting to change them.

For almost 150 years, photographs have increasingly determined how we are exposed to what happens in the world and what we think about it. Our reactions to wars, atrocities, famine, natural disasters, poverty, child labor, the Depression, etc. are to a great extent caused by photographic images.

Compare the differences between our attitudes toward the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. In which ones did we come to care about the victims of America firepower? Why? One reason is that we knew and saw nothing and therefore didn’t care about the destruction of Korean and Iraqi villages and civilians because we never saw photographs of it as we did of what happened in Vietnam. The 1968 photograph of South Vietnamese Gen, Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting Viet Cong Capt. Bay Lop in the head on a street in Saigon in 1968 had more effect on turning American attitudes against the war that all the statements by Gen. Westmoreland, Secretary MacNamara and President Johnson in support of the war. (Harper’s correspondent Tom Buckley called this photograph “the moment when the American public turned against the war”) and the 1972 photograph of badly burned 9 year old Kim Phuc running down a road after her village was accidentally napalmed by South Vietnam pilots probably clinched it. There were no such photographs shown of the Gulf War. Military censorship would not allow their publication.

Pictures of marching storm troopers created our fear of the Nazis before WW II. Photos of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau revealed and created the horror we felt toward the Holocaust. Our awareness of starvation in Biafra, the Sahara and Ethiopia, earthquakes in Turkey, genocide in Rwanda, AIDS in South Africa all come to us primarily by means of photographic video and move us more than statistics. Jacob Riis’ photographs of urban squalor at the end of the 19th century was more revealing to Americans than what Dickens wrote about poverty in England. Lewis Hines photographs of the conditions child labor a few years later were a factor in getting child labor laws passed when previously words had little effect. The photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn for the Farm Security Administration in the 30’s created our concerns for farmers during the Depression. Photographs of dogs and fire hoses being used against Civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama were “… (I)n the minds of Americans.…a turning point”. (Charles Moore)

At the same time, however, exposure to and familiarity with such images can tend eventually to deaden our responses. We look at pictures of tragedy, feel horror, helplessness and numbness, turn away and, perhaps, make a charitable contribution to some relief organization.

Our stereotypical conception of people in non-western societies during the first part of the last century was created by the beautiful photographs in National Geographic Magazine that were highly selective and often posed especially for the camera. We came to believe that African and Asiatic peoples were exotic, isolated, primitive and unchanging, none of which is true.

Certainly science and the medical profession have been totally transformed by photography. Areas of study ranging all the way from modern astronomy to nuclear physics could not exist without it. Neither could effective medical diagnosis and surgical techniques. With CAT, MRI, PET and X-rays, the insides of our bodies are almost as real as their outsides.

We know more about the visual arts through reproductions than from originals. (Andre Malraux, in a book about the impact of photography on the Fine Arts called “Museum Without Walls” described how our perception of scale, detail, color, texture of painting, sculpture and other art forms has been literally revolutionized. Many years ago, Walter Benjamin wrote that mechanical (photographic) reproduction of works of art would destroy their aura, that multiple copies would decrease their value. In fact, the opposite has occurred. The publicity created by their duplication in mass media has increased their aura and value many times over.) At the same time, however, photographic reproductions have also prevented or destroyed for many the capacity and desire to respond to the qualities of original artworks. They feel that reproductions, even computer printouts, are as good as originals. (As long as you get the idea)

Because all these images, in some way, involve the reflection of light or other forms of energy from objects in the world on to a surface, they have some obvious connection with what we would call ‘reality’, but just what is the significance of that connection? We tend to believe that photographs are copies of the real world and that because they record what is in front of the camera, photographs look real. The assumption is that the camera either shows us what we would see or what was there when the picture was taken as if both of these ideas were the same. The camera sees like the eye sees. Photographs don’t lie: photographs tell the truth. The key issue here is the mechanical aspect of photography; therefore, it’s apparent objectivity, impersonality and neutrality. We teach concepts and record history in photographs because it is accurate and true, but what kind of truth is communicated by photography? How ‘accurate’ is it? How does photographic reality compare with literary reality? What is the difference between reality in a photograph and a painting of a scene? How objective are photographs - really?


Since the beginning of the Renaissance, western artists worked to develop objective ways of representing ‘reality’, which, by this time, had come to mean appearances rather than the non-visual aspects of reality found in the art of other cultures. The development of geometric and aerial perspectives, chiaroscuro, effects of light, surface detail and the use of the camera obscura all contributed to achieving this goal. (Gombrich describes this effort as “making and matching”, a step-by-step, centuries-long process of more closely approximating accurate appearances.) This (process) resulted in the development of the camera, a seemingly mechanical device for ‘reproducing reality’. With instamatic cameras, one can now simply aim the camera at a subject and reproduce its appearance – its reality - automatically. With the movies and TV, we have the ultimate in realism because now movement is included in the image. The Renaissance seems to have achieved its goal.

The initial issue for photographers and artists in the history of photography had to do the relationship of photography to painting in the representation of nature and people; some people argued that photographs were an aid to painters because they would help the painter be more accurate, others that photography would put them out of work because it could accomplish the same thing more cheaply. Photographers tried to imitate paintings to make them look more aesthetic and painters tried to imitate photographs to make paintings look more realistic. Within 30 years of the invention of the camera in 1839, however, in spite of the creation of some very beautiful, artistic (fuzzy) photographs and realistic paintings, “the photograph was being used for police filing, war reporting, military reconnaissance, pornography, encyclopedic documentation, family albums, postcards, anthropological records (often, as with the Indians, accompanied by genocide), sentimental moralizing, inquisitive probing (the wrongly named “candid camera”), aesthetic affects, news reporting and formal portraiture.” (Berger)

We study photographs to learn about (visual) reality. It is no surprise that, since Delacroix in 1855, artists like Degas (who was an amateur photographer), Courbet, Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Matisse, Rouault , Bacon and even Picasso used photographs as sources for their paintings. As Emile Zola, also an amateur photographer as well as a realist writer, wrote, “In my view, you cannot really claimed to have really seen something until you have photographed it”. We accept photographs as being more objective, real and true than paintings and drawings, even the most meticulously detailed paintings of the Flemish painters and artists like Albrecht Durer. In fact, photographs have become the criteria for reality. “Photographs of a crime scene are more likely to be admitted as evidence in court than paintings or drawings are. Some courts allow reporters to sketch their proceedings but not to photograph them. A sketch of Mr. X in bed with Mrs. Y – even a full color oil painting - would cause little consternation. Photographic pornography is more potent than the painted variety. Published photographs of disaster victims or the private lives of public figures understandably provoke charges of invasions of privacy; similar complaints against the publication of paintings and drawings have less credibility...” (Walton). Some people even take a photograph to be a surrogate, a duplicate, a double of what is in front of the camera. (Scrutton, Bazin, etc.). Snapshots can be tokens; we carry our loved ones around in our wallets or purses. “If you think the baby is beautiful, you should see her photograph”.

As sources of information, however, photographic images do have important limitations. Without context or accompanying verbal or printed text, they are intrinsically ambiguous and potentially deceptive. One picture may be worth 1000 words, but often it may take 1000 words to explain what is happening in the picture. You have to be told what is going on and when its interpretation is changed so is your reaction (e.g. Rodney King).

Photographs are not discursive. You cannot exchange views on philosophy, science, society or the arts through such images (although some conceptual artists try to). You cannot argue with a photograph in the same way you can with the content of a verbal text. By themselves, none of these images can explain or analyze any human experience the same way that verbal language can in that at best they show you how things look rather than how they function. They are not sequential or logical. They are presentational; we see them as wholes.

Also, there are those who will point out the utter unreality of photographs. (Snyder, Allen). A photograph is flat, can be much larger or smaller than its subject; it can be black and white. It can be a partial image of its subject. Photographs are motionless, can show movement as a blur or freeze a moment in time. They can be framed and hung on walls. They can be taken with different kinds of film, (Kodachrome, Ectochrome, etc.) They can be taken with different kinds of lenses, wide-angle or telephoto) different shutter speeds, lens openings. Different techniques create different qualities; there are Daguerreotypes, salt prints, albumen, platinum, gelatin, gum dichromate, carbo, chromogenic, dye-transfer and ink jet prints. Photographic images can be over or under-exposed, increase or decrease contrast. Each of these kinds of images has different qualities – scale, detail, color, texture, etc. and although we tend to be oblivious to their effects, they do play an important part in our responses. Now, with the new technologies, all kinds of new things can be done to such images. Photographs can be digitally manipulated, so that what looks photographic and ‘real’ may not reflect anything that actually exists. More than 100 images a minute can be projected on a video screen - up and down shots, wide-angle and telephoto shots, long shots, close-ups, fast and slow motion shots, high contrast shots - all in the same minute. Photographic images used in advertising, entertainment, drama and politics have all kinds of psychological, non-practical, non-objective effects. I remember McLuhan back in the 60’s making a big deal about the effect of the low-definition, fuzzy, cool TV and photogravure images in newspapers and the detailed, hot images of photographs. It is apparent that the relation of photography to ‘reality’ has become even more problematic.

Only under very rare circumstances can anyone confuse a photograph with reality. Photographs look like photographs. They are not duplicates or illusions of reality. And, since photography has become “digitalized”, photographic images can be manipulated, not only to enhance the appearance of celebrities, models, automobiles and vegetables, but also to create the appearance of objects, people or events which never existed or at least not together. Seeing can no longer be believing. Such images can look like photographs and therefore have all those qualities that we assume are “real”. (Is computer generated, photo-looking pornography as “dangerous” as the “real” thing? In a recent court case, the issue was whether a computer generated image of a child involved in a sexually explicit scene was as illegal as the image of a “real” child in a photograph of a “real” scene. There were charges of racism when an image of O. J. Simpson on the cover of a magazine was made to look darker than was considered appropriate. CBS eliminated the ad for a competitor that appeared in their New Years Eve TV coverage). The fashion photographer, Richard Avedon, says, “There is no such thing as photographic reality. You cannot believe a photograph. And …photography is an art”. And David LaChapelle says, “That is an interesting concept: where to find reality. It used to be you turned to photos for that. People say photos don’t lie. Mine do. I make mine lie.” A few years ago, actress and model, Mira Sorvino, challenged him when photos of her in a magazine were digitally altered to make her look like Joan Crawford rather than Marlene Dietrich as she expected.

Photography is again an art, not only in showing us the beauty in ugly things. With our ability to manipulate it, it can be creative, original, expressive as well as beautiful in all the old-fashioned meanings of the word. But photographs still look real in ways that paintings do not. The exception might be photo-realist paintings by artists like Estes and Goings who paint in the “style” of photographs. No single photograph may necessarily be copied. In fact, a painting derived from the artist’s imagination can be made to look like a photograph. Photography has become an art style like other art styles. Yet photos and photo-realist paintings still tend to look more real than paintings based on the direct vision of a traditional artist. The photographic style is the standard, culturally accepted image of reality. Paintings look real in so far as they look like photographs, but reality doesn’t look like a photograph.

Yet, in spite of its artifice, if we ignore the physical limitations of a traditional photograph (its being black and white, flat, small, etc), the fact remains that, under appropriate circumstances, looking at photography can still be considered a way of seeing the reality of the past and even the present. Light from scenes can be transmitted not only directly through the lens in the eye, but also through eyeglasses, telescopes and microscopes - as well as camera lenses. We can see the appearance of events that occurred long ago, of people long dead, of places that no longer exist. We look at Brady photographs of Civil War dead lying on a battlefield 135 years ago as if we are seeing what was there if we were there. In the same way, we look at telescopic photographs of super novas millions of light years away - which occurred millions of years ago - as if we were there then. We see the appearances of what was happening then now. We see photographic images showing recent events in newspapers, magazines and on TV; we even see events on ‘live’ TV as if we were there now. The time between the event and our seeing its image has been eliminated. The event reflected in the image we are seeing and the event itself seems simultaneous no matter when or where the photograph was taken. (Walton)

The dominance of photographic images in our culture does not mean that the other media disappear. Electronic media did not kill the book or print on paper. Quite the contrary. Computers – e-mail - depend on print. We still listen to TV and radio news. The movies are still talkies. Some of us still read books, newspapers and magazines. But because it is the nature of a dominant medium to become so much a part of our environment that it becomes invisible and we are oblivious to it like a fish is to water. As a result, we are affected by photographic images in ways we do not comprehend. And, in so far as such imagery creates our reality, we can only see and respond, but cannot understand.

(Unfortunately, programs in university media studies whose purpose it is to explore such issues are bogged down in the conflicts between various theoretical views. There are psychological, social, political, economic and even anthropological aspects of photography that I have not touched upon because for the most part the literature in these fields is too obscure for me. I have tried to avoid the cultural or communication theorists. I know that theorists from Adorno, Benjamin and McLuhan to Lyotard, Baudrillard, Eagleton, Jameson and Stanley Fish have written extensively on the social implications of technological mass media from Marxist, Structuralist, Post-structuralist and Neo-Modernist points of view. I have stayed way from discussing the “economic oligarchies that control the mass media as a late manifestation of neo-capitalism”. I am unconcerned in this paper about whether the content of mass media should be deconstructed to determine the real meaning of their messages or analyzed in terms of its political implications. Given this situation, it seems to me that the study of the significance of photography in our culture is too important to be left to these kinds of theorists. And, if politics can be eliminated, Media Studies should play a much larger part in our schools than it does.

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