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Realism in Photography

story © Michael Betancourt | published August 22, 1998 | permalink | TwitThis Digg Facebook StumbleUpon  |  


The most self-evident element of photography is also is its most commonly unconsidered: realism. It is that we find this to be a self-evident quality that leaves us with the feeling that of course photography is realist in depiction. Thats what photographs are. We think of photo-ids, the photo-finish, and the photographic memory. All present us with an essential tie to reality through their depiction. This is why we say of a photograph that it is what it shows. We dont really mean that a photograph of a dog really is that dog, but that it shows us how that dog really looks. The idea is that in some base (mechanical) fashion the photograph has captured the dog; the dog has been shot, the photograph is the trophy.

Such a conception of photography has been known by many different names, the best known of which is straight photography meaning that the image is unmanipulated by the photographer. This idea is founded upon a belief in the direct connection between the photograph and the reality it depicts. The belief in a direct connection between photograph and reality as the essential characteristic of photography has lead to a marginalization of any abstract (or non-objective) photographic work as well as those photographers whose work, while realist in depiction, is the product of manipulation and constructive processes. That this work requires unusual levels of virtuosity in the darkroom has aided in it marginalization. Such processes have been a potential almost since the invention of photography as the work of Rejlander testifies. However, with the advent of the digital darkroom, many of the techniques and processes which previously were the domain of a few exceptionally talented practitioners are readily available to the majority of photographers.

Because of the proliferation and ease of use of the many photographic manipulation programs (of which the best-known are Corel and Adobe Photoshop) it is necessary to reconsider that self-evident characteristic, realism. Simply because a photograph presents a realist depiction of its subject-matter does not necessarily mean that it is a document of that presented reality.


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