IC 4 - Is a photograph 'really real'? We are all actors. / by Chris Chucas

Is the Nature of the photograph ‘really real’

Although this sounds like a simple question to me it’s loaded with problems before I even try to answer it. First of all from a philosophical point of view reality is a very subjective and controversial topic. 

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” 

― Albert Einstein

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality. - (Aristotle)

I’m not an expert in philosophy at all but found some interesting reading from a recent philosophical hypothesis with regards to ‘Simulation’ an idea that it’s quite plausible that we could be living in a computer simulation. 

A popular argument for the simulation hypothesis came from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Boston in 2003, when he suggested that members of an advanced civilisation with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors.  They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.



The reason I mention this is because I think before thinking about answers to questions posed surely we should ask ourselves if we’re qualified to make such opinions and if we have the right facts. I’m not going to attempt to navigate the intricate nuances of simulation theory but the fact there are renewed academics in their replicative fields saying it is a possibility makes me think about our perception of reality from a photographers point of view. Firstly with the abundance of theory showing us that the world as we see it might not be what it appears, it makes me think, why does it matter? We could spend our whole lives trying not to worry about things that are not real but of course we do worry because they feel real to us. Is it important if a photograph is real or not?

I’ve always found it interesting how we look at images and decode them and based on semi optics. When we look at making the images in the first place it’s preciously here that the objectivity of the photograph is lost and we begin to apply prejudice in the chosen of subject matter, framing, composition, and most importantly by being there in the first place makes  difference to what is happening.  

Certain ethical and stylistic consequences follow from the close connection between photography and "physical reality" or "the facts of the moment." The picture taker is on slippery ethical ground since "the photographer is part of the situation he depicts" and his picture, like the photon in atomic physics "upsets the facts on which it reports" -Synder and Allen (p. 152, 151).
CIndy Sherman.jpg

I like the way that Cindy Sherman plays with this notion of how we deconstruct images by playing with conventions. In her picture Untitled film still number 14 it looks indicative of a hollywood film still becuase of the way it has been shot. The lightening the framing and composition along with her face with it's reactionary look would not look out of place if it were presented as a film still. But by choosing to deliberately archive this look and even name the work 'film stills she commented on this notion of looking and how we look at photographs and challenging the viewers to re evaluate what their seeing. I find a lot of her work inspirational as was fighting back at how women were though to be treated and presented like objects. That's something that still happens today but I think Sherman's work was brave in challenging these sterotypes and her untitled film stills were a way for her to express her anxiety how she felt living and working in NYC as a female at that time. 

The debate continues is this a real picture? She was there in front of those buildings and wearing that outfit , she set up the tripod and took the image. That happened so in one sense it is real. Is this photograph captured spontaneously capturing a subject that's unaware? No. Is it fake or unreal? I don;t know. It's hard to argue that this is not 'fake ' because it is intentionally trying to look like certain type of photograph by copying it's conventions. I'm not saying this is wrong at all, if anything i would argue that the everyday way of thinking about photographs needs to be challenged. It's an inward reflection of Sherman's world so to her it's real or at least based in a reality in how she was feeling. 


“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” 
― Susan Sontag, On Photography

I agree with Sontags sentiment that the oversa

We are all actors

Another artist I've looked at closely and can find inspirational although I don't really work in a similar way is Jeff Wall but I'm looking at producing work in a similar way.

In his interview he talks about being asked about the notion of staging within his photographs. 

" A gentleman came and asked about the staging of the people in the photograph,, and Jeff very politely commented " I  don't stage,  I work with people." '  -Thierry de Duve ( quoting Jeff Wall) 


I don’t make sets, I wanna be a bit of a sticky about this vocabulary  for a reason phtoography is still being id d as an art form i dont believe we really do know it as well as we know painting,… we’ve had painting for a thousand years and its part of our tradition. - Jeff Wall 08:30 
The replica that becomes a document that vanishes into the picture to me its  a dialectic, lets say a movement inside of our experience, our aesthetic experience... art is made essential to be an experience it's an experiential thing .... and it's also a judgement of quality.  Jeff W
jeff wall mimic.jpg

During that interview linked above Jeff Wall talks about his strong objection to his work being called fake or false. To paraphrase in very blunt terms Wall walks us through our cultural understanding of 'reportage' work. Which loosely defined is generally accepted as work made with no interaction or collaboration ( even with the most minimal of interaction this is still achievable in my opinion as I've mentioned previously). I also agree with Wall's words on the viewers job in interpreting the image. Thierry de Duve quotes Wall   

The only narrative element in the picture is supplied by the viewer not the director or screenwriter. 35: 28

I really enjoy how Wall employs his relationship with cinema and how we decode images and motion with this sense of narrartive and search for meaning. The idea that the viewer brings their realty to the image. It is subjective albet Wall embracing that but also defending it as documentary and not fake is something I can support. As he mentions he is different to film directors and or screen writers in the sense he using people and their behaviour even if they are acting, by getting non trained actors to do tasks over and over and stripping away the performance the left over results are a document of the behaviour. 

This is enough for me to abandon any defence of a photograph being ‘really real’. The term itself ‘really real’ means different things to different people. For example a photograph of a book could prove the existence of a book to a viewer and although the cover could resemble a book they own the pages could be empty in the photographed version. It’s not proof of anything, our problem comes becuase we’ve culturally grown and evolved over the lifetime of photography.

It’s inventors and creators had intentions using it for ‘scientific recording’ and trying to do objectively and the problem with the audience behind with photography’s perculiialr quality to render the world with such life like appearance unlike any other medium that came before it. How could something that looks so real not be true? Fast forward to today and the amount of digital imagery around let alone the amount of digital manipulation it’s hard to decipher what is truthful ( although photographs cannot be completely truthful because of the flawed nature in which a photograph has to be made ( with a human at some point of the process) and what is not.  

Photographs cannot be completely truthful and thats ok to me. It’s a medium of expression, it can have elements of truthfulness but cannot be an objective record. I use it as a record of my opinion and thoughts both inwardly and self reflective and outwardly. In both cases they are my opinions and ways in which I look at the world with parts of it out of my control and other aspects within my control. Objectivity in a photograph is impossible.