Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism

Critical Inquiry 11 (2):246-277 (1984)
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That photography is a supremely realistic medium may be the commonsense view, but—as Edward Steichen reminds us—it is by no means universal. Dissenters note how unlike reality a photograph is and how unlikely we are to confuse the one with the other. They point to “distortions” engendered by the photographic process and to the control which the photographer exercises over the finished product, the opportunities he enjoys for interpretation and falsification. Many emphasize the expressive nature of the medium, observing that photographs are inevitably colored by the photographer’s personal interests, attitudes, and prejudices.1 Whether any of these various considerations really does collide with photography’s claim of extraordinary realism depends, of course, on how that claim is to be understood.Those who find photographs especially realistic sometimes think of photography as a further advance in a direction which many picture makers have taken during the last several centuries, as a continuation or culmination of the post-Renaissance quest for realism.2 There is some truth in this. Such earlier advances toward realism include the development of perspective and modeling techniques, the portrayal of ordinary and incidental details, attention to the effects of light, and so on. From its very beginning, photography mastered perspective. Subtleties of shading, gradations of brightness nearly impossible to achieve with the brush, became commonplace. Photographs include as a matter of course the most mundane details of the scenes they portray—stray chickens, facial warts, clutters of dirty dishes. Photographic images easily can seem to be what painters striving for realism have always been after. 2. See André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” What is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray, vol. 1, p. 12; all further references to this work, abbreviated “OPI,” will be included in the text. See also Rudolf Arnheim, “Melancholy Unshaped,” Toward a Psychology of Art: Collected Essays, p. 186. Kendall L. Walton is professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan. He is currently completing a book on representation in the arts.



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Kendall Walton
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

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