What makes a document? -Realism

Highlighters. Highlighters – How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

Gotta love a bit of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, almost as much asI love my highlighters. Do you think she would mind me appropriating her poem to describe my love of stationery? Or do you think, like some photographers, she would feel that her creation was not being put to a suitable purpose? When I nicked it for fun – to demonstrate my need for colourful writing implements – to talk about one of my modes for learning (I do enjoy a bit of kinesthetic “touchy-feely” learning. Seriously, I do find, despite using PDFs and reading PDFs, there is nothing better than to sit, pen in hand, frantically scribbling over bits of paper in front of me. When I get round to starting my physical learning log, hopefully next week, as I already have a pile of papers to insert, this will become more apparent) I wasn’t linking it to appropriation and usage, or Barthes but that’s the problem with immersing yourself into study mode. Everything links to photography! The other problem is branching off research…so I wrote “writing implement” and wondered “is there a better word for pen than that”…hmmm everything comes up with alternative words like trapped or sty so writing implement remained…the next thought was “where does the word ‘pen’ come from?” Easier to find and obvious really, original pens were invariably quills made from feathers, the word feather in Latin is Penna…so we learn everyday and not always solely that which we set out to learn!

But I have now been here for over half an hour and still not entered a post about what I am supposed to be doing..kicks self..Realism…

In the previous post concerning the history of documentary the emphasis was on how the images were used to capture historic moments, real places, real people, real events. The images placed in front of people were believable and believed. There appears to have been more trust placed in photography and its ability to accurately record a scene in front of the photographer. No-one then wondered if Andrew Gardner, renowned American Civil War photographer, had moved dead bodies into different positions, even going so far as taking them to different locations, adding props so he could record more powerful scenes. I liked the term coined by one of the commentators on this article; as Photoshop hadn’t been invented yet Gardner was in the habit of “realityshopping.”

Yet photography was, and is, used as a “documenting process” with the French Missions Héliographiques commissioned by the government to record their historic monuments, proffering an air of legitimacy to the art form:

Photography itself was the technical analogue to the absolute belief in the legitimacy of appearances, a belief whose philosophical expression was, of course, positivism and whose artistic expression was realism and naturalism. (Solomon-Godeau,1994 p.155)

And onto the exercise which is to read the first three sections (pp 1-8) of the essay “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism” by Kenneth L Walton and to write a reflective commentary in my learning log outlining my views on his ideas of photographic transparency… I have not read him before and have no inkling what this essay is about so diving in with fresh eyes and an open mind… see you in a while…


Well…that’s several hours of my morning gone! I have lots of thoughts opinions and side notes about this essay which can’t possibly be condensed into 200 words so what I shall do is waffle on about initial thoughts, and side research, then write a summary. I could probably do it in one word but that isn’t the aim of the game or possibly polite!

To begin, I like the way the essay opens up with quotes from opposing points of view. The first from André Bazin, a French critic, film theorist and social activist, who argues “The photographic image is the object itself,” and the other from Edward Steichen who stated that “Every photograph is a fake from start to finish.” However, that’s where I found myself feeling a bit dubious about the essay and as suspected he was taking Bazin’s quote literally. Or seemed to be arguing from that stance. Also Steichen, during World War I, had helped establish the first U.S. aerial reconnaissance operation and therefore knew the importance of accurate “real” images. Note the importance here of selective quotations to back up your argument or thesis as Bazin has also said about photographs that they are “a kind of decal or transfer” and “it is its tracings” which implies he recognises that they aren’t the object itself more of a copied image.

I’ll then jump to the final paragraph where Walton states “we have uncovered a major source of the confusion” within academic writings being the “failure to distinguish ….between a viewer’s really seeing something through a photograph and his fictionally seeing something directly.

My confusion seems to stem from all the flip flopping of the argument that Walton himself had. He tied himself in knots on the subject of Bazin; his language, I would go so far as to say was in places petty, simplistic and insulting, or is he merely using hyperbole to get his point across?

In the opening paragraph Walton tells us that Bazin and others consider photographs to be “extraordinarily realistic” and proceeds to rubbish his views from then on; one minute stating “perhaps we shouldn’t take his [Bazin’s] words [The photographic image is the object itself] literally” (another seriously dude? moment) then “there is no readily apparent non-literal reading of them” and that Bazin assumes ‘reality’ due to the mechanical process of capturing the image as opposed to “handmade” images. (down Walter Benjamin) Walton then states “That photography is a supremely realistic medium may be the common sense view,” citing Steichen to back him up that “it is by no means universal” casting doubt on this idea. However, reading on, Walton states “I shall argue that…it deserves to be called a supremely realistic medium.” Hang on I also just read him saying “My claim is we see quite literally, our dead relatives when we look at photographs.” Sorry, what? Or is he saying that Bazin was right just his reasoning was wrong? Or because Walton wasted a good bit of ink explaining what he meant by see we understand that he doesn’t mean his Grandfather is actually 8×6 whereas Bazin obviously meant that a lump of granite in California is that small…sorry being just as hypercritical as Walton.

I did find I agreed with many of the points he made to argue the case of public acceptance of images as factual, honest representations: the use of forensic photographs at trial, replays of sports events (think how useful goal mouth replays are now and racing photo-finishes) that certain images are regarded as invasion of privacy…if we argue photographs do not represent realism then we could argue that they are then not invading privacy.

Written in 1984 the essay touches upon photo-realistic paintings v photographs but skills appear to have moved on since then as can be seen here. This is mentioned as to separate why photographs are considered real and paintings aren’t, although both are representations and none are the thing itself (down Magritte). It is a slippery path to be on as you then get into the semantics of  them being interpretations by the photographer/artist and therefore open to the baggage each brings to the table. I did agree with his remarks that a photograph is always a photograph of something that actually exists despite it being disguised or playing a role, whereas a painting could be total fantasy eg his example of unicorns.

Then I fell about laughing at some of the examples of realism he gave; immediately after commenting on claims that the photographs of Abraham Lincoln are more realistic than paintings of him, is where he state that photography is special and deserves the label of being a “supremely realistic medium.”  Sorry what? I thought everyone knew about the stitching together of John Calhoun’s body and Lincoln’s head? Note the importance of choosing examples that  unequivocally support your argument.

There is a lot of repetition on the “special nature” of photography. I don’t see it as special just different. There is also a lot of emphasis on the interpretation of the word “see” as opposed to “perceive” oh, how easy it is to spend hours debating the meaning of a word. If I show someone a photograph and state “that’s my garden” I am sure they realise that I don’t mean it literally IS my garden, but rather a representation on paper or more likely on my phone, that we all understand  to be a perception of my garden.

Finally, five pages in we get to read about transparency, the main title of the essay. Walton argues that photographs are transparent, they enable us to have a perception of the world (Blink and you miss it) that seeing is a way to find out about the world and we see through photographs. How then can’t we see through paintings? If we look at a representation or whatever you want to call a photo and realise that it is just a snap shot in time and derive other information about it then why not the same of a painting. He chooses Henry the VIII as an example, saying we only see a representation of him and that a painting is fictional. But then he isn’t as fussy in his definition of fictional – being invented, make-believe or imaginary. If a true painting (and I’m not going down the route of constructed, politically biased paintings) Henry VIII it isn’t any of those. Although he might have argued that the painting of Anne of Cleeves was! For an image to be transparent, to be able to see the world through it you need to first understand the world it is partially describing.

Having read a lot about his Aunty Mabel she was probably grimacing because she’d just read his essay and had to summarise her view in 200 words! But I guess that is now what I need to do…

‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ by Kenneth L Walton

On reading the title I assumed that Transparent Pictures meant seeing the truth of and behind the images taken rather than seeing the world through them, but I was incorrect it was more conceptual. I don’t feel that on reaching the end of the sections I had to read Walton had ever reached any real conclusion of his own with regards to realism, as he does in places seem to argue against his own points. At the end of page 8 he acknowledges that there are differing points of view; confusion lies within those views due to a total failure to distinguish between accepting a photograph that can help you perceive the existence of an object/person and, through that an idea of the world beyond, and fictionally seeing something directly. This can be explained a little more clearly if you listen to an interview here which I found through another blog where Walton expands that if you see a photograph of Judy Garland dressed as Dorothy you see a photograph of Judy Garland but a picture of Dorothy.

His tone when discussing Bazin was disconcerting and examples and quotes did not necessarily help to prove many of the points he was trying to make, nor did his inconsistency when using the word ‘literally.’ I found it difficult to understand in places, not due to any technical jargon or confusing concepts just that he seemed to jump about a bit with his ideas.

Whilst I agree with a few of his observations on how and why the realism or accepted realism of images can be maintained, it all seemed to fall apart in places, maybe that’s because I felt aggravated by the points made above. To answer the exercise question of what do I think about photographic transparency I have to admit that I agree with his statement of seeing the world through photographs and that cameras and photography have opened up a new way of seeing. Although a person’s experiences, background and preexisting knowledge of the world will impact on that transparency. I don’t think it is special just different.

Some things to note for myself and future essay writing: the importance of good quotes, the importance of not appearing to undermine your own argument and to be coherent with points being made.


Copyright (2016) André Bazin – cinema and media studies – Oxford bibliographies – obo. Available at: http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199791286/obo-9780199791286-0006.xml (Accessed: 16 October 2016).

Heppenheimer, T.A. (2006) Steichen’s navy. Available at: http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/steichens-navy-11442318/?no-ist (Accessed: 16 October 2016).

Solomon-Godeau Salzmann – documents (2015) Available at: http://docslide.us/documents/solomon-godeau-salzmann.html (Accessed: 16 October 2016).

The bizarre practice of staging civil war photographs (2014) Available at: http://knowledgenuts.com/2014/11/24/the-bizarre-practice-of-staging-civil-war-photographs/ (Accessed: 16 October 2016).

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