Thursday, April 17, 2014

What Looks Real?

It seems that every time someone mentions the idea of photographs looking real, or not looking real, or whatever, a chorus starts up about how every photograph is inherently false. I've beaten this drum myself, mostly in discussions of photojournalism. The name of the game, from the chorus' point of view, is to shout down the idea that a photograph "looking real" is a meaningful, and to make themselves look terribly clever in the process.

As usual, the chorus is is quite wrong. Any fool can see that some photographs look real, and others look fake, and there's some sort of grey area as well. The fact that the chorus isn't capable of sorting out what's going on doesn't mean that nothing is going on. Here's what's going on.

No photograph is a "true" representation of reality, to be sure. Neither is what we see a "true" representation of reality, our eyes and visual cortex are mighty liars. This matters for discussion of photojournalism, where there is a planted axiom to the effect that a good photojournalistic picture is "true", but it doesn't matter for most other contexts.

A photograph "looks real" for you if, when I give you the photograph and allow you to compare it with that which was photographed, you respond intuitively "that picture looks like the thing it is a picture of". It's entirely subjective, and partly some sort of social construct, but much of the time many people will tend to agree. It changes over time, as well. 50 years ago, most people were willing to accept black and white photographs as looking "real", but now very few people will. Younger people will likely accept saturated colors and HDR-style processing as "looking real" whereas old bastards like me won't.

Photographs are not even remotely "real" but we train ourselves, and are trained, to accept certain things and to not accept certain other things.

  • There are photographs that "look real"
  • There are photographs that "look fake"
  • There are photographs that are in some grey area between these two
None of these photographs actually is an accurate representation of reality.

So, next time someone wants to wave off the idea of a photograph looking real, you can tell them to go pound sand.

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