Saturday, April 22, 2023

We Need a Word

Well, if not a word, at least we need to admit the existence of a category.

Since the inception of photography, we've been treating photorealistic figurative depictions of stuff and photographs as more or less the same thing. Yes, it's certainly true that there have always been exceptions. Photos that aren't very figurative, and paintings that are very very realistic, and so on. Technically we have acknowledged the distinctions.

In practical terms, though, as a society, as a culture, we have tended to grumpily brush those away. Abstract photographs have to struggle a little to get traction. Photorealistic paintings were rare and weird. We could, in practical terms, treat the two categories as the same by simply glaring at the occasional exceptions.

And yet there is a category of figurative photorealistic things. A photograph of a banana, whether you believe my specific theories about photorealistic depictions, hits differently than some abstract expressionist painting of a banana, or a pointillist painting, or even a Renaissance still life thing. You've got to paint very very carefully indeed to land inside the same reaction as a photo of a banana — even a black and white photo. But you know, you can paint that carefully.

There are objects that people look at and think "why, it looks just like a banana" and there are other objects that people look at and think "what a nice painting of a banana" and still others where they think "what the fuck is that, is it supposed to be a banana?"

None of these categories have crisp edges, of course. There's an element of subjectivity, and even the viewer's mood.

The categories nevertheless exist, and they don't mind being a bit fuzzy around the edges.

Also, we can't really ignore the situation much longer.

We've entered the land of dipshits asking if AI renderings are "photographs" and the answer is obviously "no, and you are dumb, please close your food hole to muffle the noises coming out of it."

Just as a placeholder, let's call these photorealistic figurative representations of stuff photoids. It's my blog, you can't stop me.

Most photographs are photoids and, up until now at least, most photoids are photographs.

There are things that are obviously photographs. Let's say a relatively small amount of post-processing or whatever. I literally do not care. It's a fuzzy category, the edges probably contain a lot of heavily photoshopped or composited stuff, or AI renders based on a photo, or whatever. It's fuzzy, who cares? There's stuff in the middle of the category that pretty much everyone is going to agree is pretty much definitely a photo (a frame of Tri-X souped in D76 and printed on Ilford grade 2 paper with minimal burning and dodging, say, but it doesn't matter.)

There are things that are photoids. A lot of photographs, for one thing, but also a lot of AI renders, and some Chuck Close paintings.

There are photographs that pretty definitely are not photoids, notably anything that's pretty abstract. Some photomicrograph of a bug's wing or whatever, so close it represents nothing you can identify. So it's Tri-X souped in D76 and printed on Ilford, it's a photograph but not a photoid because it doesn't look like anything. Except to a bug scientist, for whom maybe it is still a photoid. The categories, while real, are both fuzzy and subjective.

There are photoids that are not photographs, like some AI renders and some Chuck Close paintings.

The point here is that photoid and photograph represent different categories. The categories overlap a lot, but they're not the same, and they're defined completely differently. Define them how you will in the details, it doesn't matter, they're still different things.

The advent of widespread AI renders of photoids means, I subject, that we can no longer usefully ignore the distinction. Someone please think up a better word than photoid.


  1. Stupid toy for no-talent grifters about covers it.

    1. Well, yes. AI Art has another year or so before people become bored and wander off.

      We still need a word.

  2. I think you need to think this one through a bit more. If AI produces "photoids", then what purpose is served by putting them in the same category as, um, photorealistic photographs, if they, too, are "photoids"? Especially if a microphotograph of a bee's wing has to go in the same category as an abstract painting, simply because it's not immediately obvious what it is a photorealistic rendition of?

    I can't see what question or problem this "necessary" word would be an answer to. Surely it would just muddy the waters even more?


  3. We need lots of words, most likely ones we already have. That is, the source of a 'picture' now needs to be explained, with less or more detail depending on how interesting it is. Pedants like me are delighted. We get to say our favorite word even more: "Actually, ...." as in "Actually, it's a silver gelatin print that was scanned and then the digital file was converted to a hologram that was projected into space and reflected off a satellite and then detected by a radio telescope and attached to tweet that ended up being used in advertising by Samsung. Good likeness of a banana, innit?"

  4. I don't get what the hullaballoo is all about. We've had pretty fucking excellent, photorealistic cgi in the movies for a couple of decades now, but that takes talent, intelligence, and real effort -- even if these qualities aren't so evident in the storylines being proferred.

    Now any dumb mook that knows a few words can do a bad imitation on tiktok. Actually (thank you Matt), this isn't so different from what photography is? Hmmm.

  5. Photorealistic CGI in movies is one of the many cases that we've been kind of just glaring at and wishing would go away.

    I'm pretty confident that we're not gonna GET a word, and sure, maybe we don't need one. Still, we do have people wondering if "it looks like a photo" makes it a photo, but only in some cases, which makes no sense. Nobody claims CGI in movies is photography, but there's this weird thing around AI imagery, which is... just CGI?

    At the same time I think that there's at least a little "that's not REALLY a photograph" that the abstraction people get.

    I think it's important at least that people get clear in their minds the categories, because they pretty clearly do not at the moment. This doesn't necessarily require a word, or words, but they'd sure help.