Week 2 – Photography and its relationship with reality


The theme raises different points of view around the theme of reality, representation and authentication in photography.


Diane Arbus, The boy with the hand granade

Reality might be interpreted as what you really see, and some believe that photos should be faithful to that. In Snyder and Allen (1975), first we are presented Emerson (1889) who describes photographs as detached and objective, being a visual impression of the observer. He called it as naturalism and was supported by other names such as Andre Bazin, who described photography as a mechanical process in which men had no part on it. (Bazin, 1967, p.12).


Futhermore, Rudolf Arnheim in claiming that “the physical objects themselves print the images” (p.148) removes all human factor in the image making process. Moreover, when comparing to a painting, in which images are created and have a complete freedom in creativity, photographs here depict what is already there and the photographer only captures and organizes the material.


Opposing this thought, which was not universally accepted, others thought that photographer should use images to interpret the world and could make use of elements such as distortion and film grain in order to change the images according to one’s perception. There is a description of the elements that the photographs have to make use to create an image and that the first interpretation was very superficial. This included the type of lens, focus, dept of field, point of view, location, film used, post-production and paper for the photo to be printed.


Therefore, if someone would be following the idea that human’s have no input on the creation of the image, there should not exist any retouching, distortion, combination of negatives or creative printing methods allowed. Nowadays we know some types of photographs which has built-in formulas, such as passport photos and commercial photography. But art photography should not have formulas and emotions should be considered, this is what defines us as humans.


“Emotion without cognition is blind, cognition without emotion is vacuous”(Barret, p.153)


Dorothea Lange

Even though Szarkowski describes photography to deal with the actual and that the photographer had to accept that (Szarkowski, p.8), he also claimed that they were different, even when they looked the same. On the other hand, Shore, who created a visual grammar to interpret photographs just like Szarkoski, includes the Mental Level, which suggest that the photographer has the power to construct, hiding or showing details of information. He also describes as photography as “a complex ongoing spontaneous interaction of observation, understanding, imagination and intention” (Shore, p.76).


Another aspect that should not be forgotten is the culture and language in which the image exists, and this will be very relevant to its interpretation. Barthes uses semiotics and describes most signs as mediated by language. These signs are not natural of irrational, they are learned. Connotations and metaphors can be used to transmit ideas and thoughts in images and what is real is subject to interpretation.

aziz_cucher1 Pam and Kim, 1995

The world of photography is in constant transformation and nowadays, with digital post-processing, it is changing again. Art movements as early as the pictorialism in the late 19th century already used photography to make images, rather than taking them. The surrealism movement in the 20th century aimed to release the creative potential unconscious mind.  The post-modernism is accepting photographs as part of an artistic process.






Barthes, R. (1980). Camera Lucida: Hill & Wang

Szarkowski, J. (1966) The Photographers Eye. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. Berger, J. (2013). Understanding a Photograph. Aperture. 

Snyder, J. Walsh, A. (1975) Photography, Vision, and Representation. Critical Inquiry. Vol.2, pp175

Swinnen and Deneulin (2010) The weight of Photography: Photography History Theory and Criticism.

https://aphototeacher.com/discussions/ (accessed on the 08/02/2019)

http://www.lehman.edu/vpadvance/artgallery/gallery/fact_fiction_truth/index.htm(accessed on the 08/02/2019)

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