The Transparency of Photographs

There were several distinctions I felt Kendall Walton was making in his 1984 essay titled: Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism, which I tried to sum up in a less complex way.


Photographs and paintings appear different fundamentally to the viewer but how so? Firstly I thought it was pertinent to admit the realistic differences between photographs and seeing with human eyes.

Distortions affect photographs differently to how the human eye sees the world but if you accept these differences (especially with wide angle lenses), a photograph for a lot of people unarguably records something that was there. This is because of photography’s indexical properties.

I think Andre Bazin, in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” What Is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray, vol. 1 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967) was referring to the indexical properties of photographs with the quote: ‘No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the [photographic] image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model’. Even so, I felt this was not exactly true; although a photograph shares the visual characteristics of the model of which it is the reproduction, it is never the actual model because it is in the form of a photograph.

Paintings differ from photographs because ‘paintings needn’t picture actual things’. With photographs on the other hand, ‘a photograph is always a photograph of something which actually exists’ (even if it is of something fake) – Walton (1984).

I believe this affects us as people because we (usually) automatically know a photograph is a photograph when we see it. This is unless the photograph is very abstract.

Walton then attempts to distinguish between two depictions of something ‘real’, a photographic rendition and a painting. He makes the assertion that photography offered a new way of seeing; that of looking into the past by looking through the photograph. I believe he is correct that photographs are unlike other tools for vision in that we see through the photograph into another world to a certain extent. However, this seeing through a photograph doesn’t pick up on the nuances of the scene/things around the frame. Also I believe he misses the greater context of time and place in which the viewer was seeing the photograph to allow for the past event to remain truthful.

For example if someone was looking at a photo of a loved one, they would see through the frame if gazing intently, so they would be perceiving their loved one (a past version). However, they would not be so aware of what was around the subject (outside of the frame) and in this sense the viewer sees the memory of the subject of the photograph, not the contents of the photograph. Also they’d be less aware of what was around them as they were viewing the photograph where they are then absorbed by the photograph and at that moment believe it to be true.


As an aside, it could be argued that virtual reality glasses, while offering a believable alternate to reality, are not as realistic to photographs in seeing terms. This would be in the as yet unmatched subtleties in shade and tone a photograph produces that virtual reality can’t reproduce. A (film) photograph naturally does as it is recording light onto a negative and a digital photograph records the light digitally and then the digital signals are reproduced in high fidelity visually.

Yet conversely, virtual reality, it could be argued, is more realistic in terms of actuality than photographs because you believe you are actually there and the objects before you are real to an extent. This is even more so than with traditional film footage – you fictionally see like you are there the whole time. This is because the seeing goes ‘straight’ to the sense organs (the eyes) – there is no ‘seeing through’ to do. Yet it still has the same attributes to photography when it comes to truth and trust or more so because the viewer presumably knows it’s fictional.

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