From its very beginnings, photography was understood and experienced in terms of its capacity for realism. “It is not merely the likeness which is precious . . . but the sense of nearness involved in the thing . . . the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever,” wrote Elizabeth Barret in 1843 (quoted in Sontag 1977, 183). Soon it would be used to record events and document many aspects of the world, not just in people’s family albums, but also in science, medical training, police work, military reconnaissance, and many other spheres of activity. Yet photography also developed into an art form, with highly allegorical tableaux vivants that “combined the sensuous beauty of the fine print with the moral beauty of the fine image” (Mike Weaver, quoted in Wells 2000, 262). In the twentieth century both these aspects of photography would continue to develop: documentary photography and photojournalism with masters such as Erich Salomon, Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Frank; and photography as a form of modern art with, for instance, the formal, quasi-abstract landscapes of Edward Weston and the nudes of Bill Brandt.
In a similar way film started both as a medium for capturing reality and as a new form of theatre. As the Lumière brothers sent cameramen across the world to record sites of interest including The Grand Canal of Venice, shot from a gondola, Georges Méliès, who had been a magician, built the world’s first film studio in Montreuil and used the medium for trick films such as The Man with the Rubber Head and Disappearance of a Lady, and for science fiction fantasies such as Trip to the Moon and Voyage across the Impossible. The two kinds of films looked very different. In Lumière’s Arrival of a Train at the Station of La Ciotat (1896), one of the earliest films ever to be screened, a train enters a station and moves toward the camera, and the people on the platform too move toward or away from the camera. In Méliès’s films the camera was static, positioned in front of a stage, observing the spectacle, rather than in the middle of the action.
Realism In The History Of Film Theory
These two sides of photography and film have also dominated theory and criticism. In the 1950s, André Bazin (1971) called film “the deathmask of reality” and advocated the use of long takes that show events unfolding in real time and renege on the medium’s capacity to condense or, occasionally, expand time through editing. In the same period, Siegfried Kracauer wrote that photography and film should aim for an “impersonal, completely artless camera record” (1960, 12) and “represent significant aspects of physical reality without trying to overwhelm that reality – so that the raw material focused upon is both left intact and made transparent” (1960, 23). Almost all significant new developments in the cinema of the time claimed to advance the cause of realism – postwar neorealism in Italy, the early nouvelle vague films in France, the British kitchen sink dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the cinema vérité style of US documentary filmmakers such as Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, Leacock, and Wiseman.
For others film could only be an art insofar as it went beyond the “simple” reproduction of reality. The constructivist Soviet filmmakers and theorists of the 1920s, for instance, experimented with “creative geography,” constructing a nonexistent location by combining shots taken in different locations and using editing to make them seem adjacent. In the 1930s Rudolf Arnheim (1967) argued that only the medium’s shortcomings, the way in which it reduces what it records, could allow it to develop into a new art form. The absence of the third dimension, the absence of colour (in the black-and-white era), and the absence of the nonvisual world of the senses should not be seen as a loss, he said, but as a gain: “Only gradually . . . the possibility of utilising the difference between film and real life for the purpose of making formally significant images was realised” (Arnheim 1967, 42).
In the 1960s the dominant realist aesthetic was challenged by a combination of semiotics and Marxism. In Mythologies (1977), Roland Barthes attacked The Family of Man, a key 1950s exhibition of documentary photographs that featured Dorothy Lange’s iconic 1930s portrait of a poverty-stricken mother and child on the cover of its catalogue. Barthes denounced as a bourgeois “myth” the exhibition’s aim to show the universality of human actions across the world: “The failure of photography seems to me flagrant in this connection: to reproduce death or birth tells us, literally, nothing . . . Yes, these are facts of nature, universal facts. But if one removes History from them, there is nothing more to be said” (Barthes 1977, 101). As in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, realism was now seen as a bourgeois art form that naturalizes the status quo of bourgeois society.
Bertolt Brecht became an important reference point for both filmmakers and theorists. “Less than at any time does a simple reproduction of reality tell us anything about reality,” Brecht had said in the 1930s, “Therefore something has to actually be constructed, something artificial, something set up” (quoted in Wells 2000, 108).
In the late 1960s, filmmakers like Godard would heed this call and use Brecht’s “alienation effect” to insure audiences would realize they were looking at a film, at something constructed, rather than at a “mechanical” record of reality. Film theorist Colin MacCabe (1974), in the pages of the then very prominent UK film journal Screen denounced the “classic realist text,” which, he argued, presents the dominant discourse, not as a discourse, but as objective fact. Although other discourses can get a hearing in “classic realist texts,” they are “between quotation marks,” while the dominant discourse functions like the voice of the omniscient narrator in realist novels and always has the last word. Only films that do not privilege one discourse and leave the inevitable contradictions unresolved could be truly “revolutionary” and allow viewers to examine the issues for themselves.
Influence Of New Technologies On Theory
As theorists argued against the idea that photography and film can record reality “as it is”, and as this anti-realist view was taught to generations of media students, photography and film themselves began to be overtaken, first by video, and then by the new digital media with their much greater potential for image manipulation. The strongest reaction against this development came from photojournalists. In a celebrated article titled “The end of photography as we have known it”, Fred Ritchen argued that photography’s “fact-based, mechanistic qualities, which have been able to change world opinion even against the most powerful governments, have been devalued to a point where photography is much less a threat to the established points of view. The debate encouraged by the photographs of the Vietnam War will probably not occur again. Photography becomes poetry, and those whose position is less than lyrical suffer the most” (Ritchen 1991, 14).
In the second half of the twentieth century, the market for photojournalism would contract and magazines would increasingly rely on stock imagery for their illustrations. Image banks now allow magazine publishers to cheaply and quickly download photographs to illustrate almost any kind of article. The photographs they distribute have lost their function of recording specific people, places, and events, as they must be reusable, and focus on connoting the kinds of themes publishers might wish to illustrate. Press photographs are increasingly posed and “set up,” rather than “captured.” Ambitious young photographers no longer follow the call of Cartier-Bresson to record the “decisive moment,” but focus on studio work and on photography as an art form. In Hollywood film, the disaster movies of the early 1970s inaugurated a return to the studios and to the construction of often dystopic future worlds. “Dramatized documentaries” became increasingly indistinguishable from fiction films and today’s “reality television” differs from the cinema vérité of the 1960s and early 1970s in that it no longer pretends that what the viewer sees would have occurred in the same view if no cameras had been present.
Yet at the level of technology the issue of realism still dominates. Computer games for instance are constantly praised for their level of realism. The more they approach the look and the level of resolution of photography and film, the better. This development is also reflected in a new theory of visual realism that takes its clues from the linguistic theory of modality (Kress & Van Leeuwen 2006, 154ff.). The question they ask is not “How real is this image?” but “As how real does it represent what it represents?” They list the indicators of this kind of “surface” realism (level of detail, use of color, rendering of lighting, and so on) and describe how these indicators are used in different types of images. In their theory, images that are in fact records of reality can therefore have “low modality” and images that are entirely constructed “high modality,” just as paintings may also be “photorealistic.” In the heyday of photographic and filmic realism, the crucial questions were: Has the reality in front of the camera been tampered with or rearranged? Has anything been “set up” for the camera, or re-enacted? In the age of digital technology, the questions are: As how real is this represented? How real does it look?
Truth And Reality
As Hodge & Kress have said, “appeals to something like truth and reality are fundamental in the social construction of meaning” (1988, 121). People will always need clues as to whether they can use the information in images as a reliable guide for judgment and action. The “guarantee” that was formerly provided by the ability of film and photography (and video) to provide a “mechanical duplicate” of reality is of course still used in some areas, for instance in surveillance. But in other areas, for instance in the media, it is retreating, and new “guarantees” have perhaps not yet developed to the point that we can again judge the reliability of images with confidence. The idea that we can know reality through visual examination, which has been so fundamental in the age of empirical science, is increasing undermined, both by theorizing it out of existence and by the malleability of the new media and the new modes of image-making.
Raymond Williams is right of course: “There are many real forces – from inner feelings to underlying social and historical movements – which are either not accessible to ordinary observation or not at all represented in how things appear, so that a realism ‘of the surface’ can miss important realities” (1983, 260). But in representing such realities it is harder to exclude the subjectivities and interpretations that empirical observation and the “mechanical duplication of reality” claimed to exclude, and therefore harder to agree on what the facts are. For the time being, the Mathematician from Brecht’s Life of Galileo appears to have, again, gained the upper hand – Galilei: “Perhaps Your Excellency would like to observe these impossible and unnecessary stars through this telescope?” Mathematician: “One might be inclined to answer that your instrument, showing something that logically cannot exist, can hardly be a very reliable instrument.”
- Arnheim, R. (1967). Film as art. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. (Original work published 1933.)
- Barthes, R. (1970). Mythologies. London: Paladin. (Original work published 1957).
- Barthes, R (1984). Camera Lucida. London: Paladin. (Original work published 1980).
- Bazin, A. (1971). What is cinema?, vol. II. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. (Original work published 1958).
- Hodge, R., & Kress, G. (1988). Social semiotics. Cambridge: Polity.
- Kracauer, S. (1960). Theory of film: The redemption of physical reality. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Kress, G., & Van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading images: The grammar of visual design, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
- MacCabe, C. (1974). Realism and the cinema: Notes on some Brechtian theses. Screen, 15(2), 7–27.
- Ritchen, F. (1991). The end of photography as we have known it. In P. Wombell (ed.), Photovideo: Photography in the age of the computer. London: Rovers Oram.
- Sontag, S. (1977). On photography. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Wells, L. (ed.) (2000). Photography: A critical introduction. London: Routledge.
- Williams, R. (1983). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Flamingo.