Exercise 1-2: Realism

Read the essay ‘Transparent pictures-on the nature of photographic realism’ by Kendall L. Walton and write a reflective commentary outlining your view on Walton’s idea of photographic transparency.

In ‘Transparent pictures-on the nature of photographic realism’, Walton posits that photographs are inherently realistic because of their transparency – that is, how we ‘see’ through them and they aid perception, as opposed to opaque visual forms such as paintings.


Evidence to confirm that photographs are inherently realistic:

Although different types of pictures have strengths and weaknesses, photography particularly excels in one dimension – realism. A photographs ability to be realistic is out of reach of handmade pictures such as drawing and painting.

The common acceptance of photographic realism (which is superior to that of painting) can be proved by the following: crime scene photographs accepted as evidence in court, photographs can be used for extortion, photographic pornography is more potent than pornographic paintings, a photograph can be accused of invading privacy while a painting can not.

It is also commonly accepted that photographs and paintings affect the viewer in different ways. For example, a comparison between Goya’s ‘The disaster of war’ (Tanto y mas, 1810-14) and the civil war photographs of Matthew Brady (Timothy Sullivan: ‘Death on a misty morning’, 1863) show that photographs having an immediacy that the etchings lack.

Criticism for the view that photographs are inherently realistic:

Although it is the common sense view that photographs are supremely realistic, it is not one that is held universally. Critics assert that photographs are unlikely to be confused with reality due to the distortions of the photographic process and the controls of the finished print that can be exercised by the photographer which can lead to opportunities for interpretation and falsification. Photographs are expressive and can be influenced by the photographer’s personal interests, attitudes and prejudices.

Although it has been possible for picture makers to replicate the real world, for example, use of perspective, modelling techniques, light detail, a photograph masters these conventions easily – it is difficult, if not impossible, for a painting to match this.

Bazin (1960) and others (for example Christian Metz) posit that the photographic image is identical to the object photographed – a view that is clearly false so must not be taken literally. There is no way that photographs can be mistaken for then object photographed: “Photographs look like what they are: photographs.”

Photography can approach illusion more closely than painting in the same way that theatre and film share a relationship with realism.

The mechanical nature of photography is crucial to its special relationship with reality, however, similar claims have been made about paintings. The crucial difference is that a photograph is always of something that actually exists.

Photography as seeing:

The invention of photography did not solely mean a new way of taking pictures, it also gave a new way of seeing. Mirrors, microscopes and telescopes are useful comparisons to make with photography because of the way they extend visual powers. Photography is an aid to vision which allows us to see around corners, what is distant or small and also into the past. We literally see what is in photographs, for example, our dead relatives.

Although the comparison with other mechanical aids to vision is useful it also deemphasises the cameras role in producing pictures through which we can see the world.

The way we see through photographs, their transparency, is that we see the photographs themselves, although this does not mean they are invisible. It is possible not to pay attention to photographic images themselves and concentrate on the things that have been photographed.

We learn about the world through seeing, however, we sometimes value seeing apart from what we may learn. For example, we may see our loved ones in a photograph without gaining any particular information – it is the seeing our loved ones that is important.

Why paintings are not transparent:

Paintings are only representations, for example, although in a portrait we may ‘see’ the real person it is a fiction.

There is confusion in much writing on photography and film due to a failure to distinguish between their special kind of seeing which only fictionally takes place – there is a difference between seeing through a photograph and seeing directly.

Challenges to the idea that photographs are not realistic:

Can be rendered irrelevant when taken in terms of transparency.

Disparity between how photographs look and how actual scenes are can be explained because there is a difference in perception between these.

If the only concern was how a photograph looked then there would be no difference in reaction between photographs and paintings. Our attitude changes when we discover a photo-realistic painting is a painting – this is a case of genuine illusion. (Example: Chuck Close, Self portrait, 1968)

Photographs can be misleading while still being accurate. For example, a running horse can be shown in a photograph as blurred or movement frozen when in reality it looks like neither of these states. It is true that cameras can lie, but so can our eyes. For example, we would not say that seeing through a distorting mirror was misleading us. If a person looks into a distorted mirror this does not mean he sees reflected things. (Example: André Kertesz, Distortion #157, 1933)

There is a significant difference between photographs in that they are made mechanically rather than paintings which are man-made – the realism of photographs is arrived at not because of how they look but how they come about.

Photographs can present a subjective view in the same way that paintings can and be open to interpretation. However, being aware of the medium and the maker does not block our view of the object photographed.

Although understanding the conventions and language of photography can assist in understanding the photograph this is not essential to properly read them as we can still see them.

What makes photographs transparent?

Reason we see through photographs and not paintings is due to the information each possess – a sketch is always what the artist thought he saw and belief of accuracy relies on trust in his judgement, a photograph does not require this – it shows what was really there, what was really seen and not was thought to have been seen, regardless of what the photographer thinks. The significant difference between paintings as opposed to photographs is how they rely on the beliefs of their makers, not their viewers.

Photographs are accurate and therefore close to the facts, to interpret properly is to get to the facts.

Can photographs be opaque?

For example, darkroom artists can exercise as much control as painters do, but this does not mean they should be categorised with paintings. There is a realism and transparency in these types of photographs that non-photographic images lack, for example, if negatives are combined the viewer can still see people in the photographs. (Example: Jerry Uelsmann – Symbolic Mutation, 1961)

The paradigm of transparent pictures is that of amateur snapshots rather than professional photographs, for example, John Cassavettes copied the style of home movies to create a more convincing illusion of reality. (Shadows, 1960)

What is photographic realism?

Photographs are adept at portraying subtleties of texture, shadow and reflection; the jumbled trivia of everyday life; skilfully uses perspective; can be used as evidence in court or for extortion. A photographs reality is not due to the mechanical nature and conventions of photographic equipment and procedures – these do not put us in perceptual contact with the world as technically poor photographs can have an equal, and sometimes greater, claim to reality.

“It is this – photography’s transparency – which is most distinctively photographic and which constitutes the most important justification for speaking of “photographic realism.”


Walton’s thesis, argument and examples are detailed and compelling. However, I am left more with an understanding of how photographs and paintings differ from each other rather than convinced of the inherent realism that photographs present. At points, it seems notions of the ‘Death of the Author’ are touched on and Walton seems to suggest that the viewer is more able to subscribe to this via a photograph than a painting – that is – the subjectivity of the artist is more compelling than that of the photographer. Also, he does not mention how a photograph (and painting) can have multiple, simultaneous meanings.

Much of the argument hangs on a photograph being of real things, however, photographs may contain elements that are not present in the real world, especially now in the age of Photoshop. In my view, Walton does not give enough emphasis of what can be achieved in the darkroom and does not consider that the photographer may intend to create a lie. There is a significant difference between truth and reality, however, and I find the points about how a photograph can distort while still capturing reality compelling. Stripping away all of the noise about style and intent, it is probably the case that we see through a photograph in a transparent way and view it as more realistic than an image made directly by the human hand. This does not, however, mean we accept photographic reality as truth.


Bazin, A. (1960) The ontology of the photographic image. Film Quarterly, vol. 13, No. 4. (Summer, 1960) University of California Press. Available online: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/bazin_ontologyphoto_0.pdf [accessed 3rd May 2017]

Walton, K. (2004) Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism. Available online: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/walton_transparentpictures.pdf [accessed 1st May 2017]

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