The Real Versus the Beautiful (Part 1): The Desert of the Real

The Real Versus the Beautiful (Part 1): The Desert of the Real

Let's take a step back and talk about the growing popularity of the processed photograph. Apart from some rather technical post-processing jibber-jabber, we’ll dabble in philosophy, astronomy, and the evolution of the human species. We will meet strange creatures along the way that see many more colors than we do, as we conclude this with a moral question in photography.

The Evolution of photography

No, I’m not here to recite a history of film photography. But you must know that the same word for "writing with light" has described a host of photography techniques. While Nicéphore Niépce combined the camera obscura with photosensitive paper back in 1816, film photography went through many different phases of how to capture what was in front of the photographer. For example, in the 1800s it did not take 1/500th of a second to take a picture of somebody in broad daylight. Minutes, even hours were needed to properly expose your subjects. In today’s world, we use long exposure techniques to aid our creativity, from light-painting to flattening seascapes and mystifying the audience. It’s like the opposite of high-speed photography or slow-motion film, but with the same goal: Long exposures reveal a world that’s hidden from our eyes. But in the digital age, we also use this photon-gathering technique to capture something we otherwise could not: the dim light of ancient stars, many light-years away.

It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

 - Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix

“That’s sick! Is it real?”

Astrophotographer Adam Block shares with us an extensive talk on the nature of realism. He explains the title of his presentation right away: While having lunch in a sandwich shop, talking over the opening of an exhibit with an astronomer, a young waiter clears the table and lays eyes upon a photograph of Thor’s Helmet, an emission nebula in the constellation of Canis Major. The waiter, who is obviously impressed by the image of the nebula otherwise known as NGC 2359, points and exclaims: “That’s sick! Is it real?” Let’s take a minute to condense Block’s interesting 45-minute talk into a paragraph.

By taking multiple exposures (and I do not mean three, but more along the lines of dozens) of a portion of the night sky, Adam Block extracts every detail of faraway places that we, as a species, might never reach.

ngc 2359 adam block astrophotography night sky

NGC 2359, Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

Astrophotography is an edge genre of photography. It really puts creative long-exposure photography in perspective. Take Adam Block’s below image of NGC 896 for example. This was captured by exposing a CCD camera at the back end of a 32-inch telescope for a total of nine hours to the same colors of light that the human eye has evolved to perceive. He places three different filters in front of the black and white CCD camera, each passing only the light of one of the cones in our retina. These RGB exposures capture the color in the nebulae, galaxies, and stars. Then, a fourth series of exposures mimics another organ in the retina, the rods. Without any filters, Block captures the brightness (or luminosity). The image above is the one to which the waiter exclaimed his awe, leading to the title of Block's talk on YouTube. A total of 20 hours of exposure were used to capture the faint, distant light you see here.

ngc 896 adam block astrophotography night sky

NGC 896, Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

The Limitation of Human Vision

Human vision is, through evolution, a very limited way of viewing the world we live in, but it is sufficient. Our eyes first helped to survive — hunting, gathering, and tool-making on the savannahs of what we now call Africa. Nowadays, humans thrive in a rich civilization complete with cameras and computers. Our sense of vision has evolved to perceive the world in a way that makes sense to us. But at the same time, our brain has evolved to make sense of what our eyes perceive.

Our eyes have evolved to see only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. We call that part "visible light." The cones in our retinas come in three different physical versions that each capture an even smaller portion of the spectrum: red, green, or blue. Block talks about this too. He often captures images of the universe in the same three colors. Together, they make up every color most of us see.

Most of us, but not all of us. About 8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of the population are color blind in one way or another. The cause of this is that these people lack one version of cones. More interesting is that there have been scientific reports of one woman who actually has four types of cones. Known only as "subject cDa29," she is a doctor living in northern England and has been tested to respond physically to a color in-between red and green. We might never know how she would perceive our photography, but with that being said, she (and color blind people too) might never know how we see the world in three colors.

True HDR

Certain species of birds also see the world quite differently. It is known that hummingbirds see a part of the ultraviolet spectrum, a set of wavelengths that are utterly invisible to us. But it doesn’t stop there. The most extreme example of expanded color vision is that of a deepsea creature called the "mantis shrimp." It experiences its surroundings in true HDR, having 16 different variations of cones on its retina and not just for color, but also for seeing different kinds of polarization. Just imagine how they would see the world. Now, imagine a world where the mantis shrimp was the dominant species and developed cameras approximated their vision. Would such a camera look like a small Hubble space telescope?

The take-home portion that serves as a basis for further reading is that everyone’s cones capture color in a slightly different manner due to genetic variation. Theoretically, the same wavelength of light looks different to every single person.

What is real? How do you define 'real?' If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

 - Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix

The Desert of the Real

French Sociologist and Philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) wrote extensively about the realism of what we see. His works are the foundation for The Matrix films. Baudrillard posited that our postmodern culture has become so reliant on maps and models that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself, he said, has begun to imitate the model. However, Baudrillard did not mean that our world is artificial. That requires a sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. Lost already?

In a nutshell, there is no longer any distinction between reality and its representation; there is only the simulacrum, a simulation of simulations.

In the 1999 film, The Matrix, a computer-generated dream world (the simulation) keeps the population in check, while an artificial intelligence harvests the living human body for energy. The real world outside of that dream world is referred to as "the desert of the real," which is a cultural space where television, film, and computer images are more real to us than the non-media physical reality that surrounds us. This loss of reality isn't so hard to understand for photographers who seek to portray the world around them. To project this insight on landscape photography: The difference between what we see in the landscape and what we see on a computer screen might be vast, but as many of the viewers did not actually see the landscape, it might as well be real to them. The computer screen (or print) might even seem more real than the actual subject of photography.

It may not come as a surprise that Baudrillard was an avid photographer of what is best described as "abstract reality."

Real Photography

As cameras, lenses, filters, and processing software surpass the limitations of human vision, photographers effectively decide what part of the spectrum to show to an audience. It's not just a frame, subject, composition, and timing. It is here that photography again becomes an art form. In fact, any decision made by the photographer makes it art. Merriam-Webster describes art as "something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings". But is anything real anymore?

northern lights night sky landscape

It is incredibly difficult to see the faint magenta light emitted by the northern lights. A long exposure photograph reveals much of this, as well as structure in the aurora. But our eyes can only see a strange brightening in the sky.

In the next part, we’ll discuss the practical ways in which popular digital landscape photographers like Ted Gore, utilize technology as a means to enhance human vision. But let's start the discussion of what "real" photography actually is in your eyes.

What, according to you, constitutes a "real" photograph? Let me know in the comments!

Deep-sky images used with permission of Adam Block. His latest work was featured as NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

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michael andrew's picture

The first photo was 1826/1827 not 1816.

Daniel Laan's picture

Hi Michael,

While I agree that the first fully fixed photo was produced using an engraving superimposed on glass in 1826, Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce:

"...coated pewter with various light-sensitive substances in an effort to copy superimposed engravings in sunlight. From this he progressed in April 1816 to attempts at photography, which he called heliography (sundrawing), with a camera. He recorded a view from his workroom window on paper sensitized with silver chloride but was only partially able to fix the image."


Also, I wrote that he then (in 1816) combined different elements of what we now call a camera, so I did not claim that the first photo was captured in this year. However, I'm still not trying to give a history lesson, as long as I get the facts straight in starting the duscussion of real vs. beautiful photography. :)

Thank you for your comment, though! I appreciate any and all input.

The question of authenticity in photography cannot be answered unless it is understood that the representation of reality consists of multiple forms or senses that exist together simultaneously.

We can take an example from language with the notion of the sense of a word. The meaning of a word changes depending on how it is used within a sentence. For example, the word "bridge" means one thing when used in the sentence: "He drove his truck over the bridge." But it means something completely different when used in the sentence: "His grandmother likes to play Bridge with her friends." Both sentences are using the exact same word, but the meaning or sense of the word alters depending on it's context.

In photography, a properly executed HDR or time-lapse photograph might represent the natural color of a particular scene in an authentic way. However, the technique that makes it capable of revealing this reality in the sense of color only works by telling what is false in the sense of time. The real existence of a particular natural scene in the sense of time is different than the same scene's existence in the sense of it's color. So it's quite possible that a single photograph can represent both the reality of a natural scene and it's unreality simultaneously.

Art is ALWAYS self-expression. One of the ways that self-expression is represented through the medium of photography is in the form of first-person-perspective. Unfortunately, the technique of multiple-combined and/or time-lapse exposures create multiple-perspectives and thus destroys first-person-perspective. Any technique in photography that cannot represent first-person-perspective is also a technique by itself that is incapable of producing photography that is art proper.

Art is ALWAYS indirect representation. If it were direct, then it would cease to be a representation and would become an imitation. In the arts, the particular properties of the medium itself often determine how it can indirectly represent or imitate. For example, paintings are 2-dimensional surfaces which means that they can only directly represent or imitate 2-dimensional objects. If a painter creates the illusion of 3-dimensionality, then he is using the medium of painting to indirectly represent the third dimension. In that sense, the painter is creating an indirect representation of space and not an imitation.

An HDR or time-lapse type of photograph that represents the accurate color of a natural scene is a direct representation and similar to an imitation. However, representation in art proper must be indirect. Any photograph that depicts the accurate color of a natural scene might be truthful in it's representation of reality while simultaneously being non-art in another sense precisely because it is imitative.

Hussain Hijazi's picture

This reminds me of Sapir & Whorf's Linguistic Relativity (AKA Whorfian hypothesis). Language affects our perception of reality and our world view. In other words, speakers of different languages have different world views. Very interesting theory although I do not agree with its deterministic version.

Cédric Bloch's picture

Personally, for me there's no "real" photograph. There are many factors which say no:

The rolling shutter: At the moment, you cannot capture "the moment", which means you never actually capture reality.

RGB is only our vision. So like said in the article, other animals can see more. Why not say that the other animals vision is the real one? Or further: Is there a right reality?

Paul Watt's picture

You don't get people criticising painters because their paintings don't look real. If you're doing photo journalism, sports or anything else that needs to be shown exactly as it is then IMO big manipulations should be kept to a minimum. Saying that, when I see a composition and I set up for say a 15 minute exposure I'm not concerned about keeping it "real". I'm trying to create an image that pleases me first and foremost. I couldn't give a damn about what tools (software or hardware) I'll use to get the finished result.
To go back to my first sentence, painters don't get grief over what brush, paint or canvas they use, so why is it any different for photographers? It's about the art and the thought process not the medium used.

Anonymous's picture

Extremely important topic, but it ended when it started to get more interesting. I'm looking forward to part 2, 3, 4 and on and on. Thanks.

Daniel Laan's picture

Good to hear. I'm very busy writing it up right now! :)
It's then that I have time to react to everyone's insightful comments. Keep it coming, all!

Your article should contain a citation for that chart.

In addition, you shouldn't be embedding it but linking back to the source.

Great article. Very important discussion. There's been much talk about disqualified images in recent photo competitions. Mainly due to photoshop manipulation. This misguided and vague notion that photographs represent a reality or truth in the absence of digital manipulation is troubling. Nothing about a photograph represents reality, in part because reality is personal.
Where is the consideration of "photo manipulation" - focal length, shutter speed, perspective, capture time and composition in the absence of digital manipulation in their misinformed attempt to keep the social contract in tact between the photographer and viewer?

On another note, the very fact that photographs can't capture "actuality" is what makes them interesting.

Hi Daniel, nice article. Just one note. The term "dynamic range" refers to the difference or ratio between the largest signal that a system can measure without saturation and the smallest signal the same system can capture above the background noise. HDR means that that difference or ratio is "relatively large". Your reference to the larger number of cones with different color response profiles in the shrimp or hummer is not a case of "True HDR", but these are simply examples of more varieties of cones - some or all with a spectral range that is not present in the vast majority of the human population. The detectable "dynamic range" of the signals received by these special species may be more or less than that of our own sensors. Don't know of any data (may exist, I just don't know) that indicates the relative dynamic range of their sensors to ours.