Photographic Realism, an Attempt | Bernd Stiegler | Sonntag, 05.02.2012


Up until now photography has perhaps been conceived too much in terms of images, and its social function has been neglected. But ultimately it is the way photography is used that affirms or negates its realism. In talking about photographic realism, one should not talk about the images but about photographic practices. Practical application decides the function of photography and defines its epistemic fields of reference. It decides about good and evil, conviction and rejection, images and their meaning.

To name just one example of many: when with the emergence of digitalization the ontological status of photography became more fragile and often claims were made concerning and epistemic break in the history of the medium or even the end of the photographic age, shifts in practice began to take place that initially seemed inconsequential but then perhaps become much more important and sustained. In many areas everything remained the same. Whether vacations or family gatherings were photographed with analogue or digital cameras may have changed something in regard to the ontological status of the images, but the application of the medium changed little (apart from the way images were archived and the increasing quantity of photographs taken), and so the interpretation of such photographs, the realism attributed to them, remained intact.

The same applies to documentary photography, X-rays, and other medial photographs, expedition photographs, etc. In these fields everything remained as it was, because the associated practice dictated and strictly demanded it. However, the fact that images are now much more readily available and circulate unimpeded, without regard for their source of origin—this is the real revolution that has led to the mass production and use of photographic images that one readily perceives as “fiction” and not as the "pencil of nature". The indexical nature of photography plays as little a role here as its relationship to reality via a logic of representation. This is the true revolution in thinking that has taken place not in the realm of theory but of practice and that determines an image’s relationship to reality. In discussing “photographic realism” one should take a look at the practices that are and will be associated with photography.

The “Bildakt” or “image act” which Horst Bredekamp attempts to conceive is decisively based on an intersubjective pact, as are many actions. A photographic “image act”—if one wishes to draw a parallel to the speech act—is, structurally speaking, an action that simultaneously includes both production and reception. This is not to be conceived as a unilateral relationship, since also the expectations of the recipient can substantially codetermine the production. One could call this the “photographic pact.” This pact, which can take very different forms in practice, is a deciding factor when it comes to “photographic realism.” But how is one to conceive “photographic realism” as a practice? And how can a practice be considered realism? These are questions for the coming week.