Photographic Realism, an Attempt | Bernd Stiegler | Sunday, 22.01.2012


A second approach for considering photographic realism is to define photography as a “reflective medium.” In a theoretical context, this term (“Reflexionsmedium”) featured prominently in Walter Benjamin’s dissertation Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism). Benjamin writes, “Reflection constitutes the absolute and constitutes it as a medium” (“Die Reflexion konstituiert das Absolute und sie konstituiert es als ein Medium”). [Walter Benjamin, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik, ed. Uwe Steiner, p. 39.] He continues: as the absolute, reflection is a “metaphysical credo” (“metaphysisches Credo”) that claims to be the “interpretation of all things real” (“Deutung alles Wirklichen“)[p. 67]. What for Benjamin is the absolute, is, in my opinion, replaced by the concept of the real or realism in photography. In other words and to rephrase Benjamin: Photography constitutes the real and constitutes it as a medium. Photographs lay claim to being not merely an interpretation but a medial representation of the real—or at least they are perceived as such. Photography is the technical medium of realism. This legacy is unique to photography and still continues to shape our notion of photography. Even now it has not managed to free itself of this idea. This “realism” of photography itself is medially conveyed and strangely refracted, and it is visualized and reflected in images. Photographs make visible what is respectively understood to be reality; photographs construct forms of an assumed truth of the visible.

Photographs are medial constructions of reality. Photography represents a desire to see reality, a materialization of certain notions of reality in images. Herein lies the continuity of but also the discrepancy between the various forms that protean photography can assume and has assumed within the applications is has claimed thus far. And this is simultaneously also the meaning of photography in a dual sense of the word: the meaning that is culturally, historically, epistemologically and also aesthetically assigned to photography and the meaning these images have. Photographs are the performative of the real, the medial translation of the real. At different times they take on highly divergent and mutually exclusive forms; focus vs. blur, art vs. science, document vs. simulation, analogue vs. digital images are some fundamental and classic differentiations.

Also CCTV (i.e. Closed-Circuit Television; CCTV-equipment is commonly used for surveillance) advertising photos, snapshots taken with a mobile phone, and montages represent very different types of images that pose varying strategies through which photography gains a certain type of relationship to reality, construction of reality, and interpretation of reality. This remains unaltered by the changes that photography has undergone in various medial contexts and the ontological questions that have arisen in the wake of digitalization. Photographs are still visual reflections on reality; they entail a mediated realism that is concentrated in images—even if this reality is a radical construction that sometimes consists of nothing more than computer generated, reworked visual material. Even then photography is still a visual abbreviation of a certain concept of reality, which can thus be grasped as a radical construction and is sometimes understood as such from the start. This “reality principle” of photography constitutes both its referential and reflective character. The “meaning of the meaning” of photography is to produce and disseminate forms of constructed reality.