Photographic Realism, an Attempt | Bernd Stiegler | Monday, 13.02.2012


Form might seem to be the absolute worst candidate as a means of reflecting on and mapping out photographic realism. But isn’t this simply a reflexive response based on an interpretive tradition that associates form with simulation and the formless snapshot with the captured moment as evidence? On the one side is an entire tradition extending from the difficulty in controlling the overwhelming richness of details in the early phase of the medium, to snapshots, press photography and social documentary. On the other is the opposite, an approach working with controlled, well-composed images (such as those of Rejlander or Peach Robinson), the golden mean, or painterly parameters. One the one side is the unpredictability of the moment, which for this very reason is perceived as being “realistic”. On the other is the imperative to control form, which is therefore viewed as “art” and not as “nature” or “reality.” At this point, one might rightly argue that these two threads cross in Cartier-Bresson’s theory of the “decisive moment,” which is, after all, something of a press photography manifesto, and the photographer links the unpredictability of an event with a formal imperative. The unpredictability of history and the imperative of art are thus united, which is highly remarkable and worthy of comment. To me, however, more important and more powerful is that in contrast to the discursive positions that I have attempted to trace, there are formal relationships that have been consistently applied and interpreted as reality indicators in photography, without there being a general awareness of this.

Form is not only able to mediate between art and nature, as in the work of Blossfeldt or Renger-Patzsch, thus joining two spheres that are otherwise clearly separated from one another. Form can create a visual connection between heterogeneous things. And always when there is a call to free photography from the constraints of tradition and hearken back to its “very essence”, forms appear, promising photography a brilliant future. Forms bridge the gap between pictorial and straight photography as well as that between analogue and digital photography. Forms are the means of transforming unpredictability into an imperative, and history into something timeless, while presenting an “elemental”, “fundamental”, stringent and regular appearance. This would then shift the point of emphasis: If unpredictability is “real,” then forms are the “really real.” Forms are the odd residues of “realism” in photography. They must be critically examined.