One of the common approaches to understanding pictorial images, especially in photography and film, is to consider them in terms of how real they are. Following the release of the film Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), this series of posts will explore this idea and the way it is being challenged by the recent achievements in image-making. The idea of what’s real has many aspects and layers to it, and has been a recurring topic in philosophical debates for millennia. These posts will obviously not get into all of them, yet it is interesting to try and observe what might be behind the contemporary everyday usage of this term with respect to pictorial images.
When we look at a pictorial image and say that what we see in it is real, there are several things that we might mean by that. For one, it could be a way of saying that we consider that what we see in it has an equivalent in the physical world. Also, it could be a way of saying that the technique used for making the image was that of photography. In some cases, it could be a way of saying that what we see in this image is consistent and believable enough to be considered as something that could have existed in the physical world, even though it might not.
For example, the cathedral in Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s painting Cathedral over a Town may indeed seem very real. Not because the painting looks like a photograph, but because its visual contents are quite convincing and believable. However, in the sense of having a physical equivalent, that cathedral is not real because there is no (and never has been) such a cathedral in the physical world – it is Schinkel’s own invention which he made specifically for the painting.
The following example, however, challenges these notions of what’s real quite a bit. It is a video which presents several famous buildings using advanced computer graphics, combined with unmistakable personal talent. Called The Third & The Seventh, it was made by Alex Roman in homage to the arts of Architecture and Cinema. This beautiful video runs 12 minutes long, and it is highly recommended to watch it in full-screen view:
In the context of our discussion, the contents of this video are visually very convincing, and in this sense they surely seem real. Additionally, the places we see in it are also real in the sense that buildings just like them indeed exist also in the physical world. And yet, in the sense of ‘real’ as meaning ‘photographed’, what we see in this video is not real at all: Even though it looks as if this video was filmed on location, everything in it is computer-generated.