Assignment five: What is reality?

This assignment is intended to explore issues surrounding the ‘real’ in contemporary society. I decided to analyse these issues with reference to photographic portraiture using the title ‘Reality and the Photographic Portrait’. This is in fact the theme that I plan to adopt for my final photography course ‘Your Own Portfolio (YOP)’. I took the opportunity to carry out research for this assignment which will have value for my photographic work. It has turned out to be a very useful project giving me lots of ideas to pursue.

Richard Brilliant suggests that a portrait’s success ‘depends on [the artist’s] ability to manifest the peculiarities of appearance and character in a manner that is both accessible and satisfactory to the viewer’. He goes on to suggest that the nature of the artist’s response is affected by three questions: ‘What do I (you, he she, we, or they) look like?’, ‘What am I (you, she, he etc.) like?’ and ‘Who am I (you, etc.)?’. I used these questions as a means of organising my analysis for this essay and I am also planning to use it for structuring my photographic investigation for YOP.

My essay can be read here:

Reality and the Photographic Portrait

And my tutor’s feedback, which was very positive here:

416177. Greenough. 5

This is the last post I will be making in this blog about the UVC course which I have now officially completed. I will miss the mental stimulus that it has provided. I plan to look out for some short courses which will help me keep my learning development in critical studies going. I was interested in the short courses at the Courtauld Institute which my fellow OCA student Vicki is attending but the dates did not fit with my other plans. I am also aware of courses run by The Photographer’s Gallery. I will probably post my learning from any future courses on my main blog .

I have thoroughly enjoyed the Understanding Visual Culture course. I did it for ‘fun’ and it was fun in a way. A better description might be ‘challenging’. Given time constraints and having to prioritise my photographic work (which is to be submitted for assessment) I am not sure I did the course full justice. There are still many ‘grey’ areas in my understanding of some of the issues the course tackled. What I did get from the course more than anything was a great overview of the range of issues which need to be considered in the Critical Analysis of Visual Culture. I now have a good overview of the subject, if not a detailed understanding across the board. It also taught me what kind of questions to ask. I would like to thank my tutor Dr Pauline Rose, who was very patient when my assignments took a lot longer than expected and who always gave very comprehensive and constructive feedback.

Onwards to Photography 3: Your Own Portfolio my final course for my degree.

Project Barbarous taste

This project involves reviewing Pierre Bourdieu’s essay The Social Definition of Photography  considering the following statement he makes:

‘in conferring upon photography a guarantee of realism, society is merely confirming itself in the tautological certainty that an image of the real which is true to its representation of objectivity is really objective’

The aim is to interpret what Bourdieu means by this and whether or not I agree with his contention.


Bourdieu contends that people sees photographs as real. In his view they do so because of the mechanical nature of photographic reproduction, the social uses of photography and because it is consistent with the  ‘representation of the world which has dominated Europe since the Quattrocento’,  in other worlds the conventions of  European painting since the Renaissance. Photographic images are projected through perspective onto a flat plane, just as in painting.  He is not specific about what he means by social uses, but he is most likely referring to photography’s use in everyday portraiture, public services such as passport and criminal photography and everyday family ‘snapshot’ photography. These factors result in society ‘conferring upon photography a guarantee of realism’.

Thus what I believe Bourdieu means is that an image of something which is real, or exists, which is made according to the socially accepted conventions of objectivity, i.e. photography, is considered by society to be objective. In doing so society overlooks the capacity for the photographer to influence the image through selection of  subject, framing, lens, shutter speed, aperture and viewpoint. The fact that a photograph for most of its history has been a black and white rendering of the visual onto a flat plane is also ignored.

Do I agree?

The old adage ‘the camera never lies’ exists for a reason. Certainly I agree for most of the time since the invention of photography society has seen photographs as real and people did believe in this adage. More recently however this notion has been undermined – particularly since the birth of the digital age. People today are much more suspicious about photographs. They are more likely to question whether they have been manipulated. Do people really believe that the women in the advertisements and magazines have such  perfect skin – I think not. Scandals about the manipulation of press photography have also undermined photography’s reputation for objectivity. I also wonder whether video has taken over the mantle of reality.  The rise of the internet as a means of distributing un-mediated video coverage of events could well be impacting on perceptions of reality.