Impact of photography and reality

“We cannot claim to have really seen anything before having photographed it”  – Emile Zola

In the context of my recent investitgation of reality, modern art, flatness and subjective perception, I I was wondering why Greenberg did not mention in his most known essays (‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, ‘Modernist Painting’, and ‘After Abstract Expressionism’) the medium of photography. What does photography make it either as non-art. i.e. not seriously to be considered, or as the one and only medium that is able to capture objective truth (see here my exploration of the case Emmett Till, Schaffeld, 2017 –  Exhibition and Spectacle: Dana Schutz at Whitney Biennial) related to the fact that in court photography is still not allowed, drawings life scenes well.

Initiated by my reading of Gombrich’s thick book ‘The Story of Art’ (2006), first published in 1950, that’s start with the fascinating phrase ‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists’ (p.15). I got hooked with the comparision of the painting of galoping horses by Gericault and the later photographic (empirical, scientific) investigation by Muybridge of the galoping horse in motion. Gombrich is taken that as an example for his exploration of the relavance of accuracy and the verdict ‘things do not look like that’ in drawing. The custom of convention that nature ‘look like the pictures we are accustomed to.’ (p.27). What the eye sees became the visual truth of reality. What also leads to the notion of what is reality and what is simulation (further down more)

Fig. 1: Géricault, T. (1821) Le Derby d'Epsom, [Oil painting]

Fig. 1: Géricault, T. (1821) Le Derby d’Epsom, [Oil painting]

Fig. 2:Muybridge, E. (1872) Galloping Horse in Motion, [Photograph], - Time-lapse photographs of a man riding a galloping horse, 1872-1885.

Fig. 2: Muybridge, E. (1872) Galloping Horse in Motion, [Photograph], – Time-lapse photographs of a man riding a galloping horse, 1872-1885.












Eadweard Muybridge produced studies of animal and human locomotion. First time to compare the perception of moving objects with the naked eye with an instrument that was to show the ‘truth’. Muybridge was asked by Leland Stanford, a governor of California ‘Did the hooves of a horse ever leave the ground all at the same time in the midst of a gallop?’ The series of images Muybridge took of the horse in motion show the position of the horse’s hooves and some images revealing that the horse did indeed become airborne for a instant during his run. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 186).  What meant for many people that the painting by Gericault was wrong and the visual truth as presented by Muybridge was right.

This anecdote took Arthur C. Danto (2013) further in exploring the notion of ‘visual truth’ of the camera as it supposedly reflects what the naked eye sees (ebid, p.105). Artists as Edgar Degas painted later galoping horses the way that Muybridge’s authority told, and modern artist referred as well back to Muybridges motion sequences, e.g. Francis Bacon. An authority Muybridge could claim as it was  based on diligent scientific and empiral investigations. What is interesting for me is that Danto differentiates  ‘optical truth’ from ‘visual truth’ when he states that artists like Degas painted ‘stiff-legged’ horses, ‘unnatural’ and the can be seen ‘never in life’. And relating back to Gericault’s and other pre-Muydbridge paintings that ‘were visually far more convincing’ as they showed ‘horses stereotypically’ (ebid, p.106). Here Danto refers to the physiological stereotype perception of the human eye (alongside the brain process behind it).

Michael Foucault uses the term epistemic to describe the way of an inquiry into truth of an area. An episteme is an ‘accepted, dominant mode of acquiring and organizing knowledge in a given period of history’. In this context ‘signs’ are an important aspect for identification of the episteme and a ‘dominant worldview of an era’ (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 149). According to Sturken and Cartwright photography emerged ‘as a popular visual technology because it fit certain emerging social concepts and needs of the time’ (ebid, p.185) and relating back to Foucault they are stating that ‘it is important to remember that each new form of visual technology builds on the codes of previous technologies but that each constitutes a kind of epistemic shift as well’  (ebid, p. 189).

The question is whether photography can be considered art or not. Sturken and Cartwright arguing that ‘value continues to reside in the idea of the hand and eye of the individual artist as the source of creativity and genius’ (ebid, p.192). What relates back to the definition of art as being unique and original.  Danto extends this view further in expressing that e.g. painting is capable to ‘create its own truth’ and placing the obsessive search for truth out of the defintion of art. Nevertheless, also Danto acknowledges that photography limitation is the limited application of manual skill as immanent to being considered as art. An aspect that became obsolete in post-modern era and building on Duchamp early 20th century that art can be just the exclamation of an artist. What brings me back to the starting phrase of Gombrich

‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists’  – E.H. Gombrich, p.15

If Danto expresses the free creation of truth as something painting can do but not photography, than photography is seen as the embodied form of the modern rationalism and with the unique feature of capturing the real, the ‘noeme’ in the words by Roland Barthes (‘Camera Lucida’) and André Bazin (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p.193). The ‘noeme’ as the guarantee of being present the same time as the object or scene. Barthes expresses this ‘unique authenticity’ of photography of ‘been present or copresent’ as the immanent difference to fine art. And was the creative hand and touch unique for the painter, something absent in photography, than it is now the ‘touch’ of the presence of the photographer that provides knowledge  and guarantee (empirical evidence) for authenticity and uniqueness of a reality.

Addendum 02 June 2017:

The notion of presence and authenticity in photographs is a myth. Press photography is a good example how at times not the presence in space and time but rather a staged or manipulated photograph can not only cheat the viewer but the whole world. And this is not something invented recently but perhaps as old as the dominance and authority of visual images was accepted. A good and famous example is the photograph by Yevgeny Khaldei of a soldier rising the Russian flag on 1. May 1945 on the Reichstag of Berlin, the day of liberation. The photo was taken one day later and manipulated, e.g. a watch retouched away.

Fig. 3: Yevgeny Khaldei (1945) A soldier raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin

Fig. 3: Yevgeny Khaldei (1945) A soldier raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin



  • ‘Visual truth’ can be differentiated from ‘optical truth’. The extension of the naked eye through instruments (Camera Obscura, camera etc.) can lead towards the rationale of obtaining an objective truth.
  • The example of Muybridge and Danto’s investigation of ‘truth’ and perception makes me wonder if perception can not also be biased, depending on conventions, customs, and or subjectives learnings. In a sense that impressionistic paintings of water and sky do impact the way we are looking at and seeing reality.
  • Images obtained through ‘objective’ systems, at times with the notion of empirical and scientific authority, can be perceived a ‘unnatural’. What makes the perception of  scene or person more complex phenomena than a reproduction of that scene or person can convey.
  • I find the Barthes’ concept of the ‘noeme’ as the presence of sharing same space and time fascinating, but don’t believe that this is restrictive to or sufficient for photogrophy. The capturing of space and time, the same moment of a scene or person, can also be reproduced with life drawing or painting. And I am wondering whether all photographers, or better to say all snap shot shooters, are indeed present at that moment. Perhaps they are at times more absent and the captured images act as evidence for ‘I was there’, the proof replacing memory.




  • Danto, A. C. (2013) What art is. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Gombrich, E. H. (2006) The Story of Art, [16th ed. rev., expanded and redesigned], reprint ed. Edited by Gombrich, E. H. London; New York, NY: Phaidon Press Ltd.
  • Schaffeld, S. (2017) Exhibition and Spectacle: Dana Schutz at Whitney Biennial. [Weblog post] Available from: 
  • Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking : An Introduction to Visual Culture, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.

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