photorealism | blog post 1

1. Introduction:

From the early 1960’s to the present day, the evolution of the computer generated image (CGI) has progressed from the earliest line drawing computers (Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad (Fig. 1)(Wikipedia) to the hyper real computer game. Since then advancements in vector graphics and computer algorithms (Cartesian co-ordinates, Bezier curves, shading, ray tracing, texture mapping and light source modelling) brought computer image making to the present day where a computer generated image could momentarily be mistaken for the real thing (fig. 2 and 10).

Fig. 1 Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad aka. Robot Draftsman,1963. Source: Wikipedia

Fig. 1 Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad aka. Robot Draftsman,1963. Source: Wikipedia

Fig. 2 - “Forest Path” by Alex Alvarez, 2012. Source:

Fig. 2 – “Forest Path” by Alex Alvarez, 2012. Source:

As with most computer related advancements; fields like the military, architecture, engineering and film may have funded and accelerated the speed of these developments. Films and the representation of the world through science fiction have long overtaken science fact and with that the expectations of audiences everywhere for what entertains and looks real. It begs the question; does this standard of realism add anything to any field of knowledge? 3D visualisations (some photorealistic, some not) and the animated fly-through have become standard storytelling devices in historical documentaries.
It could be argued that this is driven more by technological advancement and audience expectation than by specialists in cultural heritage. This blog will look at the history of photorealism followed by an exploration of the debate around the effect of using photorealism in the field of Archaeology.
2. History of Photorealism:
Photorealism has a long history. Before the invention of photography, it was the mark of an accomplished painter to be able to capture the difficult textures of of glass, pewter and lemon accurately in paint (fig. 3). Early painters used the trick of the eye that is achieved by photorealism to create fantastical landscapes and to assemble components or characters that have never occupied the same space but can be photorealistically united on a canvas (fig. 4).
Fig. 3 - A Roemer, an Overturned Pewter Jug, Olives and a Half Peeled Lemon on Pewter Plates by Pieter Claesz. (c.1597 – 1660).Photo Sotheby’s.

Fig. 3 – A Roemer, an Overturned Pewter Jug, Olives and a Half Peeled Lemon on Pewter Plates by Pieter Claesz. (c.1597 – 1660).Photo Sotheby’s.

Fig.4 - Rudolf II painted as Vertumnus, Roman God of the seasons, c. 1590-1 by Giuseppe_Arcimbold. Source: Wikipedia

Fig.4 – Rudolf II painted as Vertumnus, Roman God of the seasons, c. 1590-1 by Giuseppe_Arcimbold. Source: Wikipedia

From circa 1787 to 1890 artists such as Robert Barker and Karl Hagen Becks experimented with the use of large format painted landscape illusions. Barker’s were displayed in purpose built rotunda with a near 360° view described in the first use of the word ‘panorama (fig. 5). Becks created a popular polar panorama, complete with stuffed seals and polar bears against a painted photorealistic backdrop. It was Louis J.M. Daguerre who patented this, now familiar photorealistic tableau, called the ‘diorama’ which is still used for the display of natural history and sometimes as a backdrop for zoo enclosures.(Cipolla-Ficarra et al. p93) (fig. 6)

Fig. 5 - Postcard of Robert Barker’s London Panorama c. 1792. Source:

Fig. 5 – Postcard of Robert Barker’s London Panorama c. 1792. Source:

Fig. 6 - Diorama with Alaskan Brown Bears. The American Museum of Natural History. New York

Fig. 6 – Diorama with Alaskan Brown Bears. The American Museum of Natural History. New York Source: Google Images.

3. Archaeology and Interpretative Illustrations:
The field of archaeology has used ’the artists impression’ and non-photorealistic visuals as tools since the 1880’s. The use of illustration in this context has been strictly interpretative (Bateman 1). Areas of interest could be highlighted whilst areas of uncertainty could remain ambiguous. Strothotte et al. (qtd. in Frankland 27) compare it to the ‘roughs’ or sketches made by architects as part of their visual thinking process(313). Roughs are a way of allowing an architect to make up their mind, to work through the possibilities without committing to only one. (Ibid.) this non-realistic visualisation process has served archaeologists as well. It seems that both archaeologists and the public find that ‘meaningfully abstracted’ visuals prompt greater audience engagement (Frankland 26). Frankland surveyed a mixed group of cultural heritage specialists and non-specialists. His aim was to measure their preference and types of engagement with photorealistic and non-photorealistic visualisations. When the surveyed group had to choose a visual they thought suitable for display in a visitor centre, the majority of the group chose the photorealistic option for this purpose. It seems that even when there was a clear reluctance on the part of the cultural heritage specialists amongst the survey group about the ‘truth’ of these particular photorealistic renderings (for example, how could archaeologists have any evidence for how the roof of a crannog would be structured?) when given a choice about which they preferred, the majority chose photorealistic option (Ibid.). Non-photorealism will be discussed in more detail in Blog Post 2(BP2).
3. Computer generated Images:
Computer visualisations can aim for a hyper level of realism but unlike reality, visualisations have no ‘real world’ constraints.
‘The trend for images to represent ‘entire’ interpretations, to be pictorial compressions of time, ensuring that all activities and artefacts are represented, has given the entire genre a vulnerability to attack.’ (Bateman 1).
Roussou, Drettakis and Bateman discuss how the software for these visualisations is often technically designed for other fields (1 ;4). Their purpose is to create photorealistic, accurate and unambiguous visuals, coming as they do from backgrounds where there is a need for quantifiable accuracy such as engineering, architecture and cartography. Huggett and Harley (85; qtd. in Bateman 4) describe ‘this coteries of technophiles’ with ‘fetishes’ for accuracy and technology as features of those in charge of these tools. Huggett, Harty and Emele suggest further that the fetish for accuracy is fed by a sort of validation that comes from the assumption that accuracy can be mistakenly equated with authority (85; qtd. in Bateman 300; qtd. in Eiteljorg 3)
‘If anything, the perception of the magical mysticism of information and communication technologies is increasing as the number of layers of abstraction between human user and machine multiply’(Huggett 85).
In support to these arguments Buczynska-Garewicz adds, in relation to the 3D visualisations of ‘Cerveteri Reborn, ‘There is no ground to believe that the new construction is the real thing, while it is only ‘as if’ real. So, there is a dangerous illusion created by 3D visualisation’ (paragraph 7). Eiteljorg warns against being misinformed by ‘A good image’ which he describes as ‘truly a double edged sword’(4). All of these arguments urge caution on the part of the viewer/interpreter as better illustration is not necessarily a better argument (Ibid.).
4. The problem with ‘Empty Space’:
The technical lineage of the software used for archaeological visualisations may explain a lot about why they can look like illustrations of ‘socially empty space’ for the lack of people represented (Fig.7+8)(Bateman 4). ‘This impression of absence is also a distinct characteristic of the media of delivery of these visualisations’ (Ibid.). This could be an instance that reinforces Walter Benjamin’s assertion about the loss of ‘aura’, or in this case a true sense of time and place, due to mechanical nature of the method of production. (Benjamin 218-9; Bateman 4) Remedying this absence; whilst keeping the image historically accurate, and site specific, brings up new issues. Introducing suitably dressed and occupied human forms into a 3d visualisation, adds to the list of what needs to be historically verified. Apart from slowing down rendering speeds, adding a lot of modelling and putting the visual in danger of looking fictional, it diverts efforts away from focussing on the archaeological site.
Fig.7 - Image of the entrance to the Athenian Acropolis restored portions lightened and outlined in white. Source:

Fig.7 – Image of the entrance to the Athenian Acropolis restored portions lightened and outlined in white. Source:

Fig. 8 - Digital Karnak Project 2006-2008. Re: 'Empty spaces'.Source:

Fig. 8 – Digital Karnak Project 2006-2008.
Illustration of ‘Empty spaces’.Source:

5. The London Charter(Fig. 9):
‘We must not allow ourselves to use the technology to do half the job if doing so misleads’ (Eiteljorg 6). This quote was written in 2000, and as with most of the authors cited in this post, it pre-dates the writing of the London Charter in 2006. It gives a taste for the concerns expressed at this time about the lack of transparency and ’the epistemological problems posed by hyperrealism,'(Denard). Furthermore it shows the background against which a set of principles was deemed necessary. Photorealistic CGI was proving itself very popular, and due to the powerful inertia (Molyneaux 7)of this style of image, was considered a potential mask for the presentation of erroneous cultural heritage work.
‘That is why, at the heart of The London Charter is the principle that heritage visualizations: ‘should accurately convey to users the status of the knowledge that they represent, such as distinctions between evidence and hypothesis, and between different levels of probability.’’(Denard.)
The London Charter is composed of a set of paradata guidelines for heritage visualisation. Since its launch in 2006 the London Charter has been renamed and is now presenting itself as version 2.1. A separate Charter for Virtual Archaeology, the Seville Charter, is at a ‘preliminary draft stage’ which could indicate that changes to the original Charter is seen as necessary for this field.(Ibid.)
Fig. 9 - London Charter: Homepage. 15 October 2015 Source:

Fig. 9 – London Charter: Homepage, 2015

Fig. 10 - “Coffee Table” by Dusan Kovic 2015. Source:

Fig. 10 – “Coffee Table” by Dusan Kovic 2015.
An example of hyper real illustration.

6. Conclusion:
This post has taken a look at the history of illustration, photorealism and CGI and their application in the field of archaeology. Debates surrounding the photorealistic products of CGI have prompted the formulation of the London and Seville Charters as guiding frameworks. Due to the time consuming nature of the production of each photorealistic visual, it seems to be suited to a place of public engagement such as a visitor centre, where one authoritative image is preferable, as the results from Frankland’s survey group could suggest (33). Equally, evidence based, photorealistic, non-photorealistic and theoretical ‘roughs’ seem to satisfy the requirement for ‘intellectual transparency’ and methodological rigor amongst the archaeological community(Denard). Whether photorealism is the most appropriate vehicle for the questioning nature of archaeologists remains moot. In my next blog post will explore the power of non-photorealistic illustration as a tool to generate new archaeological knowledge(Terras).
List of Figures
    Fig. 1 – The Sketchpad by Ivan Sutherland, 1963. Source: Wikipedia.

    Fig. 2 – “Forest Path” by Alex Alvarez in Watterson, Alice. 2012.“Hyper-Realism, Photo-Realism and Learning to Be Realistic.” Digital Dirt Virtual Pasts. 17 Aug. 2012. Web 14 October 2015.

    Fig. 3 – A Roemer, an Overturned Pewter Jug, Olives and a Half Peeled Lemon on Pewter Plates by Pieter Claesz. (Berchem 1597/8 – 1660/1 Haarlem), Photo Sotheby’s. web 15 Oct 2015. Source:

    Fig.4 – Vertumnus, a portrait depicting Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor painted as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the seasons, c. 1590-1. by Giuseppe_Arcimboldo Skokloster Castle, Sweden. web 14 Oct 2015. Source:

    Fig. 5 – Postcard of Robert Barker’s London Panorama, exhibited circa 1792. web 13 Oct 2015. Source:

    Fig. 6 – Diorama with Alaskan Brown Bears. Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals. The American Museum of Natural History. New York, U.S.A. web 14 Oct 2015.

    Fig.7 – Image of the entrance to the Athenian Acropolis restored portions lightened and outlined in white, after repairs in the middle of the fifth century BC (Fig 8c page 5). Source:

    Fig. 8 – Digital Karnak Project 2006-2008: A. Visualisation of the possible location of the sphinx statues at the temple’s western gateway during the tenure of the ‘High Priest of Amun’ Pinedjem (21st Dynasty). B. Interior of the visualisation of the ‘red chapel’ of Hatshepsut (18th Dynasty). © UCLA.

    Fig. 9 – London Charter: Homepage. 15 October 2015

    Fig. 10 – “Coffee Table” by Dusan Kovic.2015.“ I tried to make it as realistic as possible. Modeled in Maya, render in Arnold, composited in Photoshop”(Kovic).

    Bateman, J. 2000. “Immediate Realities: An Anthropology of Computer Visualisation in Archaeology.” Internet Archaeology 8 .Web 7 Oct 2015

    Denard, H. 2012. A New Introduction to the London Charter. Web 11 Oct 2015

    Benjamin, W. 1936 (1968). “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.“ Illuminations, 217-51. New York: Schocken Books.

    Buczynska-Garewicz, H. 2007. Illusions of Virtual Reality. 3D VisA Bulletin 3. Web 7 Oct 2015.

    Cipolla-Ficarra, F., Veltman, K., Chih-Fang, L. , Cipolla-Ficarra, M., Kratsky, A (eds) 2011 Human Computer Interaction, Tourism and Cultural Heritage: Second International Workshop HCITOCH 2011, Córdoba, Argentina, Sept 2011, Revised Selected Papers.

    Dwyer, D. 2004. “Beyond the Artist’s Impression: From Photo-realism to Integrated Reconstruction in Buildings Archaeology.” The Reconstructed Past: Reconstructions in the Public Interpretation of Archaeology and History. Ed. John H. Jameson. Rowman Altamira, Google Books. Web 10 Oct 2015.

    Eiteljorg, H. 2000. ”The Compelling Computer Image – A Double-Edged Sword.” Internet Archaeology 8. Web 7 Oct 2015.

    Frankland, T. 2012. “A CG Artists Impression: Depicting Virtual Reconstructions Using Non-photorealistic Rendering Techniques.” Chapter 2 in Thinking beyond the Tool Archaeological computing and the interpretive process, Chrysanthi, A., Murrieta Flores, P., Papadopoulos, C. (eds) 2012 BAR International Series 2344.

    Forte, M., Dell’Unto, N., Issavi, J., Onsurez, L., Lercari, N. 2012. “3D Archaeology at Çatalhöyük.” Web 11 Oct 2015.

    Gooding, David C. “Envisioning Explanations – The Art In Science.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 29.3 (2004): 278-294. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

    Huggett, J. 2004. “Archaeology and the New Technological Fetishism.” Archeologia e Calcolatori XV. Web 5 Oct 2015.

    Rahaman, H. and Tan, B-K. 2010” Interpreting Digital Heritage Considering the End-user’s Perspective.” Web 8 Oct 2015

    Rahaman, H., Das, R. and Zahir, S. 2012. “Virtual Heritage: Exploring Photorealism.” Web 8 Oct 2015.

    Molyneaux, B.L. (ed.) 1997 ”The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology.” London and New York: Routledge.

    Roussou, M., Drettakis, G., Chalmers, A., Arnold, D., Niccolucci, F.(eds) 2003.”Photorealism and Non-Photorealism in Virtual Heritage Representation.” In: VAST 2003 and First Eurographics Workshop on Graphics and Cultural Heritage. Web 8 Oct 2015.

    Terras, Melissa. “Review of Beyond Illustration: 2D and 3D Digital Tools for Discovery in Archaeology [Book].” Internet Archaeology.28 (2010) Web 24 July 2015.

    Watterson, Alice. 2012 “Hyper-Realism, Photo-Realism and Learning to Be Realistic.” Digital Dirt Virtual Pasts. 17 Aug. 2012. Web 14 Oct 2015.

Posted in 3D visualisations, AFF622, archaeology, Blog Post 1, BP1, CGI, imagery, modelling, paint, photorealism.

One Comment

  1. I really enjoyed the extent to which you explored the history of photorealism itself. When considering the subject itself, I found it very interesting to explore the links between photorealism as an artistic aesthetic and photorealism as a functional tool. If we are exploring and recording history, it only stands to reason that we should be able to trace and understand the history of ‘recording’ itself. The constant nature of the evolution of technology and photorealism within that technology opens several avenues of thought. I agree with your concluding thought that photorealism is suited to an authoritative and summary representation in the likes of a museum. It would appear that photorealism within Digital Heritage seems to rely on acute reproduction rather than creative representation. I think it is interesting to apply Benjamin’s idea of aura to recording methods. It leads me to question the authenticity of reproduction, the integrity of representation, and the authority of photorealism.

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