The power of the image: photorealism

Giacomo Carmagnola 
The power of the image: photorealism

If the humanism that makes civilisation civilised is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates. Those advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive.


The above quote is taken from Clive James’s wonderful collection of essays, ‘Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the margin of my time’. This book (and the assertions within it) played a large part in my own decision to investigate the various methods and disciplines of digital humanities scholarship.

As such, it seemed like an appropriate place to begin the first blog post in a series documenting the development of my own understanding of the practices and principles within digital humanities and more specifically here, digital cultural heritage.

This series of AFF622 posts will focus on the theme ‘The power of the image in digital cultural heritage’ and begins with an examination of the issues associated with photorealism.

This brings me to the second reason I’ve cited the passage above. The quote itself alludes to the burden of responsibility upon the fields of study which focus on the investigation, preservation and dissemination of our shared human heritage, known as the humanities.

The title of the book from which the quote originates, ‘Cultural Amnesia’, speaks further of the fragility of our cultural heritage and history. Its subtitle, ‘Notes in the margin of my time’, reminds us of the inherently subjective and selective nature of preservation and interpretation.

It is these tensions that exist between the responsibility to faithfully preserve and disseminate cultural artefacts and the often incomplete or subjective processes that are necessary to fulfil these obligations, that are hallmark of the issues surrounding photorealism.

To say that ‘the camera cannot lie’ is merely to underline the multiple deceits that are now practiced in its name. Indeed, the world of the movie that was prepared by the photograph has become synonymous with illusion and fantasy – Marshall McLuhan

Genesis as art

The term ‘photorealism’ has its roots in an artistic movement obsessed with the authentic and the physical. It has been appropriated, along with its creative relative, ‘to render’, by the digital community to describe the computational processes involved in creating highly accurate or credible digital versions of physical objects.

Of course these versions are not physical objects and are merely representations, not unlike the folder icon on one’s desktop. It is when the level of accuracy achieved in these representations begins to obscure this inherent fact in the eye and mind of the viewer that the risks become more evident.

Theoretical reality

The effect of a photorealistic representation is to highlight and enhance what is known, or thought to be known, and therefore tends to obscure or conceal what is unclear or not understood. The aggregate of these processes can lead to beautiful representations and hazardous assumptions. Mosaker echoes this duality, stating: “The problem with photorealism is that people tend to think of such images as the truth about the past, and not just a version or what it could have been like”.

This reminds me of the subjective, collaborative or collective nature of this concept of ‘truth’ as it relates to history. While it may be the quixotic quest of the historian or scholar to unearth some ‘truth’, its definition or interpretation is not central to their function or duty. Indeed, Maria Roussou via Rahaman notes how its implication may even be something to be avoided: “A photo-realistic rendering [… may …] imply ‘historical truth’, which may not be desirable”.

Mud and the illusion of depth

The danger here is not simply to mislead the public. The lens of the technology through which we create and view these photorealistic representations are problematic in themselves.

Recalling McLuhan’s notion that ‘the medium is the message’, these surrogate artefacts, imbued with this virtual ‘realness’ are extracted from the computers which themselves are imbued with a perceived mathematical precision and objectivity. As such, they can become their own truth and can trump the original artefact’s authenticity through a perceived process, or medium, of computed ‘reality’.

As the technology becomes more powerful the mediums and processes become more automated and less concerned with the operator. Many of the online photogrammetry services require the user to simply upload their photos and to wait for their results, not unlike sending film away to be processed with analogue photography. This puts further distance between not just the viewer and the artefact, but also the so called creator of digital surrogates. This is problematic and as Jeremy Huggett notes: “The challenge for us as expert computer users is that if we do not understand the implications and effects of the technologies employed, who else will?”

Technological fetishism

In his paper, ‘Archaeology and the new technological fetishism’, Huggett describes various fetishes towards technology that may be problematic from an academic standpoint. The ‘fetish of the new’, as he calls it, refers to the allure and seductive quality of new technologies. This mirrors the notion that the quality of the render, the more ‘real’ it appears, (which relates almost entirely to the available technology, be it processor speed, camera quality, broadband access at site and anything else that might improve the final product), the more convincing and seductive the delivered digital artefact will be.

Huggett develops this notion of technological fetishes with ‘the fetish of magic’. Here he notes the obscure and abstract nature of jargon and coding languages and how they can bestow a magical expertise on the operator. The smaller and quicker these technologies get, the more alluring and impressive their output, and by extension, their operators appear. This again has clear echoes of McLuhan’s notions of technologies as extensions of man and his belief that the medium influences directly how a message is perceived.

Hugget’s idea of technologies as seductive should loom large in any evaluation of the pros and cons of photorealism. His own words on the issue are the most effective way to succinctly summarise the pitfalls as he percieves them:

The transformative power of information technologies may be hidden beneath a bland system unit or beguiling interface, but in an archaeological hyperreality, data may be wrenched from context, argument separated from evidence, interpretations transformed into “facts”, explicit knowledge separated from tacit knowledge, push-button solutions substituted for knowledgeable actions.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of how accurate and effective the representations rendered are, it is manifest that these technologies are putting further distance between the authentic artefact and the viewer, be they museum goer or university professor. Screens, lenses and profound depths of automation and code stand between the viewer and the original. How problematic this is depends on the transparency of these processes and layers. It is in the implication of authenticity, or truth, where the danger lies. If this ‘realness’ is allowed to be interpreted as truth, deliberately or not, and it trumps the viewer’s natural curiosity or skepticism, then the purpose of the pursuit itself will have been lost; greater human understanding.


Clark, Jeffrey. “The Fallacy Of Reconstruction.” (2015): n. pag. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Huggett, Jeremy. “Archaeology and the new technological fetishism.” Archeologia e Calcolatori 15 (2004): 81-92.

Sanders, Donald H. “Persuade or perish: moving virtual heritage beyond pretty pictures of the past.” Virtual Systems and Multimedia, 2001. Proceedings. Seventh International Conference on. IEEE, 2001.

“The Compelling Computer Image – A Double-Edged Sword Harrison Eiteljorg, II.” N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

Rahaman, Hafizur, Rana Das, and Shehzad Zahir. “Virtual heritage: exploring photorealism.” Progress in Cultural Heritage Preservation. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2012. 191-200.

Benjamin, Walter. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Penguin UK, 2008.

Mosaker, Lidunn. “Visualising historical knowledge using virtual reality technology.” Digital Creativity 12.1 (2001): 15-25.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. N.p.: n.p., 1964. Print.

One thought on “The power of the image: photorealism

  1. I like your writing style John. Your blog post describes very well how a photorealistic image, and sometimes the technology that created it, can perhaps inadventantly distance a viewer from an artifact represented. Jonathan Batemans article *“Immediate Realities” also writes about the technophiles (3)used to create such renderings. Although some of his suspicions seem to focus on the fact that they are facilitators from outside of the fields of archaeology (and therefore are not of the same training and could have different objectives to those of an archaeologist) isn’t made clear. However he does support your argument by saying that the discussions amongst these ‘facilitators’ about the mechanics of how to achieve visualisation objectives has become the ‘primary node of discussion’, which as you say, puts more distance between a viewer and their potential for greater understanding.

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

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