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Warning: The Objects in the Photograph are not as Real as they Appear

Matt Randle warns us about seeing the world through a lens darkly.

In his book the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Ludwig Wittgenstein proposes to his reader that “we make to ourselves pictures of facts… The picture is a model of reality” (p.39). Wittgenstein was referring to how one uses language to access reality, but this statement can also be said of photography: for, like language, photography – cinematic or still – exists as a window to the world. However, there is often discord between an object and the object’s appearance in a photograph. Thus false images and expectations are generated through photography. This should be a great concern for philosophers, as photographic imagery increasingly becomes the window to reality: one could even say that photo images have become the way in which one comes to understand what reality is. There have been a few philosophers who have examined the philosophical implications of the photograph, but they have mostly been overly critical.

I will focus here on explicating the impact of photography on peoples’ conceptualization of reality. So it will be of benefit to first examine the photographic process itself, and what the result of a photograph is. From there, I’ll discuss the role photography plays in interpreting reality. I will say that through the photograph one relates to a distorted or ‘anamorphic’ reality.

The Photographic Act

It is reasonable to begin by examining the source of the controversy: the creation of a photograph. The physical construction of a camera necessarily distorts the image it records. However, the photograph receives its meaning or significance, that is, what the photographer intends the image to ‘say’ or communicate, through activating this same mechanism. The meaning is the reason a picture is taken, so we should consider how a photograph receives its meaning. Fortu nately, one can turn to philosopher Jacques Derrida for guidance.

In Archive Fever (1995), Derrida proposes the notion of the ‘archontic power’ – the power of the ‘archons’, a group of people entrusted with maintaining the laws and documents in ancient Greece. He says of them:

“The archons are first of all the documents’ guardians. They do not only ensure the physical security of what is deposited and of the substrate… they have the power to interpret the archives… these documents in effect speak the law: they recall the law, and call on or impose the law.”
Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, p.2 (trans. Eric Prenowitz)

In other words, those who hold the information also get to interpret it.

The information a camera deals with is the appearance of physical reality. One may be tempted to say that it is the perceiver of the photograph who interprets photographic information, but this would be too simplistic, and so incorrect. That is to say, the viewer may interpret the photo through his or her experience of it, but this does not mean that it’s he or she who gives the photograph its meaning. The image which is to be interpreted by the viewer is itself already an interpretation, constructed partially by the photographer’s will and partially through the camera’s technical specifics. That is to say, a photograph is not just the result of manipulations by the photographer, but is also conditioned by the camera itself. A camera has certain technological limitations which prevent an unmediated or undistorted relationship of the image to reality. For instance, the camera needs certain lighting; it needs to be at a certain angle; it needs to focus on an object. In short, the camera records the object it sees through its mechanical nature, and the image which results is therefore not reality, but reality as seen through the camera. In and of themselves, these technical limitations have little importance: but the photographer must be mindful of them, and she is forced to use the camera in such a way that she can overcome or utilize these limitations. This further distorts what the camera records.

It should be noted that the limitations of photography often become intentional aspects of photographs, as the photographer uses these limitations to interpret reality as she desires – by making an object appear out of focus, or by taking a picture of a thing in insufficient lighting so that it appears darker than it is, or through Photoshop or similar airbrushing. She can make the camera record an object in such a way as to make that object perceive itself in a certain way, when that object is human. Distortions or limitations to our perception of reality further occur through what the photographer chooses as important to photograph, and so important for us to perceive.

It would be wrong to suggest that either the camera or the photographer was the ‘archon’ – the thing which asserts the meaning of the photograph. Instead, both the photographer and the camera mutually distort reality’s visual information: together they form the archon. The photo, which is the result of mechanical alterations of the real visual information, I shall refer to as having only anamorphic reality. This means the reality photographed only exists in a certain context: only when viewed from this angle, in this light, etc. Yet photography has the ability to seduce its viewer because it is anamorphic. It is something new, exciting, a variation on a familiar subject, so the images are desirable, and capture the viewer’s imagination. This is the case for both repulsive and seductive images.

The Simulacra of the Real

A camera is a very rare phenomenon: it possesses the power to depict reality in a controllable way. A photo also possesses the ability to distort reality, as we’ve seen. But this distortion is not inconsequential: it can alter one’s conscious states. For example: if the image depicts something morose – refugees, war-torn villages – then the content can grab the viewer’s mind, tell her the world is like this, and so convert the happiness she was experiencing into sadness.

One philosopher, Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), argued that photography has led to ‘the death of reality’ (see for example, The Perfect Crime, 2008, p.87). He claimed that photographs announce the disappearance of the real thing, because to Baudrillard, the photograph is made more attractive ( ‘more real’) than the real. The photograph always hints at something better than what is, and so seduces the viewer into what he called ‘hyperreality’. I don’t oppose Baudrillard’s view of photographs being more attractive than reality, but find the idea of ‘the death of reality’ dubious. Yet there’s another view of an object’s relation to its photograph.

It is a fairly common philosophical claim that an object’s appearance is different from its reality. This idea can certainly be applied when examining the relationship between an object and its pictorial representations.

Plato said that to assist in their studies, students of mathematics imagine depictions of mathematical objects such as squares, triangles and other geometrical shapes. These depictions, he writes, “they treat as images only, the real objects of their investigation being invisible except to the eye of reason” (The Republic, p.239). To Plato, true reality is the world of the Forms, from which the world of mere appearance is derived. It’s not that the pictures the students imagine do not exist (in their minds), but even so, to Plato these geometric images are ‘less real’ than those Ideal things they represent. In a way similar to how to Plato a drawn or imagined triangle is not a real triangle, a photographed object is not a real object. So when a photograph is taken of an object, an object undergoes an existential splitting – a development of two types of existence: reality and image.

Baudrillard claims that the world is made absent by the photograph, in that images decontextualize their objects, “taking the world away.” But while Baudrillard sees a loss of referent in the photograph, one should instead see a lack of realism, precisely because of its anamorphic nature. Thus, the problem with photography is not that it somehow destroys the object, as Baudrillard might over-poetically put it; but rather, that the image is a false image. The photograph is a mere simulacrum of the real which is often taken to be true.

Anamorphic Reality

Due to their anamorphic nature, photographs are problematic windows to reality.

A great deal of philosophical work has been dedicated to determining what is real. However, the problem here is not in answering the question ‘what is real?’ Rather, the real problem is that reality can appear to be a certain way, and people can mistakenly believe the appearance to be the reality. On the basis of appearance, Ptolemaic astrologers believed that the sun revolved around the earth, for example. And what is real is often not as significant to society as what is believed to be real – the Church’s opposition to the heliocentric model illustrates this. Today, reality’s appearance is still more significant (ie, meaningful) than reality itself. Today, reality is conceived of through anamorphic photography.

Photographic images evidently do play a very important role in forming our ideas about what is to be expected of life. Consider a photo of a women modelling for a fashion magazine. She appears skinny, attractive and healthy (in reality she is not as skinny, attractive, or healthy as she appears). A child comes to view what a women is through such anamorphic photographs. A young girl believes that women are really as skinny as that model seemed in that photograph. She believes she should have that complexion and body shape. A young boy comes to conceive of women in the same way, and (presuming he’s heterosexual) that he should desire this type of women. After all, he thinks this is what real women look like. Thus one is taught to desire that which is false. And similar stories can be told about many aspects of our lives.

When one views a photograph, one is always at least partially a victim of the reality it allows one to see. The more photographs, still or cinematic, one views, the more ingrained the anamorphic view of reality becomes. Thus, one’s concept of reality becomes increasingly anamorphic as one views more photographic material. And with each new image, the photographic window on reality grows.


Since the birth of philosophy, thinkers have tried to understand the distinction and connections between the real and what is perceived to be real. Photography has become a modern philosophical problem in this regard, in that photography only captures an anamorphic depiction of reality, not reality itself.

One should be careful not to fall victim to the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, who argued that reality is dead and photography is the new real. Rather, what is perceived to be real is different from what is real. Photography feeds perception, so the proliferation of photography has meant that anamorphic visions of reality have become widespread. The anamorphic conceptualization of reality is becoming more important than reality itself.

© M.J. Randle 2010

Matt Randle studies Philosophy at the University of Guelph, Canada.

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