Life Imitating Art, or Reality Imitating Images

The Real is No Longer Real” – Jean Baudrillard

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was interested in the essential falsity of the world we as moderns inhabit. Much of what we take for ‘reality’ isn’t the product of our direct experience of people and things but rather comes to us via images mediated by various media – advertising, movies, magazines, the internet. Our reality – what we consider real – is constructed from this image world. The reality we construct via all this imagery Baudrillard calls ‘hyperreality, ’ a composited reality created by other people to influence you for their own ends, whether it be how you should look and dress, what sort of car you should drive, what gadgets you need to live properly.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard claimed that in our modern media-saturated society, where we are constantly bombarded by images, all human experience is now essentially a simulation. Our image-based reality is like an infinitely detailed map existing in a one-to-one relationship with the real territory it describes. The problem is that we take these ‘maps’ of reality presented via images as more real than what actually exists. This is what Baudrillard calls “the death of the real”; all that exists for us are simulations of reality, the representations more important than the ‘real thing’. The massed collection of these simulations has resulted in the condition of ‘hyperreality’, where the distinction between the ‘real’ and simulations has collapsed.

One of Baudrillard’s core arguments is that our world is so thoroughly saturated with images that there’s no longer any way to access a ‘real-world’ that might precede this image world. The image world is our ‘real world, a world we can’t escape or opt out of. It’s now literally impossible to conceptualize a ‘reality’ that precedes and stands apart from the image reality. The causal direction between the real and the representation is now reversed; ‘reality’ is an effect of the image, rather than the image springing from a reality prior to and deeper than it. Instead of art imitating life, life now imitates art.

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We naively think of reality as being separate from the images that claim to represent it. Documentary photography – and traditional notions of photography in general – have considered the relationship of images to reality as follows: there exists reality, and then images are created that reflect that reality. But is this still true in the digital age, where photographers present bright orange trains running under aqua blue-green moonlit skies? In The Evil Demon of Images (1984) Baudrillard claims that that relationship has now become inverted: now it’s the image that comes first, preceding and creating the very reality it claims to reflect, a reversal of the traditional causal relationship between reality and the image.

If you believe Baudrillard, then it raises all sorts of issues re: photography. First, if our reality is already media created, can we speak in any meaningful sense of photography as being a means of documenting a reality that precedes the photograph, or is the phot then an image of an image world, something doubly removed from an inaccessible objective reality? Is it possible to ‘believe’ a photo accurately represents a prior state of affairs? What does it do for Barthe’s understanding of the referential nature of photography as a medium, its authenticity based upon its indexical reading? It also calls into question your rights and responsibilities as a photographer. Your role as an image-maker becomes really important. Baudrillard would say you’re contributing to the creation of realities. The question then becomes: what is your responsibility in that process?

14 thoughts on “Life Imitating Art, or Reality Imitating Images

  1. Pieter

    Interestingly, I have often referred to my photography as editing reality…but I could assume that by editing, I am creating a new reality. Since much of the time I look at the world around me in terms of possible photographs, the images are indeed the reality that “reality” reflects.

    Reply
  2. Lee Rust

    There’s a lot more to reality than what we can see. However, since most of my cameras now have better vision than I do, I must often refer to their images in order to see real scenes in any great detail.

    On the other hand, cameras still can’t smell, hear, touch, taste, think or feel, so maybe that’s why I still like my rangefinders…they don’t pretend to be smart.

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    1. Rob Campbell

      Indeed there is more than we can see: our past dogs taught us that lesson right from the start. An assumption that we, as humans, know it all is patently absurd.

      Not sure about your rangefinders having any real (pun) superiority there, though; my digital ones are smart in that they give me the freedom to concentrate on subject rather than the Weston or Minolta. Of itself, that doesn’t make either cameras or me smart, just faster.

      Tomorrow, at 07:30 hrs I get the second eye freed of cataracts. I hope the surgeon has had a good, early, stressless night before we meet again. I, of course, will beat the alarm clock(s) by several hours…

      🙂

      Reply
      1. Lee Rust

        Rob, I hope your operation goes well. I’ll have to get replacement lenses myself before too long. Everyone assures me that there are rarely any problems with the procedures, but I’m reluctant. Where did you ask them to focus your new lenses? I was thinking maybe I should request perfect focus at 2 meters … the same as a Leica viewfinder. Does you new lens do well with looking through cameras?

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        1. Rob Campbell

          Lee, the first op. on the 6th of the month went very well, and as my daughter drove me home, I couldn’t stop myself exclaiming about the way I could read all the street signs and number plates at great distances.

          I didn’t tell them (or be asked) anything about focussing best-distances; they measured the eyes a few weeks before the op and made their decisions on those readings. I would say they have given me great vision from about a yard to infinity on the first eye.

          The info. on the card they give you referring to the implant:

          Hoya, Aspheric Clear

          Model – 254
          Power +21.00D

          Now, today I had the second eye done, and I am not delighted at all: everything looks like a very David Hamilton photograph: breath on the lens on a rather cold day, and that’s the way everything looks after the latest eye op. (on that eye only).

          I have a check-up appointment for tomorrow morning with the surgeon, so will tell him all about the “look” I have acquired from this second op.

          I have downloaded a David Hamilton image onto the iPad to show him a close relative of my experience. No, I used one of his bowl of flowers photos – didn’t want to take the man’s mind off my case.

          When they measured the eyes, they gave me a printed sheet showing the different measurements. They were not the same for each eye at all, but I note that the card for today’s new lens has exactly the same numbers as the first: I wonder if there has been a fuck-up, and I got the wrong lens for the second op?

          Tomorrow we find out!

          Reply
  3. Rob Campbell

    Reality mostly ended some time ago. You just have to take a peek at politics to see that written across the various political walls, even those yet unbuilt.

    In Britain we have a prime Minister who knows perfectly well that asking Europe to refrain from having a border between itself and a non-member country is impossible (the Irish situation) for Europe to grant. He is using that impossible demand as argument and future excuse for the chaos and terrorist deaths that will come about if a non-deal Brexit happens and that land border returns. The reality of the unreality is that millions will accept his argument as sound, even if realising that he might as well be asking Europe to become a part of the Moon: not having such a border means the dissolution of the concept of the EEC. The added unreality is that a border between those two Irish lands is only a problem because they cannot call it a day and get along with one another: the smallest tail in the world wagging the largest dog.

    Young people klll themselves because they know they will never approach the shape of the Photoshopped models in their favourite magazines; photographers buy cameras way beyond their ability grade thinking that will buy them talent; others go on courses to watch somebody else make money by leading them by the nose. If you have nudist or topless beaches in your vicinity you will have observed that some ladies have gravity-defying twin peaks that change not one iota when they lie down to soak up the Sun. Their reality is false, as is the idea that all that browning is going to be good for them, that cancer is something that happens to somebody else, and a myth akin to global warming, despite what cllnics and weather reports demonstrate.

    Having said which, a real reality is that I still find this the most satisfying site around.

    Rob

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  4. 32BT

    I always wondered what it means to have been a child of the cinematic eighties? Clearly, we all think we manage to distinguish between reality and romanticised hollywood fantasy. Yet, if somebody sticks a gun in my face and yells: “your money or your life!”, apart from the fact that it would be a gross mistake on the villain’s part, primarily because of the liquidity issue, there is of course the other issue of how am I supposed to know that that gun represents an actual lethal threat?

    It’s not like I’ve been shot to death several times prior.

    Admittedly, the strangest thoughts keep me awake at night. The potential consequences of operating a gun in said manner is fortunately not one of them.

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  5. Rob Campbell

    I sympathise with your nocturnal wonderings and wanderings. I often have the thought that were I to be accosted in that way, taking into account my mileage and obvious need for a multi-faceted refit, or at the very least, service, I could do worse than spring into action with one of those judo moves that I have carefully studied on the Internet. I only need get it right that once, not a thousand times.

    I could become a legend in my own time.

    Did you know that you can buy alligator oil that will cure most of your creaks and groans, give you perfect skin and clear eyes? It says so on the Rajun Cajun out of Louisiana. Don’t know about the oils, but the music’s pretty good.
    .

    Reply
    1. 32BT

      Rob, I always figured that if perception doesn’t bend towards reality, you might as well bend reality towards perception. My judo moves therefore, are impeccable, not in the least because I once attended a masterclass karate by professor Suzuki who at the time was already at the precious age of 88.

      They did also show a gun removal routine, which, executed by the honorable professor and his assistants, would even have the gun left confused as to what the f just happened.

      I suppose there is a business opportunity springing to mind: a gumbalaya restaurant on your island, with some godhonest New Orleans jazz. I think I would at least have one customer. All depending on parkingspace of course.

      Reply
  6. Rob Campbell

    Lee: regarding the eyes, the surgeon told me today that my excellent, problem-free first op. was the anomaly, that the OOF and white-out I had yesterday and when I awoke this morning (from the second op.) is more the norm, and will be gone by the end of the week. By noon today I felt I could drive again without problems. I shall leave that pleasure until Monday – assuming the battery starts again after the long down-period it just enjoyed… have a final check-up in a month’s time.

    Now there’s a thought: what happens to the batteries on a totally electric car if it lies unused for about a month or so?

    32BT:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaH4TUFjc_M

    Pour moi, knocks the Tom Petty version right off the court.

    Rob

    Reply
  7. Andrew Molitor

    I accessed reality itself just yesterday! It’s not easy. We are on a little holiday, and took a walk in the forest. One needs to quite work at it to be really present in the real world but I think I managed it to a solid degree.

    This forest is unusual.

    There are old stumps throughout, many decades old, clearly of cedar trees. The mature trees you see, however, are exclusively hemlock. All of the foliage, however the second, is clearly cedar again.

    It takes close observation to notice that the hemlock foliage starts 20 meters up, and so all the foliage is from the immature cedars. Sometimes a slender young cedar is hiding behind a mature hemlock, and her branches protrude on both sides creating the illusion of a hemlock with cedar branches.

    I guess maybe one or two people a day, though, notice this. I made sure to point it out to my six year old daughter, who was bored. She found it interesting.

    Anyways, I came to the conclusion a few years ago that the hardest thing for a photographer to do is to be fully present in the world. The rest kind of falls in to place with a bit of effort after that.

    Reply
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