Exercise: Realism


Read the first three sections (pp.1–8) of the essay ‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ by Kendall L Walton.

Write a 200-word reflective commentary in your learning log outlining your views about Walton’s idea of photographic transparency.


Before reading this I imagined it might be concerned with the practical issues of subjectivity, authorial intent, image manipulation etc, but no – it’s more conceptual than that.

Walton starts by debunking a commonly-held view that photography’s claim to ‘realism’ is a function of its indexicality. He points out the ways in which a photograph is self-evidently not identical to the original scene (two-dimensional, motionless, framed, often b/w etc), and adds to this the fact that some paintings and drawings are actually more ‘realistic’ than many photographs. The ‘visual realism’ in photography is therefore relative, not absolute.

Which is the photograph?

Walton then however goes on to explain a way in which photography does have a claim to realism, and it is not its visual resemblance to the subject but rather the fact that “a photograph is always a photograph of something which actually exists” (Walton 1984).

He explains his ‘transparency’ theory thus: what we see in a photograph, we truly see, and the photograph is the portal through which this seeing is possible. On the face of it this is somewhat fanciful, but Walton incrementally expands on the accepted definition of ‘seeing’ using examples such as glasses, mirrors, TV cameras etc – and crucially adds the temporal dimension of ‘seeing’ past events (what is the difference between seeing a TV broadcast live and seeing it pre-recorded?). From this point of view, we see a past reality ‘through’ a photograph in a way that we can never see through a painting. This echoes John Berger’s assertion that “Photographs do not translate from appearances. They quote from them.” (Berger 2013: 66)

So this was my major takeaway from Walton’s essay: before one gets to any problematic issues such as editorial agendas, digital manipulation or images being taken out of context – at bottom, photography is fundamentally about showing (rather than ‘representing’) the ‘real’ in way that other arts forms are not.

Whether ‘real’ = ‘true’ is a different discussion.


Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

Walton, K.L. (1984), Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism, published in Critical Enquiry 11, (December 1984). Chicago: University of Chicago.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s