I got the shock of my life when I received an Ikea catalog and learned that some of the “photographs” in the pages were not photographs at all but 3D computer renderings of room sets and various pieces of furniture. It all looked so realistic I assumed they had to be photographs, but they were not.
Along similar lines, I have learned that in the high end of automobile photography it is no longer necessary to shoot the car and the background together; instead, a 3D rendering of the car is placed into a background image. It’s all under control of computer geeks and the end result is absolutely “realistic”, if that word means anything these days.
I think the business I was in, product photography, may be almost obsolete, at least in the way it has been practiced. After all, what I did in my studio for decades was to give various products a look of perfection, without flaws or defects, often taking days to style and retouch pictures. Why go through all this trouble when it is far easier, quicker and cheaper to use a 3D rendering, which is by definition “perfect” to begin with?
The same sort of thing has taken over pictures of people, at least in the commercial world, where retouch artists take a face or a body with various “flaws” and make it as “perfect” as they want it to be. Why even start with a photograph in the first place when computer models of skin surfaces, hair strands and so forth are so “realistic” that you might as well render a face directly from a wire-frame face template? If it can pass for a photograph, why bother taking a photograph?
So it has to be stated that the realism of a photograph has been surpassed by the “realism” of an image created entirely using computer models. And thus follows the next thought: Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Photography worked its way into our culture as an analog to those things perceived in front of our eyes; it references actual reality. When we look at a photograph, we assume the image is a recording of something that actually exists. But what if that connection is broken, and the image before our eyes becomes so stylized, so “perfect”, that it no longer has any reference whatsoever to an actual physical reality? Or worse, is a purely virtual creation made by computer software?
Most people are vaguely aware of this disconnect. In the realm of food photography, for example, most people know the food is styled to look “better” in the photograph than it does when they order it in a restaurant. That seems acceptable, because ultimately they taste the food and the picture on a menu is understood as fantasy. The “lie” of the photograph causes no great upset.
It gets a lot trickier with photographs of people. Already, retouched photographs of celebrities have been taken so far that the end result bears no connection whatsoever to the appearance of those celebrities in person. It is no big secret that movie stars have had their heads planted on top of the bodies of figure models in photographs, thus creating an idealized, “perfect” human form that is presumably more desirable and marketable.
But why stop there? With the computer power we have today, why reference an actual person at all in a photograph? Why not build a “perfect” movie star from pure numbers, a virtual movie star, perfect in all respects? Are we perhaps not there already?
I am not sure it’s a good thing when people start preferring virtual reality to actual reality. There is something unsettling about wandering into dream fantasies and the dream state is often horrific. It’s bad enough that whole segments of youth have stopped talking to real people and prefer the cyberspace world of virtual girlfriends, video gaming, Facebook and so on. But where does imagery go when it becomes completely disconnected from any physical reality, into the world of pure imagination? The answer: into the deep labyrinths of the human mind, with all its twists and turns, some good, and some not good at all.
Perhaps traditional photography, with all of its imperfections and links to actual objects, will be an antidote, appreciated again for reflecting physical reality, and the virtual world will be seen as a tragic illusion. I certainly hope so.