Twin-Earth Problem (June 2007)

The problem or question of reality is something that has always been at the heart of photography. I suppose this is true to some extent of all representational media, but it is especially true of photography, which has always enjoyed a sort of privileged access to human gullibility, despite the fact that photographic methods are really no more intrinsically truthful than any other.

And I think to a considerable extent, the nature and value of a photograph (or of a photographer) is defined by their relationship to reality, or to the sense of reality. I do not mean to say that photographs ought to be true to life, or that retouching should be penalized. Images which falsify, or images which are surreal or fantastic, are not inferior to images which report things plainly (or attempt or pretend to). But I think a great deal can be read from how a photograph (or photographer) uses the sense of reality as a photographic tool. Do they (try to) tell the truth? Do they challenge what is (or appears to be) real, and encourage the viewer to do so? Do they merely deceive the viewer? Do they invite the viewer to deceive themselves? And, of course, how well do they accomplish these things?

Of course, if one is going to try to take a position relative to reality, one must have some sense of what and where reality is, which (as an empiricist) I regard as a fantastic and largely insoluble problem in itself. Of the many imperfect attempts to address it, one of my favorites is that presented by Simone Weil to an introductory philosophy class taught to a bunch of doubtless very confused high school students. Here are a few quotes:

One can never really give a proof of the reality of anything; reality is not something open to proof, it is something established. It is established just because proof is not enough. It is this characteristic of language, at once indispensable and inadequate, which shows the reality of the external world.

Reality comes into view when we see that nature is not only an obstacle which allows us to act in an ordered way but it is also an obstacle which infinitely transcends us.

There is nothing real whenever there is nothing unforeseen. In science, in reasoning, one sees in the problems one is dealing with only what one has put there oneself (hypotheses). If in actions there was nothing except what we ourselves suppose them to contain, nothing would ever get done, since there would be no snags. All sorts of accidents can occur between the time when I have seen what the problem is and the time when I have acted. Reality is defined by that. It is what is not contained in the problem as such; reality is what method does not allow us to foresee.

Why is it that reality can only appear like this, in a negative sort of way? What marks off the self is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method; we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself to us.

Of course Weil is a religious thinker, and one of my favorite religious thinkers, but what she points us toward here is a kind of faith which applies equally to religious and non-religious folks. It is the fact that in order for our thinking and action to go beyond the level of game-playing, we must make a leap of faith (or, in Weil’s terms, an act of love) with regard to the world around us.

And if this faith is not present in our photographs (or in logical inquiry, or in scientific research) then our efforts are only (at most) a “symbolic game”…


There was a nice quote in the Magnum twitter feed a while back that relates:

There’s also a nice quote or two in Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography that I’ll try to dig up later.

2 Responses to “Reality”

  1. earthtopus Says:

    The Weil I’ve been exposed to by virtue of knowing you has been very useful, over the years.

  2. Nick Says:

    Useful, huh? That’s almost hard to imagine, knowing Weil, and knowing any sort of cultural information one might be exposed to via me. : )