Time and Photography: Realism

The Sun Draws on Water, 2016
In the previous post in this series the question of realism in photographing moving objects has been lightly touched upon. I think the question is worth a second thought. Immediately, when we use a word like “realism” a question pops up. Do we mean “real” as we see it, or real as in objective reality. Is there a difference? Well, yes there might be.


In the famous article “Brain Time” by neuroscientist David Eagleman we learn about some curious facts and conclusions on how our brain constructs reality from the stimuli perceived from its sensors (eyes, ears, touch etc). To name a few of his conclusions: what we perceive is the integration of stimuli within a time window. In philosophy this has been called the “specious present”, the duration of the present. Strangely though, everything we perceive as present is in the (recent) past; that is because signals from our senses take time to reach our brain and the brain seems to wait for the slowest signal to arrive before it constructs reality from all sensor input.

I think this is a reminder, that we (including our perception) have evolved for survival, not for the purpose of understanding reality. This thought is not new. Already Immanuel Kant, who didn’t know anything about evolution, deducted that we can’t know anything about reality as such as we are prisoners of our brains. As long as all humans perceive in roughly the same way and can communicate and interact based on our perception of reality all is fine. We just shouldn’t let us be fooled into thinking that our perception is reality or the only way to describe it.

As I described in previous posts, also the camera “integrates” a signal. Light is collected in the sensor over a period of time. In the camera, though, we can choose the size of the time window during which the integration happens. We can’t do that with our perception. Thus, the camera can select very short windows and show us a bullet in flight. Or, in a time-lapse video, it can show us very slow processes, like the unfolding of a flower. But all of these “windows” are equally real (or as they are random selections: unreal). Still, the camera can, if not overcome, stretch our perception and help us to glimpse at a broader concept of reality. Isn’t that a fascinating thought?

I find it quite arresting also for another reason. We usually assume that the reasons why we have such a devastating effect on nature and the environment is that we are too many, use too many resources and are, through our technology, too powerful for own good. I since long suspect, though, that our limited grasp of reality contributes to these problems. Very complex systems in nature that happen in cycles, over longer time periods or large geographical areas are difficult to grasp for a species that evolved to perceive reality as something close by, that lies in the past (see above) and develops in a linear fashion as series of events. That might be a reason, why we can see all the data about climate change and we still confuse that with the weather and some have difficulty even to believe the data.  If the findings are correct (and I think so), the effects will be so dramatic and threatening, that all our survival instincts should kick in. But they don’t. We still treat it as an intellectual problem that we can solve at some time.

I don’t expect that photography can radically alter our perception or grasp of reality; but it can stretch and challenge our sense of what reality is and so, like art in general, extend our understanding of ourselves, of reality and of our place in the world.  At least, I find this something worth trying.



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