Realistic as Photographed

Realistic as Photographed

Which is a realistic colour? This question arose in the middle of editing my video. Below the image are two identical screenshots from my square frame project. The only difference here is the colour adjustment.

It is a very subtle change between the two, but it also strongly affects the atmosphere in both images. While I was editing that video, I tried all the different possible skies and glasses that might truly fit that image. However, the question was, what is realistic colour? How do I remember the sky colour? Or reflecting on the moment when I decided to turn on the camera? Or how I now think I would have felt at that moment? It might not be a timely question to pose as we are surrounded by digital images, and it is already an old question to ask about the relationship between analogue and digital. However, the question of “realism” is also the question of the relationship between the world and image. One figure I can think of for this question will be André Bazin.

The word “realism” as it is commonly used does not have an absolute and clear meaning, so much as it indicates a certain tendency toward the faithful rendering of reality on film. Given the fact that this movement toward the real can take a thousand different routes, the apologia for “realism” per se, strictly speaking, means nothing at all. The movement is valuable only insofar as it brings increased meaning (itself an abstraction) to what is created.

The question of reality is sometimes ambiguous and open. Sometimes it is the core problem to be solved depending on “how Bazin qualifies that term that is the centre of the critical act,” and in a sense that “[r]ealism is Bazin’s touchstone or basic critical concept; but it remains in itself a blank or open term”. On the other hand, Daniel Morgan points out that Bazin had specific criteria for which film could not be a realist—German expressionism or some Soviet cinema, and the ontology of photographic image is central to understanding Bazin’s realist challenge. Bazin notes, “[t]o define a film style, it is always necessary to come back to the dialectic between reality and abstraction, between the concrete and the ideal”. The photographic image presents physical reality following the belief in the mechanically produced process, and the styles of the cinema give the meaning, turning into facts, a social fact, a political or moral fact, a spiritual fact, an existential fact, and so on.

The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from temporal contingencies [libe ́re ́ des contingences temporelles]. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it proceeds, by virtue of its genesis, from the ontology of the model; it is the model [elle procède par sa genèse de l’ontologie du modèle; elle est le modèle].

Bazin identifies three tendencies inherent in art: the impulse to make a representation against the passing of time, investigation of the realistic or mimetic telos, and ontology of the image. However, in painting, “no matter how skillful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image,” therefore, the painting unable to capture and connect the “reality” because of its human and intentional mediation. The camera, including photographic imagery in photography and cinema, is inherently realistic because it delivers believable and accurate indications of the presence of images compared to the representation of the world as painters do. It is realistic because we already have knowledge of how the camera produces the image.

Dudley Andrew articulates Bazin’s aesthetic around a “deep feeling for the integral unity of a universe in flux” and realistic styles as “approximations of visible [or perceptual] reality.” Daniel Morgan goes further on Bazin’s reading of realism and rejects the standard reading of Bazin’s ontological argument. Instead, he focuses on Bazin’s claim that “objects in a photograph are ontologically identical to objects in the world.”

“Potography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.”

The ontology of photography is not its visual approximation of reality or “a decal or approximate tracing” [un décalque approximatif], but “[p]hotography actually contributes something to the order of natural creation instead of providing a substitute for it”. The photographic image freed from temporal contingencies, any specific position in time, “implies the possibility of forming relations to objects in photographs that are not possible with respect to objects in the world.”

To Bazin, There are two different directors who believe in the real and who believe in the image, formalist and realist, which can be applied to the artist in general. For instance, F. W. Murnau, “The composition of his image is in no sense pictorial. It adds nothing to the reality, it does not deform it, it forces it to reveal its structural depth, to bring out the preexisting relations which become constitutive of the drama.” Directors, such as Kuleshov, Eisenstein, or Gance, who believe in the image, allude to the image rather than directly show it. The expressionism and montage, for Bazin, artificially fix reality’s meaning or ambiguity through stylistic impositions. This is an interesting relationship between Bazin and Eisenstein. Bazin couldn’t bring himself to like Eisenstein’s montage style, “Ivan the Terrible as an offensive return to a dangerous aestheticism,” but he admitted that Ivan the Terrible is a great film and Eisenstein is a genius of his camera in this. For him, Eisenstein, as painters mediated the world through their hands, takes a certain fact—the reality of the image through the basis of his aesthetic. Bazin analysed Geman's expressionism as stronger as he believed they “did every kind of violence to the plastics of the image by way of sets and lighting.” (I will argue his point about Eisenstein in a later post.)

Lefebvre and Furstenau argue that Bazin’s preference for the long take or Mise-en-scène—for example, deep space, the long take—over montage “lies in the fact that the presentation of an event in continuous space should lead us to believe in its “reality.” The cinema is “an imprint of the duration of the object”, the artist owes further refrain from false manipulation and formalist representation. However, the important point in the meaning of “reality” or “realistic” is not that came from idealistic or perfection that is hidden behind the human eyes but only in the way of how the human perceives, the equivalent of human perception. Bazin’s argument rests on the requirement that the spectator believes in the fiction of the imaginary horse as though it were real while knowing it is not.

The world is “mysterious” and “ambiguous” not because it is as yet only partly disclosed, as if we need only to wait for scientists to finish their investigations. […] Here the notion of “ambiguity,” a notion as central to Merleau-Ponty as it is to Bazin, becomes more than the result of a human limitation; it becomes a central attribute of the real and a value attained when consciousness sensitively encounters that otherness we call the world.

Dudley Andrew’s understanding of Bazin’s view on reality is based on the existentialist—Sartre, Marcel, Mounier, and Merleau-Ponty—the ambiguity or “mystery” is the quality of the world itself than “mystery” than the problem or challenge to be solved. Then, the meaning of the photographic image as the realistic world or object itself is based on the belief of the image production in the camera and the styles that directors or artists deliver to make the reality into a fact. Bazin claims that “we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented”, which Doan summarised as “[t]he fidelity of the image to its referent was no longer dependent upon the skill or honesty of a particular artist. The imprint of the real was automatically guaranteed by the known capability of the machine. For the first time, an aesthetic representation—previously chained to the idea of human control—could be made by accident.”

If I follow Bazin’s claim on the photographic image, which argues that an image is not a sign of “reality” and is dependent on an antecedent object, but it is “reality” as each object exists in the world. The photographic image’s effect depends not on the criteria of resemblance but on the process of generation. It is the acknowledgement that “gives us a conceptual framework for conceiving how film can be oriented by its medium and at the same time produce a style that is not, strictly speaking, faithful to it.” Then, my question is that if the idea of photographic image is still valid in this new acknowledgement accompanied by digital technology. I agree that there are several realisms as we all have different acknowledgements depending on the cultural and social environment. However, what about the change of the digital?

My doubt about “image as photographical” impacted my general understanding of the image. All images are representational. When the image is fixed in a certain frame, and when the movement of figures is very subtle, more details come into our eyes, or maybe “into our brain”. That is what I think Bazin’s preference is for a long time. Sometimes, the power of silence is stronger than loudness; non-narratives allow us to talk through our minds. If so, the question of the “realistic” shifts from the aesthetic to the ethical question, as Bazin did in his critical view of the cinema. (Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy might be useful for inquiry) The camera, I believe, does not necessarily capture truthful and faithful images of the world but is generated by a very human-centred general understanding of the aesthetic view of the realistic image. Perhaps this view is what Bazin said about photographic images. It represents wholly “human” even if it uses a technological and algorithmic interpretation of data.



  • Andre, B. (2014) ‘Battle of the Rails and Ivan the Terrible’, in C. Bert (ed.), B. Cardullo and A. Piette (trans.) Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews From the Forties and Fifties. New York: Routledge, pp. 197–204. Available at:
  • Andrew, D. (2013) André Bazin. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.Andrew, D. (1976) The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press (A Galaxy book ; GB450).
  • Bazin, A. (1960) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, Film Quarterly. Translated by H. Gray, 13(4), pp. 4–9. Available at:
  • Bazin, A. (2005) ‘The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’, in H. Gray (tran.) What is Cinema? Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 23–40.Bazin, A. (1992) Jean Renoir. 1st Da Capo Press ed. Edited by F. Truffaut. New York: Da Capo Press.
  • Bazin, André (2005) What is Cinema? Translated by Gray, Hugh. Berkeley: University of California Press.Doane, M.A. (2002) The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
  • Henderson, B. (1980) A Critique of Film Theory. 1st ed. New York: Dutton.Lefebvre, M. and Furstenau, M. (2004) ‘Digital Editing and Montage: The Vanishing Celluloid and Beyond’, Cinémas, 13(1–2), pp. 69–107. Available at:
  • Morgan, D. (2006) ‘Rethinking Bazin: Ontology and Realist Aesthetics’, Critical Inquiry, 32(3), pp. 443–481. Available at: