A Philosopher's Blog

Is Photorealistic Drawing Art?

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 31, 2012
Richard Estes, 1968, Photorealism

Richard Estes, 1968, Photorealism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Traditionally, drawing has been regarded as an imitative art. That is, artists create images based on real things. Naturally, this imitation can range from simply copying entire scenes to creating an original assembly from bits and pieces of real things. Descartes, in his clever painter analogy in his Meditations, makes note of this interesting nature of painting (which also applies to drawing). As he saw it, perhaps dreams are assembled like paintings from bits of real things. At the very least, he argues (before moving on to even greater skepticism), the colors used are real.

Moving away from metaphysics and epistemology back to aesthetics, it seems well established that imitating real things does not disqualify a drawing from being art. In fact, artists are often praised for their ability to accurately imitate reality. Interestingly, though this realism is often praised, there might be a point at which a drawing is too real to be considered art.

One argument for this is easy enough to make. When teaching my aesthetics class, I demonstrate my lack of drawing ability and ask them why my badly drawn capybara is not art. They point out the obvious—it does not look much a capybara because it is badly drawn. I then ask them if it would be art if I could draw better and they tend to agree. I then ask about just photocopying (or scanning and printing) the picture I used as the basis for my capybara drawing. They point out the obvious—that would not be art, just a copy.

Obviously, part of the reason the photocopy or scan would not be art is that it is just a mechanical reproduction (although I am sure that someone clever could argue that it is art and someone even more clever would find a way to sell it as art to people with more money than sense).

Things become considerably more interesting when a photorealistic image is created not by a technological means of duplication, but by hand. For example, Samuel Silva recreated the image of a red haired girl from a photo by Kristina Taraina as well as other photorealistic images. While Silva works with color Bic pens (seriously), Paul Cadden creates his photorealistic works by drawing and also with paints. He, however, uses the term “hyperrealism” rather than “photorealism.”

Clearly, the creation of such realism in imitation requires great technical skill. For example, Silva can create photorealistic colors using Bic pens and this demonstrates an impressive mastery of color. There is also the obvious technical skill required to imitate a photograph with such incredible accuracy.

However, it is clear that technical skill alone does not make the results art. After all, this technical skill can be exceeded by a decent color photocopier or a computer connected to a color scanner and printer.

It might be objected that the technical skill does make it art, despite the fact that a machine can do it better. To use an analogy, the fact that a scooter could beat a champion runner does not prove that the runner is not an athlete. Likewise, the fact that a machine can imitate better than Silva or Cadden does not mean that they are not artists. This leads to a second point about art and imitation.

The problem, it can be argued, is not that a machine can imitate better than Silva or Cadden. Rather, it is that there seems to be a point at which the exactitude of the imitation ceases to be a contribution to the artistry and rather begins to detract from it. While it seems unlikely that an exact tipping point can be specified, it does certainly seem that this is the case. Why this is so can be shown by returning to the reason why a mechanical copy is not art: there is nothing in the copy that is not in the original (laying aside duplication defects). As such, the more exact the copy of the original, the less room there is for whatever it is that makes a work art. As such, to argue that Silva or Cadden is an artist requires showing that they do more than merely copy. That is, they must add something aesthetically significant to their work that is not in the original.

One obvious avenue of approach is to draw an analogy to photography. By its very nature, an unaltered photograph merely captures an image of what is there (photons bouncing of surfaces and all that).  What the photographer adds is her perspective—that is, she selects what she will capture and thus what makes the work art is not that it duplicates reality (which it must by the laws of physics) but that the photographer has added that something extra (which, to steal from Locke’s Indian, I must say is “something I know not what”).

As such, someone who creates photorealistic images of photos could be adding that something extra in a way comparable to what photographers do when they create their art (assuming, safely enough, that a photograph can be art).

The rather obvious reply to this is that a person who is creating a photorealistic re-creation of a photograph does not seem to be adding that something extra. Cadden does, however, claim that he is not engaging in photorealism, but rather in what he calls hyperrealism. He says that

“Hyperreal paintings and sculptures are not strict interpretations of photographs, nor are they literal illustrations of a particular scene or subject. Instead, they utilise additional, often subtle, pictorial elements to create the illusion of a reality which in fact either does not exist or cannot be seen by the human eye” and he adds that “Furthermore, they may incorporate emotional, social, cultural and political thematic elements as an extension of the painted visual illusion; a distinct departure from the older and considerably more literal school of Photorealism.”

From a theoretical standpoint, Cadden is certainly on solid ground. After all, he makes an argument analogous to the one used above, namely that he adds that “aesthetic extra” that makes his work more than a technical achievement in manual duplication. There is, however, the question of whether that “aesthetic extra” is present in his works. Since he works from photographs, it seems easy enough to put the matter to an empirical test by comparing his works to the original and giving due consideration to the difference. As such, if his work differs in aesthetically significant ways from the original image, then it would be safe enough to consider it art and him an artist.

In any case, both Silva and Cadden are remarkably talented and do amazing work.

My Amazon author page.

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Photos and Memories

Posted in Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 17, 2011
The Polaroid Corporation logo.

Image via Wikipedia

A short while before she was heading to Orlando, my girlfriend asked me to scan the photos in her old photo album and in a box. No doubt worn out after a week of preparing to move and dealing with her ongoing dissertation study, she said that she was tired of carting the photos about and wanted to toss them after I had scanned them.

While this might not seem like a matter fit for philosophy, it did get me thinking about the exploitation of male labor by the female oppressors. I mean, it got me thinking about the preservation of photos and whether there would be any meaningful difference between the original photos (which are pre-digital) and the digital copies.

The easy and obvious answer would seem to be that there would be no meaningful difference. After all, a photo is just an image and the scanning would duplicate that image. In fact, the scan would be better than the original. Not only could the scanned image be backed up against loss and printed as needed, it could also be color corrected and otherwise improved relative to the original. Also, a photo created from a negative is already a copy (of sorts) and hence any concern about one being an original and one being a copy can apparently be set aside. That said, it would seem to be worth looking a little deeper.

Before looking a bit deeper, I believe I am obligated to present a possible biasing factor. Being a person of moderate age, I grew up long before digital cameras and have a certain nostalgic attachment to physical photos. However, I do not even own a film camera anymore and have been doing digital photography since the late 1990s. As such, I think that I can restrain my bias and look at the matter with some objectivity. Or perhaps not-the ways of one’s youth can be hard to shake.

While an non-digital photograph is but an image of an event that was most likely created from a negative (with the obvious exception of the Polaroid), it can be argued that a photograph can become an artifact of memory, history or nostalgia. This, perhaps, makes it more than just a mere surface image that can be copied by scanning. Rather, it is an item that is imbued in a way that makes its physical composition an important part of what it is. Since this component cannot be replicated by scanning, to scan a photo and discard it would be more than merely discarding a redundant image, but throwing away a vessel of memory, a vehicle of history, a bearer of nostalgia.

To use an obvious analogy, imagine if someone wanted to scan historical documents and throw away the originals to save space and weight. While the images would be preserved, a significant part of the history would be lost. To use another obvious analogy, consider the distinction between an  historical item, such as a coin or sword, and a modern replica. While the replica might look exactly like the original (and might even be “better”), it would seem to be lacking in important ways.

Of course, it can be argued that while historical artifacts have a value in terms of historical research, the main value of old items comes from the fact that we value them. Take, for example, a fading childhood photo. While it has numerous objective qualities, these do not include those that make it a vessel of memory, a bearer of nostalgia or a possessor of sentimental value. These qualities do not exist in the object. Rather, they are a relational property between the person and the object: a photo has sentimental value because I value it. Perhaps they are not even that-after all, a person could certainly be duped into thinking that a photo is the original one, even though it was replaced with a new print modified to look old. Perhaps someone damaged the photo and wanted to replace it without the person knowing-perhaps as a perceived kindness or to avoid the fruits of anger. The person would feel that sentiment, but would, of course, be in error. It would be like a person thinking she was seeing the person she loves, but was actually seeing his twin. Until she became aware of her error, she would feel that love. Likewise, a person would feel the same way about the photo, at least until she was aware it was not the original.

Or perhaps she would still feel the same way. After all, perhaps it is the case that the value attached to the image is based on the image rather than the object. So, for example, a scanned copy of an old photograph would create the same feelings and stand in the same relationships as the original in terms of the value placed upon it. If so, then being rid of the old photos would be no loss at all.

In my own case, my emotional view is that it would make a difference. While the image is an important aspect of the photo, the physical photo also has a value as an object connected to the past. Of course, this feeling is just a feeling and could merely be the result of my pre-digital youth. I also feel the same way about hand written letters, but that perhaps says more about my age than about the world.


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Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2011
Official photo of Congresswoman Michele Bachma...

Image via Wikipedia

Having been delayed by start of the semester preparations, I only just got around to seeing the cover of Newsweek. I had heard about the Bachmann controversy, but hearing about it and seeing the horrible cover in person are two different things.

The intentional use of unflattering images is, of course nothing new. Using such an image is a standard rhetorical device and can be somewhat effective in slanting the audience’s perspective. As with all rhetorical devices, a critical thinker will be on guard against it and (hopefully) see through the rhetoric so as to determine if anything substantive lies behind it. To use this specific example, one way to approach this cover is as follows: “wow, what a horrible picture of Bachmann. Newsweek claims she is the queen of rage, but do they provide any actual evidence for this claim? Also, is that something that should worry me?”

In addition to the critical thinking aspect, there is also the ethical aspect regard such images. Such photos are easy enough to find-after all, no matter how attractive or intelligent a person might be, there is always some angle, lighting or momentary expression that will enable a really awful photo. Of course, better photos are also easy to find and, as most folks know, a professional photographer can make almost anyone look good (or at least okay).

As such, there is typically a choice to be made when it comes to images: a good one, a bad one, and so on. In some cases, a bad image can be justified. Obviously, if that is the only available photo, then it would thus be generally acceptable to use it. It can also be justified in cases when the image is relevant to the story. For example, if someone is arrested a photo of that event, even if the person looks awful, would seem to be acceptable. After all, a photo of someone being arrested seems perfectly appropriate for a story about the person being arrested. However, neither of these apply to the Bachmann photo. First, there are plenty of good photos of her that could have been used. Second, while a picture of her being angry could be relevant, the photo selected does not show rage. It is a bad photo that makes her seem, well, dull and a bit confused. About the only thing that can be said in Newsweek’s favor is at least they did not modify the image to make it appear worse (like what Time did to OJ Simpson).

As sort of a variant on the philosophical principle of charity, news publications should follow a principle of image charity: unless there is an adequate justification for a bad image, then at least a neutral one should be used. As such, Newsweek acted incorrectly in using this image.

Another possibility worth considering is that a bad image is used because the person selecting the image is lacking in aesthetic judgment. That is, they do not realize that they have picked a crappy picture. This does happen. Years ago when I tried my hand at Match.com I noticed that many women would have some very good photos and also some truly horrible photos that made them look awful. While I could be wrong, I infer that they did not realize that the photos were bad-if they did, they would not have used them.

Of course, the folks at Newsweek cannot seriously claim that they are incompetent when it comes to picking photos. Surely they were quite aware of the nature of the image and went with it anyway. The most plausible explanation is that it was intended (as noted above) a rhetorical shot at Bachmann to make her look bad. While this sort of thing is what can be expected in campaign ads, it is not what should be done by a publication that purports to be an objective purveyor of the news or a provider of objective and fair analysis.

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Pictures of the Dead

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 11, 2011
Princess Diana on a royal visit for the offici...

Image via Wikipedia

In addition to the fact that the both died violent deaths, Bin Laden and Princess Diana both share the fact that their post death pictures have generated controversy. In the case of Bin Laden, the decision was made to not release the photos of his corpse. In the case of Princess Diana, the infamous paparazzi photo of her death is featured in the upcoming film Unlawful Killing.

As far as the legality of the matter, this is easy enough to settle. Obama certainly has the legal right to not release the photos of Bin Laden. Legal steps can be taken to have the photos released, of course. In the case of the photo of Princess Diana, it is perfectly legal for it to be shown, at least in the United States and France. The UK is less enamored of the freedom of the press and the film will, as of this writing, not be shown there. What is more interesting than the legality is the matter of ethics.

The main argument given against the release of the Bin Laden photo is that it would incite people to violence. From a moral standpoint, this can be seen as a utilitarian argument (or simply as a pragmatic argument): releasing the photo would have harmful consequences, therefore it should not be done.

Given the power of images, this does have a certain appeal. An image of the dead Bin Laden would certainly have more emotional impact than the mere statement that he is dead. However, it also seems reasonable to consider the obvious: if killing Bin Laden would not inspire a person to violence, then seeing a photo most likely would not push the person over the edge. As such, this argument is not particularly strong. Perhaps a better reason can be found by considering the death photo of Princess Diana.

One argument that can be used in the case of Princess Diana is that such a photo should not be shown out of respect for her and her family. On the face of it, it seems reasonable to hold that a graphic death photo should not be shown unless there is a compelling reason to show the photo. As such, the burden of proof would be on those who contend such a photo should be shown.

In some cases compelling reasons can be given. For example, the photo of Princess Diana was shown (with her face blurred) during the investigation of the crash that killed her. This sort of use seems to be legitimate. Another example would be when showing the picture serves a laudable purpose, such as revealing the true horror of war or crime. However, to show such an image merely to amuse, shock, or make money would seem to be morally unjustified. This is not to say that such a showing should be prohibited by law. Rather, it is to say that it should not be done. If this line of reasoning is solid, then the film should not include the picture-unless it can be shown that there is compelling reason to include the image.

Turning back to Bin Laden, it is rather tempting to hold the view that he is not worthy of such respect. After all, he planned the deaths of thousands and showed no concern over the harm he did to them or their families. As such, there would be no compelling reason to not show his image so as to protect his dignity. In fact, it could be argued that if showing the photo would somehow harm him or those who care about him, then this would be a reason to show them.

That said, I do believe that an appeal to dignity can be made against showing the picture of Bin Laden and the picture of Princess Diana.

In the case of Bin Laden, showing the graphic photo would not be an unjust affront to his dignity. However, it would be an undignified act on our part. While it is tempting to take a trophy from a fallen foe and parade it about in bloody splendor, we should be better than that and it should be beneath our dignity as a people.  Just as we pride ourselves on not wantonly slaughtering innocents, we should also pride ourselves on not showing graphic images of  Bin Laden. In short, if we claim we are better than our enemies, we need to actually act better than they do and this includes not treating the dead as trophies.

In the case of Princess Diana, showing the graphic photo of her would seem to be a clear demonstration of the lack of dignity of those who elected to show the photo (presumably to attract attention to the film). As such, this is something that they should not do-after all, they should be better people. Naturally, if it can be shown that the image is being used in a way that is compelling (because it is critical to the aesthetic value of the film, for example) then it could be used in a way consistent with dignity.

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Should Photographing Chickens Be a Felony?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 10, 2011
Florida Senate

Image via Wikipedia

I stumbled across SB 1246 by chance rather than design, but I did find it a rather interesting bit of legislation. Trespassing onto a farm will result in a felony charge. Taking pictures at a farm without permission will also result in a felony charge. Lest you think I am making this up, I have pasted in the full text:

Florida Senate - 2011                                    SB 1246 

       By Senator Norman

       12-01071A-11                                          20111246__
    1                        A bill to be entitled
    2         An act relating to farms; prohibiting a person from
    3         entering onto a farm or photographing or video
    4         recording a farm without the owner’s written consent;
    5         providing a definition; providing penalties; providing
    6         an effective date.
    8  Be It Enacted by the Legislature of the State of Florida:
   10         Section 1. (1) A person who enters onto a farm or other
   11  property where legitimate agriculture operations are being
   12  conducted without the written consent of the owner, or an
   13  authorized representative of the owner, commits a felony of the
   14  first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083,
   15  or s. 775.084, Florida Statutes.
   16         (2) A person who photographs, video records, or otherwise
   17  produces images or pictorial records, digital or otherwise, at
   18  or of a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture
   19  operations are being conducted without the written consent of
   20  the owner, or an authorized representative of the owner, commits
   21  a felony of the first degree, punishable as provided in s.
   22  775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084, Florida Statutes.
   23         (3) As used in this section, the term “farm” includes any
   24  tract of land cultivated for the purpose of agricultural
   25  production, the raising and breeding of domestic animals, or the
   26  storage of a commodity.
   27         Section 2. This act shall take effect July 1, 2011.

I would think that part one is unnecessary. After all, existing trespassing laws should adequately cover people trespassing on farms and hence no new law should be needed to cover such situations. Unless, of course, owners of farms somehow deserve legal protections that the rest of us are not entitled to enjoy. Naturally, it can be argued that if trespassing on a construction site is a felony (as it is in Florida), then farm owners can help themselves to whatever justifications were given in support of that law. However, there does not seem to be a compelling reason to make trespassing on a farm such a serious offense.

The second part of the law, at first glance, seems rather bizarre. After all, a felony charge is supposed to be reserved for the serious offenses such as aggravated assault, rape, and murder. Snapping a photo of a chicken or taking a film of a cow without permission hardly seems to be a serious offense worthy of the sort of punishment that goes along with a felony. I hope that there will be clear warning markers placed all over such farms. After all, someone who was driving by a farm and decided to snap a photo of some cows and a sunset would be committing a felony and would probably have no idea of the terrible crime they were committing. After all, that is not the sort of thing that a sensible person would regard as criminal activity. I also hope that kids who go on farm tours will be warned prior to taking pictures. While the day might begin with smiles, it would surely end in tears when little Billy and Sally are dragged away by the Farm Police for snapping those pictures of a cow, pig or chicken without written permission.

It might be claimed that the law would be applied with “common sense”, so that the police would not arrest tourists who unknowingly snap a photo of cows at sunset or if someone happens to live by a farm and gets a part of the farm when taking a photo on her own land. However, the law is rather clear in its statement about what is a felony offense (namely any photos of farms) and it seems unreasonable to expect people to rely on the common sense of others as a barrier to felony charges. After all, the law itself seems to have been written by someone lacking such sense and if it passes, then that would be more evidence of a lack of common sense.

I suspect that the law is intended to intimidate and prosecute people who are concerned about conditions on farms. Folks who worry about whether animals are treated ethically or whether the conditions are sanitary or not would be the sort of folks likely to intrude on farms and take pictures. Not surprisingly, farm owners who have something to hide (like poor conditions) would be rather concerned about having such a legal club in place. As such, it might be suspected that Sb 1246 was created at the behest of folks who would rather not have the public know about what really goes on at their farms.

Naturally, it might be replied that farms have been subject to intrusions by animal rights activists and health activists and, as such, need special legal protection to keep these people from causing trouble. However, it would seem that the farm industry should have to deal with these problems like the rest of us, by getting restraining orders and so on against repeat offenders. Otherwise one might suspect that a special class of people are getting special privileges that are primarily intended to keep their operations from the light of day.

If the farms are acting well within the realm of humane treatment and sanitary operations, then they should have nothing to worry about. If people do trespass, they can be arrested for trespassing. If they take pictures of things, then there seem to be two main possibilities. The first is that the photos show that nothing is wrong. In this case, there hardly seems to be a compelling reason to make this a felony on par with murder. The second is that the photos show inhumane treatment, unsanitary conditions, or other such things. In that case, revealing such things should hardly be considered a felony offense but rather a public service on par with reporting a crime.

It might also be argued that there are farm secrets that the farm owners must protect. If there are such legitimate secrets, it would seem that those would also be protected under existing laws and hence this new law would not be needed.

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