What is Reality pertaining Photographs and Paintings?
Reality is a ‘concept’ which can be defined at various levels. A lay man’s definition of reality would be “that which is experienced with senses, as perceived in full consciousness.”
A level deeper, a philosopher could give us an ontological definition of reality. A flower I see can be real as much as a thought I have about that flower. Reality is subjective and objective. Objectively, a flower (in itself) is a reality, irrespective of the names given to it or the qualities attributed to it. Subjectively, a flower can be what I perceive the flower as. The same flower can be perceived and understood as a biological wonder and an aesthetic entity by two/the same observer.
At a level further, we can reflect upon the essence and esse of reality. There is a ‘flowerness’ in the flower which makes it the flower. Change in variety, colour, age, aroma, etc. are qualities added to the basic esse of the flower. We could say that is what a flower is.
Though we are aware of these philosophical facts about reality, we also know that a pragmatic way of looking at life and reality does not need deep thinking like this. Therefore, reality is what is perceived, for most of us.
Thoughts are representations of reality. But what is acutely real for me in thought may not be so real for another person. Thoughts of a person could be interpreted in various ways, as we discussed earlier. Just like thought, visuals (Photographs, Paintings, etc.) are also representations of reality. Only the mode does change. These representations too could be interpreted and understood at various levels.
A photograph captures the colours, light and shade of an object/scenery/animal with much technical accuracy. This accuracy can also be manipulated using special lenses, filters and computerized editing. The product of these processes of capturing, editing and reproducing portrays a slice of reality against a context which is almost always alien to the onlooker.
A photograph is as real as the original scene if only the context is already known to the observer. If it is known, a photograph could evoke the same emotions or responses as the original could have done. But the photograph - an extract from the reality - naturally loses continuity in both time and space.
Now let us consider a painting. A painting is an interpretation of what an artist sees in the world or in her/his mind, using imagination. It could be a real scene, or an imaginary scene or a mixture of both. The advantage of a painting is that the artist could mix colours and tell tales of life which (in a way) is impossible with photography. A painting may not always be understood by untrained eyes. There are codes of colours and light and shade embedded in it. Yet a painting is real as much as a photograph is. A painting can evoke the same responses as the original scene, if the background of the painting is known.
Paintings generally carry themes picked by artists and those themes are evidently manifest in them. A painter could bring in two opposing or contradicting ideas or objects into the same scene, which may be impossible for a photograph. Moreover, as a medium used by human beings from time immemorial, paintings have livelier relationship to us, humans.
When it comes to choosing which is nearer to reality- photograph or painting, I am confused. The reason is, to me, these both appear to be of the same level of reality. A photograph is better than a painting in terms of clarity, complete representation and technical perfection. A painting is better than a photograph in terms of imagination and creativity. Both photographs and paintings in their own way are close to reality. Both in one way or another are away from reality too.
Yet, when a choice is necessary, a photograph could be much more realistic than a painting. Certain aspects of what is seen cannot be taken out of sight in case of photography. Whether photographer wishes or not, these inseparable aspects of visuals stick to the image. Quality reproduction keeps them intact and makes them all the more clear. The shape, size, contrast, etc. are some of such qualities. In that respect, the viewer cannot be completely alienated from a photograph’s reality. Whereas, this alienation is possible in case of a painting.
Therefore, my vote goes to photograph as it has a higher degree of reality represented in it, than a painting.