PERSPECTIVE and PHOTO-REALISM ARE DEAD: long live post-digital representation
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
Since the proto-renaissance, artists and critics have worked under the assumption that making a faithful representation of any object means to authenticate a copy of the object just as it is; that is to say, to come as close as possible to its internal and external realities. But, such an assertion is perplexing.
To begin with, it is absolutely impossible to catch the true atomic structure and physicality of the object in question; then, it is hard, if not unmanageable, to illustrate the true sensual experiences of our daily life in a two dimensional canvas; and third, as Ernest Gombrich pointed out in reaction to Kant’s idea of a “disinterested view”, there is no such thing as “an innocent eye” and as a consequence, our perceptual understanding of any object is always colored by our own experience of the past, the present, and the future.
Photo-realistic representation and perspective laws are clichés for the kind of realistic pragmatism that, even in the best of circumstances, is impossible to realize; every act of representation involves symbolism and iconography at both a personal and collective levels, and neither perspective nor photo-realism are exempt from these necessary conditions.
With the invention of perspective the western world gave up an era of conceptual representation to begin another one in which the imposition of “photo-realistic pictorial rules” had nothing to do with the intrinsic reality of objects. If they could be alive, perspective and photo-realism would look absolutely disconcerting to the intellects of the Axial Age or to the Egyptians priests in charge of the depiction of hieroglyphs on tombs across the Nile region; none of them would understand the images we take for granted nowadays. The truth is that, photo-realism is based on an abnormal way of perceiving reality and perspective drawings need to be read; and, the ability to normalize the abnormal or to read symbols must be acquired.
If an artist was challenged to represent the motion, intensity of light, or qualities of any object, the laws of perspective would naturally come to his/her rescue. It is so embedded in our culture that, even today, schools of architecture spend numerous hours teaching the rules of perspective to their neophytes under the delusion that photo-realism will turn them into better marketing and public relations agents for their own projects. Nevertheless, we tend to forget that, the laws of perspective are just a group of conventions invented by humans. As Gombrich pointed out in Art and Illusion, “the idea of perspective is conventional and does not represent the world as it looks”. His statement makes us wonder whether perspective truly holds the claim of “fidelity” in representation. And, at least to me, this claim is farfetched and a conventional truism.
As much as we think that the laws of perspective solve the problem of photo-realistic representation, consider for a moment the abnormal conditions under which a perspective drawing is generated as well as the impossibilities of truthful depiction imposed by the rules of perspective:
1. The object of representation must be looked through a peephole, face on, and from a certain distance.
2. The eyes of the observer must be immovable. The normal act of retinal scanning must be halted. There cannot be any type of eye motion for it would ruin the connection of light rays to the observation point.
3. Photo-realism and perspective are both fictional. Photo-realism and perspective are simple descriptions of a moment in time; a changing moment which will never be replicable again.
4. The subject of a picture is typically framed against a neutral background but, the viewer is still free to move his eyes and walk around the object of perception. Therefore, this is not a matter of copying the reality of an object but a matter of conveying a frozen moment in the changing life of the object of perception.
5. Our ability to read perspective drawings has nullified the absurdities encountered within the technique itself. For instance, all horizontal lines are supposed to be converging to a vanishing point but, all vertical lines are supposed to be parallel. Why should we give more parallel authority to vertical lines than to horizontal lines? Are they not the subject of the same type of parallelism? If vanishing lines are really true, shouldn’t they both be vanishing to their respective vanishing points? Is this why cameras have lenses to correct the distortions of horizontal lines?
6. The rules of pictorial perspective do not follow the laws of optics. Therefore the conventional rules of perspective are nothing but a frontal attack on the laws of pure geometry. In short, perspective contains basic errors of observation and as such, it is far from being a realistic method for the truthful depiction of any object in time.
Up until the renaissance, representation was not a mere passive reporting of the world. Representation required a clear mention of the overall attributes and symbolic meanings of the object in question; and, it is precisely here where I find myself at odds against contemporary photo-realism and perspective. In the post-digital age the act of representation must manifest, in fresh ways, the cultural relationships between objects. In the post-digital age, the representation of an architectural project requires a certain degree of invention and descriptiveness because an architectural project is like a scientific experiment and, as such, it should be represented in a true Kantian manner – with absolute and objective disinterest; yet, any architectural project must also be represented within the iconic and symbolic context where the object happens to be located.
If perspective is an act of deception, photo-realism is the addictive description of our abnormal representational habits. If perspective is fake, photo-realism is a phony corollary.
Photo-realism is dead; long live the post-digital era.