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Is CGI Finally More Real Than Photography?

Okay, I can just imagine your reaction to this seemingly absurd statement. But if you are willing to pause and analyze your belief system surrounding photography you may be surprised at your thoughts by the end of this article.

Photography has been unfairly burdened with the role of truth teller since its inception. The old adage “the camera never lies” was started as a way to persuade people who had never seen a photograph of themselves, that, yes, this was in fact what they looked like.

Lines illustrating this point where used in the play The Octoroon written by Dion Boucicault and performed in New York in 1859:

Scud: The apparatus [a camera] can’t mistake. When I travelled round with this machine, the homely folks used to sing out, “Hillo, mister, this ain’t like me!” “Ma’am,” says I, “the apparatus can’t mistake.”

The more modern use of the notion arrived later with the meaning that photography shows us that which is to be believed and is irreproachable.

Let me pause as this point. It would be incorrect for the reader to think the purpose of this article is a vilification of photography. To be clear, I have been a photographer for 44 years and a professional advertising and editorial photographer since 1977. I adore photography and have always been active with my own personal work as well. I have followed the development of computer-generated images (CGI) for the past decade. Three years ago I became a partner in a company producing this type of work. I speak as one with experience and total respect for the traditions of photography, the hard working professionals, and fine artists who have used photography to inform, tell stories, entertain, and change opinions for more than 170 years. My utmost respect also extends to the people who have advanced computer-generated imaging to what it is today. I am amazed by what we are able to create, thanks to the hard work of both artists and software engineers.

The fact that people still assign the belief that photography is reality is a problem for photography. But from its earliest days, photography was never intended to be the great truth teller. Henry Peach Robinson, a painter-turned-photographer around 1850, was adamant that photography was more than just a tool to capture reality. He recorded many statements about the subject, including this little gem:

“… any dodge, or trick, or conjuration of any kind is open to the photographer’s use so that it belongs to his art and is not false to nature. If the dodges, tricks, etc., lead the photographer astray, so much the worse for him; if they do not assist him to represent nature, he is not fit to use them. It is not the fault of the dodges, it is the fault of the bungler.”

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Robinson produced composite images in the 1850s using techniques such as emulsion stripping (example above) that any serious Photoshop user of today would recognize. The use of image manipulation is deeply rooted in the earliest days of photography. But crafting the image and the story it tells is not to be relegated to post production or retouching. The moment the photographer starts composing a photograph there are choices made that will affect what story the viewer is told.

Perhaps more important than choosing what to show in a photograph is choosing what not to show. This is common practice in advertising images but can occur in news images as well. Despite a photojournalist’s deep commitment to the integrity of their images, choices they make about composition, lighting, exposure—even their presence at a scene can change the story. With the best of intentions photographers can tell but a facet of the truth. In marketing and advertising images most elements are contrived. We build sets, hire talent, create lighting and do post work to tell the story of products and services. We have many tools, artists and technicians to help tell these stories.

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Does the fact that the image capture is done with a camera suddenly make the set in a studio more real? What matters is what the viewer takes away from their personal experience with an image, however it was created; by photography, CGI, or painting. If they recognize it as a photograph, then to their eye it is a photograph. This is an example of the human ability to suspend disbelief. It is the reason why we get startled in movies, or cry at plays, we come to believe that what is being presented is real without analyzing what gel the lighting designer called for on a character’s light. An image printed on a page or displayed online is a two dimensional re-presentation of a three-dimensional scene; it is not meant to be the actual scene or product. Our job, as visual storytellers, is to help the viewer understand and interpret the information, and convey the meaning we intend.

Computer Generated Imaging (CGI) has been a visual story telling tool for quite a while. Everyone has seen it used in advertising work, entertainment, informative editorial work, and in news related illustrations, i.e. to explain a plane crash, or space travel, etc. I am not advocating that CGI replace news photography nor am I advocating CGI replace all advertising or entertainment image creation either. CGI is one tool in the images creator’s tool box. Its lineage follows squarely in line with the traditions of still photography and cinematography. All these tools, including CGI, share the goal that the final image appear truly photorealistic. But the interrelationship of the process of CGI and photomechanical image capture shares much more than just the look. To create a CGI image one has to design and build a set, which must be propped and styled. Then a camera position must be chosen along with a lens focal length selection. Finally, light sources and angles must be chosen. These are exactly the same tasks required to create a photomechanical image in the studio. Knowing this makes it clear that those who attempt to accomplish this task need the same visual skills, knowledge of good storytelling, and sense of design.

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But just as there can be bad photomechanical imaging, there can be bad CGI. Poor design, improper lighting, and incorrect perspective combined with a lack of good taste and style can lead to images that are of little value. Having 15 years of experience in CGI does not mean one has acquired all the necessary skills to produce photorealistic images. A combination of skills in both photography and CGI are needed to produce successful images. In the right hands CGI can appear to be as “realistic” as photomechanical imaging. But we have to challenge our thinking on what we see as “photographic realism.” The end goal is the creation of successful and convincing storytelling images, connecting the viewer to the story, whether that story is news information or advertising.

To conclude, although CGI and photomechanical imaging may at times serve different purposes, both are valid tools, available to all artists in the creation of a common goal: compelling visual storytelling. I am proud to be involved with both of these techniques.