Simulacra and Simulation

Jean Baudrillard was a French socialist, theorist and political commentator who lived from 1929-2007. He is well known for his theories on hyperreality and simulation.

Influenced by Marxism, Structuralism and the works of Emil Durkheim, his series of short essays on simulacra and simulation were first published in France in 1981. It draws on sociology, media studies, semiotics, history and philosophy to expand on a theory of how we construct and ‘simulate’ reality in a world that is increasingly saturated with media.

As a political commentator, Baudrillard uses the theory to critique aspects of culture, tv, science and politics. He saw consumer society as something that represented freedom rather than increasing it. Instead, he felt that consumers didn’t just purchase an item, they purchased a signifier or symbol that they identified with and that tells something about them. For example a car isn’t just something that gets you from a to b but the colour, make, model, number plate and year of manufacture of the car you own are all symbols of wealth, aspirations, taste or lack of.

Simulacra and Simulations suggests that reality has been replaced by signs and symbols that have overtaken what is real. Mass media repeats and reproduces these shapes and creates new symbols and codes, often with little or vague meaning, which society adopts and identifies with because it has lost the ability to distinguish between what is real and what is simulation.

Simulation is the active process of replacement of the real. Whereas dissimulation (pretending) leaves the principle of reality in tact. Simulation threatens the difference between the true and the false, the real and the imaginary.

Simulacrum is a representational image that deceives; the product of reality being portrayed in such an idealistic way that it usurps reality. It is a ‘copy with reality’ like a false icon for God or perhaps Disneyland.

Simulation refers to a process in motion, whereas simulacrum (plural simulacra) refers to a more static image.

Simulation is a four step process of destabilising and replacing reality.

  1. Faithful – the image reflects a profound reality (portrait)
  2. Perversion – the image masks and denatures a profound reality (icon)
  3. Pretense – the image masks the absence of a profound reality (Disneyland)
  4. Pure – the image has no relation to any reality whatsoever, it is its own pure simulacrum (The Ultimate Matrix)

Hyperreal is a world of simulacra where nothing is unmediated (without previous meaning, without intermediary mass media). The media mediates our experiences without us noticing. We know that we live in a mediated world but because of the proliferation of media and simulation reality is filtered through television, radio and newspapers.

The American Dream is a simulacrum that is perpetuated in films, tv and other media, creating a culture that is hyperreal.

A myth  is something that has lost its reference point for example the name Red Bull is no longer just about a fizzy drink, it is about a lifestyle of risk taking, fast living and youthful energy.

Relationship Between Paintings and Portrait Photographs

In previous posts ‘Shape of Paintings and Photographs‘ and ‘Early Photographic Portraits‘ we looked at how the camera obscura helped some artists create accurate and realistic paintings. These are early examples of how paintings and photography related.

It wasn’t until 1839 when William Henry Fox Talbot and Louis-Jacque-Mande Daguerre invented ways to permanently fix an image that tensions formed between the two art forms.

Initially photographs were made to look like paintings, with the subject staged, usually in poses similar to painted portraits and sometimes even displayed in elaborate frames.

(Left) Théodore Chassériau, The Two Sisters, c. 1845, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. (Right) Anonymous, Portrait of Twin Sisters, c. 1848, coloured daguerreotype, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The painted portrait though couldn’t compete against the low cost and speed of the photograph. Critics at the time suggested that it was the end for paintings. Paul Delaroche is reported to have said “From today painting is dead!” on seeing a Daguerretype for the first time. Certainly artists that had made their living by painting portraits were to find life much tougher.

Painters began to rebel against the realism of photography and in the 1870s and 80s tried to capture the essence or feelings of a moment in a movement that has been labelled impressionism. Named satirically by a critic after Claude Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant.

Impression, soleil levant, Claude Monet, 1872

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries painters further distanced themselves from photography during what is known as the expressionist period. Here colour and form are exaggerated to explore the emotion and responses that objects and events arouse.

Edvard Munch, The Scream (1883)

Edvard Munch is among the most influential painters of this movement.

Munch tells of how his painting, The Scream, came to be: “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”

From this quote you can understand how the painter has tried to capture not only the detail of that moment, but the emotion of it. In fact, I think that a photograph would struggle to recreate the same sense of panic and despair.

Similarly Fauvism, which came to prominence between about 1905 and 1908, used exaggerated or deliberately altered colours. Henri Matisse is perhaps the best well known artist of this period.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

Around 1907 Pablo Picasso began to do something that photographers hadn’t thought to do. He rejected the idea of a single viewpoint and instead dissected 3D objects and painted them from different viewpoints at the same time.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso is widely accepted as being influential in beginning the cubism movement. Three of the women in the painting have recognisable facial features but the other two have African masks on their faces highlighting another feature of cubism which drew on outside influences from around the world.

At the time, this was a very criticised painting but many of the painters that criticised it were later influenced by it and went on to firmly establish cubism in the art world.

It was not until the 1980s that David Hockey translated cubism into photography by creating a series of cubist style photo montages.

Mother Hockney, David Hockney
L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp (1919)

At a time when photography was becoming more accessible so did an artistic movement called Dada. It came about because artists in Europe were frustrated by the atrocities of the First World War and wanted to shock the public in to responding.

It was a form of art that was anarchic, absurd, irreverent and unpredictable. Even the name Dada came from a French poet that stuck a penknife into the pages of a dictionary in order to find a random word that could be used.

Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. is a classic example of Dada. A cheap copy of the Mona Lisa has been adorned with facial hair and the letters L.H.O.O.Q. which when read out in French and roughly translated means ‘there is fire below’. It is part of a collection of ‘Readymades’ where he challenged what art was by collecting ordinary, everyday items and displaying them as art. These pieces of art have since been photographed and the some of those photographs have become art in their own right.

[Jacqueline Goddard], 1930 Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) Gelatin silver print; 11 1/2 x 8 7/8 in. (29.2 x 22.5 cm)
Surrealism in the 1920s quickly followed Dada, this was based more on imagination and what might be revealed in dreams, chance, intoxication and madness. It was heavily influenced by Dada but was lighter and more humorous, drawing heavily on new philosophies from Freud and others.

Man Ray was a well know painter at the time but he was perhaps better known for his photography. Using techniques like double exposure, combination printing, montage, solarisation, rotation and distortion photographers were able to create a feeling of being somewhere between dream and reality.

In this photograph Man Ray has captured one of his favourite models Jacqueline Goddard and in the processing has turned white to black and created glowing shadows. He has also turned the image 90 degrees to give a slightly disorienting feel to it.

Clyfford Still, 1957-D No. 1, 1957, oil on canvas, 113 x 159 in

Abstract Expressionism was the next art movement, beginning in the 1940s and developing through the 1950s. Artists and photographers wanted to be taken seriously again. This period is noted for its large canvases and a celebration of the act of painting. It was the process of making art that was important and not necessarily the final outcome.

Jackson Pollock and Clifford Still are noted painters of this period.

Photographers tended to concentrate on the details of architecture and nature, focusing on patterns and shadows and taking inspiration from painters which, in turn, inspired some painters at the time.

Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol.

Moving into the 1950s and 60s, a fascination with fashion, celebrity and the manufacturing and media following WWII created the pop art culture. Like Dadaism it used everyday objects to poke fun at the established art world trying to blur the lines between high art and low culture. Artist Richard Hamilton described it as “popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business”.

Many artists in this era began work in the commercial sector. Andy Warhol began his career as a graphic designer before his screen prints of coke bottles, Campbells soup tins and celebrities became iconic.

Warhol used a variety of media in his work but using photography as a source (not just an influence) for his art was new and a bit shocking but it is a trend that continues today. When Francis Bacon’s studio was cleared after his death in 1992, several replicas of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs were found. They were taken in the 1870s, yet Bacon used them as the basis for key main elements in his paintings.

L: Bacon’s “Two Figures” R: Muybridge reproductions found in Bacon’s studio.

Through the 1950s and 60s both painting and photography were no longer dominant art forms, they had to compete with the rise in television and film. Today they also have to compete with the Internet and social media. The proliferation of smart phones and tablets mean that everyone is a photographer.

Abstract Photography

It really does amaze me what some people find to photograph.

These images are of soapy hair and are taken by Lo Cheuk Lun.

The series was originally published as an editorial piece in Chinese beauty and fashion publication Numero Magazine. Contrary to the common conception that only finished, styled hair is attractive, Lun’s photos glorify the washing and styling process in a rare change of perspective.

The original post can be found at

Early Photographic Portraits

The Oxford Dictionary defines a portrait as a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.

The word portrait comes from the French word ‘portraire’ which means to portray and is based on an older French word ‘traire’. This is turn comes from the Latin word ‘trahere’ which means to draw.

The definition of a photographic portrait could be defined a little more tightly. In Michael R Peres’ book Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, Kathleen Francis defines portrait photography as that which “produces pictures that capture the personality of a subject by using effective lighting, backdrops and poses. A portrait picture might be artistic, or it might be clinical, as part of a medical study. Frequently, portraits are commissioned for special occasions, such as weddings or school events. Portraits can serve many purposes, from usage on a personal website to display in the lobby of a business.”

This tells me three things about a photographic portrait:

  • The subject is the main focus of the image and in it we should see something of their personality and character. I would add that although these definitions refer only to portraits of a person, the same is true for portraits of animals or groups of people.
  • It is constructed and carefully composed using traditional studio equipment, although I would add that natural light and outdoor environments can also be used successfully to create portraits.
  • It is commissioned by someone for some kind of purpose, whether that is for display or simply as a memento.

In the 17th Century artists were frequently using camera obscuras to project images on to a wall or canvas. Canaletto and Vermeer are two well know artists that are thought to have used a camera obscura, in fact Canaletto’s machine can be seen in a museum in Venice. We cannot be sure that Vermeer used a camera but there is evidence in his paintings to suggest that he did.

Officer and Laughing Girl

The perspective of the officer and the girl is geometrically correct but doesn’t really suit the style of other paintings at the time. The officer would normally have been painted smaller and more in scale with the girl. Also, the map in the background is painted so accurately and in such detail that it points to a camera obscura being used.

The first ever photographic portrait was a selfie taken in 1839 by Robert Cornelius.

It seems that he set the camera up, ran around to sit in front of the lens for over five minutes and then covered the lens again.

It was lit by the light from gas lights in his father’s shop.

It is a Daguerreotype that is now in the American Library of Congress. On the back is written the words “The first light picture ever taken, 1839”

Incidentally Cornelius went on to open one of the first photographic studios but only for a few years as he went back to support the family business inventing new types of solar lights that sold internationally.

As photography became more easily available, the demand for portraits increased dramatically. During the American Civil War not only did families demand portraits of their loved ones before they went to fight in the war, many photographers also set up ‘studios’ in military barracks and made portraits of soldiers to send home to their families.

Of course many families wanted portraits of their young children but because of the long exposure times they were required to sit still for relatively long periods of time. For very young children this would have been an impossibility if it wasn’t for their mother holding them and concealing herself somewhere out of view!

Of course at least the image above shows that the children are alive. It was also common among the Victorians for family members and especially children to be photographed posthumously!


Shape of Paintings and Photographs

Most paintings that we see have traditionally been square or rectangular in shape. I don’t think there is any definitive reason why this is so except that rectangles are an easy shape to work on and remind us of looking through a window in a rectangular wall. But perhaps it is also something to do with the fact that it is relatively easy to stretch a canvas in the two directions needed to cover a four sided frame. Stretching it in more directions can cause slack areas on the canvas making it uneven and unsuitable for painting on.

Doni Tondo, Michelangelo, circa 1507

In addition round, triangular and other polygon frames are expensive, tricky to make and difficult to keep stable. It is possible to frame a round canvas in a square frame but then it adds four additional triangular shapes to each corner of the image.

It has been done though and some well known painters have created famous works of art, often images of the Madonna, on round canvases. This painting is by Michelangelo from around 1507.

The lenses we use in photography are round and it makes sense that the image formed by these lenses is also round yet we still generally display photos square or as 2×3 rectangle.

Camera Obscura, Edinburgh

The camera obscura was the first way of creating photographic type images. Originally used thousands of years ago by astrologers to study the sun without hurting their eyes. By darkening a room so that it is completely dark except for a single tiny hole in one wall, light is bounced off the objects outside and projected on the wall opposite. It is upside down and back to front but is a perfect replica of the scene outside.

In around 1550 an Italian called Girolamo Cardano inserted a lens into the camera obscura’s pinhole. The lens needed focusing but it produced a much sharper and brighter image than had been possible before. Later, camera obscuras became seaside attractions and several are still open for the public to visit.

From the image above you can see that the reflected image is perfectly round. This gives a really good example of how images are formed in a camera. Light is reflected off whatever is in front of the camera, back through the lens(es) and onto the film/sensor inside.The lens bends the light so that it focuses perfectly on the film/sensor. Because light needs to bend further for it to reach the edges of the image it causes more distortion (aberrations) there than it does in the centre of the image. To get the best quality therefore the camera crops out the softer focused areas at the edges of the images.

There are also more practical reasons why I think photographs are rectangular. I think that square plates and slides were initially easier to produce, handle and store for early photographers and then when film was made on a roll, it made much more sense for the images it recorded to be rectangular rather than circular. I also think that simply having seen square and rectangular paintings that square and rectangular photographs were what people expected to see.

Jaromir Funke

Jaromir Funke was a Czechoslovakian photographer who was prolific during the 1920s and 30s. According to the American National Gallery of Art, Funke described his style as Devetsil in Prague, and cubism, surrealism and Bauhaus abroad.

Funke’s images are abstract and focus on the light falling around the shape and structure of objects.

While I can identify some of the objects, most I cannot. The photographs have become patterns that draw the viewer in and invite them to explore and wonder at the various interlocking shapes.

If we are looking for truth in an image I really don’t think this is where we would find it. The shapes are put together in such a way that they represent other objects and shapes and other than the shadows there is little to identify the objects they represent in the photographs.