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Simulacra and Simulations suggests that reality has been replaced by signs and symbols that have overtaken what is real.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.

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.

Photographic Truth Claim

Considering my Truth Assignment and trying to find the truth in an object I have looked at some other photographers to find their opinion.

It appears that as photography has gone digital and it has become so much easier to manipulate images critique of what the truth is has caused many critics to question the truthfulness and honesty of digital photographs.

In his paper What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs Tom Gunning claims that traditional methods of photography are more truthful. That they are more honest and a closer reflection of reality than modern methods. He appears to believe that light affecting chemicals on paper is somehow less open to manipulation than digital data about about light.

Gunning also talks about a photograph’s indexicality and how closely a photograph resembles the person or object that it represents.

Susan Sontag suggests that the possibility of a truthful photograph is what drives us to try to convert our experiences into images, to immortalise and ‘make real what one is experiencing’. She says this is particularly relevant when it comes to world travel.

Sontag also talks about bureaucratic cataloguing and how we perceive certain photographs to hold more truthful information than others, for example passport photographs and driving licences which allow authorities to monitor and record our movements and activities.

However, Sontag also highlights an issue with repeatedly capturing and viewing ‘reality’ in images which can make the image appear to be less real. Particularly with regard to images of war and atrocity, she says it makes the “horrible seem ordinary – making it appear familiar, remote… inevitable”

Thinking along the same lines is Jean Baudrillard who claims that the more time we reproduced or duplicate an object the less real the object becomes, creating a kind of indifference to the object and eventual ‘extinction of the original’.

Baudrillard goes on to suggest that truth and reality are illusions, that illusions reign and that we should respect illusions and appearance and give up the illusory quest for truth and reality.

Roland Barthes on the other hand, in Photographic Truth and Evidence claims that photographing humans makes them less real and truthful. He says “Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’, I instantaneously make another body for myself, transform myself in advance into an image”.

Charles Sanderson Pierce talks about photographs being signs that are either icons, symbols or indices. He says that they are indices because through the mechanical process of using a camera images are forced to correspond point by point to nature.

Sturken and Cartwright though suggest that this is questionable in the book Visual Culture and Public Policy:Towards a Visual Policy by Victor Bekkers and Rebecca Moody. Simply because cameras are seen as tools and something that is neutral doesn’t mean that the image taken is an exact replica of reality. Thy say it is an analogy of reality and question its use as forensic evidence.

They say that images are a version of reality determined by the decisions and assumptions made by the photographer including lighting, lens, aperture, shutter speed and camera angle used. They point out that as well as the photographer’s influence, the viewer also has an interpretation of the truth created from his own perspective, values and principles. In addition the viewer can’t always consider the context that the photo was taken in because they may not know it.

Personally I think I side with Sturken and Cartwright. I’m not sure that any photograph can tell the complete and honest truth without influence or bias on the part of the photographer and the viewer. I know that several photographers can look at the same scene or object and each will take a different picture, each will be showing the truth in their own way.

The set of images below, taken by John Hillard illustrate how one photographer saw one scene in four different ways. Each photograph has been cropped to suggest different ways that the person died. If all of the images are overlapped with the body in the middle it gives a much more honest representation showing that all four causes of death could be possible.

Causes of Death, John Hillard Circa 1970


And then there is the influence created by post production processes. These two images are from the same photograph, used on two different publications, but looking very different and giving a very different interpretation of what is going on.

OJ Simpson

To conclude, I think that the still life photograph I took a few days of an egg cup shows some truth. It shows the shape, texture and style of the egg cup but the way it has been lit, the angle the photo has been taken from and the camera settings used have all been decided by me and my preferences. My purpose in creating this photo was to seek the truth and show the real egg cup but as Baudrillard says perhaps the truth and reality really really are illusions.


I think that Lewis Hine put it best when he spoke to the National Child Labor Committee in 1909. He believed that photographs were a symbol of reality, not reality, and he warned that “unbounded faith in the integrity of photographs is often rudely shaken,” because “while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.” (cited in Marien 2002, p234).

Truth of an Object

For our Truth Assignment we have been exploring photographic truth and what makes an image truthful or not. There are many differing opinions and some critics even suggest that truth is simply an illusion.

I chose a simple pair of egg cups and attempted to photograph them truthfully.

I guess that the last photograph is the most truthful and most honest. In all of the photographs I have shown the texture and shape of the egg cups but in each of the other images I have obscured part of them and not allowed the viewer to see the full picture.

I have photographed the egg cups from unusual angles and in the third image, unless you have been told that they are egg cups you may not even realise that that is what they are.

There is no scale in the photographs either so unless you already have an understanding what an egg cup is you have no idea of how big or small the object is.

In all of the images though I have selected the lighting, the ISO that I shoot at and the shutter speed and aperture. The very fact that I have selected to photograph these in the studio and not in their natural habitat of the kitchen cupboard means that my opinions and my ideas have caused me to represent the truth in a particular way, a way that is personal to me. I guess the question is, is my truth the same as someone else’s?

Baron Adolph De Meyer

Baron Adolf de Meyer (also known as The Baron, Adolf Gayne de Meyer and Demeyer Watson) was a French born photographer who is known for being the first full-time photographer employed by Conde Nast and their lead photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines.

He seems to have been quite a character with famous friends in the 1890s and early 1900s including the Prince of Wales and many Broadway stars.

He is particularly noted for his fashion and interiors photographs but he also took still life images too.

By Baron Adolf De Meyer (American, born France, 1868 – 1946) (1868 – 1946) (American) (photographer, Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
De Meyer used a special hand ground lens to photograph some of his images to soften the shadow areas and hard edges.

Water Lillies, Baron Adolph de Meyer c1906

By Adolf de Meyer [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
His images are soft and glamorous and have a look of early Hollywood about them. The lighting is very gentle and the subject matter is arranged naturally.

They are simple photographs and perhaps could be described as truth by some because they closely resemble the items that they represent but even these images have been affected by De Meyer’s point of view, his choice of which bits of the subject is included in the image and what camera settings he has used.

Lee Jeffries

Lee Jeffries is a full time accountant based in Manchester who is noted for his photographs of homeless people.

His project is called Lost Angels and has taken him around Europe and America where he has spent time with people who are homeless and understanding how they have come to be in that situation.

For the latest part of the project he has been to Miami and spent time photographing Ms Stevens and her friends who live in an abandoned garage selling their bodies for sex in order to fund their drug habit.

I think these photos are stunning, the detail in them really shows the character of the person and something of the life they have lived. Jeffries doesn’t shy away from emphasising the creases and wrinkles which tells us something of the tough life that has been lived. On the screen they have a kind of metallic feel to them as if they have been etched into a sheet of silver making them seem ethereal. Others have described them as spiritual.

I’m not sure that any of the photos tell the whole truth about their subject, they look as though they have had plenty of post production work. However in every photograph the subject’s eyes are very telling, there is a kind of hopelessness and a look of someone that is trapped or caged with no chance of escape and that, I think, is a truth about these people.

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