Today, the camera makes us wonder where reality
ends. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I once heard a music history
professor ask, "Why should I go to the concert
tomorrow? I have three records of the program. I'd
rather hear any one of them." The musicians who
heard about the remark wanted to kill him. So did
Yet under his question lurks an issue that's part
and parcel of modern technology. Where does the
real thing end and imitation begin? Is the music on
this station real or imitation!
The Industrial Revolution first raised the question
by stamping out the things that human hands once
made -- one at a time. Was a mass-produced china
plate or a factory-made shirt the real thing or
imitation? But the question was never more explicit
than it was in the early days of photography.
At first the new cameras made art look outmoded, in
the blink of a lens. Then another invention, the
stereopticon, brought photo realism into every
living room. You looked through its lenses at two
photos of the same thing, on a stiff card. The 3-D
image was electrifying. We had two stereopticons in
our living room. And a basket was filled with
cards. We could see war scenes, ancient ruins,
Holland, even my grandfather's house.
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote this about photography:
Form is henceforth divorced from matter. ...
Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing,
... and that is all we want of it. [Then you can
pull the thing] down or burn it up as you
Holmes said that much with his tongue in
his cheek. Later he cut closer to the bone of truth
when he talked about the stereopticon. It transports
us, he said, into a "dream-like exaltation of the
faculties" that leaves the body behind.
Author Miles Orvell sees Holmes playing
counterpoint to a great cultural shift. We'd just
begun to embrace the synthetic realities that're
woven into life today -- in movies, in television,
even in the computer.
At first, photography teetered between
documentation and a new art medium. It mixed
reality and fantasy. We find Bible scenes and
mythology, pictures that're
half-drawing/half-photograph. We even see attempts
to photograph ghosts.
Photography finally passed beyond imitation. It
became the new arbiter of reality. But today we're
so immersed in synthetic products and synthetic
experience that we've stopped thinking about the
difference. The tactile pleasures -- of music, of
football -- are, one by one, turned into synthetic
experience. Many seem richer than reality. We've
reached the point where, in Holmes's words, form is
so divorced from reality that the image of the real
thing becomes the new reality of our age.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds