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3–5 43–49 Photography and 83–90 The photographic
ontology argument of philosophy
7 Philosophizing 51–56 Photo-filmic images in
photography/ contemporary visual
photographing culture 91–102 Sergei Podgorkov’s
philosophy ALEXANDER Leningrad photographs
9–14 What is a photograph?
What is photography? 103–109 On reflection
15–18 Live view
PAVEL BÜCHLER 57–59 Imaging firing synapses Reviews
19–22 Drink the wine, discard John Tagg’s Disciplinary Frame
the bottle, then drink Articles Damian Sutton’s Photography,
something else
61–70 Infinite exchange: The Cinema, Memory
social ontology of the Henry Bond’s Lacan at the Scene
23–29 Temporal photography
photographic image Geoffrey Batchen’s Photography
31–36 Working light
PATRICK MAYNARD 71–81 Philosophy, culture, Conference report: Humanising
image: Rancière’s Photography at the Durham Centre
37–42 The Sophist and the ‘constructivism’ for Advanced Photography Studies
photograph JOHN ROBERTS

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POP 1 (1) pp. 3–5 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Editorial. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.3/2


The editors would like to welcome you to Philosophy of Photography 1.1, future issues of which will
appear on a four-monthly basis from September 2010. Philosophy of Photography is a journal of the
theory of photography that seeks to encourage reflection on the multiple and various historical and
contemporary forms and practices that one might term photographic.
Why, then, the name ‘Philosophy of Photography’? Firstly, it should not be taken to mean that
philosophy has come to explain photography where others have failed. Nor does it simply name the
latest trend to hit the institution of photography theory.
We believe that the recent transformation of photography’s technical and cultural form is deeply
significant; not only for those who want to anticipate the future and understand the present, but also
for those concerned with photography’s pre-digital past. We think that the same is true for photog-
raphy theory; even those most influential and interesting late-twentieth-century photography theo-
ries that turned to semiotics, Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminist critique and postcolonial theory in
order to politicize and to critique photographic culture. Whilst not wanting to assert a triumphant
historicism of the digital – which would be to simplify the complex weave of technical developments
and social uses that have always characterized photography as a labile historical form – we think its
social and political contexts, and therefore the grounds of its theorization, have been radically altered
and out of this situation has emerged a widespread concern to philosophize photography. In this we
agree with Blake Stimson who, in his contribution to this issue writes: ‘Because it is so deeply
enmeshed in our daily life, because it is so intrinsically intertwined with our modernity, because it is
increasingly the lingua franca of our globalizing world, photography may now be a question of greater
consequence for philosophy than any other’.

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A brief contrast may help to clarify the coinciding situations we take to suggest the need for
Philosophy of Photography. Where once – and for good reasons – the disavowal of philosophical gener-
alization was constitutive for a significant tendency in late-twentieth-century photography theory, the
subsequent trajectories of its most emphatic theorists have brought them, of late, into a new and mark-
edly less hostile encounter with philosophy. We take this to indicate a general and significant tendency.
From another angle, and as more than one contributor to this issue remarks, historically, institutional
philosophy has never paid much attention to photography, which is striking given the upheavals in
perception and knowledge that it caused in the nineteenth century and the status it went on to acquire
as the dominant image form of the twentieth. Lately, there has been a slight thaw in this cool relation-
ship and academic philosophers from different traditions have come to give photography their atten-
tion. Whilst the results are often very interesting and the tendency is undoubtedly significant, these
signs of a welcome extended to photography on the part of the philosophical fold do not suffice to
delimit or to exhaust what the task of thinking the philosophical character of photography was, is or
might be. Peter Osborne succinctly puts one reason for this in his article for the current issue:

To speak about photography from the standpoint of philosophy […] is necessarily also to
speak about philosophy from the standpoint of photography. That is to say, one cannot sub-
tract the historical character of the image from the image of thought.

All too often the opposite has been the case.

There are many ways in which the conjunction of photography and philosophy in the name of this
journal might prove productive. It is, in part, the point of Philosophy of Photography to provide a spur
to, and context for, the different ways in which examination and debate of these issues might unfold.
Many recent, philosophically inflected accounts of photography have taken this form in order to
examine key aspects of photography’s manifest successes in the institutions of visual art since the 1970s.
There are, undoubtedly, important critical and historical issues associated with the prevalence of pho-
tography in contemporary art. But there is also a danger that this might overshadow other aspects of
photography, eventually ending in a limited appreciation of the aesthetic and political issues arising
from consideration of its roles in other spheres of life. Of all the contributions published here, David
Campany’s addresses itself most explicitly to the journal’s inauguration. He does so with interest but
also with reservations, which we share. Noting the amorphous but persistent sense in which photogra-
phy appears inherently philosophical, and contrasting this with the disappointing results of its over-
strict disciplinary framing, he reflects our ambitions back at us as a warning against scholasticism:

If I am pleased that Philosophy of Photography understands its task is to ‘provide a forum for
debate of issues arising from the cultural, political, historical and scientific matrix of ideas,

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practices and techniques that constitute photography’, it’s because in principle it covers every-
thing photographic. In practice, we will have to wait and see.

Understanding all of this is not a task that can be accomplished with a single set of theoretical
assumptions or by adhering to conventionalized ideas about the nature or function of photography.
Philosophy of Photography actively seeks to publish research and criticism that examines and debates
all of these diverse aspects of the photographic. Philosophy of Photography does not subscribe to any
one philosophical viewpoint, tradition or procedure. Indeed, it explicitly refuses to be framed or ori-
ented by any one idea or practice of either photography or philosophy. We seek to provoke and to
support serious forms of dialogue between philosophers, scientists, image makers, historians, critics
and others who want to contribute to the understanding of photography.
Every issue of the journal will feature photographic works of different kinds. For example, in the
present issue we publish a selection of the work of two photographers, Sergei Podgorkov and Richard
Paul, and we are also pleased to publish the first of a series of short ‘encyclopaedia’ entries, describing
and commenting upon the implications of both new and old photographic techniques in specialist
spheres; the first of these is written by Louise Kay, a neurobiologist whose research involves imaging
functioning synapses. We would like to encourage any readers who want to contribute a short discus-
sion of their own specialist engagements with images to contact the editors with suggestions.
How does one begin to address the questions and tasks sketched above? Our response has been
to invite a number of writers, whose previous work we have found significant, to articulate what they
see as the major theoretical issues facing the understanding of photography at present and, in par-
ticular, to think about issues arising from the conjunction of philosophy and photography in this
context. The results form ‘Philosophizing photography/photographing philosophy’, the print
‘Symposium’ with which this issue begins.

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POP 1 (1) p. 7–8 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Introduction. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.7/7

Philosophizing photography/
photographing philosophy

In summer 2009 the editors invited a number of prominent thinkers known for their writing about
photography to contribute a short text to this symposium on the present conjunction of photography
and philosophy. The resulting collection of eight essays inaugurates this journal and provides a ten-
tative agenda for future contributions by outlining a range of themes, processes, methodologies and
digressions that might be explored in greater depth, and from different perspectives, in future issues
of the journal.

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Ariella Azoulay

Their city is under curfew, but the six boys in the

picture refuse to recognize its legitimacy. They
refuse the army’s might and its authority to limit
their movement. Getting together outdoors, in
front of the camera, and demanding to have their
picture taken at this time enables them to pro-
duce a clear link between breaking the curfew
and the photographic act. By participating in the
act of taking the photograph, each of them is an
actor who says, ‘Take my picture’ – I want to be
seen as a violator of a curfew, to show who I am,
to show what the army is. The photographic sit-
uation grants recognition of their act, recognition
of the possibility that it is not only under the
army’s watchful eye that they exist. Their gaze is
not uniform and they seem to be in the process
of learning its power as well as its various mean-
ings: fear, threat, power, vision, scorn, hesitation
and the ability to take part in the shaping of their
own reality. ‘Take my picture’, here, is a visual
equivalent of ‘I violate the curfew!’ Against the
potential use, on the part of the army, of such a
photo to criminalize these boys, a civil gaze
should seek to keep it open as a photographic
event that might criminalize the curfew as an
illegitimate state tool.

Ariella Azoulay

Eldad Rafaelie, Hebron, 2002.

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POP 1 (1) pp. 9–13 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Symposium. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.9/7

Bar llan University

What is a photograph? What is


I. What is a photograph?
Most political philosophers, historians and sociologists, do not acknowledge photographs as docu-
ments. Their unequivocal answer is revealed in the pages of their books: they do not regard photo-
graphs as a source for political, philosophical or historical research. Until recently, the question was
not even raised by people dealing with political thought. A photograph is considered partial, false,
incidental, biased (only a few of the attributes ascribed to photographs, and taken as grounds not to
view them). In the press, and in archives in general, photographs are shown or stored as reference to
an event, and are thenceforth brought out and replicated time and again in the simple and problem-
atic signifying relations attested to by the language of captions common in archives like ‘refugees’,
‘expulsion’ or ‘torture’.
In simple signifying relations, when the photograph is perceived as the signifier of the event
attributed to it by the caption, it is easy to dismiss the photograph as partial, false, incidental and
biased or to ‘look at’ the reference represented by this type of caption. But these signifying relations
accompanying one’s gaze at the photograph are but one use of it, which cannot answer questions
about what photography or a photograph are. At the most, they might instruct what the specific form

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Ariella Azoulay

of use in question is. To illustrate this form of use, I shall liken it to a paperclip – the simple accessory 1. The photographer, the
archivist and the
with which one attaches the referent to the photograph, creating (out of this temporary attachment) spectator face the
a mask that facilitates its sorting and categorization, differentiating it from other objects. This tagging photograph, as it were, in
mask is perceived as a would-be factual description or a broad common denominator of what differ- the kind of relation that
Aïm Deüelle Lüski – in
ent people might see in the photograph. But anyone who has ever searched for a photograph in an his writings on
archive – all the more so nowadays, as such searches are objectified by search engines – knows the photography – has
difficulties that await her in the attempt to locate a photograph she anticipates might be found under named ‘a vertical view’.

X or Y, while the archivist – expert in her job and operating within its conventions – could not but
place it under A or B.
This use of the photograph assumes that the photographer, and later the archivist and spectator,
are outside of that which is seen in the photograph, observing an event which the photograph has
sealed.1 In this sense, I, as a spectator, and all of my predecessors, stand parallel to the photograph,
facing it as a closed image, which is externalized and vertical. This view affords a limited understand-
ing of the photograph. However, it cannot be entirely dismissed since it accompanies most of the
encounters with photographs in which we do not relinquish this view and are helped by it. We are all
in the habit of sorting, for our photo albums, pictures of Grandma Selena or Aunt Bertha, or trying to
preserve in our memory photographs from this or that event of interest to us. I find, therefore, no
point in going totally against such uses of photographs. Rather, one should relocate them within a
spectrum of possible uses that are not necessarily subjugated to the existence of a photograph.
Something about the limitation of this kind of use is exposed in every renewed viewing of photo-
graphs, revealing that which our use of the photograph did not let us see when we first viewed it:
that by following the classifying ‘clip’ our gaze dismissed the three men actually standing beside the
photographed woman. Or that, from the very beginning, in the pile of rubble there lay a dead body,
which was only discovered when we looked again.
What appears in one viewing and vanishes in another is not the result of that attitude. I have
heard expressed time and again, ‘it is all in the eyes of the beholder’, as if when it comes to pho-
tographs, ‘anything goes’. Such platitudes, turning the photograph into an unreliable source that
is given to manipulation, are disappointed with it or find fault in its failure to fulfill the fantasy
of a sovereign source. It is exactly this failure that turns photography into a civil medium and a
priceless source. What is written in it is always excessive with regard to any sovereign represen-
tation that one side or another – be it the photographer, the photographed person or the person
in charge of the ‘arena’ in which the photograph was taken – wishes to impose on it. The appear-
ance and disappearance of objects of the gaze in photography do not attest to the essential unreli-
ability of the photograph. They attest, rather, and first and foremost, to the fact that a photograph
does not possess a single sovereign, stable point of view, and that what is visible in it – its actual
referent – must be grounded no less than its interpretation. This insight requires us to ask anew:


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What is a photograph? What is photography?

what is a photograph? What does it enable, and what does it not enable one to see? In the book The
Civil Contract of Photography and in two archive-exhibitions, I formulated theoretically and provided
practically the minimal basis for an answer to these questions: a photograph is the product of an
encounter of several protagonists, mainly photographer and photographed, camera and spectator
(Azoulay 2008). Understanding the photograph as a product of such an encounter extricated me from
dead-end discussions of the photograph in terms of the ‘inside and outside’ organized and embodied
by the camera – those standing in front of the camera and behind it at the moment the photograph is
taken, and inside and outside the frame at the moment the photograph is viewed. These inside/out-
side relations have generated the conditions for a long tradition of viewing the disasters that befall
others as if the disasters that struck ‘them’ were a (political) trait of theirs, as though they had not
been governed alongside the viewers of their photographic images. In other words, these inside/
outside relations enabled one not to see the photographed persons as ‘governed’, not to conceptualize
our own ‘being-governed’ as spectators through the regime disaster that befell them, but rather ena-
bled one to perceive them according to absurd categories such as ‘displaced persons’, ‘dispossessed’
or ‘refugees’ (categories which serve external appendages of the democratic regimes under which we
live) (Azoulay 2010).
The ontological framework commonly held for discussing photography, that wishes to ask what
it is, is limited by the photograph – the frame – and linked to whoever held the camera. Such onto-
logical discussions assume, as their point of departure, that the photograph is a product of one stable
point of view – that of the photographer. Critical discourse aims to expose the fact that the photogra-
pher’s field of vision – and hence also that which is visible within the photograph – is usually deter-
mined by the arms of army and state. But such critical claims do not transcend the usual ontological
framework. They continue to see the photograph as a product of a single and stable point of view,
which differs only in being attributed to a body other than that of the photographer. Criticism grows
sharper, then it judges the stabilized point of view of the photograph and/or of whoever is responsi-
ble for producing it as something ‘independent’, ‘critical’ or ‘mobilized’, as if these were fixed traits
that the spectator – perceived as external – could only judge.
Most, if not all, of those who wish to examine the ontology of photography – generally, from
the point of view of art or photographic discourse – are not aware of the fact that what they draw
as the object of discussion results from the specific field of discourse of which they are a part, and
which perceives the photograph strictly in its own terms. From its onset, the practice of photog-
raphy was regarded in productive terms. Available categories serving other traditions of the
production of images, such as art or literature, were adopted as being effective tools for the dis-
cussion of the product of photography: an image created by a skilled agent on an easily transport-
able foundation. Such discussion reduces the practice of photography to that which it produces,
emphasizing the producer of the image as a free agent who is responsible for his final product.


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Ariella Azoulay

In order to inquire what the photographic entity is, one should suspend the priority attributed to 2. Usually it divides those
present into different
the photograph and the agent, who aims for sovereignty over the field of vision from which the pho- positions: those who
tograph is produced. This suspension enables one to look at whatever is inscribed in the frame as not congregate around it
being a consequence, application or implementation of the photographer’s point of view but, rather, and react to its
presence, and those
as resulting from an encounter between several protagonists that might take on various forms. Even who go on minding
if one of these protagonists – usually the photographer – enjoys a privileged position and is the one their own business;
responsible for setting the boundaries of the photograph, s/he alone does not determine what will be those who wish to
present it with
inscribed in the frame and what might be reconstructed from it regarding the situation photo- something; others who
graphed. address the photogra-
pher directly; and those
The photographed image produced out of an encounter invariably contains both more and who disperse as a
less than that which someone wished to inscribe in it. The photograph is always more and less response to its invasion
than what one of the parties to the encounter managed to frame at the moment of photography. or attempt to block its
field of vision.
The photograph is always in excess of, and always bears a lack in relation to, each of its protago-
nists. This excess and this lack are, of course, not shared by all those who took part in the encoun-
ter: it is impossible to subject all of them to the point of view of any single one.

II. Photography
Discursively framing photography according to the (in)accessibility of the photograph obliterates the
discussion of photography even before it begins. Against this tendency, I argue that photography is
an event that is not conditioned by the eventual production of a photograph. Considered in relation
to the camera or the photographed persons, this sounds obvious. Everyone knows that the arrival of
a camera on the scene creates a hubbub – it might serve as a magnet for one event or distance and
disrupt another.2 The photographed persons will not necessarily view the photographs taken at the
photographic event of which they were a part, but this does not obliterate the fact that it took place.
When, in the interrogation room, an interrogator tells a detainee that he has a photograph of the
detainee, but does not actually show it, the interrogator conducts himself as one who continues this
earlier photographic event, when in fact he is producing it for the detainee in order to exert pressure
upon him (Azoulay 2008). Not all of those who take part in the photographic event do so in the same
way. Not all are even aware that this event is taking place, certainly not at the time of its occurrence;
nor can all those involved view the product of this event and those who do view it are not necessarily
permitted to use the product in the same way.
I would go further than this to claim that, presently – at a time in which nearly everyone pos-
sesses photographic tools – photography has become a potential event even when there is no camera
visible. The absence of a camera in the field of vision does not refute its potential existence. I think of
the photographic event as an effect of the potential penetration of a camera, accompanied by the


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What is a photograph? What is photography?

possibility that a photograph will be produced within its field of vision. The event of photography –
not the photographed event – might take place as the encounter with a camera, with a photograph
or with the mere knowledge that a photograph has been (or might have been) produced.
This possibility might be troubling, pleasing, threatening, damaging, soothing and even reassuring. Obviously,
the feelings of all those partaking in the event are not aroused by this possibility. Photography is an event
that always takes place among people. Out of this event a photograph might possibly be produced. The photo-
graph produced, or not produced, at this event is a rich document that might prove helpful in attempts to
reconstruct something of the encounter for all of those who took part in it. It is unique in that no one can claim
a sovereign position from which to rule what, of this encounter, will be inscribed in the photograph. When such
a photograph is inaccessible, other sources can be used that bear witness to the photography-event. One can
use one’s civil imagination to complete the multiple points of view that the photograph might have recorded,
had it been produced.
A reformulation of the ontology of photography as a political ontology constitutes a basis for civil,
post-sovereign thinking.

Translation: Tal Haran.

Azoulay, A. (2008), The Civil Contract of Photography, London: Zone Books.
Azoulay, A. (2009), Act of State 1967–2007, : .
Azoulay, A. (2009), Etgar: Atto di Stato 1967–2007, Bruno Mondadori.
Etgar: Atto di Stato 1967–2007, Bruno Mondadori Constituent Violence 1947–1950, Resling.
Azoulay, A. (2010), Civil Imagination: Political Ontology of Photography, Tel Aviv: Resling.

Suggested citation
Azoulay, A. (2010), ‘What is a photograph? What is photography?’, Philosophy of Photography 1: 1,
pp. 9–13, doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.9/7

Contributor details
Ariella Azoulay teaches Visual Culture and Contemporary Philosophy at the Programme for
Culture and Hermeneutics, Bar Ilan University. She is a curator and a documentary film-maker.
She is the author of The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008).



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POP 1 (1) pp. 14–17 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Symposium. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.14/7

Manchester Metropolitan University

Live view

A recent technological innovation, ‘real-time live view’, which enables us to preview the image on
the display screen of a digital camera with ‘zero image latency,’ throws into further confusion our
already fragile beliefs in photography’s fundamental correspondence to perceptual reality. It may
function, give or take, like an old-fashioned optical viewfinder but it poses a new challenge to how
we understand the tension that photography creates between the world and ‘the world as image’. It
also exemplifies the psychological shift, if not reversal, from ‘vision’ to a pure illusion that digital
technology seems to propagate, promote and facilitate.
The view through the viewfinder is always a promise of the picture to come. It is less a confronta-
tion with the present than a moment of anticipation in which the conventional criteria of looking and
observation are suspended for the benefit of a hypothesis, and what is seen is no longer the world
‘out there,’ as it would appear to the ‘naked eye,’ but a tacit image. It presents a potential ‘state of
things,’ in the limited sense in which Vilém Flusser coined the term to denote photographic images:
not the existing ‘state of affairs,’ the actual existence of ‘a configuration of objects’ as ‘facts’, whose
total sum makes up the world according to Ludwig Wittgenstein.
For Wittgenstein, ‘a picture is a model of reality’. It ‘contains the possibility of the situation that it
represents’(Wittgenstein 2002: 12). Picturing (the making of a picture) is a way of ‘looking outside’,
thinking about reality, imagining and grasping its structure. This is as true of an immaterial mental


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Live view

image (which is what Wittgenstein had in mind) or a language construction as it is of a photograph,

or indeed any picture; however, in the technological domain of photography the relational bond
between the model and the situation is complicated by the technical functions and capacities of the
camera which seem to unite the two, briefly, in the moment of exposure.
It does take time, albeit a generally short amount, for the light passing through the lens of the
camera to register on the sensitive surface of the film or the image sensor. But psychologically, we
associate photography with instantaneity rather than duration and we experience the moment of
exposure as an almost dimensionless temporal contraction in the endless flow of observable events:
a sharp demarcation between ‘before’ and ‘after,’ the seen and the as-yet unseen. This is not only
because modern photographic equipment can record images at speeds which cannot be accounted
for by our sense of transience and lived time but also because of the completeness and irrevocability
of the recorded image. Witness, for instance, the distinct echo of both instantaneity and finality in the
vocabulary we use (‘capturing’, ‘shooting’, ‘snapping’) or in the click of the shutter, to whose speed
and precision photography owes much of its authority (and which, for that very reason, has survived
electronically reproduced in our compact digital cameras). In this respect, Henri Cartier-Bresson,
who ‘craved to seize the whole essence [...] of some situation that was in the process of unrolling
itself before (his) eyes’, rightly spoke of ‘the decisive moment’ (Clarke, 1997: p. 208).
In the moment of exposure ‘the possibility of the situation’ is decided, realized, and in some manner
exhausted, as a latent image. There is, strictly speaking, no gap between reality and representation or a
clear distinction between existence and non-existence. There is nothing, or ‘no-thing’, an interim ‘state’
(stasis) of an object not yet ‘displaced’ by the action of the camera (in photography things lose their
place) but no longer simply ‘out there’ either. The possibility of the situation as it had appeared to the
observing eye has been realized but is, as yet, without a consequence. The ‘no-thing’ is really a paradox:
a theoretical construct, in the literal meaning of θεωρ′ια (observation, a looking at), which is at once
unproven and fully resolved. Or, to put it differently, this is where Wittgenstein’s ‘state of affairs’ pre-
cisely overlaps with Flusser’s ‘state of things’. But this is also where, at another level, they split apart.
For Flusser, the possibilities of (photographic) situations cannot be found in the world but are ‘pro-
grammed’ within the functions of the camera. This ‘programme’ is designed in such a way as to help us
make sense of something ‘out there,’ by enabling us to make images that reach out to reality, but only
within the programme’s own predetermined parameters and norms and their possible permutations. A
photograph is not, then, a slice of the real or its frozen fragment but merely ‘a realization of one of the
possibilities contained within the programme of the camera’(Flusser 2005: 26). It restructures reality
according to an image-scenario derived from techno-scientific theoretical concepts. It produces a new
‘state of things, a situation never seen before,’ by trans-coding ‘a theory of optics into an image’ (Flusser
2005: 76). Its material sources and all its references are always external but their effects are theoretically
predicted and emerge from within the functions built into the recording technology.


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Pavel Büchler

The exploration of what the camera can do, Flusser argues, is the sole preoccupation of photogra-
phers. They ‘look through the camera out into the world’ but ‘their interest is concentrated on the
camera; for them, the world is purely a pretext for the realization of camera possibilities’ (Flusser
2005: 26). These possibilities are practically endless and determine not only how the picture is taken,
by providing a range of spatial and temporal categories (focal length, shutter speed etc.), but also,
indirectly, what can be photographed: the possible situations or ‘states of things’. To realize any one
of the possibilities of the camera, photographers proceed through a series of provisional choices
before arriving at ‘the final decision taken in the act of photography: pressing the shutter release’
(Flusser 2005: 39). In Flusser’s interpretation, there is no ultimate decisive moment and the apparent
singularity of the image is but the cumulative result of a decision-making process.
In any case, a photograph is a record of observation. It is a summary of looking concluded and
condensed in a picture at the exact moment the picture is taken. It is inscribed at a single stroke, as it
were, like a full stop at the end of a sentence. And it is also all that there is. To some extent, this is so
even with some fully automated forms of recording (traffic speed-cameras, for example), but it is
certainly so where it confirms the observation as a self-conscious search for the picture. The decision
to press the shutter is, if not ‘decisive’, then perhaps ‘critical’: it plays a ‘critical’ role in deciding that
this is how things should be seen. It involves an analysis and evaluation of the given situation, dis-
cernment (as to what is included and what is left out) and a value judgement. It is also ‘critical’ in the
sense that its urgency or arbitrariness is the critical message of photographs, as well as in the sense in
which the term implies a quantitative threshold and the need to act. In short, and rather obviously,
without the ‘critical’ decision to press the shutter release being acted upon, there is no photograph.
In the ‘critical’ moment of exposure, we sense that we already hold onto something. Not yet a
photograph but more than merely raw data: we possess information. But as much seems to be taken
away as is gained and we also sense a loss: the information that we now possess is something that is
no more, the recorded event has passed, the ‘state of things’ has lost its contingency (its random sug-
gestiveness as a tacit image), which is exactly what we had been looking for from the start. Precisely
because we have decided to take the picture, we have lost the picture promised to us.
The notion of immediate verification of the result runs counter to this psychology. In our practical
experience of picture-taking, we may not be conscious that the latent image captured on film is dif-
ferent from one recorded and stored digitally, but the difference seems to nevertheless have a bearing
on our expectations. It may not be in the foreground of our photographic thinking that digital cam-
eras do not retain traces of the chemical action of light but transform light continuously into electro-
magnetic impulses and transcribe those as instantly retrievable binary data, but the difference
nevertheless affects our imagination. The information that is waiting to ‘come out’ on the film in the
darkness of the camera is, figuratively speaking, like dark matter whose presence can only be inferred
from visible reality. Our instinctive anticipation of this prompts the eye pressed to the viewfinder to


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Live view

keep the ‘outside’ in view. Even as we concentrate on what the camera can do, we imagine that it will
preserve the ‘critical’ parameters of a special moment ‘out there’.
The instantly processed digital image is more like a found object, something that we come across
without knowing what we are looking for. It encourages us to ‘take’ the world as it is displayed to us:
a ready-made image. The instant availability and therefore disposability of the image creates the
impression that we can manipulate time in the still image as we do with video, and that our decision
to isolate one moment from the continuum preserves the ready-made picture without any slippage,
loss or promise. But as the uninterrupted flow of information on the ‘live’ preview screen blocks the
view of the moment ‘out there’, it highlights the imperative of thinking critically whenever we press
the shutter release.

Clarke, Graham (1997), The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Flusser Vilém (2005), Towards a philosophy of photography, London: Reaktion.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2002), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London: Routledge.

Suggested citation
Büchler, P. (2010), ‘Live view’, Philosophy of Photography 1: 1, pp. 14–17, doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.14/7

Contributor details
An artist, teacher and occasional writer, Pavel Büchler is Research Professor in Fine Art at Manchester
Metropolitan University. He was a co-founder of the Cambridge Darkroom Gallery, and Head of
School of Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art. He writes on contemporary art, photography, film and
art education, has co-edited several anthologies of critical writing, and is the author of Ghost Stories:
Stray Thoughts on Photography and Film (Proboscis, 1999).
Contact: Pavel Büchler, Research Professor, Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan
University, Righton Building, Cavendish St, Manchester M15 6BG, UK.


POP 1.1_2_symp_Bu chler_014-017.indd 17 3/8/10 8:20:54 PM

POP 1 (1) pp. 18–21 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Symposium. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.18/7

University of Westminster

Drink the wine, discard the bottle,

then drink something else

A couple of years ago I was at a seminar that was intended to bring together ‘theorists of photogra-
phy’ and ‘philosophers’ to see what would happen. With such a crude distinction being made in the
first place I think the organizers secretly knew the outcome. By ‘secretly’ I do not mean they kept it
from the participants so much as they kept from admitting it to themselves. The theorists of photog-
raphy assessed what the philosophers might be interested in and vice versa, and each side tailored its
presentations to the other. These were not really ‘sides taken’ so much as hats temporarily assumed
for the day (I do not know anyone who is not, on some level, a theorist of photography or a philoso-
pher). To nobody’s surprise the meeting ground was the perennial hot potato that is the definition,
or essence or ontology of photography. Or maybe it’s a cold potato, depending on whether you think
the topic is worth pursuing beyond the fairly well established positions that either the matter is
decided and closed, or is open permanently because the ‘object’ is a moving target.
And here we have a journal titled Philosophy of Photography. Photography is being conceived as
the object of philosophical reflection or inquiry. Not that the term or discipline ‘philosophy’ is any
less contested than ‘photography’. Nevertheless to quote the card the editors of the journal sent me


POP 1.1_2_symp_Company_018-021.indd 18 3/8/10 8:21:18 PM

Drink the wine, discard the bottle, then drink something else

in September of 2009, its remit is to ‘provide a forum for debate of issues arising from the cultural,
political, historical and scientific matrix of ideas, practices and techniques that constitute contempo-
rary photography.’ Although this is necessarily vague (as any project must be to accrue funding and
institutional support these days) it is helpful in a roundabout way. It gives a sense of how the editors
do plan to conceive of both philosophy and photography: culture, politics, history, science, ideas,
practices and techniques. Photography has now had at least three decades of very serious attention
from some of the most advanced minds of our time, who have understood and approached it as
something that is profoundly shaped by and able to shape our understanding of culture, politics, his-
tory, science, ideas, practices and techniques. So is this business as usual, or is there a, or many,
philosophies of photography?
It is certainly true that a number of people, who would consider themselves as belonging to the
discipline of philosophy, have, in recent years, become interested in photography. And on this basis
what they do with this interest is more likely than not to be called a ‘philosophy of photography’.
However, whether what they are actually doing is something other than participating in the ‘debate
of issues arising from the cultural, political, historical and scientific matrix of ideas, practices and
techniques that constitute photography’ is another matter. In a recent and fascinating article Diarmuid
Costello and Dawn M. Phillips (from the department of philosophy at the University of Warwick) tell
us the philosophy of photography is a ‘relatively untrammelled field’ but what they then ‘trammel’ it
with is a series of astute reflections of photography’s relation to automatism, causality and realism,
picking up where the existing debates that have not bothered with the title ‘philosophy’ have left off
(Costello and Phillips 2009). If photography’s relation to automatism, causality and realism interests
you, you’ll be interested in this article. If you were wondering what on earth a philosophy of photog-
raphy could be you might also be interested, and you would learn that it’s not so different from the
wider and ongoing discussions. That might be a disappointment or a nice surprise.
Any new journal will want to make the case that its time has come. So why might a philosophy
of photography seem particularly pressing? Two asymmetrical yet connected answers suggest
themselves. The first follows a line of thought we can see in the diagnoses of Rosalind Krauss and
Michael Fried, to name only the most obvious (Krauss 1998; Fried 2008). Over the last three dec-
ades or so photography has been displaced from the centre of visual culture and dissolved in its
specificity through the demise of the illustrated press, the rise of television and the electronic con-
vergence of media. This period corresponds with photography’s new availability to, and triumph
in, art. In its eclipse, photography becomes a theoretical object that comes to ‘matter as art as
never before’ – to paraphrase the title of the book by Fried (which, as many critics soon pointed
out, is persuasive, but not in its mobilization of the philosophies of Wittgenstein and Heidegger).
The core argument is that photography became so central to art only once it became thinkable, and
it only became thinkable once it did not occupy the centre of visual experience: once it was no


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David Campany

longer the defining medium of the day; once its burden as primary chronicle and document was
lifted. Krauss calls this ‘obsolescence’ but that seems hasty because clearly there is still plenty of
photography around. The model ‘T’ Ford is obsolete: photography is not. Let’s stick with ‘eclipse’.
Photography, its practitioners, its theorists and its philosophers are making sense, are perhaps only
able to make sense, of photography in this eclipse. One does not have to go for either of the very
different and narrow canons of photographic art defended by Fried and Krauss to entertain this
general assessment.
However, this journal’s remit mentions neither art nor aesthetics specifically and this points us to
a second sense in which a philosophy of photography might seem attractive. That eclipse affects not
just art; it affects all existing photographic practices and our relations to them. While it’s true that art
has become the privileged space for the discussion of photography, its terms are inevitably narrow
and often debilitating. A few years ago I suggested that:

… art has become the space to look askew at the general field of the photographic, to engage
directly or indirectly with a commentary upon the image world at large. The space of art has
thus come to function either as a dissecting table to which the different forms of the social
photographic are brought for creative reflection, or as a set upon which they can be can be
reworked. These two metaphors – dissecting table and set – map quite well onto what seem
to be the two key impulses behind much current photographic art: the forensic interest in
detail and the cinematic interest in mise-en-scène or staging. These impulses are so forcefully
present today because all photography in art is somehow obliged to enter into a dialogue
either with the notion of the photo as visual evidence or with the culture of the moving image
in which the still now finds itself. Or both.
(Campany 2004)

However, to observe documentary practice (for example) only through its current guises in and as art
is rather like studying a tiger in a zoo: it acts differently and so do its observers. It needs to be studied
in the wild too, however depleted the habitat. The same can be said for all those photographic prac-
tices that are not art (which, conservatively estimated, is about 99.945 per cent of them).
So far what has gone on under the banner ‘philosophy of photography’ has been a continua-
tion of the debates about medium specificity and the ontology of the photographic image and/or
reflection on photography in/as art. Although this may be familiar wine in new bottles, there is
every reason to continue drinking it. Those issues will not go away any time soon. So let’s not for-
get that it is the wine that matters, even in these label-obsessed times. If I am pleased that the
Philosophy of Photography understands its task is to ‘provide a forum for debate of issues arising
from the cultural, political, historical and scientific matrix of ideas, practices and techniques that


POP 1.1_2_symp_Company_018-021.indd 20 3/8/10 8:21:18 PM

Drink the wine, discard the bottle, then drink something else

constitute photography’, it’s because, in principle, it covers everything photographic. In practice,

we will have to wait and see.

Campany, David (2004), ‘On Thinking and not Thinking Photography’, Engage, 14.
Costello, Diarmuid and Phillips, M. Dawn (2009), ‘Automatism, Causality and Realism: Foundational
Problems in the Philosophy of Photography’, Philosophy Compass, 4:1, pp. 1–21.
Fried, Michael (2008), Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, London: Yale University
Krauss, Rosalind E. (1998), ‘Reinventing “Photography”’, in Luminita Sabau (ed.), The Promise of
Photography, London: Prestel.

Suggested citation
Campany, D. (2010), ‘Drink the wine, discard the bottle, then drink something else’, Philosophy of
Photography 1: 1, pp. 18–21, doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.18/7

Contributor details
David Campany teaches at the University of Westminster, where he is a Reader in Photography. He
writes and curates extensively. His books include Art and Photography (Phaidon Press, 2003) and
Photography and Cinema (Reaktion Books, 2008). His essays have appeared in The Oxford Art Journal,
Frieze, Source, Papel Alpha, Photoworks, AA Files, Tate Magazine, Art Review, EXTRA, FOAM,
Ojodepez and Aperture. He is Co-editor of PA magazine.
Contact: David Campany, University of Westminster, Media Art and Design, Watford Road, London
HA1 3TP, UK.


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POP 1 (1) pp. 22–28 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Symposium. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.22/7


Temporal photography

Since its invention, photography has functioned as a production medium and also as a meta-medium
for reproduction, particularly within the printing trades. Both aspects of the medium have depended
on the static character of the photographic image. Film and video (whether analogue or digital) pushed
photographic imagery in a different direction, stressing narrative that unfolds over time through cuts
and editing techniques. Can we imagine another kind of temporal intervention into the photographic
image that would change our sense of the medium in a radically different way? Could it shift our
understanding of the identity of photography from an ontological foundation to an epistemological
one? Both of the examples I will describe here engage temporality as an internal dimension – a feature
that changes what we have long understood as a static image into one that has a temporal axis. Some
people might just call these videos, but their relation to the photographic image and commitment to
an interrogation of its conventions seems to justify calling them temporal photographs.
In 2007 artist Scott Kildall produced a series of video portraits that record the facial gestures of
people getting ready to have their picture taken. Between two and three minutes each, the segments
expose the frozen moment wof the photograph as a fiction. The very notion of a moment – as a dis-
crete entity, removed from the continuum of time, fixed, static, and complete – disappears as a con-
cept as the photographic record changes radically. Instead of being an entity, a thing, an image of a

22 22

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Temporal photography

single snapshot within a continuum, the photograph becomes an event. The image is not just a cut
across the continuing sequence of unfolding events – but a demonstration of the radical incomplete-
ness of the photographic image.
This shift from entity to event is crucial to the new ontology of photographic imagery, but is also
new photography’s contribution to an altered foundation for epistemology – for knowledge as
knowing. Temporal photographs are no longer the sign of a single instant – the new dimension
changes the image. Temporality destroys the fiction of singularity and bounded-ness on which our
idea of an entity, of an image-thing that acts as if it were complete, depends. Temporality makes
certain conventional conceits and deceits very difficult to maintain. Not only can we see more, since
the extension and duration show much more than any single image could, but the character of what
we see is different. The image is no longer defined on an ontological plane, but is part of an episte-
mological field. This transformation is reflected and refracted in Kidall’s series.
The uncomfortable process of waiting for a photograph to be taken is all over his subjects’ faces
and in their body language. Their expressions change and flickers of mood – anxiety, annoyance, frus-
tration, question, flirtation – show dramatically that they have internalized the idea of ‘the photo-
graph’ as a final event, a flash, a quick slice through ongoing life, a record, an instant. They dodge
toward and lunge away from the camera, waiting for the moment, the snap, the action of the shutter.
Their movements are always anticipating immobility, and as Kildall stretches out the clock in an
unspecified stretch of time, they begin to exhibit a restless uncertainty about exactly how to define
what it is that the photograph is. Have they missed it? Is it coming? What is the it, the phenomenon,
the photograph? A limited frame, a time frame, cut, held, fixed, defines the photograph. And Kildall
refuses to fix the frame, take the picture. Instead, he takes apart the picture. Meanwhile, his struggling
subjects come and go from their ‘pose’ – that self-constructed projection of self into image that is the
awkward frozen expression seen in most amateur portrait photographs. Pose, of course, is an effect of
photographic imagery and our idea about how to compose ourselves for it. Pose is the outward expres-
sion of an internalized notion of a cultural phenomenon we call the photograph. The painful non-
delimited extension of his process prolongs anticipation for an event that does not arrive.
Every photograph has temporal dimensions, of course. The time of exposure, historical time, time of
development, cropping, the time of reception and circulation – like any other cultural artefact, photo-
graphs are caught up in a web of varying temporalities. In that sense, a photograph, like any artefact or
cultural document, is never fixed, but made in each viewing circumstance. But the myths of temporality
specific to photography – the frozen moment, the window and mirror imagery, the language of the
gaze, of the look, the glance – are all attached to the singularity photographic time. That moment is
central to our critical understanding of the ontological character of a photograph. The exposure of a
receptive material substrate, light-sensitive film or a pixel-generating optical device, at a particular
moment in phenomenal time, makes a photograph what it is – an indexical sign that is a bounded,


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Johanna Drucker

discrete entity. The photograph has multiple relations to the realm outside the frame, to be sure. But the
fixed moment of the photograph defines it as a kind of image and as a way of seeing and thinking.
By stretching that temporal instant along its own banal but familiar continuum, Kildall exposes
the event character of any and all photographs. Even if photographs inscribe their own recording
process in relation to temporality of perceived phenomena, the moment of exposure provides instant
repleteness. In a conventional photograph, every part of the surface area of the receptive substrate
(photo emulsion or pixel file) is immediately filled, registering a value, colour and tone. That immedi-
ate repleteness meant that the photographic image, unlike a hand-drawn image, did not distribute its
time of production across the surface, as part of the trace of its making. The instantaneity of replete-
ness provided the ontological foundation, the terms on which we understand that photography is an
indexical sign of light, a moment, exposed, captured. But when temporality intervenes, much of that
apparent repleteness dissolves into banality, incidental detail that does not hold. Literally and figura-
tively, these recorded details blur. The subject of the portrait, shifting and moving towards or away
from the moment of exposure, transforms the image into a record of something known: shows us
(viewer, photographer, photographed subjects) in the process of knowing. Knowing what? That a
photograph is to be taken? The image becomes an event, an epistemological event, in which what it
is to know that a photograph is going to be taken is recorded, shown, given form.
Including a temporal dimension in a photograph also alters its ability to work as a meta-medium.
How would we abstract the temporal dimension into a template of production? What would that
temporal abstraction look like? How would it act? Taking the histogram of a moving image, a tem-
poral photograph, and reusing it for another image sequence is hard to imagine. The extra ‘noise’ of
shifts and changes, subtle nuances that are part of the image across its temporal axis, are all revealed
and recorded. A new meta-language – degrees of difference, relative values of change, and so on –
would be needed to articulate the meta-dimension of moving photographs. Photography was a ver-
satile meta-medium because of the way photographic equipment and materials could be manipulated
and used to pass images from one domain of production to another. Details, composition, outlines
and shadows, passages and tones, colour or contrast were all qualities that could be reworked in ink,
etching or silkscreen, and offset or scaled to spectacular proportions. The time dimension of the tem-
poral photography takes away the stability on which meta-media fluidity was enabled. Too much
information is present and that new information is locked into a sequence of differences – of changes
that register in relation to each other, creating a field of values that are always other than each other –
a little more smile, a tilt of the head, a raised eyebrow. In any single image these would simply be the
trace and mark. But can differences become part of a remediation. Could these temporal shifts
become part of an aspect of a print image? Unlikely and unnecessary, since, for the most part, embed-
ded video clips and segments perform in digital contexts in many of the ways print images worked in
analogue media.


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Temporal photography

But I want to insist on the difference between temporal photography and video or film. Kildall’s
project was not to make video portraits of his subjects, but to take apart the still portrait by introducing
a temporal dimension into it. What makes temporal photography distinct from video is its relation to
conventions of photographic imagery and direct recognition of these as part of its production. It turns
the conception of a photographic image as an entity into the realization that a photograph is always
an image-event.
Another example of temporal photography and its effects complements Kildall’s project, but
exhibits a different affect and effect. This project, by Jamie Diamond, whom I met when she was
finishing her MFA at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008, was called Constructed Family Portraits.
The piece consisted of formally composed family portraits: static, well-organized group images.
They were actually groups of strangers she had met and invited to be photographed as a family in
a hotel room. She exhibited the formal photographs and the videos showing the role playing at
familiarity and intimacy, which lead up to the photographs, side by side. The talk and interactions
of the ‘family’ members, the peculiar and idiosyncratic behaviours of the family system, the weird
freezing of faces, limbs, features as each person composed themselves to produce the image of
themselves they wanted to project. All these things were recorded up to the final moment of the
portrait, and then, its aftermath. The two media were in dialogue – formal portrait and video of its
temporal continuum. The videos were photographs whose temporal dimension had been extended.
Their very existence was predicated on documenting the fictions of the photographic moment.
The fictions on which photographic imagery is based, and the conception of its ontological status,
have consequences in the culture. For instance, much of our sense of self as a bounded entity comes
from photographic processes that transform the fragmented phenomenological sensorium of the
embodied, fragmented, distributed perceiving self into a reified image. The simulacrum of the Google
map passes itself off as an image of ‘real’ space – as if space were not a construction of human emo-
tions, experiences, politics, tensions, and other forces. Photographic reification constantly imposes an
entity-based transcription of lived phenomena onto our perception of these experiences – turning
relations and events into places and things. By introducing a temporal axis into the image, its capacity
to reify dissolves. The image will not compose, will not stand still, will not self-reference as reifica-
tion, and refuses to be resolved into an entity.
The temporal image is necessarily an event, with duration, uncertain boundaries, arbitrary begin-
nings and endings; it is filled with all kinds of possible moves and changes. Something happens, is
happening, goes on happening, in the temporal photograph. This was true of the static photograph,
but its momentary-ness often deceived us into thinking it was a complete image of a bounded
moment: finite, done. The event-based approach to imagery brings with it the continuum as an oper-
ative concept. And that continuum is situated and circumstantial, refusing to transcend history and
specificity, location and point of view. The camera records the dialogue of photographic situation and


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Johanna Drucker

Scott Kildall, still from ‘Video Portraits’, 2006–2008, Aurangabad, India, photo courtesy of the artist.


POP 1.1_2_symp_Drucker_022-028.indd 26 3/13/10 7:03:03 PM

Temporal photography

Jamie Diamond, The Hilton Family, from ‘Constructed Family Portrait Series’, 2008, 40 “ × 60 “, archival pigment print.


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Johanna Drucker

photographed situation, but the partial and embodied quality of that activity is strikingly revealed.
The temporal image demonstrates the unfinished-ness of photography – at the level of the image
and as an aesthetic process: one that, like all aesthetic activity, demonstrates a way of knowing, a
fundamental epistemological method, in which the ontological category of knowledge gets replaced
by a constructed event of knowing.

Suggested citation
Drucker, J. (2010), ‘Temporal photography’, Philosophy of Photography 1: 1, pp. 22–28, doi: 10.1386/

Contributor details
Johanna Drucker is Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies at UCLA. She has published exten-
sively on the history of written forms, typography, design, contemporary art and visual poetics. Her
most recent titles include Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (University of Chicago Press,
2005), Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide (with Emily McVarish, Pearson, 2009) and SpecLab:
Digital Aesthetics and Speculative Computing (University of Chicago Press, 2009). In addition to her
scholarly work, Drucker is internationally known as a book artist and experimental, visual poet.



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POP 1 (1) pp. 29–34 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Symposium. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.29/7

University of Western Ontario

Working light

I suggest that the present challenge for philosophy of photography is to be more philosophical and
more about photography. This would mean becoming more a ‘substantive philosophy’, developed
from actual, interesting cases (Wollheim 1987: 7). When is that philosophy, not just good connois-
seurship, history? ‘Philosophical’ implies critical attention, conceptual invention, sustained thinking.
Then there are breadth and depth requirements, interest in other fields of inquiry, in addition to good
understanding of photography. For a journal that would require illustrations, perhaps web links to
quality sites, maybe a site of its own – including colour, shockingly absent from the literature. But
first, there is work to be done clearing away old confusions. Consider three recurrent, vexing issues:
what photography is, photographic truth, and photography as art.
1. Digital developments demonstrate all over again that ‘photography’ names an ever-developing
family of technologies – amplifiers of our powers to do things – here, our ancient powers of marking
surfaces for information. As Talbot put it: ‘natural magic. You make the powers of nature work for
you, and no wonder that your work is well and quickly done.’ (Talbot 1839: 70–2) Photography
thereby provides extenders of our powers to produce mental content, which, including language, are
among the defining features of our modern species.
As Talbot’s remark suggests, the purpose of technology is freedom. But most technologies get
opposed uses. Much of what we have recently done to this planet has been through excessive


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Patrick Maynard

consumption, pushed by what Plato called ‘unnecessary desires’: people wanting things they would 1. George Lois, in the film
documentary, Art &
never have dreamt of but for the effect of photography’s images, subverting reason, not needing words Copy (Pray 2009). On
(as Hume had explained): ‘manufacturing any feeling you want’, as one designer of states (Pray 2009).1 politics, there is a series
Brief words sway, but now art directors have equal status to copywriters. Witness an economic crash of bestsellers: Jerry
Mander (1977), Neil
brought on by credit defaults: where but for photo images would so many have gotten dreams that Postman (1985), Noam
only bad money could buy? Then politics. Substantive philosophy finds topics there. Chomsky and Edward
Happily, image making retains its liberating uses, which philosophy can attempt to understand Herman (1988), and Al
Gore (2007).
and promote (for science, technology and art) as an instrument for better understanding reality,
expression and communication. And such freedom is central to our idea of art. A steadily expanding 2. On worldwide web:
‘ESA Science &
population produces meaningful images by these new means. Is there hope that a public adept with Technology: Herschel’.
their own manipulations will become less visually passive, more resistant to manipulations by mar-
keting professionals? Through a substantive approach to actual practices, it should be possible to find
out how new photo technics are being used to produce significant meanings, and what this implies
for personal freedom and art.
2. What ‘work is well and quickly done’ by surface marking? Many kinds, including photolithog-
raphy’s producing chips without which the digital age would be impossible. Yet through its many
changes photographic history seems to reveal five main kinds of work: revealing or detecting, record-
ing, reproducing, depicting, providing causal contact. Since ‘true’ means something different for
each, muddling them causes confusion. Further – typical of technologies – these functions combine
in a variety of ways, inviting more confusion. Consider one common pattern of combination: photo-
detection served by depiction. Detective photography has developed engineered information chan-
nels, including streak, infrared, high-speed flash, ultraviolet, schlieren, medical, forensics, thermal,
and radiography. Like different nets cast into the ambient information flux, by lenses, photomultipli-
ers, movements, chemical and electro-optic receivers, including CCDs, they greatly amplify sensitiv-
ity to particular kinds of information, filtering all else. These sensitivities are analysed and controlled
by quantifiable relationships of variables in the subject and the photography. But our modes of access
to that information vary. Since humans are visual it is little wonder that, where possible, access is
through (enhanced) visual recognition, technically specialized: in other words, combinations in which
depiction serves detection.
For example, the current Herschel space observatory. It features a Photodetector Array and a
Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver, detecting cold objects and penetrating dust clouds.2 Its
cameras’ function is not to depict opaque bodies, but to derive information about the formation of
stars and galaxies, as its namesake and discoverer of infrared did two centuries ago. Although the
mission of these cameras bears on world(s)-shaking events, absent are questions of truth about more
abundant and familiar press and personal photography. Absent are suspicions regarding thorough-
going digitalization, cavils at ‘false colour’ and other manipulations, postmodern concerns about


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Working light

valorising six infrared wavelength bands. That is partly because the public has little interest in the
evolution of the universe, but mainly because of their common sense grasp of two things.
First, that these cameras’ engineering systems are controlled for narrow purposes of detection, inter-
preted by specially trained personnel. Herschel is good while its helium cooling lasts – necessary to pre-
vent interference from its own infrared emissions. It was not sent into space to measure itself, but to
register information regarding independent states of affairs. It’s monitored for noise, interference and
malfunction by an array of detection devices with independent controls. Second, we are aware that
Herschel’s output is not pictures, but rather data (part of which is accessed pictorially, within technical
constraints). By contrast, the photography of popular concern is not technically bound to narrow, quan-
tifiable, filter paths – or trained viewers. It’s a global mass-market phenomenon, of multiple functions. Its
main function is depictive: to stimulate imagining seeing – usually in order to evoke other, unconstrained
states, including other imaginings, remembering, feelings, desires. Everyone knew, before digitalization,
that the photo-images in popular magazines are highly managed for this. (Remarkably, this knowledge
has little effect on us.) And, as the arts of painting show, goodness of depiction, when not disciplined by
technical requirements, is a highly equivocal idea. It’s these facts regarding photography’s most abun-
dant, non-technical uses, not any mystery of its medium, which produces confusions about truth. Of
course, a detective factor remains for popular photography. Most people have enough of a general grasp
of photo processes to confirm or discover many things by looking at photos. That lies in their general
understanding of the causal nature of photography, which is not exactly rocket science.
Exploring permutations of the five listed functions would make a dull exercise, but seeing how
they appear in particular interesting photographs, whether art or not, might be illuminating. And of
course artists use photography free of any of these functions, in order to seize forms they see in
nature. An advantage of a multi-functional, technological approach is in being already modular with
regard to purposes, values and kinds of spectator attention. Following Dada, surrealism and con-
structivism, photo theory should have gone beyond conceiving photography as mainly a depictive
medium, according to an aesthetic such as ‘straight’ or ‘manipulated’, ‘documentary’. Early modern
movements remind us that artists work with different elements of media and their interactions, to
produce new meanings. In this way they weave in other factors, and other functions and values,
alongside our five: psychological, aesthetic, skill, moral, political – a rich field for study.
3. If old puzzles about photography’s nature and truth can be easily solved, giving way to sub-
stantive topics, art and agency issues call for more sustained efforts. Photo technologies produce
artefacts – usually ‘photographs’. Works of art are also a kind of artefact. Thus they are perceived,
conceived, displayed and dealt with culturally, commercially, legally. Forgetting this has caused con-
fusion, including confused art.
As Kant remarked, a plank we notice while searching a bog will be salient as such: a product of
art (in the broad sense), not of nature or chance. Something made, we perceive in it the idea of it,


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Patrick Maynard

since ‘its producing cause had an end in view’ (Kant 2007).3 Artefacts and living nature have in com- 3. ‘Its producing cause
mon that they are purposive, containing structures that are for purposes. That way, we understand Ursache] had an end in
which end is up, which is the handle and which the business end, and that affects perception. But, as view, which the object
Kant indicates, artefacts are distinguished from life by their ‘producing causes’ – by being on purpose, has to thank for its
form’ (Kant, E. Critique
by plan. With artefacts, this means that we experience their ‘for purposes’ aspect under intent – of Judgment §43).
which has great significance for cultural objects. Some researchers hold that this grasp is basic to
4. Thus, the Metropolitan
infant cognitive development, upon which much else depends: ‘Young infants learn something of the Museum ‘Pictures
object’s affordances’ for action. But the tools and artefacts of a culture have another dimension that Generation: 1974–1984’
produces another set of affordances. As children observe other people using cultural tools and arte- photo shows this
summer was conceptual,
facts, they often discern the user’s goal: what she is using the artefact ‘for’ (Tomasello 1999: 84, 91). but so were the Helen
In recognizing affordances for goals, children must learn to identify accidents, mistakes, incomple- Levitt photographs in
the hallway next to it.
tions. (They also intentionally misuse artefacts, for fun.) There is a difference,
The intentional affordances idea, regarding a non-egoistic aspect of our experience of artefacts – but it needs to be
as what they are for, for ‘us’ – postulates no Kantian universal voice but a limited ‘us’ of community articulated.
(a worthy subject for further theoretical study). Since works of art are understood as artefacts, this
applies to them. That is confirmed by modern audiences’ difficulties with fast-changing ‘experimen-
tal’ arts and those from different cultures. Audiences are often initially uncertain what many aspects
of such works are ‘for’ – why they are there – and so cannot distinguish accidents, mistakes, lack of
skill, incompletion, or tell whether they are being kidded. All photography is ‘conceptual’ or ‘idea’
photography, because it’s all artefacts, and taking something as an artefact is already thinking, ‘what’s
the idea?’4 With new artworks it may take us a while to get the idea, but we usually do.
All this applies to photos, as kinds of artefacts, even before they are artworks. Every transmis-
sion from the Herschel space observatory is a crafted artefact, just as much as the observatory
itself. As mentioned, the transmissions’ function is to carry engineered causal information about
nature, not themselves. Art photos carry both kinds of information, but in very different propor-
tions, and also have mental content. Basically what visual artworks are for is looking at in certain
ways. As artworks, we take their aspects as being there on purpose – as Kant says, as having been
‘produced’, for these purposes. The relevant question ‘what’s that doing there?’ addresses what is
on purpose and for what purposes, applying equally to things deliberately placed and things left,
including accidents. As with all artefacts, so with visual art, not everything is controlled, and differ-
ent kinds of artworks are understood in terms of how this lack of control is orchestrated. Modern
arts are well known for encouraging ranges of accident, notably in facture, the perceptible signs of
the process of production.
Still, mistaken attitudes persist about not needing to know this. An influential ‘aesthetic’ view
emphasizes perceptual experience of ‘the work itself’. However, what artworks are themselves is a
kind of artefact, which affects how they look. What then have been taken as the agency problems


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Working light

particular to photo-art artefacts? These often concern what photographers have done as ‘producing
causes’ and how this is relevant to art. One way round these questions has been the labour-saving
claim that, by fiat or art-world practice, over the last decades the idea of art has simply been changed
to include many uses of photography.5 On this approach being recognized as an art is like being
accepted as an Olympic sport: if you were not there when they formed the exclusive club around
whatever they happened to be, you force your way in (then exclude others, to value the member-
ship), i.e., politics.
A better way is to show that photography, already in the club, need not crash it. Agency doubts
about photography, as represented in Elizabeth Eastlake’s 1857 essay, were reasonable in its early
years. But time has resolved them, showing that Eastlake’s requirements for art have been well real-
ized in photography.

the power of selection and rejection, … the marriage of his own mind with the object before
him, and the offspring, half-stamped with his own features, half with those of Nature, which
is born of the union – whatever appertains to the free-will of the intelligent being.
(Eastlake 1857: 460)

We recognize photographers’ styles, ascribe mental and psychological characteristics to their works,
judge what’s due to photographer, what to conditions. Looking at enough of a photographer’s works,
we come to see what is on purpose for a purpose: in other words, what something in a photo is doing
there artistically. Accordingly, features of their pictures look different from how they would other-
wise; physically indistinguishable photos could therefore look significantly different, which is no
stranger than the fact that live broadcasts of historical events should be experienced differently from
later ones.
Agency worries concern actions, identifying and assessing what has been done. If earlier the
worry was that photography, relative to older surface-marking methods, did not allow sufficient
agency, the digital worry is about too much agency. This paradox should motivate us to consider
what kinds of agency we value, and for what. Thereby, I suggest, photography would induce us to
think through the issue of mental content, and what it has to do with freedom: an important philo-
sophical issue – to be worked substantively.

Eastlake, E. ‘Photography’ London Quarterly Review, April 1857, pp. 442–68.
Kant, E. (2005), Critique of Judgment, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
Pray, Doug (2009), Art & Copy, USA: Art&Industry.


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Patrick Maynard

Talbot, W. The Corsair. A Gazette of Literature, Art, Dramatic Criticism, fashion and Novelty (New-
York) Vol. 1, No. 5 (Saturday, 13 April 1839) pp. 70–72.
Tomasello, Michael ([1999]), The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, pp. 84, 91.
Wollheim, Richard (1987), Painting as an Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 7.

Suggested citation
Maynard, P. (2010), ‘Working light’, Philosophy of Photography 1: 1, pp. 29–34, doi: 10.1386/

Contributor details
Patrick Maynard is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Cornell University, has US and
Canadian citizenship, and presently lives in England. He taught Philosophy at the University of
Western Ontario and has had appointments at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the University
of California-Berkeley and Simon Fraser University. In addition to many papers in philosophy, he has
published extensively on photography (The Engine of Visualization, Cornell University Press, 1997)
and drawing (Drawing Distinctions, Cornell University Press, 2005).
Contact: Patrick Maynard, Professor (full) emeritus, Department of Philosophy, University of Western
Ontario, Ontario, Canada.


POP 1.1_2_symp_Maynard_029-034.indd 34 3/8/10 8:23:53 PM

POP 1 (1) pp. 35–40 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Symposium. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.35/7

Royal College of Art, London

The Sophist and the photograph

The photograph is praised or denounced for playing with appearances. As a representation and as a form
of resemblance, the photographic image is caught within the discourse of mimesis, or at least traces of
such a discourse. In this respect, we can read Plato’s sophist having the photograph in mind as a particu-
larly troublesome image. Philosophy is here a hunt to track down the sophist. The example of the image
is used to get closer to what the sophist does. In the dialogue, he is never present as a speaking subject.
He is the absent one made present by the words of Plato’s characters. He never speaks as such, but is
spoken in the interchange between ‘the Master’, ‘the Stranger’ and the pupil, Theaetetus. The example
of the image is a tool to identify the sophist as an imitator of some kind. The sophist is like the painter:
he pretends to know everything and teach everything just as the painter can reproduce anything:

And so we recognize that he who professes to be able by virtue of a single art to make all
things will be able by the painter’s art to make imitations which have the same names as the
real things, and by showing the pictures at a distance will be able to deceive the duller ones
among young children into the belief that he is perfectly able to accomplish in fact whatever
he wishes to do.
(Plato 1921: 234b)


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Olivier Richon

Would the truth of the image, like in the story of Zeuxis’ birds pecking at painted grapes, lie in its abil-
ity to deceive? But, we may ask, who is being cheated, who is this painter who wishes to substitute an
image for the thing itself? These characters do not solely exist in the metaphysical imagination of their
author. They are ironic pictures made of words, examples that enable philosophy to drag painting on
its own ground – on the side of knowledge and truth and away from the art of appearances which
characterizes image making (for instance, Lichtenstein 1993). The sophist is hunted with the example
of the mimetic image. In Plato’s dialogue, two sorts of imitations are distinguished: likeness making,
governed by the principle of resemblance, and fantastic art, where the image is an appearance. The
distinction between that which resembles and that which appears belongs to a method of division and
separation; it is a strategy which separates the pure from the impure, the model from the copy. In
Gilles Deleuze’s words, it is ‘a dialectic of rivalry’ (Deleuze 2001) where the division of a genre into
opposite species helps to select the good pretenders. The sophist (the bad pretender) is hunted down
by means of this dialectic of conflict. Placed as it were between resemblance and appearance, the
sophist is not merely compared with a false copy. By attempting to catch the sophist with the example
of the image, the Stranger and Theaetetus venture into a dangerous terrain where the very distinction
between the model and the copy is undermined: ‘In the cleverest manner he has withdrawn into a
baffling classification where it is hard to track him down’ (Plato 1921: 236d).
The image resembles its model when the art of likeness making follows ‘the proportions of the orig-
inal in length, breadth and depth’ (Plato 1921: 236d). The image appears without resembling when the
link with its model is absent, and when this absence is dissimulated. The fantastic art implies a perver-
sion of the relation between model and copy, as in this instance the image appears but does not resem-
ble. With resemblance, a thing resembles the idea of the thing. The idea is the genitor, the father of the
thing. The image shifts towards the fantastic when it does not pass through the hands of the father.
Appearing but not resembling, the image produces an effect of resemblance. It is not an illusion, as illu-
sion still relies on the distinction between truth and appearance, but the undermining of such a distinc-
tion. Appearance produces an effect of likeness and brings confusion between what is and what is not:

Stranger: Then what we call a likeness, though not really existing, really does exist?
Theaetetus: Not-being does seem to have got into some such entanglement with being, and
it is very absurd.
Stranger: Of course it is absurd. You see, at any rate, how by this interchange of words the many-
headed sophist has once more forced us against our will to admit that not-being exists in a way.
(Plato 1921: 240c)



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The Sophist and the photograph

In Pierre Klossowski’s novel, Roberte ce soir, Octave shows a photograph of his wife, Roberte, to
Antoine, his nephew:

Antoine: What an extraordinary scene … this young lady …

Octave: … whose skirt is starting to burn and who leaps away from the fireplace and into the
arms of a gentleman who has rushed up to her rescue and is snatching her burning clothes.
(Klossowski 1971: 19)

Antoine recognizes his aunt Roberte and is shocked that his uncle, instead of rescuing her, could
only think of taking a picture of the scene.

Octave: I tell you I had my camera out to photograph her giving her speech, and just as I was
ready to click the shutter the incident occurred …
Antoine: The accident Uncle Octave.
Octave: The incident, I tell you.
(Klossowski 1971: 20)

After a long dialogue on the nature of pure spirits, they return to the photograph, at which point the
nephew claims that he is less and less able to distinguish between incident and accident.

Octave: A simple accident you may call it, but something very different is contained in the
photograph. I might add that in other prints from the same negative there is no sign of any
fire: all that remains, but in a much more striking manner, is this extraordinary tangle of arms
and legs.
(Klossowski 1971: 42)

Is there a resonance between the image in The Sophist and the photograph in Roberte ce soir? The
opposition between what Antoine calls an accident and what Octave names an incident sets into
motion a dialectic between resemblance and appearance. As accident, the photograph is understood
as a good likeness: it is a record of what happened. There is a causal link between the image and its
model; fire is understood as naturally causing Roberte’s skirt to burn. As an incident, which Octave
insists it is, the image appears but ceases to obey a principle of resemblance. The photograph ceases
to be a good pretender, which simply imitates a reality preceding it. Its truth is nothing other than an
effect of resemblance.


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Olivier Richon

‘In other prints from the same negative, there is no sign of any fire,’ says Octave (Klossowski
1971). Fire is no longer what has caused the clothes to burn. Fire is now a sign, which functions as
a mask; it dissimulates ‘this extraordinary tangle of arms and legs.’ Fire is a rhetorical sign of
ambivalence. On one hand it provides a reason for the clothes to be removed and, on the other, it
acts as a veil for Roberte’s body. The image as appearance does not simply replace a good resem-
blance. It contaminates resemblance; and this is what always already threatens the good copy; this
is what the good mimesis attempts to repress in order to prevent the fantastic art from insinuating
itself everywhere.
Roberte is in the midst of giving a lecture and Octave produces a dissembling photograph of her.
This brings together the image of speech, Roberte lecturing in front of a small audience, and the
photograph as an image that appears but does not resemble, thus producing a rhetorical effect of
resemblance. It is no accident that the image of Roberte is linked to the dissembling image. The pho-
tograph produces diverging points of view – is it an accident or an incident? It manufactures what is
being seen rather than faithfully reflecting it. And it is the image of the unfaithfulness of Roberte that
fires the imagination of her husband, Octave, and the confusion of their nephew, Antoine. The pho-
tograph forms and deforms its subject. It also forms and deforms the spectator, who is part of this
apparatus of appearances. As signs, woman, image and sophist belong to a rhetoric of ornament, a
rhetoric that the lovers of metaphysical truth and defenders of nature consider as fundamentally
deceitful. Pharmacea, the nymph of the cosmetic arts, is in charge of Kosmetike: drugs, powders and
pigments; these are the materials for representation, which always already undercut the functioning
of the good copy. In this respect, a photograph is always already made up, even if, or especially if, it
appears to be just taken.
The sophist is ultimately tracked down when he can be classified as belonging to the dissembling
imitator. He is a manufacturer of appearances, denounced for simulating truth and dissimulating his
lack of knowledge. In other words, he is a mere imitator of the philosopher. And yet, he is also, per-
haps, indistinguishable from the philosopher. After all, the Stranger, the philosopher, has to manu-
facture the image of the sophist in order to track him down. He is not outside of the mimetic arts and
immune to their effects. He may end up being deceived and made ridiculous, like the ‘duller ones
among young children’ (Plato 1921: 236d). As Gilles Deleuze argues, the overturning of Platonism
begins with Plato himself. Parmenides was said to continuously repeat, ‘never let this thought prevail
[…] that not-being is’ (Plato 1921: 240c ).
Perhaps we could say that photographs enable us to think, beyond the Parmenidian prohibition,
the possibility that not-being is.


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The Sophist and the photograph

Olivier Richon, He tries to take cover in the various sections of the imitative arts, C Type photograph, 1995.


POP 1.1_symp_Richon_035-040.indd 39 3/8/10 8:24:50 PM

Olivier Richon

Deleuze, Gilles (2001), ‘Plato and the Simulacrum’, in The Logic of Sense, London: Athlone.
Klossowski, Pierre (1971), Roberte Ce Soir, London: Calders and Boyars.
Lichtenstein, Jacqueline (1993), The Eloquence of Colour: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical
Age, California: University of California Press.
Plato (1921), The Sophist, 234b, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard and Heinemann.

Suggested citation
Richon, O. (2010), ‘The Sophist and the photograph’, Philosophy of Photography 1: 1, pp. 35–40, doi:

Contributor details
Olivier Richon is Professor of Photography at the Royal College of Art, London. His work has been
exhibited internationally since 1980 and is in many public collections, including the Victoria & Albert
Museum, London; the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris; Museum Folkwang, Essen; the
National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; and the National Gallery
of New South Wales, Australia. Steidl published a monograph of his photographic work, entitled
Real Allegories, in 2006. He is represented by Ibid Projects, London.
Contact: Olivier Richon, Professor of Photography, Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London
SW7 2EU, UK.


POP 1.1_symp_Richon_035-040.indd 40 3/8/10 8:24:51 PM

POP 1 (1) pp. 41–47 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Symposium. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.41/7

University of California

Photography and ontology

Photography has two distinctly appealing properties that pin its claim to universality. On the one
hand, its mechanically-enhanced artistic powers can capture a moment, orchestrate an arrangement,
or populate an empty frame in the blink of an eye. We might call this its vertical or qualitative axis,
and plot any photograph’s success by whatever criteria we choose – the judgment of this or that
authority or our own judgment in kind. On the other hand, photography has its own technologically-
accelerated powers of reproduction and distribution, promising an image factory in every pocket or
handbag. We might refer to this as its horizontal, or quantitative axis, and plot the spread of photo-
graphicization by the megabyte, megapixel or cumulative ISO sensitivity. The first of these two prop-
erties makes its claim to universality in idealist terms and the second in materialist terms: one is
metaphorical, the other metonymical, one appeals through the aesthetic register of unity and the
other through the sociopolitical register of multiplicity. Because of this bipolar allure, photography’s
ontology is defined by a dynamic tension between the one and the all: between unity and multiplic-
ity. This article will consider one opportunity arising from the meeting of those extremes – a way in
which the ontological subject of Being might be re-imagined or redeployed – as a way into the ques-
tion of the philosophy of photography now.
Ontology is the study of being qua being or the underlying ground, network or spirit of all beings.
One long-standing suspicion about ontology is that it is nothing more than a figure for God because


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Blake Stimson

it assumes a monistic container for all beings with its singularized and transcendent capital-B ‘Being’.
This suspicion is fair enough, of course, but we might turn it on its head and say that by not attending
to ontological questions – by not attending to the figure of God, by not attending to the beliefs of
others – we miss the ways in which ontological horizons of knowing and experiencing the world
structure and determine the daily lives of all of us, whether we like it or not.
For example, regardless of his motives or sincerity, we might sense that the position taken by
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a 2006 letter to George W. Bush fairly represents the views of many and
thus deserved more than the casual dismissal it received:

Liberalism and Western style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of
humanity. Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the
sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic sys-
tems. We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal
point – that is the Almighty God.
(Ahmadinejad 2006)

Or we might have a similar suspicion about the disregard for kindred proclamations by Pope Benedict,
such as in his 2004 address to the Italian parliament when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger:

The victory of the post-European techno-secular world and the universalization of its lifestyle
and thinking have spread the impression – especially in the non-European countries of Asia and
Africa – that Europe’s value system, culture, and faith – in other words, the very foundations
of its identity – have reached the end of the road, and have indeed already departed from the
scene. […] There is a clear comparison between today’s situation and the decline of the Roman
Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice it
was already subsisting on models that were destined to fail. Its vital energy had been depleted.
(Pope Benedict XVI 2006: 66)

The problem for any substantive response to these sorts of statements from those of us in the ‘post-
European techno-secular world’ is not just a matter of belief – whether in God or liberalism – it is
best understood as a technical philosophical problem for ontology. That is, it is a problem of elabo-
rating the horizon of expectations that ensue from such beliefs in order to make sense of them, and,
in so doing, make them our own in some meaningful way.
Ontology has long been theology, political economy, and lots of other things but its import for us
lies not in its past but in its promise of a future convergence or reconciliation. Such reconciliations – of
the truth of God with that of liberalism, for example – are ontological because ontology only admits to


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Photography and ontology

a singular truth or category of Being. If liberalism remains outside its view of God, or God outside of
its view of liberalism, ontology fails. The ontological question, thus, is one of method. How do we get
to liberalism from a doctrinaire notion of God, or to God from a doctrinaire notion of liberalism?
Put differently, how do we loosen our grip on our most rudimentary concepts – not to give our-
selves over abjectly to competing principles but to draw the truth from ourselves and others into an
enlarged understanding that marks the path from the partisanship of being to the universality of
Being? How do we do so in a way that is not ideological – without simply claiming God-status for
our own views (in the manner of Ahmadinejad), or falling into liberalism’s ‘dictatorship of relativism’
(in the manner of Bush)? How do we move toward common understanding in the face of Holocaust
deniers like Ahmadinejad or those who would say, ‘there is no such thing as society’, as Margaret
Thatcher once did, or those who run roughshod over the ‘reality-based community’ like Bush and his
administration? How do those of us in the ‘reality-based community’ reconcile such challenges with
our monism, our ontology, our metaphysic, our God – ‘reality’, we might call that God, or ‘truth’, or
‘society’, or even ‘enlightenment’? What is photography’s philosophy for a shrinking secular Europe
in an increasingly religious world, or for the great civic institutions of modernity – democratic gov-
ernments, public universities, public museums, and the like – in the context of their loss of influence
to the ever deeper hold of private interests?
One way we might approach this problem is through the ontology of the image. Pictures are
usually richer than words and that greater density lends itself to a greater agglomeration or false
reconciliation of divergent meanings in ways long picked apart semiologically by the likes of Roland
Barthes, or, as Guy Debord and others were want to do, by unpacking the ‘social relationship
between people that is mediated by images’ (Debord 1994: 11). Pictures hide, confuse, obfuscate
and mislead, and ontology, with its own aggregation of meaning in the name of Being, is something
like the picture’s philosophical equivalent. But that same obfuscation can cut two ways – it can con-
ceal domination or it can cohere resistance, serve as an agent of hegemony or counter-hegemony,
lie or be the truth.
Something like this idea was the original premise of aesthetic theory as it developed in the eight-
eenth century and gave rise to the mature notion of enlightenment that would eventually ground its
understanding in the philosophical operation known as ‘the negation of the negation’. The picture
was to create a fuzzy, atmospheric world that could stand for one monism in lieu of another, one
metaphysic for another, rather than merely negating metaphysics altogether. Against the empiricism
of Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith, for example, and against the instrumental cog-in-the-machine
experience inaugurated by the Industrial Revolution, the picture proffered a thick, absorptive, every-
day aesthetics in the work of Chardin, Greuze and their like. Standing in for God or King or Leviathan
and against empiricism and proletarianization, ‘purposiveness’ was diffused and disseminated out-
ward from any specific purpose to a fuzzy and inclusive sensus communis or ‘general will’ or ‘general


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Blake Stimson

intellect’. The relative precision of words and numbers that was the province of both moral ‘practical
reason’ and science-like ‘pure reason’ would be dulled and dispersed by an image carrying a woolly
sentiment, intuition or conviction. The diffuse ‘purposiveness’ of beauty was cast against the pur-
poses of reason and morality, not simply to oppose them, but to overcome their false autonomy. In
so doing, the empiricism and rationalism of one world view – that life is a contained and directly
knowable system – and the moralism and legalism of another – life governed by an extra-systemic
authority that is not directly knowable – were pit against each other to seek arbitration in a dreamy,
monistic, everyday interiority. For our purposes, we can figure these two extremes as God and liber-
alism, Ahmadinejad and Bush, or jihad and the market, and cast the fuzzy middle drawing them
together as photography.
This dream of arbitration in the thick atmosphere of everyday life is evident everywhere in the
world of photography. The name we generally give it is ‘the snapshot’, but this is misleading in the
same way that it would be misleading to see a Chardin or a Greuze as simply mundane or everyday in
the horizontal rather than the vertical sense. Purely horizontal readings miss the ways that images can
generalize out of the particular. They miss purposiveness arising from phenomenality and the ways in
which the intercourse of object and subject can be indexed in a ‘decisive moment’ that attains to the
exceptional humanness-cum-godliness or sensus communis of the aesthetic. Words, numbers, and
concepts can generalize as well as, or better, than images, but they do so by separating meaning from
phenomenal experience, from the material sensuousness of the world, thereby separating beholder
and beheld. Pictures are more reliant on sense experience than cognition and imagination. For this
reason they have long been the most convincing forces for myth making, for concealing contradiction,
difference, and multiplicity with a false unity or false ontology. But that same force can be used for
good as well as ill because pictures also have the capacity to overcome and supersede those false
ontologies by substituting an ontology of their own. With Marx we might call that ontology ‘dialectical
materialism’, or the ‘negation of materialism’s negation’. ‘Atheism’, he wrote in 1844, ‘no longer has
any meaning’ (Marx 1975a: 357). While it served the bourgeoisie in their pursuit of power, socialism’s
‘starting point’ is something different, even opposite: ‘the theoretically and practically sensuous con-
sciousness of man and of nature as essential beings’ (Marx 1975a: 357). Socialism, in other words, was
to be materialist Being not materialism tout court, or ‘the positive self-consciousness of man, no longer
mediated through the abolition of religion’ (Marx 1975a: 357). Something like this sensuous con-
sciousness of essential being was the great eighteenth-century dream for the image.
In order to pursue this dream, the image has to work both of its universalist axes with equal vig-
our. Photography is especially good at rooting down into the thick materiality of everyday life, but it
also lends itself with ease to floating back up into the generality of the sensus communis. Think of
Flickr and Facebook as a sea of faces, or imagine the seemingly infinite number of photographs
strewn about the Internet and the world beyond. This ontology-as-abstract-generality is, on its own,


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Photography and ontology

an empty shell, but therein is its strength as well as its weakness: in its emptiness it stands for a hori-
zon of meaning waiting to be filled with meaning, identity or purpose. This does not mean that the
horizontal register of photography stands in place of categories like society, nation, humanity, Being
and God, but that it exists as a material resource available to these categories. We might use one of
Alain Badiou’s terms such as ‘ontological material’ to give a sense of this raw, unformed potential
(Badiou 2006: 101). Marx once explained the opening provided by this material by saying that,
because ‘skill resides not in the worker but in the machine’ the ‘social spirit of labour obtains an
objective existence separate from the individual workers’ (Marx 1993: 529). Photography like indus-
try, in other words, has a life of its own: a ‘social spirit’ that poses both the threat of an ontology of
things, of Being as the condition of objects, and the promise of human self-realization or Being as the
experience of subject.
Benedict and Ahmadinejad give us one version of the former with their almighty, externalized
God that separates us from ourselves. So it is with liberalism as well, which locates its authority
within our world but still in a nature alien to our humanity. There are many statements we might call
on to conjure the full-blooded ontology of liberalism – by Bush or Thatcher, say – but this parody
(given by a fictional board director to a misguided critic of capitalism from the 1976 film Network)
does so with particular aplomb:

You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it! Is that
clear? […] You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no
nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third
worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immense,
interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, elec-
tro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels. It is the international
system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural
order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today!
And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU ... WILL ... ATONE!
(Lumet 1976)

Photography is still a ‘contest of meaning’, as the conventional wisdom had it at the end of the
cold war, but the most pressing battle line is no longer between materialism and idealism, and the
methods most needed are no longer rooted in semiotics and social history. Just as Marx shifted his
attention from atheism to its positive transcendence, so the time is ripe for our own negation of
materialism’s negation. The battle today is between competing ontologies – the contest over what
Marx called ‘the generalized theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popu-
lar form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement


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Blake Stimson

and universal basis of consolation and justification’ (Marx 1975b: 244). There is no greater figure
today for that universal basis than photography. This is why the question of its philosophy is so
vital. We might put the challenge this way: how to see our imagery of everyday life in the way the
eighteenth-century European bourgeoisie saw theirs; how to experience it vertically with all the
absorption of a Chardin or Greuze, rather than horizontally as if it were merely the stuff of dollars
and things? How to experience the world through the eyes of living, breathing social subjectivity
rather than through those of a dehumanized object at the mercy of Ahmadinejad and Benedict’s
almighty God or liberalism’s ‘atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things’? Because it is
so deeply enmeshed in daily life, because it is so intricately intertwined with our modernity,
because it is so central to our self-imagining, because it is increasingly the lingua franca of our
globalizing world, photography may now be a question of greater consequence for philosophy
than any other.

Ahmadinejad, Mahmoud (2006), ‘La Lettre de Mahmoud Ahmadinejad à George W. Bush’, Le
Monde, 9 May,,1-0@2-727571,36-769886@51-677013,0.
html. Accessed 21 September 2009.
Badiou, Alain (2006), Theoretical Writings: London: Continuum.
Debord, Guy. (1994), Society of the Spectacle, New York: Zone Books.
Lumet, Sidney (dir.), Paddy Chayefsky (screenplay) (1976), Network, US: MGM.
Marx, Karl (1975a), ‘Private Property and Communism’, in Early Writings, London: Penguin.
Marx, Karl (1975b), ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, in Early Writings,
London: Penguin.
Marx, Karl (1993), Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, London: Penguin.
Pope Benedict XVI, Marcello Pera, George Weigel and Michael F. Moore (2006), Without Roots:
The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, New York: Basic Books.

Suggested citation
Stimson, B. (2010), ‘Photography and ontology’, Philosophy of Photography 1: 1, pp. 41–47, doi:

Contributor details
Blake Stimson teaches Art History and Critical Theory at the University of California, Davis. His
research explores the social and political legacy of the eighteenth-century aesthetic ideal, particularly


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Photography and ontology

the role played by photography, art, and criticism in framing that ideal for the world we find our-
selves in today. Recent publications include The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation, The
Meaning of Photography (co-edited with Robin Kelsey), Collectivism after Modernism: The Art of Social
Imagination after 1945 (co-edited with Gregory Sholette), and Institutional Critique: An Anthology of
Artists’ Writings (co-edited with Alexander Alberro).
Contact: Blake Stimson, Professor of Art History, University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue,
Davis, CA 95616, USA.


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POP 1 (1) pp. 48–53 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Symposium. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.48/7


Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Photo-filmic images in contemporary

visual culture

Over the last two decades studies on the interaction between the photographic and the filmic image
became increasingly popular. This new orientation is partially based on the insight that the ontologi-
cal difference between film and photography, usually claimed by scholars of photography theory and
film studies up to the 1990s, no longer holds in the digital era. With the advent of digital technology,
the boundaries between the photographic and the filmic image are constantly blurred, both techni-
cally – in drawing on the same software and hardware engineering – and perceptively – in leaving
the spectator in doubt of the (photographic or filmic) nature of the image. David Green, therefore, is
right when he supposes that ‘the distinctions between the filmic and the photographic, between the
moving and the still image […] will wither in the face of these profound shifts in the complex tech-
nology of the visual’ (Green 2006: 21).
Within this context, scholars in the fields of film theory (Bellour 2002, Stewart 1999, Mulvey
2006), photography theory (Green and Lowry 2006, Baetens 2009), cultural studies (Burgin 2006)
and, more recently, art history (e.g., Roman 2008) have gained a growing interest in the relationship
between photography and film. A preliminary culmination of this development can be seen in David


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Photo-filmic images in contemporary visual culture

Campany’s publication of the first reader on photography and cinema (Campany 2007) and in his
first succinct survey of the topic (Campany 2008). All of these studies attempt to reconsider the hith-
erto usual distinction between the photograph as still and the film as moving image.
In this sense, film studies today concentrate on the role that photographic images play in film in
terms of the construction of meaning as well as with regard to the perception of films. The following
questions are stressed: what happens when photographs appear in a filmic narrative? Which is the rela-
tion between the single photograph as the basic unit of a film and the film as a whole? Finally, how do
filmic techniques based on photographic material or photographic effects, such as the freeze frame, affect
the perception of a film? Almost all of these studies focus on the occurrence of photographic images or
effects within film in order to investigate the consequences for the filmic narration (Stewart 1999) and the
effects on the spectator (Bellour 2002). Most of these studies argue that the sudden arrest of time in film
caused by the appearance of photographic images allows the film ‘to image itself’ (Green 2006:19).
As photography interrupts the narrative flow of film, it gives the spectator the occasion ‘to stop
and look and think’ (Mulvey 2002: 114), or to put it otherwise: to become a ‘pensive spectator’
(Bellour 2002). Catapulted out of the narrative, the spectator becomes aware of what she is looking
at. Actually, self-reflexivity – ‘the film images itself’ – is one of the most popular arguments in the
discourse about hybrid images, not only in film studies but also other fields such as photography
theory and art history.
For the latter two disciplines, the concept of reflexivity is connected to medium specificity.
Whereas modernist art critic and theorist Clement Greenberg holds that a particular medium has to
be defined on the basis of its own features (which are unique to its nature), hybrid images belong to
the category of the ‘post-medium’ (Krauss 2000) which puts into crisis the very idea of medium spe-
cificity. From this perspective, hybrid images are seen as a symptom of a crisis of the medium pho-
tography (Baker 2005) or even its obsolescence (Krauss 1999). The insight that ‘the perceptions of the
differences between one medium and another may ultimately prove most important’ (Green 2004: 21)
in order to define what, finally, a medium is, gave a new dialectical impulse to the discussion of
medium specificity. At this point, digital crossovers between film and photography in artworks are
supposed either to ‘generate a new mutated medium’ (Vanderbeeken 2009: 151) or to constitute a
dialectical devise where one medium mirrors the other, ‘allowing the distancing of a practice and the
questioning of its qualities’ (Roman 2008: 16).
Within these debates on reflexivity and medium specificity, social, historical and economic issues
become increasingly more important. Basic impulses come from recent media theories, according to
which a medium is not an autonomous entity manipulating, if not generating, a message by its spe-
cific physical and formal properties, but a ‘social practice’ (Williams 1977) of which the definition
depends upon historical, social and economic contexts (Baetens 2009: 93). In this socio-historical
perspective, it is commonly held that a medium is not defined by its own properties but always in


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Alexander Streitberger|Hilde van Gelder

alliance with and in contrast to another medium by means of interaction, rivalry and mixed influ-
ences (Bolter and Grusin 1999). The consequences that arise from this, concerning the relationship
between photography and film, have only been discussed in a very rudimentary manner and remain
within the boundaries of the classical fields of disciplinary research where, as already mentioned,
medium specificity and reflexivity are still crucial issues.
As a notable exception, Victor Burgin is one of the few authors discussing photo-filmic images not
from a specific discipline’s point of view but in a general context of visual culture (Burgin 2006). According
to him, a film is not only what one sees in cinema, but is perceived as a complex heterogeneous environ-
ment composed of the actual film, advertising images, trailers, photos, etc. – images which can be found
in public space as well as in the mass media (television, glossy journals, the Internet, etc.).

Terminological considerations
A certain discomfort can be observed in the terminological vagueness or ambiguity when hybrid
images between photography and cinema, still images and moving images, are discussed. Bellour
coined the term entre-image in order to define photographs appearing in film or freeze-frames as a
physical and mental space of passages from the photographic to the filmic realm. For him video tech-
nology became the very agent between these realms for its capacity to stop and to repeat filmic
images (Bellour 2002: 14). David Campany agrees with this position in saying that ‘in the presence of
video photography began to lose this monopoly on stillness and immediacy’ (Campany 2003: 189).
Both Bellour and Campany draw on an evolutionary model wherein photography becomes obsolete
for the very reason that video technology takes over its most significant characteristics and functions.
In this light it is significant that Campany’s reader, which aims to survey the history of relationships
between the moving and the still image in photography and film, has the title The Cinematic, thus
emphasizing the pre-eminence of movement and film (Campany 2007).
Even if Green and Lowry’s term the ‘cinematic photograph’ (Green and Lowry 2009) is more
appropriate to express the passages between photography and film, their definition (referring only to
photographs staged and produced in order to imitate practices and production processes of cinema)
might be too narrow for defining the photo-filmic image in general. In this regard, Victor Burgin’s
concept of the ‘sequence-image’ is helpful. Whereas an image sequence is just a succession of still
images in order to evoke movement or narration, the sequence-image consists of filmic and photo-
graphic fragments we encounter in our everyday environment and which intermingle in the mental
space of perception and recollection (Burgin 2006: 21).
Placing too great an emphasis on one specific medium (cinematic, cinematic photograph), being too
vague (entre-image) or referring mainly to an environmental, psychological space of perceptions and
recollections (sequence-image): none of these terms is an appropriate designation of hybrid images


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Photo-filmic images in contemporary visual culture

which are structurally both/neither photographic and/nor filmic. In order to focus deliberately on the
hybrid character of the image itself and to avoid a hierarchical concept favouring one medium over the
other, it seems appropriate to call such hybrid images ‘photo-filmic’ images. Photo-filmic images are not
images where photography and film are both present in their own right, mutually reflecting one another,
but rather ‘multi-mediating pictures’ (Van Gelder and Westgeest 2009) in the sense that the shift involved
from the one medium to another is not a complete one. They layer, if not amalgamate, structures of
existing media (photography and film) in order to provide new images of and on the world.

Desiderata and new perspectives

In consideration of the fact that, notwithstanding the growing interest in the relationship between pho-
tography and film, no study exists on photo-filmic images as a general cultural phenomenon including
all domains of image production such as art, cinema, and the mass media; a research project which
distinguishes the different functions and uses of these images according to diverging contexts and uses
is urgently needed. Symptomatic of this gap are images that combine still (photographic) and moving
(filmic) elements, which are completely ignored in most of the studies on digital technology – even
though it was digital technology that led to an explosion of such photo-filmic images. Thus, technolo-
gies and computer programs conceived for the production of photo-filmic images such as morphing,
imovie, photosynth, etc. are not only omnipresent in popular media culture, since they are available for
every well-equipped computer user, but furthermore occur more and more in artistic productions where
they are used as tools to reflect on questions of visuality in general and the mass-media minded society
in particular. Morphing, for instance, a technique used to create on the basis of still – often photo-
graphic – images a fluent change from one face into another (e.g., James Cameron, Terminator 2, 1991),
is not only a common special effect in science fiction cinema. It is also used by artists as a critical meta-
phor of post-human fantasies (Frank Theys, Technocalyps, 2006: see also Streitberger 2007), by pop
stars in video clips to visually accompany their music (Fat Boy Slim, The Rockafella Skank, 1998), by
Internet bricoleurs to create an amusing visual pun for diffusion on YouTube (Michael Jackson’s Face,
2009), and, last but not least, by criminologists to reconstruct the physical appearance of criminals.
Even if it is widely accepted that the profound shifts in the complex technology of the visual
caused by the digital evolution challenge the traditional distinctions between the filmic and the pho-
tographic, there is no comprehensive study yet on the very consequences of this shift concerning the
changed conditions of the production, the presentation, the use and the reception of photo-filmic
images. Actually, most studies on the relationship of photographic and filmic images still stick to a
position that, firstly, tackles the photo-filmic as a mere conjuncture of two existing, principally distin-
guishable mediums (viz. photography and film) and, secondly, stays within the boundaries of disci-
plinary research.


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Alexander Streitberger|Hilde van Gelder

We therefore plead for a comparative, interdisciplinary approach that takes into account the
photo-filmic as a phenomenon of contemporary visual culture as a whole. From this point of view,
photo-filmic images not only entail a profound shift in our contemporary visual culture but, more
specifically, are at the very heart of these changes in terms of the production, the use, and the per-
ception of images.
Concrete steps towards a substantial study of photo-filmic representations could be:

• A comprehensive data collection constituting an archive of photo-filmic images

• Surveys amongst producers, users, and consumers of photo-filmic images considering the diverg-
ing contexts of their destination and reception
• Evaluation of the discourses on the photo-filmic including scientific studies in different disciplines
such as art history, photographic theory, film studies, visual culture studies, computer science as
well as ‘popular’ debates (newspapers, the Internet), and journalistic and practice-oriented dis-
cussions in professional journals and accounts/papers of (software) producers.

Baetens, Jan (2009), ‘Introduction’, Visual Studies, 24: 2, pp. 93–96.
Baker, George (2005), ‘Photography’s Expanded Field’, October, 114, pp. 120–40.
Bellour, Raymond (2002), L’Entre-Images. Photo. Cinéma. Vidéo, Paris: Les Éditions de la Différence.
Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard (1999), Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge,
Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Burgin, Victor (2006), The Remembered Film, London: Reaktion Books.
Campany, David (2007), ‘Safety in Numbness. Some Remarks on Problems of Late Photography’, in
David Campany (ed.), The Cinematic, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp. 185–194.
Campany, David (2003), Art and Photography, London: Phaidon Press.
Campany, David (2008), Photography and Cinema, London: Reaktion Books.
van Gelder, Hilde and Westgeest, Helen (2009), ‘Photography and painting in multi-mediating pic-
tures’, Visual Studies, 24: 2, pp. 122–131.
Green, David (2004), ‘The Visibility of Time’, in Susanne Gaensheimer (ed.), David Claerbout, exhibi-
tion catalogue, Lenbachhaus München, Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung König, pp. 19–45.
Green, David (2006), ‘Marking Time: Photography, Film and Temporalities of the Image’, in David
Green and Joanna Lowry (eds), Stillness and Time: Photography and the Moving Image, Brighton:
Photoworks/Photoforum, pp. 9–21.
Green, David and Lowry, Joanna (2009), ‘Photography, cinema and medium as social practice’,
Visual Studies, 24: 2, pp. 132–142.


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Photo-filmic images in contemporary visual culture

Krauss, Rosalind E. (1999), ‘Reinventing the Medium’, Critical Inquiry, 25: 2, pp. 289–305.
Krauss, Rosalind E. (2000), A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Post-Medium Condition, London:
Thames and Hudson.
Mulvey, Laura (2002), ‘The “pensive spectator” revisited: time and its passing in the still and moving
image’, in David Green (ed.), Where is the photograph? Brighton: Photoworks/Photoforum,
pp. 113–122.
Mulvey, Laura (2006), Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, London: Reaktion Books.
Roman, Mathilde (2008a), ‘Cultivating the in-between’, in Mutations II – Moving Stills, exhibition
catalogue, Paris: Maison européenne de la photo Paris, pp. 12–19.
Roman, Mathilde (2008b), ‘Against the frame – réflexions sur le photo-filmique’, Cadre, seul, limite,
Université libre de Bruxelles Brussels, Belgium, 5 December.
Stewart, Garrett (2000), Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis, Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.
Streitberger, Alexander (2007), ‘Technocalypse de Frank Theys’, in DITS, Musée des arts contempo-
rains MAC’s Grand-Hornu, 8–9, pp. 210–227.
Vanderbeeken, Robrecht (2009), ‘Media art and the resurrection of an image: motion and sculptu-
ring’, Visual Studies, 24: 2, pp. 149–162.
Williams, Raymond (1977), Marxism and literature, Oxford: Oxford University press.

Suggested citation
Streitberger, A. and van Gelder, H. (2010), ‘Photo-filmic images in contemporary visual culture’,
Philosophy of Photography 1: 1, pp. 48–53, doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.48/7

Contributor details
Hilde van Gelder is Professor of Contemporary Art History at the KULeuven (Belgium). She is direc-
tor of the Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography ( She is
also Editor of the ‘Lieven Gevaert series’ (University Press Leuven) and Editor of Image [&] Narrative
( Together with Helen Westgeest (University Leiden), she is currently
finishing a book manuscript on Photography Theory in Historical Perspective, to be published by
Blackwell Publishing late in 2010.
Contact: Hilde van Gelder (Prof. dr.), Associate Professor, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
Faculty of Arts, Art History, Blijde-Inkomststraat 21, postbus 3313, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium.


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POP 1 (1) pp. 55–57 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Encyclopaedia. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.55/7


MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, Kings College London

Imaging firing synapses

Most people are familiar with computer-generated images of neurons forming circuits within the
brain, often animated to spark with electricity as they pass information between each other via syn-
apses. Few may realize that what is illustrated here is a real image of that same thing. In it, part of a
living neuron can be seen in green with its synapses in red and the electrical signal generated at the
synapse in white. As a picture of a living neuron it may be aesthetic or seem impressive, but these
appearances are coincidental to its scientific-use value.
When imaging neurons for the purpose of scientific research there are three main obstacles.
Obviously the first is scale: a synapse formed on a neuron is around one thousandth of a millimetre
across. This is why digital microscopes, which magnify up to 100 times, using lasers as a light source
to image one pixel at a time, are needed to get the resolution required. Secondly in order to study
tiny compartments or single molecules within the neuron, a range of fluorescent dyes have been


POP 1.1_2_ency_Key_055-058. indd.indd 55 3/13/10 7:03:56 PM

Louise Kay

Louise Kay, Cell 12b, 2009.


POP 1.1_2_ency_Key_055-058indd.indd 56 3/8/10 8:28:51 PM

Imaging firing synapses

developed, each requiring a different technique for application. Lastly, most research into how synapses
function requires that the electrical activity be measured by placing an electrode in a single neuron
and passively listening to the activity of the neuron. Recent advances now mean that a laser can be
used to manually activate one synapse at a time.
One of the aims of my research is to combine all these techniques to gain more understanding of
how a single synapse works. The image above depicts a single neuron injected with a green fluores-
cent dye. It was taken one pixel at a time and digitally reconstructed: applying a red dye that is
absorbed by active synapses shows the synapses formed on this neuron. Overlain in white are traces
of the electrical current that flows when each of the indicated synapses is activated using a laser.
In order for an image constructed in this manner to acquire scientific meaning, it has to be decon-
structed into numbers. The image is a spatial organization of information that allows a range of types
of measurements to be made. For instance, it enables me to measure distances between synapses, to
chart their location and relate this to their function. Each layer of colour gives a quantitative measure
of how each synapse is working. We know that the morphology of the neuron at the site of the syn-
apse regulates the natural passage of information from neuron to neuron. Some synapses are better
than others at passing information to the next neuron and these take up more of the red dye, so, in
the image, the intensity of red indicates the strength of the input message. At each synapse the abil-
ity of the next neuron to receive information differs: synapses that are better at this will show a larger
deflection in the current in white. Every aspect of this image represents how the neuron functions
and can be transformed into numbers for quantification. It is these numbers that I work with.
This image, like many generated by scientific research, is a by-product. Its meaning emerges out
of the process of its conversion into numbers, which is what sheds light on how a synapse functions.
In many cases the original images are never displayed or used, despite the laborious process of their
production. One might, however, keep and display them, if only to show that it is possible to take
images of a live and functioning neuron and also, perhaps, to explain how and why biology con-
structs and deals with images.


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POP 1 (1) pp. 59–68 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.59/1


Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University

Infinite exchange: The social ontology

of the photographic image

Keywords Abstract
social ontology This paper approaches the problem of the ontology of the photographic image ‘post-digitalization’ historically,
the photographic via a conception of photography as the historical totality of photographic forms. It argues, first, that photog-
digital image raphy is not best understood as a particular art or medium, but rather in terms of the form of the image it
post-digitalization produces; second, that the photographic image is the main social form of the digital image (the current his-
photographic form torically dominant form of the image in general); and third, that there is no fundamental ontological distinc-
social form tion regarding indexicality between photographically generated digital images and those of chemically based
value form photography. ‘The anxiety about the real’ produced by digital imagery has its origins elsewhere, in the onto-
use value logical peculiarities of the social form of value in societies based on relations of exchange. Distinguishing
social exchange


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Peter Osborne

between the ‘event of capture’ and the ‘event of visualization’, it is argued that it is in its potential for an
infinite multiplication of visualizations that the distinctiveness of the digital image lies. In the digital image,
the infinite possibilities for social exchange generated by the abstraction of value from use finds an equivalent
visual form.

What does it mean to speak of photography from the standpoint of philosophy? The difficulty derives
as much from the idea of a unitary philosophical standpoint – however abstract – as it does from the
rapidly changing nature of the photographic, which now famously threatens any discourse about
photographic ontology. Philosophy is riven from within by disagreements about its purported disci-
plinary autonomy, status and form, and hence its standpoint in relation to other fields of enquiry. It
is split, in particular, by disagreements about the legitimacy of philosophizing beyond, even against,
philosophy itself (Adorno 1967: 235); and these disagreements are necessarily reflected in different
ways of philosophizing about ‘photography’.
Suffice to say, in the 200-year dispute between those who attempt to separate out philosophy as
the critical self-consciousness of reason from the experience of objects, and those who would conjoin
them in the notion of the construction of a critical experience of objects, I side with the latter. To speak
about photography from the standpoint of philosophy, from this point of view, it is also necessary to
speak about philosophy from the standpoint of photography. That is to say, one cannot subtract the
historical character of the image from the image of thought. At one time, it was considered useful to
oppose the photographic image of thought of a reified Cartesian consciousness (by which objects are
‘frozen’ into things in order to be made ‘available to science and practice as things for others’) to the
filmic image of a dialectical thought (in which the details of individual moments of an object are sub-
jugated to the rhythm of the movement of thinking) – Adorno described Hegel’s dialectics as ‘films
of thought’ (Adorno 1993: 100, 121). Yet today, with digital technologies of image production, this
distinction is itself outmoded. The attempt to rethink the nature of the photographic image, post-
digitalization, has consequences for the reimaging of thought and hence for philosophy itself. It is
also bound up with the concept of art, in its generic, post-medium form. In what follows, I approach
the concept of photography and the notion of the photographic image at once historically, philo-
sophically and via their relations to the concept of art.

Photography, art, digitalization

It is a familiar feature of the history of the relationship between photography and art that it has at least
as much to tell us about art, in general, and the consequences and limitations of particular conceptions
of art, as it does about photography and its artistic possibilities and limitations. Indeed, if there is a


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Infinite exchange: The social ontology of the photographic image

single practice in relation to which the development of the concept of art over the last 150 years is most
often narrated, it is undoubtedly, I think, photography. By which I mean photography in its expanded
(and still expanding) sense as the historical totality of photographic forms, or types of images produced in
one way or another by the inscription of light: predominantly, until recently, chemical photography, of
course, but also film, television, video and now – absolutely, I shall claim – digital photography, as well
as photocopying and scanning, and even microwave imaging, infra-red, ultra-violet and short-wave
radio imagery (Osborne 2003). Given this historical diversity of technologies, there is no more reason to
privilege the chemical basis of traditional photographic image-creation in the delimitation of the param-
eters of the concept of photography than there would be to constrict the parameters of ‘painting’ by the
chemical composition of pigments used during the Renaissance. Photography, like art, is a historical
concept, subject to the interacting developments of technologies and cultural forms (that is to say,
forms of recognition); increasingly, developments within photography, along with digital-based image
production more generally, are driving the historical development of art. This is so not just reactively, as
was initially mainly the case in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twen-
tieth century (in the transformation and internal retreat of other forms of representation), but affirma-
tively, in the use of photographic technologies to produce ‘art’ of a variety of kinds.
The question of the relationship of photography to art may thus be posed in two different ways:
(1) synchronically or conjuncturally, at some specific time in their related histories (specifically, for us,
now), and (2) diachronically, as a narrative question about the relationship between two histories: in
terms of the possibility of some unitary narrative, which might contribute to the intelligibility of each.
Both of these methods presuppose a position on the other. What is not helpful, I think, is to seek an
answer to the question of the relationship between photography and art in general, as if they were not
historical concepts, in the manner of an analytical philosophy of art. Nonetheless, the existence of a con-
stitutive historical dimension to these concepts does not mean that we need be positivists about history,
and deny an ontological dimension to photography or indeed to art, or downgrade it to the status of
what Jean-François Chevrier calls an ‘impoverished’ ontology (Rancière 2009: 12–13) – anymore that the
existence of art institutions, socially delimiting the field of art, means that we need be positivists about
institutional form. Rather, both photography and art can be meaningfully discussed within the discourse
of historical ontology. This is the philosophical basis and field of the remarks that follow.
The photographic present is, clearly, digital. I shall thus address myself to the question, ‘What, if
anything, does digitalization tell us about the nature of photography?’ and more specifically, ‘What
does digitalization tell us about the nature of photography as a form of art?’ Please note, I say ‘form
of art’ and not ‘medium’ because I wish to problematize (indeed, to reject) the assumption that what
may legitimately be called ‘photography’ today displays the unity of a ‘medium’, in the sense adopted
and developed by modernist formalism: namely, a specific combination of material means and con-
ventions governing practices of production. In the light of this, the critical-philosophical task would


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Peter Osborne

be to update or redefine our conception of that medium under the changed technological conditions
of ‘digitalization’. Certain photographic practices may exhibit such a unity, but, first, this unity is not
that of the photographic tout court; and, second, more importantly, nor is it of any ontological sig-
nificance for the status of those practices as art – in the way in which, within modernist formalism
and before, the art-status of a particular practice was taken to derive from its being an instance of a
particular art – where ‘art’ is understood as the art of a particular medium.
My thesis is that the photographic is not best understood as a particular art; it is currently the
dominant form of the image in general.
The problem with the concept of medium is that it mortgages discussion of the relationship of
photography and art to a particular problematic critical tradition (modernist formalism). Not only is
this tradition inadequate to the comprehension of nearly all the most significant developments within
the visual arts over the last fifty years (as well as in the second and third decades of the twentieth
century); it has also come to function philosophically as the historical ground for the revival of a
(broadly Kantian) aesthetics of contemporary art, and thereby, the perpetuation of a fundamental
conflation of ‘aesthetics’ with the philosophy of art (a conflation which, historically, photography
played a central role in breaking up). A philosophical approach to the concept of photography, and
its relations to art, thus raises, in the first instance, the question not of an aesthetics of the photo-
graphic, or even ‘aesthetics after photography’, but rather of ‘art after photography’. This is not to say
that there is no aesthetic dimension to photography (or to contemporary art), but only that it is not
the criterion of art status. Contemporary art is not aesthetic art, in anything like Kant’s sense. The
question ‘What, if anything, does digitalization tell us about the nature of photography as an art
form?’ should thus be reposed, even more generically, as ‘What, if anything, does digitalization tell
us about the nature of photography in art?’
I say ‘the nature of photography in art’, rather than ‘the nature of photography as art’, since the
latter in no way exhausts the former. Photography plays an important role in contemporary art beyond
what we may call photographic art, or what others might still want to call ‘art photography’ – as an
element or component of a wide variety of different kinds of installation work, for example. One of the
most important, unresolved critical questions of the day concerns the relationship between these dif-
ferent kinds of practice: that is, whether they can be subjected to a single overarching critical problem-
atic; and what the consequences are for the concept of art if they cannot. ‘Art’ is therefore a
fundamentally bifurcated field, in which two quite different sets of critical conditions apply – as has
been suggested recently by Jeff Wall. The critical contest here is one between a conception of photog-
raphy as a pictorial medium and a conception of photography in art as the domain of the image in
general (Wall 2007; Osborne and Wall 2008).
In posing the philosophical question of photography in this way – ‘What, if anything, does digi-
talization tell us about the nature of photography in art?’ – my aim is to reposition the question of


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Infinite exchange: The social ontology of the photographic image

photography’s relation to contemporary art within a different critical history of contemporary art.
This is a history that is less centred on mediums, their multiplication, problematization and revival
(the current, belated second coming of medium-specific modernism; the hallelujah chorus of the
revival of ‘aesthetics’ as a philosophical discipline) and more centred on mediums, their multiplica-
tion, problematization and the definitive destruction of their ontological significance for art, by the
combination of performance, minimalist, conceptual and other related practices of the 1960s (of
which photography was a crucial constitutive part). Those practices changed the status and thereby
the character of the traditional ‘arts’ of painting and sculpture, and also – one must presume –
photography. This is a critical history that gives rise to a broad ontological characterization of con-
temporary art as a post-conceptual art.
The paradox here is that photography only gained generalized institutional recognition as an artis-
tic practice after the destruction of the ontological significance of medium in the 1960s – a destruction
to which photography made a distinctive contribution, primarily via its roles in the documentation of
performance and within conceptual art practice. Photography thus became a part of ‘art’ at the moment
that ‘art’ became post-conceptual. In this respect, one might say – contra Jeff Wall – that photography
is art to the extent to which it is itself a post-conceptual practice.

Digitalization and the real (or, anxiety about abstraction)

There is an ambiguity in the formulation ‘photography after digitalization’ which goes to the heart of
the complexity of the role of photography in contemporary art. It corresponds to the two-fold nature of
the traditional photographic process. For the phrase can be understood to refer to (1) the digitalization
of the act of photographic capture, in the sense of the translation of the distribution of intensities of light
on the sensor into the binary code of the data file, within the digital camera, in the ‘taking’ of a photo-
graph – the photographic ‘event’; and (ii) the digital condition of the production of an image from a data
file, the so-called ‘digital image’ (although the image itself – qua image – is not digital, of course, since
the image is a visually structured abstraction of elements of the physical process). These two processes
are disjunctive and hence potentially separable, since the data from which a digital image is produced
need not be the result of photographic capture, and so the so-called digital image is therefore not nec-
essarily photographic. It is the disjunction between these two processes that raises the possibility of the
manipulation and transformation of ‘photographic’ data, subsequent to the taking of a picture, prior to
its projection as an image – that is, computerized image processing. And it is this possibility that gener-
ates ontological concern – anxiety – about the ‘no longer indexical’ character of digital photographs.
There are a number of things to be said about this. The first is that the former of these two proc-
esses (the digitalization of the act of photographic capture) retains both the causal and deictic aspects
of photographic indexicality – and hence its crucial function of grounding reproducibility – but


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Peter Osborne

without the iconic aspect of perceptual resemblance previously associated with them.1 As Walter 1. I take David Green and
Joanna Lowry’s point
Benjamin showed, however, the key to the icon is not perceptual resemblance as such, but repro- here about the
ducibility: the semiotic replicability of the pictorial image is grounded in its means of reproduction neglected importance
(a ‘rule of construction’ (Pierce) derived from a law of production) (Osborne 2000: 40). The onto- of the deictic side of
this: the importance of
logical anxiety about the real generated by digital photography is in this respect misplaced. It the manner of pointing
derives, rather, from the disjunction between the two stages of the photographic process. Yet this to the event of
disjunction is also a feature of traditional chemical photography, in the disjunction between the inscription – ostension
as a constitutive,
negative and the print – each, in principle, as open to manipulation as a digital data file. Thus the performative feature of
difference does not concern the possibility of manipulation, per se, but rather its precise character photographic
indexicality. Green and
and quality; in particular, the extraordinary ‘fine grain’ manipulation that becomes possible at the Lowry 2003.
level of the pixel, which can be performed in such a way as to leave no visible trace – relative to
visual expectations governed by conventions of photographic realism. Nonetheless, artists (and
others) have been intervening in the mechanisms of the photographic process since its inception,
without generating the ontological anxiety about the loss of the real (loss of indexicality) that has
accompanied the advent of digital photography. So, one must think, perhaps something else is
going on here?
This anxiety appears irrational – which is, of course, no more than to acknowledge it as an anxi-
ety: a free-floating anxiousness about the real that has ‘latched on’ to digital photography as a cul-
tural site in which to invest, because of the social importance but current uncertainty about the
various documentary functions of photography. The basic source of such anxiety has nothing to do
with photography itself. Rather, I would speculate, it has to do with the nature of the abstraction of
social relations characteristic of societies based on relations of exchange; and, in particular, the rela-
tionship between social form and the value form (in Marx’s sense) – that peculiar sense in which, in
the parlance of current journalistic commentary, the most decisive sectors of the capitalist economy,
associated with finance capital, are not ‘real’. In late autumn 2008, the media incessantly repeated the
message that the world financial crisis had started to feed through into the ‘real’ economy. There
was, and is, something ontologically peculiar about this. For it is precisely the most real part of the
economy – in the sense of being the most determinative – finance capital, which is declared ‘unreal’
here. The troubling thing is that in societies based on generalized exchange, certain kinds of abstrac-
tion (money being the most famous example) are in fact real or actual in a manner that does not
correspond to the ontology of empirical realism that governs ordinary- language use of the term
‘real’ – hence the disjunction between the actually very ‘real’ economy of finance capital and every-
day individual perceptions of the ‘real’ economy. This is the famously ‘spectral’ or inverted ontology
of value familiar to readers of Marx’s Capital for well over 100 years now. The reason that I raise it
here is that, I propose, it is anxiety about the real generated by these peculiar social forms (within
which the most real appears unreal, and the apparently or empirically real has little determinative


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Infinite exchange: The social ontology of the photographic image

significance) that is displaced onto and invested in the problem of the referential significance of digit-
ally produced images. The fact that there is, in principle, no necessary visible indicator of the referen-
tial value of such an image mimics the structure of the commodity, in which there is no necessary
relation between use-value and exchange-value.
Philosophically, then, I propose, there is no particular ontological problem posed by digital
picture taking. There is, rather, a set of normative issues about the conventions governing the
processing of data in the interval between its ‘capture’ and its projection or printing, under techno-
logical conditions facilitating a generalized manipulation of the components of images. This de-
coupling of the photographic image from its indexical ground (which remains at the outset) has a
particular significance in the context of art, since art has been understood, philosophically, since
early German romanticism as a form of self-conscious illusion. Might it not be the growing self-
consciousness of the potentially illusory character of the photographic image, subsequent to its
digitalization, that makes it the form of image most appropriate to art as self-conscious illusion?
And is there not thus a strange convergence here, actualized in the digital image, between art and
the commodity form?

The visible, the invisible and the multiplication of visualizations

Insofar as there is an ontological peculiarity or novelty at issue here, it attaches to the digital image
per se, and not just the ‘photographically’ generated one – although most digitally produced images
are, as a matter of empirical fact, photographically based, in one way or another. It derives from the
lack of visual ‘resemblance’ between digital data and the projected or printed form of the image it
generates. Insofar as it makes any sense to talk of a digitally produced image as some kind of ‘copy’
of the data out of which it is made, it is a visible copy of an invisible original, since it is the digital data
that plays the role of the original here, rather than the situation or event that is depicted, which is its
more distant, shadowy source. This is quite different from the role of the negative as the mediator
between the act of photographic capture and the print. The contiguity of these two processes is rup-
tured by the ontological peculiarity, or self-sufficiency, of digitalized data. On the other hand, how-
ever, we might see this as little more than a variation (albeit also an intensification) of the essentially
theological character of the traditionally chemical-based photographic image itself.
As Boris Groys has pointed out, insofar as a digital image is a visible copy of an invisible original,
‘the digital image is functioning as a Byzantine icon – as a visible copy of invisible God’ (Groys 2008:
84). Groys, however, appears to take this theological structure to be distinctive of digital imagery. Yet
this is something it shares with the traditional photograph in a different form (Osborne 2000: 34–35).
What is distinctive about the digitally produced image is that it exhibits something like a de-temporal-
ization of the theological structure of the photograph, consequent upon its rupture in the continuity


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Peter Osborne

between the two stages of the photographic process. Its decisive difference lies in the attention it calls
to the multiplication of varieties of forms of visualization made possible by that rupture, within the
parameters of what are still, essentially, processes of replication.
In Barthes’ famous account in Camera Lucida, the temporal peculiarity of the photograph (as the
literal presence of the past) is understood to effect an ‘immobilization’ and ‘engorgement’ of time
(Barthes 1984: 91). This represents a naturalization of the theological structure of the icon, via time,
because meaning participates in the real through the becoming ‘carnal’ of light. In the digital image,
on the other hand, time is not immobilized or engorged so much as obliterated, insofar as any
ontological significance of the physical contiguity of digital data is negated by the rupture in its visual
form: its translation into binary code. It is this rupture that allows Groys to figure digital data as ‘invis-
ible’ and hence metaphorically God-like. But it is not just invisibility that figures divinity in this account
of the digital image but, ultimately more importantly, the creative potential of digitalized data to gener-
ate an in-principle-infinite multiplicity of forms of visualizations; although Groys does not quite put it
like this himself, since he is primarily concerned with the mediating role of the curator as ‘the per-
former of the image’ (Groys 2008: 85), rather than the infinite potentiality of the data that underlies
this role. (For Groys, it is digitalization that allows the curator to usurp the role of the artist.)
Invisibility and the multiplication of visualizations are linked insofar as, following the line of
thought of iconoclastic religions, it is precisely the multiplicity of visualizations that sustains the
invisibility of the invisible; since, were the invisible to be associated with a single, or even a few stable
visible forms, the invisible would become identified with them, and would henceforth be rendered
visible after all. It is thus the multiplication of possible forms of visualization/projection (screen, mon-
itor, wall, etc.) deriving from the generic power of digitalization to free itself from any particular
medium that, ultimately, distinguishes the digital image from its chemically photographic predeces-
sor. And it is this multiplication of possible forms of visualization/projection that allows Groys to
claim that, although the digital image remains in some sense a copy (a copy of its data), each ‘event
of its visualization is an original event’ (Groys 2008: 90). So here we have the ‘event’ again: not the
event of photographic capture, but the event of visualization. Originality thus migrates, or at least, is
doubled: moving from what it is that is copied (now, the data) to the form of the copy. This has sig-
nificant consequences for art practice, as well as for curation.
With regard to photography, though, we can say that the main function of digitalization is to place
photography within the generic field of the digital image. This generically digital-based field is the clos-
est thing there is to a material medium of the generic concept of ‘art’, characteristic of the post-concep-
tual artistic field. Indeed, one might go as far as to propose that the unity of the field of contemporary
art is secured (internally to its institutionality, which sets its ultimate, social parameters) by the possibil-
ity of the digitally mediated re-presentation of works. (Digital imagery, one might say, plays the role
projected for language – but which language could not play – within analytical conceptual art.)


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Infinite exchange: The social ontology of the photographic image

This is not a ‘dematerialization’ of art (or photography), however – always a misunderstanding of

art’s conceptual character – but a materially specific medium of generation of an in-principle-infinite
field of visualizations (the data file). If there is a meaningful site of ‘dematerialization’ at stake here, it
does not lie in the data file, nor in the conceptual dimension of the work (the originally postulated site
of dematerialization) – which is actually always tied to specific materializations – but rather (ironically)
in the image itself, insofar as the image is the name for the perceptual abstraction of a visual structure
from its material form. Via the multiplicity of visualizations, digitalization draws attention to the essen-
tially de-realized character of the image. It is this de-realized image – supported in each instance by
specific material processes – that strangely ‘corresponds’ to the ontological status of the value-form.
The return to medium – medium as a reactive response to an anxiety of its own (anxiety about the end
of mediums as ‘arts’, as a discrete version of anxiety about the real more generally), or, we might say,
medium as a mode of passive nihilism in art – is the dialectical counterpart to this de-realization of the
image. De- (and therefore potentially re-) realized images may be infinitely exchanged. This is the
social meaning of the ontology of the digital image, of which photography is now but one (albeit cru-
cial) kind. In the digital image, the infinity of exchange made possible by the abstraction of value from
use finds an equivalent visual form.

This article is a revised version of a paper presented to the 3rd Catalan Conference on Photography,
SCAN 09, Snapshots of the Theory of Photography, Tarragona, 15 May 2009, and published as ‘Filosofía
y Fotogafía: La Ontología Social de la Imagen’, in Pedro Vicente, ed., Instantáneas de la Teiría de la
Fotografía, Tarragona: Arola Editors, 2009. An earlier version of some parts was presented to the
workshop of the AHRC project ‘Aesthetics After Photography’, on ‘Photography as a Medium (Post-
digitalization)’, Senate House, University of London, 22 November 2008.

Adorno, Theodor W. (1967), ‘A Portrait of Walter Benjamin’, in Prisms (trans. Samuel and Shierry
Weber), London: Neville Spearman, pp. 227–41.
Adorno, Theodor W. (1993), ‘Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel’, in Hegel: Three Studies (trans. Shierry
Weber Nicholsen), Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Barthes, Roland (1984), Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (trans. Richard Howard), London:
Green, David and and Lowry, Joanna (2003), ‘‘From Presence to the Performative: Rethinking
Photographic Indexicality’, in David Green (ed.), Where is the Photograph? Brighton: Photoworks/
Photoforum, 47–62,


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Peter Osborne

Groys, Boris (2008), ‘From Image to Image-File – and Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization’, in Art
Power, Cambridge MA and London: MIT Press, pp. 83–91.
Osborne, Peter (2000), ‘Sign and Image’, in Philosophy in Cultural Theory, London and New York:
Routledge, pp. 20–52.
Osborne, Peter (2003), ‘Photography in an Expanding Field: Distributive Unity and Dominant Form’,
in David Green (ed.), Where is the Photograph? Brighton: Photoworks/Photoforum, pp. 63–70.
Osborne, Peter and Wall, Jeff (2008), ‘Art After Photography, After Conceptual Art: An Interview
with Jeff Wall’, Radical Philosophy, 150: July/August, pp. 36–51.
Rancière, Jacques (2009), ‘Notes on the Photographic Image’, Radical Philosophy, 156: July/August,
pp. 8–15.
Wall, Jeff (2007), ‘Depiction, Object, Event’, Afterall, 16: Autumn/Winter, pp. 5–17.

Suggested citation
Osborne, P. (2010), ‘Infinite exchange: The social ontology of the photographic image’, Philosophy of
Photography 1: 1, pp. 59–68, doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.59/1

Contributor details
Peter Osborne is Professor of Modern European Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Research
in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University, London and an editor of the journal Radical
Philosophy. His books include The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (Verso, 1995), Philosophy
in Cultural Theory (Routledge, 2000), Conceptual Art (Phaidon, 2002), Marx (Granta, 2005) and (ed.)
Walter Benjamin: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory (3 Volumes, Routledge, 2005). A Spanish
edition of his recent essays, El arte más allá de la estética: Ensayos filosóficos sobre el arte contemporáneo,
is forthcoming from CENDEAC, Murcia, March 2010.


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POP 1 (1) pp. 69–79 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.69/1

University of Wolverhampton

Philosophy, culture, image: Rancière’s


Keywords Abstract
avant-garde Jacques Rancière’s theory of the sensible is an attempt to frame and secure the relationship between
aesthetics politics and aesthetics, art and design ‘on the same surface’. Accordingly, the reconstruction of the sensible
sensible appearances of the world – of the built environment, of the ‘décor’ of the sensible, as Rancière describes
subjectivization it – is more than the negation of bourgeois appearances in the name of either a radical aesthetics or a
representation radical politics; it is, rather, the common invention of ‘sensible forms and material structures for a life to
pragmatism come’. In this respect Rancière’s theory has much in common with the historic avant-garde. Following the
constructivism of Rodchenko and El Lissitsky, representation here is not just the symbolic life of pictures,
but the very materiality of things and their relations. Yet Rancière has little time for the active politiciza-
tion of art, insofar this ‘destroys’, he asserts, the potential democracy of art. This leaves his ‘constructiv-
ism’ in a weakened critical position. This essay explores the hiatuses and limitations of Rancière’s cultural


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John Roberts

Modern continental philosophers – or more precisely modern French philosophers – have, histori-
cally, not been the best or most welcome judges of art. When they have not been hitching a ride on
the back of some blue chip reputation in order to stoke the fires of high-end conceptualization, they
have been scuttling around in artistic marginalia pursuing some unfathomable fancy, like a love-
struck teenager indifferent to the absurdity of their love-object. Top prize in the former category
goes to Deleuze’s hystericized Francis Bacon as grand master; symptomatic of the latter is the
kitsch-loving bathos of Derrida’s reading of Valerio Adami and Althusser’s strange paean to
Leonardo Cremoni, in which Cremoni’s forlorn domestic interiors populated by fragmented human
forms are identified with the ‘real abstractions’ of an anti-humanist project. This is why although
there is a great deal of philosophy of art and of philosophical writing on art, there is not much com-
pelling art criticism by philosophers. It is as if the desire to affirm philosophy as the site of art’s
coming-to-being drives philosophy into the very thing modern art and philosophy rightly mistrust:
the art enthusiast or aficionado. Most philosophical writing on art is either after-the-fact in its judge-
ments, or, through the speculative elision of concept and work, engaged in producing judgements
that are wildly capricious or irrelevant. This is largely a result of the fact that the movement of
philosophical thought from concept to artwork, and from artwork to concept, is rarely internal to
the conflicted labour immanent to the work of art and its relations to the conflicted labour of other
artworks. Artworks are invariably fitted up for scrutiny on the basis of their susceptibility to philo-
sophical abstraction, and not on the basis of the historicity of their technicity and form. (Ironically
this is precisely Derrida’s point in his critique of Heidegger’s reading of Van Gogh’s ‘peasant shoes’
(Derrida 1987).) Philosophy arrives at the doorstep of the artwork offering sustenance to what it
sees as art’s conceptually bedraggled and parched identity, whereas, on the contrary, it should be
attending to the thing that provides modern art with its identity – the internal violence of the art-
work’s historicity. This is why modernist criticism has always been sniffy and derogatory about phi-
losophers on art: philosophers lose sight of the contingency of the object’s making and therefore
lose sight of the significance of the artwork’s claims on the particular as against its exemplary status.
But, more pertinently, in the drive of philosophy to defend the extension or expansion of the art-
work through philosophical reflection, the artwork’s self-disablement or self-violation is rendered
amenable, and even opaque, to conceptualization.
This drive in philosophy to make the artwork amenable (as philosophical exemplum, as the
ground and bearer of abstraction) was one of Adorno’s preoccupations in Aesthetic Theory (Adorno
1984). And of course, it is Adorno, above all other modern philosophers, who could be said to have
avoided the stooge-like applications of philosophy to art. His focus on the emergence of the artwork
from the mediations of social and cultural division asked that the philosopher fashion his/her judge-
ments from a primary reflection on the ‘disfigured’ materials of these divisions. The virtue of this
model is that it rested on a conception of judgement and interpretation as immanent praxis. Or, more


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precisely, the work of judgement and interpretation must, in a process of a mimetic attentiveness,
embody the work of the artwork. Judgement and interpretation is wrested from the realms of reflec-
tion theory (criticism of the representational or epistemological adequacy between artwork and the
world) and repositioned in the realm of the vicissitudes of artistic labour. In this respect, Adorno
seeks to clarify why the intersection between the ‘labour’ of the artwork and the ‘labour’ of judge-
ment and interpretation secure a model of ‘best’ interpretative practice. The mimetic labour of judge-
ment, as the interpretation of sensuous particulars, enables the conceptualization of the artwork all
the way down.
This is a cursory description of Adorno’s theory of praxis, but it points to what the conceptual
labour of philosophy, might do, or has to do, if it is to do the work of art criticism against the
heteronomous effects of philosophical abstraction. It must provide an account of the artwork’s
particularity and internal relationality as the basis for a discussion of the problem of art’s social
form and visibility. In this regard Jacques Rancière is one of the few post-war French philosophers
to take up this labour on the social visibility of art, or something like it, to any real and substan-
tive effect. This is largely to do with the fact that, on the one hand, he has always seen himself as
a historian of social form (of cultural practices; of the labour movement; of the image) and that,
on the other – a rare thing for contemporary French philosophy – he is actually conversant with
post-war Anglo-American cultural and artistic theory, which, in its mediation of post-war French
theory has presented back to the theory of the image in French philosophy a series of highly
critical reflections on its various abstractions, and, as such, has provided one of the most produc-
tive frameworks for a critique of the dominant form of this abstraction in post-1960s French phi-
losophy: the subsumption of the image under the concept of ‘regime-thinking’. Early Barthes,
Althusser, Debord, Foucault, Baudrillard and Virilio – to name the most obvious – have all
ascribed, in their critique of the state-sponsored and market-organized technologically produced
image, a certain logic of conformity, instrumentality and systematic coercion. Indeed, a high pre-
mium has been placed in this canon on the ‘dead’ life of technologically produced and distributed
images: namely, such images make one culturally stupid or morally culpable, or both. Clearly
these writers enter this terrain from different political positions and exit it armed with different
philosophical and artistic outcomes, but broadly, they all follow the situationist notion of capital-
become-image, in treating art and the technologically produced image under post-war capitalism
as the effects of an exultant system of control and reification. Consequently, in this tradition the
popular image only ever asserts its specular and mythic rights; it rarely speaks back – and in turn
spectators rarely speak back – in defiance of its assumed supine, subordinate or monological func-
tion within this system.
Rancière’s familiarity with the critique of this kind of regime-thinking in Anglo-American cultural
studies is very important therefore, because it is precisely the engagement with the indeterminacies


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John Roberts

of spectatorship and the fissures of ideological interpellation in such cultural and artistic theory 1. Although this is not to
say there have been
since the late 1970s that has allowed Rancière’s critique of post-1960s regime thinking – in short major disputes over his
the society of the spectacle – to develop and find an audience outside of France. In fact, an inter- legacy, certainly pre- the
esting entwinement between Rancière’s work and the legacy of Anglo-American cultural studies 1990s. For an engaging
discussion of these
has emerged. Rancière’s early critique of Althusser and structuralism paralleled the rise of Anglo- conflicts within
American cultural studies’ critique of Althusser and the emergence of the notion of the ‘creative’ Anglo-American cultural
or ‘resistant’ consumer, and, as a consequence, as more of his books have appeared, we can see studies, see Adrian
Rifkin’s (2008) interview,
how much of his theory of counter-interpellation through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s has chimed ‘Adrian Rifkin on
with the counter-hegemonic theories and non-passive cultural subject of Anglo-American cul- Cultural Studies,
Rancière, Politics and
tural studies in the same period (for instance, compare Rancière’s work to John Fekete’s writing Queer Studies’ at, http://
from the early 1990s (Fekete 1991)). This is why Rancière is the nearest French philosophy after rancière.blogspot.
1968 gets to Anglo-American cultural theory, and why he has now become so well received in the com/2008/01/ignorant-
Anglo-American academy. Because, on the one hand, his work allows continued space for the philosopher.html. In
‘resistant’ spectator/reader, and on the other hand, he advances a strong methodological commit- Britain, Rifkin has been,
ment to the presence of philosophy in cultural theory and art theory and the presence of cultural since the late 1970s, one
of the key mediating
theory and art theory in philosophy.1 This means that, with respect to the above, there is an abid- figures between
ing commitment to working through the symbolic materials of cultural production as a working Rancière’s work and
cultural studies in
through of the demands of conceptualization. Yet, this is not to say his writing is, in the custom- Britain.
ary language of contemporary cultural theory, interdisciplinary, or that in advocating the inter-
2. The provocation and
penetration of philosophy, historical studies and cultural theory, he is engaged in the development irony of in-disciplinarity
of a theory of art, culture, and the image. As he has claimed recently, far from his work being is not to be underesti-
interdisciplinary, it is in-disciplinary in scope. ‘My problem has always been to escape the division mated, when the ruling
dispositif of regime-
between disciplines, because what interests me is the position of the distribution of territories, thinking, certainly in
which is always a way of deciding who is qualified to speak about what’ (Rancière 2008).2 The Debord and Foucault,
outcome of this is a practice of cultural theorization that stresses, above all else, that the produc- has been, precisely the
disciplinary function of
tion of meaning is not the ‘deepening’ or nuancing of explanation (providing a theory of a given the image.
artefact or form as the basis for making an authoritative or exemplary judgement), but about
making things ‘resonate differently’: leap, so to speak, from the host discipline or practice in
which the work or form is embedded, to other practices, other works of art and knowledge-bases
(Rancière 2008). Hence, the exercise of the critical powers of the philosopher/theorist is closer to
that of creative montage and dissensus. The job of the philosopher/theorist is not to provide a
historicist account of the work’s formation, or even a theoretical exegesis of its conceptual ramifi-
cations, but an articulation of its emancipatory or critical content for those – the non-professional
majority – who might appropriate it in their own interests. In this respect, despite his or her
‘expertise’, the work of the philosopher/theorist is to honour or enable the freely exercised powers
of the ‘common’ spectator or reader. What counts is how the philosopher/theorist opens up a


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space for the political subjectivization of the spectator/reader as someone who is able to con-
struct, ‘their own poem, their own film, with what is front of them; and then they “prolong it in
words”’ (Rancière 2008). On this basis Rancière’s position is clearly indebted to a tradition of
‘reader-response’ theory: the value of interpretation lies in how it enters the life-histories,
life-struggles and life-narratives of the spectator/reader; and in this sense the common spectator/
reader owes little or nothing to the approved skills of the professional interpreter, who, in his or
her customary eagerness to explain, blocks or deflects this democratic process. In a broad sense,
then, there is no hegemony of capitalist spectacle, because there are no spectators of the specta-
cle. Consequently, Rancière’s thinking is heir to a long line of dialogic-reception thinking, from
Valentin Volshinov, to Arnold Hauser, Jürgen Habermas, the Birmingham Centre for Cultural
Studies, and even the literary critic John Carey (Carey 1992). Essentially, popular cultural works
and works of art are transitive points in an endless and fluctuating conversation that has no prior
expectations or destiny. Yet, if Rancière is indebted to a notion of the ‘common’ spectator and
reader, this is accompanied by a particular ideological reticence in his understanding of the mod-
ernist counter-hegemonic role of art. This derives from a general unwillingness on his part – in
many ways antithetical to this legacy of reader-response theory – to countenance any partisan
ideological role for the artwork that the ‘common’ spectator and reader defers to, on the grounds
that the spectator and reader are, according to this logic, placed in the position of the passive
recipient of the work’s would-be critical beneficence. In other words, partisan critique in art – as
another invidious example of interpretative mastery for Rancière – further prevents the extended
conversation of cultural democracy taking place. Here Rancière inherits Adorno’s strictures on the
direct politicization of art and the limits of social critique, on the basis that the emancipatory
effects derived from such works are either vague and non-verifiable or utterly presumptuous and
after the fact. There is much to agree with Rancière (after Adorno) on this question: the belief in
the transparency or direct potency of social critique in art is a recurring leftist phantasm that has
historically overburdened the politics of art. Rancière’s solution to this problem, however, is very
different to Adorno’s – the linking of the re-functioning of art’s autonomy to an ethics of fidelity
on the part of the spectator to the work’s absolute singularity – namely, that the production of
conversation in response to the artwork – as a process of political subjectivization – is valuable:
less as a result of a collective process of critical position- taking, than as a free exchange of inter-
pretation as an instance of democracy in action. Producing one’s ‘own’ poem, film and artwork in
the act of reception, then, is where the real and abiding political (emancipatory) effects of art lie.
In other words, mimetic attentiveness for Rancière carries a primary fidelity to the quality of con-
versation the work generates, rather than to a defence of the singularity of the work itself. But
such strictures on ‘mastery’, politics and knowledge in art stores up all kind of problems, which a
commitment to the free-ranging ‘common’ spectator and reader cannot solve or obviate. This is


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acutely demonstrated in Rancière’s extended discussion of the image, photography and politics in 3. There is a certain
parallel on this question
The Future of the Image (2007) and The Emancipated Spectator (2009). of the ‘emancipated
spectator’ from below
and Dave Beech, and
The de-placed image my work on the notion
of the ‘cultured
In The Future of the Image and The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière attempts to fashion a different philistine’ in the
set of places – a different spatial logic – for cultural production and reception beyond the politics of mid-to-late 1990s.
Indeed, it might be
negation of Romantic anti-capitalism and the incipient nihilism of modernism and postmodernism, argued that our
which he sees as having dominated post-1960s regime-thinking on representation. This is an ambi- ‘philistine’ is far more
robust as a democratic
tious agenda, and accordingly his account of the image comes to mediate, more broadly, his political category of spectator-
commitment to his ‘out-of-place’ – or what I call his ‘de-placed’ – democratic subject. Thus what is ship than Rancière’s
under scrutiny is precisely where the relations between author, artwork, image, mass culture, spec- in-disciplined spectator,
insofar as, despite the
tator and politics might be properly and practically located. In this respect, at one level, Rancière fact that the philistine
follows Anglo-American cultural studies to the letter: the non-place or no-place attributed to the cannot be reduced to
work of art and to the critical spectator, and the uncultured status attributed to the mass cultural that of the proletariat in
name and number;
consumer in situationist and post-situationist thinking is a myth. There are no no-places, no hierar- nevertheless its sense of
chical positions determining absolute cultural competence, and, therefore, at the same time no in- its own defiant cultural
exclusion is defined by
different places occupied by interpretants.3 As a result he attacks the three most familiar cultural/ how the injuries of class
political solutions presented by artistic theory as a critique of the prevailing regime-thinking, namely: division and cultural
modernist historicism, or the belief that abstraction or non-representation presents an advance over exclusion shape its
the representational logic of the system as a whole (indeed it is an imperative in a world where all existence. Rancière’s
images circulate in the interests of capital, pace Lyotard); the dissolution of the distance between de-placed spectator, in
artwork and spectator in a celebration of unmediated festivity over spectacle (the critique of capital- contrast, is, in the
manner of classic
ism is essentially the critique of distance); and the notion that art is at its most political and persua- post-structuralism,
sive when it adopts an avant-garde role (art’s singularity lies in its continuous powers of negation). always trying to wriggle
out of the determina-
For Rancière all these critiques position art and the image in the wrong place, so to speak, in so far tions of collective class
as they all base their engagements and solutions on a false equation between, either, emancipation identity – largely
and the overcoming of apartness through the immediate or future rejection or suspension of media- because there is little or
no sense of shared class
tion, or, emancipation as the direct mediation into the social process as an overcoming of apartness; injury or loss to his
the notion of the artistic autonomy of the avant-garde as a pre-figuration of the eventual dissolution position. Workers and
of apartness itself. Neither pole addresses, in any fundamental way, the aesthetic labour required in the culturally dominated
always appear infinitely
the reordering and redistribution of the sensible, or common, forms of appearance as part of an creative and adaptable
emancipatory politics worthy of its name – preferring, in some sense, to withdraw art from the chal- in his schema, and
therefore free of the
lenges of cultural praxis. Accordingly, Rancière plots out his anti-specular cultural critique from an need to organize their
explicitly pragmatist position. In rejecting the idea that emancipation in art, or through art, is about creativity or sense of
the future bridging of the gap between artwork and audience (which the spectacle is held to exclusion around the


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Philosophy, culture, image: Rancière’s ‘constructivism’

real and symbolic reproduce), or the eventual closing of the gap between a politicized art and a depoliticized public
violations and
anti-cultural antago-
sphere, he dismisses the notion that art somehow needs to be in another place, a better place, in
nisms of their shared order for it to do its emancipatory work. If there are no no-places, then the available (representa-
class identity (which, in tional) places should determine the conflicted relations between author, artwork, and mass culture.
turn, is very different
from insisting, correctly So, for Rancière any theory of the image is always poorly served by the dualistic logic of the specta-
as Rancière does, that cle: reification and representational heteronomy on one side, the need for non-representation and
there are no inherent an anti-representational sublime on the other; or, in a corresponding fashion, capitalist propaganda
class hierarchies in the
measuring of intelli- on one side, the need for combative and partisan counter-transparency on the other. Such divisions
gence). (Rancière, simply hold the image in thrall to the limitations of the spatial ‘solutions’ of the three critiques of
Jacques (1991), The
Ignorant School Master:
the spectacle above: enhancing ‘distance’ as resistance, the overcoming of ‘apartness’ as resistance,
Five Lessons in and ‘transparency’ as resistance.
Intellectual Emancipation In contrast, therefore, Rancière’s pragmatism subordinates the life of the image to something that
(trans. and introduced
Kristin Ross), Stanford: Romantic anti-capitalism invariably rejects as superfluous and ideologically wasteful: mediatory work
Stanford University on representation as a form of cultural praxis. ‘If the avant-garde has meaning at all…it is on this side
Press.) To put it another of things’ (Rancière 2004: 29). But, following the constructivism of Rodchenko and El Lissitsky, rep-
way, workers might not
necessarily imagine resentation here is not just the symbolic life of pictures, but the very materiality of things and their
themselves as ‘poets’ relations. Accordingly, the reconstruction of the sensible appearances of the world – of the built envi-
rather than ‘workers’,
but as ‘poets’ and ‘work-
ronment, of the ‘décor’ of the sensible, as Rancière describes it – is more than the negation of bour-
ers’ (Beech, Dave and geois appearances in the name of either a radical aesthetics or a radical politics; it is, rather, the
Roberts, John (2002), common invention of ‘sensible forms and material structures for a life to come’ (Rancière 2004: 29).
The Philistine
Controversy, London However, if this schema clearly pays homage to the programme of the constructivists, Rancière is
and New York: Verso). also at pains to distance himself from the collective organization of this common programme. That is,
On a different note, we this is not a revolutionary programme fashioned into a version of the avant-garde’s total revolution-
might want to trace
Rancière’s de-placing to ary praxis. For Rancière there is no prospect or possibility of a ‘take over’ of the sensible; the avant-
Lacan’s insistence that garde’s insistence on apartness as a precursor to the dissolution of apartness similarly leads, in his
things we repeatedly
find in the same place
view, to the subordination of the sensible to an imposed emancipatory aesthetic/political programme.
‘don’t speak’: Lacan, On the contrary, the job of emancipatory culture – of in-disciplinary strategies and energies – is to
Jacques (1988), The provide a network of aesthetic production (in collaboration with political subjects) that intervenes in,
Seminars of Jacques
Lacan: Book 11, The Ego challenges and inverts the hierarchies and exclusions of the sensible, in shifting, motile and hetero-
in Freud’s Theory and in geneous ways. For Rancière this, the reorganization of the sensible across aesthetics and politics, is a
the Technique of continuous process of mediation on the exclusions and hierarchies of the sensible – hence the struc-
1954–1955 (trans. tural importance of de-placement to his schema of in-disciplinarity and the democratic spectator.
Sylvana Tomaselli, notes Equality lies neither in the imposition of a revolutionary schema, nor ‘having to use the terms of a
John Forrester), New
York and London: W.W.
message as vehicle’ (Rancière 2004: 63), but in the spaces for participation and exchange produced
Norton, p. 238. through the ‘improper’ collaboration between a common aesthetic programme and political subjects.
Cultural praxis and collective activity always proceeds through disunity and dis-identification.


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But if this has striking echoes of Anglo-American 1990s debates on the neo-avant-garde – with 4. Underwriting Rancière’s
conception of theatre is
constructivism defended as a kind of detoothed vanguard – Rancière has little interest in working his distinction between
within the given periodizations of modern art: realism, modernism and postmodernism. Rather, in what he calls the three
The Future of the Image and The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière’s de-placed image enters a long- different regimes of
representation in the
standing debate on his part on the importance of ‘theatre’ to this process of political subjectivization West, from classical
and to the formation of a (heterogeneous) common programme of aesthetics and politics. Indeed, Greece to postmodern-
subsumption of the reorganization of the sensible under the rubric ‘theatre’ has been crucial to all his ism. In the ethical
regime of image,
writing, and, accordingly, is central to the split he made with Althusser and structuralism in the identifiable with ancient
1970s, and has made latterly with post-situationist regime-thinking. Greece through to
By theatre Rancière means that process of making visible which determines any sequence of Europe, ‘art’ is not
political assembly or action (revolutionary or non-revolutionary) or artistic sequence, in the public identified as such, and
domain, and as such, which provides the basic conditions for the reconfiguration of the material consequently the image
is subject to an ethical
world. Thus ‘theatre’ is that space of many-spaces where the in-disciplinary is able to secure the regime in which no
passage of forms and the image between the different arts, but, more importantly, frame and secure distinction is made
the relationship between politics and aesthetics ‘on the same surface’ (Rancière 2007: 107). Theatre, between the work of
‘art’, the individual
then, has none of the pejorative and rebarbative connotations it has within post-war French phi- participant and
losophy. On the contrary, for Rancière, there is no politics without theatre, insofar as there is no community. In the
representative regime
struggle without the staging of struggle (or rather struggle as a staging), and as such theatre becomes of the arts, from the
shorthand for what survives in art and culture as a living principle of making speech visible. ‘What fifteenth century to
need would life in its pure similarity, life “not looked at”, not made into a spectacle have of speak- the early nineteenth
century, the image is
ing? ... Theatre is first and foremost the space of visibility of speech, the space of the problematic subject to various
translations of what is said into what is seen’ (Rancière 2007: 88).4 In this respect Rancière’s turn to hierarchical and proper
the pragmatism of the neo-avant-garde is but a short step away from a reflection on the determi- accounts of making,
showing and doing; this
nates of classical culture and neoclassical aesthetics. Rancière’s in-disciplinary spectator retraces enforces strict modes of
and re-positions the debate between text and image, poetry and painting, distance and propinquity apprehension between
the individual and
in spectatorship, which shape the classical reception of the arts from Horace to Walter Pater. That is, aesthetic community. In
Rancière’s notion of theatre is an attempt to re-periodize the modern from inside a longer sequence the aesthetic regime,
of reflections on aesthetics and the spectator, the visible and invisible, the sayable and unsayable. from the middle of the
nineteenth through to
Essentially, Rancière’s neo-avant-garde pragmatism is a kind of neo-Paterite defence of the neces- modernism and
sary passage of each art into the conditions of another art (what Rancière calls conversion), and the postmodernism, the
capacity of the spectator of art to construct a subjective view of the world. This is not as perverse as artwork is freed from
these arrangements,
it seems because, like Pater, Rancière is interested not in any universal schema for art, or any theory allowing artist and
of its medium specific attributes, but in pursuing and defending ‘aesthetic perception’ as an imagi- spectator to freely
determine the
native and active principle (Pater 1935). Indeed, Rancière and Pater thoroughly dislike all attempts boundaries of aesthetic
(enshrined in Gottfried Lessing) to lay claim to what is properly or improperly sayable in words, and community. Theatre,
properly or improperly made visible in images. then, is the mode


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Philosophy, culture, image: Rancière’s ‘constructivism’

proper to the ‘aesthetic To call Rancière a neo-Paterite, then, is to tax his understanding of the image with a highly aes-
regime’ of the arts,
insofar as there are no
theticized account of the neo-avant-garde. For although, Rancière is conscious of the implausibility of
generalized rule-follow- aesthetics as discipline and as an ideal horizon for modern practice, nevertheless it stands very much
ing modes or suitably as a placeholder – as in Pater – for an unnuanced attack on the Enlightenment. This leaves Rancière’s
trained spectators; on
the contrary, there are Adornoite critique of political efficacy in art at the mercy of an undialectical understanding of the rep-
only freely determined resentation of politics and the politics of representation. Rancière’s horror of political ‘transparency’ or
spectators and freely immediacy in art produces a highly narrow account of what constitutes politicized artistic practice (and
determined works.
heteronomous content in art), and as such what constitutes critical effectivity or efficacy in photogra-
5. Despite Rancière phy. So when he talks about the distance ‘between the pretensions of critical art and its real forms of
committing himself to
the following: ‘And for efficiency’ (Rancière 2009: 80) he misses something important. Critical art is never, or rarely claims to
me political action itself be, transparent or immediate in these terms. Thus it is one thing to follow Adorno in rejecting the
is an aesthetic activity to
the extent it makes us
notion that artworks might substitute for political action or intervention (as I believe we must), and
see as political, things another to assume that the majority of producers and defenders of ‘political art’ or critical practice
not recognised as such, think of themselves as inspiring the direct mobilization of political energies. On the contrary, critical
as when we are made to
hear subjects left out of practices function as a standing reserve within a standing continuum of other like-minded works, and
account, etc’ (Noys, thus, far from imaging themselves as in direct alliance or commune with political agents, see the effi-
Benjamin and Newman, cacy of the work as lying in a future place of exchange and dialogue in which spectators can freely
Saul (2008),
‘Democracy, anarchism participate. Thus the efficacy of critical practice functions, not under the rubric of immediacy (some-
and radical politics thing that disappears as soon as it is countenanced), but under the nominative and the archival: that
today: An interview
with Jacques Rancière,
is, ‘as the producer of this work this is something I, or we, have named, and now it is up to you, the
by Todd May (trans. future spectator, to do with it as you will’. Hence, it is this process of naming as a declaration and
John Lechte), Anarchist projection of knowledge into the future that is missing from Rancière’s account of the common spec-
Studies, 16: 2, p. 179.
tator and reader, leaving his link between aestheticization (interpretation) and democracy in a con-
stricted political zone. Aestheticization never stretches on Rancière’s part to the process of critical
interpellation itself.5 That is, the partisan political content that Rancière is so fearful of, that is so
threatening to the democratic spectator, is no different in its capacity to take on an aestheticizing func-
tion as any so-called non-political work. Indeed it cannot but do this. This is because if there is no
one-to-one correlation between a given work of art and a political community, the ‘political’ effect of
art is always and necessarily one of delay and distanciation. And this applies even to the most grue-
some of atrocity photographs. Indeed, to look at such atrocity pictures is not be overwhelmed by the
photographer’s desire to expose the violence of the system, and, therefore, to be subject to the pho-
tographer’s intellectual domination, but to be given the opportunity to learn to aestheticize (assimi-
late) what is ‘unaestheticizable’ as an act of empathy. Rancière’s caricatural reduction of political
practice to the direct representational embrace between art and community, forces him, therefore, to
produce an account of the image, ironically, which is de-politicized, or at least one-dimensional, inso-
far as no image or sequence of images is allowed to settle and accumulate into the aesthetic bonds of


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collective (revolutionary) memory. Thus, if certain photographs produce knowledge in this way, this is
not because they ‘mobilize us against injustice’ (Rancière 2009: 61), but because they provide an
opportunity for us to register and inhabit a continuity of struggle and its symbols.
A palpable tension exists, then, within Rancière’s neo-avant-garde framework. On the one
hand, his constructivist dissolution of art into cultural practice – into reshaping the materiality of
things ‘from below’ – places his thinking in line with the great emancipatory thrust of aesthetics and
politics from 1917 onwards, and should be applauded. Similarly his attempt to clear out all the accu-
mulated idealist (actionist), nihilist (iconophobic) and positivistic (reflectionist) tendencies of this
artistic legacy should also be defended, and recognized accordingly as the baseline for advanced
thinking on art and politics today. Yet, at the same time, his disconnection between knowledge,
mastery and art, is too invested in the rights of the (cultured excluded) spectator to make these
things tell as a shared class identity. Thus politics and art only seem to function in the flight from
collective power; as a consequence ‘everyone’ speaks’, but no one listens. One can see why Rancière
holds to this principle of flight so firmly: given that there is no organic relationship between the
workers movement and avant-garde culture – and indeed precisely because there has not been for
a very long time – nothing is to be expected from official or organized channels of opposition. The
struggle, therefore, is to liberate ourselves from these false expectations and their ugly histories. But
the crucial issue is, how and in what ways you hold on to the gap between critical cultural practice
and its ‘real forms of efficiency’, and not to the validity of this principle itself. Rancière’s flight from
externally ‘imposed’ notions of ‘collectivity’, ‘unity’, ‘identity’ and ‘political action’ may take the
fight to those self-deluding forces on the left (and right) that assume such notions as unproblem-
atically good things. But they also inculcate artistic and political practices of least resistance. Indeed,
for all its virtues his democratic spectator simply vacates the more difficult terrain of mediation
between a collective emancipatory politics and the ‘avant-garde’, or neo-avant-garde. This is why it
is easy to hide ‘inside’ Rancière’s writing at the moment: his post-Debordian, post-Romanticist,
post-Brechtian, post-Marxist, post-mastering, neo-avant-garde pragmatism, fits the bill quite nicely.
As Peter Hallward has put it, Rancière’s ‘trenchant egalitarianism seems all too compatible with a
certain degree of social resignation’ (Hallward 2006: 126). This is perhaps too harsh, certainly for
thinker who has done much to re-repoliticize key cultural and political categories, and whose work
on the formation of the French workers movement is exemplary in its attention to revolutionary
affect and desire. Rancière is no postmodernist avant-la-lettre. Yet it points to one of the great prob-
lems facing the theorization of the politics of culture, and of aesthetics, today: the practices and
metaphors of deterritorialization, disunification, disidentification and dissociation slide all too easily
into capitalist rationality. Consequently, this makes the emancipation of the spectator a far more
conflictual (and perilous) matter than the fine-tuning or displacement of the received positions of
cultural producers and consumers that Rancière places so much faith in.


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Philosophy, culture, image: Rancière’s ‘constructivism’

Adorno, Theodor (1984), Aesthetic Theory (trans. C. Lenhardt), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Carey, John (1992), The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary
Intelligentsia, 1880–1939, London: Faber & Faber.
Derrida, Jacques (1987), ‘Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing [pointure]’, The Truth in Painting
(trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod), Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.
Fekete, John (1991), Modernity and Mass Culture, London and New York: Routledge.
Hallward, Peter (2006), ‘Staging Equality: On Rancière’s Theatrocacy’, New Left Review, July/
February: 37.
Pater, Walter (1935), The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, London: MacMillan.
Rancière, Jacques (2004), The Politics of Aesthetics (with an afterword by Slavoj Žižek, trans. with
introduction Gabriel Rockhill), London and New York: Continuum.
Rancière, Jacques (2007), The Future of the Image (trans. Gregory Elliot), London and New York: Verso.
Rancière, Jacques (2008), ‘Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity’ interview by Marie-Aude Baronian and
Mireille Rosello (trans. Gregory Elliot), Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, 2:1,
available at Accessed 19 January 2010.
Rancière, Jacques (2009), The Emancipated Spectator (trans. Gregory Elliot), London and New York:
Rifkin, Adrian (2008), ‘Adrian Rifkin on Cultural Studies, Rancière, Politics and Queer Studies’,
http://ranciè Accessed
19 January 2010.

Suggested citation
Roberts, J. (2010), ‘Philosophy, culture, image: Rancière’s ‘constructivism’’, Philosophy of Photography
1: 1, pp. 69–79, doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.69/1

Contributor details
John Roberts is Professor of Art & Aesthetics at the University of Wolverhampton. He is the author
of a number of books, including The Art of Interruption: Realism, Photography and the Everyday
(Manchester University Press, 1998) and The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After
the Readymade (2007)



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POP 1 (1) pp. 81–88 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.81/1

Saint-Petersburg State University

The photographic argument of


Keywords Abstract
time-image More than 150 years have passed since the invention of photography, and we are still finding it hard to accept
memory prosthetic that the photographic procedure is not as much about the recording of objects as it is about the recording of a
chronometry different experience of time. Seen in this way, the photograph can reveal to us the limitations of our own percep-
perception tion of time and a glimpse of another time scale. This article traces the evolution of the idea of photographic time
visual turn in philosophy from Plato to St. Augustine, to Bergson.
mental image
The tradition of photographic theory is predominantly occupied by art photography which makes it
seem, at first sight, as if philosophy and photography are incommensurable. Despite producing many
valuable insights, this tendency prevents us from seeing the metaphysical meaning of photography,
which, at risk of restating the overly familiar, is literally written by light or light writing.
There is no purchase left in old arguments about whether photography matters as art or not.
Comparing photography to painting and drawing allows for the display of aesthetic sensitivities, art


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Alexander Sekatskiy

historical and artistic erudition; but in the end this is a presumptuous way of thinking that tends to
depend upon a host of shop-worn clichés. Comparative art historical analysis that concerns itself with
the relative merits of photographic styles and traditions and the work of individual artists has produced
vast bodies of commentary and some very perceptive observations but, in the end, it leads thinking
away from essential aspects of photography and leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, what
is the contribution of photography to the structures of comprehension, perception and recognition of
the modern world? It is also of limited use for understanding photography’s relation to time or mem-
ory. It is the most natural thing for us to reach for the camera whenever we want to commit something
to memory, which means that memory itself has a different meaning for us than it had in previous
historical moments. In order to clarify the role of photography in terms of its core metaphysical prob-
lems, we need to abandon the domain of art and move into a different territory: one in which the pho-
tographs of Alexander Rodchenko and Boris Smelov are inseparable from anonymous family snapshots,
passport photographs, news pictures and billboard advertisements. The great mystery of photography
is hidden among the most ordinary photographs. We need to look for it in the family album or on the
wall of the farmhouse where aging photographs are displayed behind filthy glass.
Henri Bergson was probably the first to articulate an idea that had been, by the end of the nine-
teenth century, germinating for a long time and which is illuminative in this context. In Creative
Evolution he calls for a recalibration of the ocular-centrist way of thinking that lies at the root of
European metaphysics. Both Louis-Jacques Daguerre and the Lumière brothers invented machines
that utilized optical effects; these inventions were bound to change not only the ways of perceiving
the world, but also the possibility of thinking about it. Bergson enlists the help of these inventions in
his account of life as a duration.

Suppose we wish to portray on a screen a living picture, such as the marching past of a regi-
ment. There is a way of proceeding that is easy and effective. It is to take a series of snap-
shots of the passing regiment and to throw these instantaneous views on the screen, so that
they replace each other very rapidly. This is what the cinematograph does. With photographs,
each of which represents the regiment in a fixed attitude, it reconstitutes the mobility of the
regiment marching. It is true that if we had to do with photographs alone, however much we
might look at them, we should never see them animated: with immobility set beside immobil-
ity, even endlessly, we could never make movement. In order that the pictures may be ani-
mated, there must be movement somewhere. The movement does indeed exist here; it is in
the apparatus. […] The process then consists in extracting from all the movements peculiar to
all the figures an impersonal movement abstract and simple, movement in general, so to speak.
[…] Such is the contrivance of the cinematograph. And such is also that of our knowledge.
(Bergson 1998: 306–9)


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The photographic argument of philosophy

This extended metaphor provokes two observations. First, our experience of the world is structured
according to cinematic principles and constitutes a form of cinema before cinema. It is the ‘move-
ment that exists in the apparatus’ which allows us to view in our mind’s eye all the comedies and
thrillers of everyday life. But, our scientific cognition is more like the immobile ‘series of snapshots’.
However we rearrange or shuffle these, we will never create a sense of movement. Movement can
only be achieved by running the images through the film-projector of the mind.
Careful reading of this passage from Creative Evolution prompts one to identify a small but crucial
inaccuracy. The ‘photographs’ that Bergson is talking about are not photographs: they are much
more like film-stills. By mixing up the incommensurable temporalities of photograph and film-still
we fail to distinguish between images of perception and images of memory. Within the duration of
cinematic time a still photograph is a completely lifeless, alien object, and by the same token, a film-
still is dead when it is placed among photographs.
Around 180 years have passed since the invention of the daguerreotype. In technical terms, pho-
tography has advanced very far from those silver coated plates and the extinction of daguerreotypes
makes it harder to appreciate the revolution they caused in perception. But the way in which the
realism of the image is conditioned by the timescale of the photographic exposure remains unchanged:
photography is still a novel form of chronometry, a way of measuring those durations of time which
escape human vision.
It is common knowledge that during early daguerreotype sessions, the ‘client’ had to remain
completely still for long periods to allow the image to form on the light-sensitive plate; even the
smallest movement blurred facial features beyond recognition. Witnesses of Daguerre’s experiments
speculated that the future of daguerreotypy was in the production of still-life images. Daguerre’s
experiments were seen by many as an optical illusion fit only for the amusement of circus-goers.
These critics failed to appreciate that the world the photographic eye saw for the first time was com-
pletely different from the world they were familiar with.
A daguerreotype of a mechanical watch presents a curious spectacle: the second hand is smeared
uniformly across the face, the minute hand appears as a grey segment and the hour hand is a thick
line. Other examples of Daguerre’s ‘still-lifes’ displayed a range of abnormalities that were hard to
ignore: water in a glass lost its transparency becoming covered in ripples caused by vibrations that
were slow enough to be invisible to the eye. One inference to draw from this might be that our con-
fidence in the perception of distinct objects is flawed. Careful examination of photographs prompts
another conclusion: we exist on a timescale in which the real appears to us in its most fragmented
form. What would become of us if we were able to occupy a different timescale? What effects would
this have on our understanding of the world?
Despite all that has passed since the camera began its survey of the world, we remain unable
to comprehend what it sees. The vision of the lens is closer to a kind of divine vision than to


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human perception. It shows what is permanent and hides everything accidental and temporary.
This notion of a god-like lens fits well with the Platonic notion of ideal forms, in one sense,
though it also appears to be inimicable to the implications the ancient philosopher draws from
this idea.
In his image of the cave Plato articulates an allegory of illusion, bondage, ignorance and the
transcendent value of knowledge. From our historical distance the contraption he asks his inter-
locutors to imagine bears close resemblance to the camera obscura and to modern photography.
Plato wants to make clear that the shadows flickering on the back wall of his cave are mere shad-
ows of real objects: the prisoners are constrained to watch and interpret them and are prevented
from seeing the real by the shackles of their perception. It is worth dwelling on the thought that,
given access to the photographic camera, this simile would have taken a rather different shape.
Perhaps, to follow this train of thought, the photographic version would go something like this:
imagine a camera in which we are imprisoned and that has the capacity of operating with long
exposure times, like the camera built by Daguerre. This apparatus cannot register rapid move-
ments such as facial expressions, which will disappear into a barely visible blur and, thus, might
be thought of as inessential. Only traces of solid life would remain: a table, some apples, a harp,
a pot, a pair of worn shoes. This camera could function as the eye of a less flippant being than you
or I. Now imagine increasing the exposure by a thousand times and examine the resulting image.
Not a lot is left. The apples have rotted away and only the seeds remain, though these may have
begun to germinate. Given enough time, even the table will not survive. Increase the exposure
again, by another several thousand times. Enlarge and position the camera so as to survey the
world from all points of view at once. Now everything incidental has disappeared. The only thing
left of the harp, one might say, is the idea of the harmonies it might have once produced, for only
harmony is permanent but the vessels that contain it must perish. All becomes a blur, a thin fog
on the face of the image.
As we ascend through these photographic effects towards the idea of time, we might be able
to see with more clarity those objects that appear to our mind’s eye when we turn our gaze
inwards. We would be able to see the immutable, the universal forms: eidos. We would be able
to have an unmediated experience of those things that we can sense only vaguely and of which
we have the faintest awareness. For absolute knowledge is not an accumulation of infinite par-
ticulars, but this ability to see beyond the particular is what we value in the work of masters of
And if we increase the exposure on our camera to correspond to the vision of a god, an expo-
sure equivalent to eternity, the subject of contemplation will be ‘being as oneness’. This omni-
present and omni-powerful eye is a photographic camera with an infinite exposure and an
absolute perspective on all things. But this is where we have to put aside our fantastic re-figuration


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The photographic argument of philosophy

of Plato’s allegorical model and make a shift to Bergson, who knew how to philosophize using

In positing God, we necessarily posit also all the possible views of God, that is to say, the
monads. But we can always imagine that a view has been taken from a point of view, and
it is natural for an imperfect mind like ours to class views, qualitatively different, according
to the order and position of points of view, qualitatively identical, from which the views
might have been taken. In reality the points of view do not exist, for there are only views,
each given in an indivisible block and representing in its own way the whole of reality,
which is God.
(Bergson 1998: 351)

Photography taught us a lesson in perception that we have internalized so well it has been com-
pletely forgotten. It was Hermann von Helmholtz who discovered an important feature of the
physiology of visual perception: the ability to see motionless objects is the latest stage in evolution-
ary development which distinguishes those life-forms in possession of this capacity from others
that are less evolutionarily developed: the frog that reacts only to moving objects and those more
complex beings with the ability to discern motionless aspects of the world, such as humans.
Photography is another step in this evolutionary direction. With its invention, humanity’s vision
(previously somewhere on the line between frog and god), took a small step to one side. One curi-
ous implication of this is that, whilst the technological mechanism of cinema was invented after
photography (when considered as a mode of perception), the film projector is more archaic than
the photographic camera.
Moving images are more primordial than still images. We should not be surprised therefore by
the speediness with which cinematic effects became embedded in dreams, memory and imagination.
If the movie camera is a prostatic device, a contact lens for the imagination, then we must accept that
it is hardwired to the very core of our being: its proximity to internal apperception makes the rejec-
tion of cinematic fantasies practically impossible. In fact the opposite has occurred. Lazy human rea-
son has got into the habit of following a guide, of entrusting the ‘change of images’ to the light-beam
of the film projector: this has led to a degeneration of our imagination. It is a different matter in the
case of the still photographic camera. Despite a long period of mutual adaptation between the film
camera lens and human vision, there is still a marked difference between still photography and
human vision.
This leads one to think about the popularity of the photographic camera as a mnemonic device.
Is it true to say that a photograph can combat the passing of time? In order to address this question


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Alexander Sekatskiy

we will turn to St. Augustine. For all his historical distance from our photographic times, he remains
the most insightful thinker of memory and its mysteries. For instance:

I remember that in the past I was cheerful, but I am not cheerful now; and I remember past
sadness yet am not sad. I remember past fears without fear and past desire without desire.
Sometimes the thing is exactly contrary – when I am joyful I remember past sorrow, and in
present sorrow remember past joy.
(Augustine 1994: 177–8)

Memory can transform the modality of experiences and the appearance of objects but, generally, we
cannot rely on it when we want to be reassured with regard to the actuality of what we have seen in
the past.

Yet if I ceased to give thought to [things we learn and know] for quite a short space of time,
they would sink again and fall away into the more remote recesses of the memory, and I
should have to think them out afresh and put them together again from the same place.
(Augustine 1994: 176)

Imagine that St. Augustine learns that there is another position from which one might recollect: a pho-
tographic archive, where thousands of facts, people, events, sorrows and joys are stored. He acquires a
camera. Now nothing will be lost as photographs seem to act as a set of steps that lead into the past. The
hazard of slipping into forgetfulness – so dangerous for unassisted memory – is completely eliminated.
Can you imagine his excitement and how keen he would be to test out this mnemonic apparatus?
In the beginning he would turn the pages of family albums with admiration until gradually this
feeling is replaced by bewilderment. Picking up the camera he goes to visit friends: he records every-
thing meaningful or exciting by the snapshots he makes along the way. Now his recollection has an
aid in photographs and yet this does not reduce his bewilderment. The resulting images appear
tasteless. The record made of a delightful occasion does not preserve his delight in it. The final blow
comes in the form of a Polaroid upon which an image emerges in front of his eyes, but in which
things appear completely different. He concludes that snapshots do not aid memory. Rather, they
substitute false experiences for true ones. Their perceived truth-value makes them into a false treas-
ure. St. Augustine recalls his own words:

Perhaps one might say that the memory is like the mind’s stomach, and joy and sorrow like
nice or nasty food; when joy and sorrow are committed to the memory it is as though they


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The photographic argument of philosophy

had passed into the stomach, where they can lie but not be tasted. It is of course ridiculous to
see it like this, yet some sort of resemblance there is.
(Augustine 1994: 178)

This image would not appear ridiculous to the philosopher after his encounter with photography.
He might even add that the family album acts as an extension to the mind’s stomach, for, like the
stomach, it receives undigested produce. This pessimistic conclusion might seem unavoidable,
unless he came across a handful of photographs that were worthy of reconsideration as, for instance,
with those of the St. Petersburg photographers Boris Smelov, Sergei Podgorkov and Olga Korsunova.
These images have not lost connection with the real. What we see in them are real faces, not mere
copies. Only in intense moments of presence can people look like this. They are fragments of a real
past that remain fully recognizable.
There is an abyss between the contents of the mind’s stomach and the inexplicable outlines of the
eternal forms that remain invisible to humanity. As humans without access to the infinite exposure of
the all-seeing eye, we find ourselves setting out on another road.
If every earthly object is a distortion of a celestial standard, a reflection of an ideal form, it has
its own state of being which corresponds with the truth of its own being. We can employ the tech-
nical term ‘sharpness’ to clarify the philosophical notion of this dasein. The human being, in
selected instances of its dasein, corresponds to the formula ‘by what idea he made me’. The world
is so constructed that every event has its privileged points and these points are preserved during
the infinite exposure of the god’s-eye camera. And yet, the same privileged points can be found in
the incessant flickering of the mundane. Locating these points is the true labour of photographic
This work is arduous. It requires constant mental readiness, sharp wits and sheer luck, as
well as a mastery of the artificial eye that acts as an extension of the body. The artist might
wander for months searching for a model. He might eliminate all that is transient in order to
make it visible. He can even work with found or archived photographs. But the final image will
become a philosophical argument only if it succeeds in amalgamating the timeless with the

Augustine (1994), The Confessions of St. Augustine (trans. F. Sheed), second edition, London: Sheed
& Ward Ltd.
Bergson, Henri (1998), Creative Evolution (trans. A. Mitchell), Mineola and New York: Courier Dover


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Alexander Sekatskiy

Suggested citation
Sekatskiy, A. (2010), ‘The photographic argument of philosophy’, Philosophy of Photography 1: 1,
pp. 81–88, doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.81/1

Contributor details
Alexander Sekatskiy is an Associate Professor and Chair of Social Philosophy and the Philosophy
of History at Saint-Petersburg State University. He is a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Politics
in Saint-Petersburg. He has published extensively on phenomenology, existentialism and the phi-
losophy of history. Selected publications include The ontology of lying (Saint-Petersburg, 2000), The
danger of reality (Saint-Petersburg, 2003) and Applied Metaphysics (Saint-Petersburg, 2005).
Contact: Saint-Petersburg State University, Faculty of philosophy and political sciences, Mendeleevskaya
linija, 5, 199034 Saint-Petersburg, Russia.


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POP 1 (1) pp. 89–99 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Photoworks. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.89/7



Sergei Podgorkov’s Leningrad


During the 1950–1980s Soviet photography was strictly regulated. The only legitimate subjects for pho-
tographs were positive aspects of socialist living: the building of communism, heroes of industry, award-
wining collective farms and the recreational activities of law abiding and happy citizens. According to
the official position, there were no negative aspects of socialism and photographs that attempted to
show that such aspects did exist were seen as anti-Soviet propaganda and severely punished.
Sergei Podgorkov is a typical representative of Leningrad’s photographic underground. He worked
as a photographer in Soviet institutions. He was fired from a newspaper for lack of ‘ideological sensi-
tivity’ in his photographs. He was a member of the city’s most famous photographic club Zerkao
(mirror), and exhibited in its group shows, but he was only allowed to show his ‘lyrical landscapes’.
None of his socially engaged photographs were published until the period of perestroika. In a typical


POP 1.1_2_photo_Valran_089-100.indd 89 3/13/10 7:05:05 PM

Valery Valran

encounter from the Soviet era, a party official told him: ‘I like this photograph, but not the three men
drinking vodka. Take them out and we will publish the picture’. Podgorkov refused to crop his
Podgorkov’s 1970–1980 photographs could be seen simply as photo-reportage, but they could eas-
ily have lead to his arrest or committal to a mental asylum. From the point of view of official propaganda
of the period his actions were considered ‘ideological sabotage’: to seek out and photograph the insane,
the destitute, the disabled and alcoholics, and to display their images in the city of Lenin – in the
country of victorious socialist revolution – was beyond the pale.
And yet, the social photography of Sergei Podgorkov evidences an era by showing painfully
familiar scenes from a not very distant past: the legless beggar counting pennies outside a shop;
teenagers in school uniforms smoking a fag; the classic scene of three men drinking vodka in a door-
way; the body of a drunk lying on the ground next to a beer stall; everyday commuters on the streets
of Leningrad.
All of this is so painfully familiar and real that one cannot help but admire the piercing vision of
the artist. The most remarkable aspect of these photographs is the precision with which they capture
the atmosphere of that time: the hopelessness of the dilapidated city, the desperation and poverty of
the last days of a dying empire.
Beyond the bravery and the courage of the author, who was able to see and to document the
conditions of that life, one has to recognize his ability to capture the exact moment at which everyday
life acquires clear and rare individuality.


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Sergei Podgorkov

Sergei Podgorkov, Leningrad, Apraksin Dvor, 1970s.


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Leningrad photographs

Sergei Podgorkov, Belle, 1970s.


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Sergei Podgorkov

Sergei Podgorkov, Leningrad, beer stall, 1970s.


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Leningrad photographs

Sergei Podgorkov, Insane, 1970s.


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Sergei Podgorkov

Sergei Podgorkov, Leningrad, Malodetskoselskii_avenue, 1970s.


POP 1.1_2_photo_Valran_089-100.indd 95 3/8/10 8:31:31 PM

Leningrad photographs

Sergei Podgorkov, Leningrad, morning song, 1970s.


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Sergei Podgorkov

Sergei Podgorkov, Leningrad, wine shop, 1970s.


POP 1.1_2_photo_Valran_089-100.indd 97 3/16/10 4:55:56 PM

Leningrad photographs

Sergei Podgorkov, Leningrad, Petrovskaia, 1980s.


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Sergei Podgorkov

Sergei Podgorkov, Leningrad, washer of beer glasses, 1970s.


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Lgna]ogmj[YlYdg_m]gjgj\]jgmjZggckYf\bgmjfYdknakalooo&afl]dd][lZggck&[getAfl]dd][l$L`]Eadd$HYjfYddJgY\$>ak`hgf\k$:jaklgd$:K).+B?&tL]d2#,, (!))/1-011)(

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POP 1 (1) pp. 101–107 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Photoworks. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.101/7


On reflection

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane …

(Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire)

The protagonist of Richard Prince’s short story ‘The Perfect Tense’ has an aversion not only to mir-
rors but to any reflective surfaces. He has no mirrors in his apartment, no objects that cannot be
rendered dull, and avoids the darkened glass of windows. The possible reminder of ugliness or
deformity does not generate this eisoptrophobia, quite the opposite in fact. In appearance, he is the
ideal man incarnate, who literally ‘stops traffic’. He is an image made real, a model reminiscent of
Prince’s own appropriated images of men from advertisements: upright, flanked by submissive
women, looking determinedly into the middle distance. The constant whispers, pointing etc., make
him feel vulnerable, ‘fearing a possible lynch mob free-for-all’.
How tormented would this character feel in the night-time incarnation of Philip Johnson’s
Glass House? By day this house has the double effect of fulfilling a desire for closeness to nature
and the absorbed contemplation of it. The occupant can admire the view framed and rendered
picturesque by its huge glass walls, whilst contemplating the fact of being able to survey this


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Richard Paul

landscape as their property. In the daytime they are free from prying eyes but, by night, artificial
light renders the walls mirror-like, and any attempt to view the exterior is masked by the occu-
pant’s self-reflection.
In ‘Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel’ (1982) Jeff Wall draws out the vampiric resonances of this sce-
nario. The sole daytime occupant (the house was designed for one) is virtually invisible by dint of the
reflective exterior of the glass walls. At night, when the house is artificially lit, the occupant becomes
an isolated figure on a stage set, constantly confronted by reflective surfaces that obscure the view,
engender vulnerability and, perhaps, provoke an irrational fear of what lurks in the dark. The Glass
House, with its necessary seclusion and consequent ‘power-protected’ openness, Wall attests, has
parallels with the aristocratic retreat, but it also evokes the ‘abandoned crypts of Gothic tales’.
The myth of the vampire symbolizes the excess generated by a society dedicated to transparency
through science and rationality, to total ‘understanding’ without recourse to magical thinking. But it
also registers an anxiety that the feudal system of the old order has refused to die and that modernity
is built around an ‘evil’ core.
Take the symbol of corporate power, the glass skyscraper. It is an inversion of its architects’ orig-
inal intent: a monument to the modern, open society, opposed to the aristocratic and religious opac-
ities of old. Its re-evaluation in the light of the collapse of associated revolutionary movements reveals
it to be a monument to technological and hierarchical control. The skyscraper rises up vertiginously
and impersonally, physically and mentally dominating ‘the-man-in-the-street’. There is no transpar-
ency, only reflection. The executive, high up in his glass box, is as invisible as his alter ego in the
glasshouse and can survey the city in a form of panoptic surveillance that is the age-old privilege of
power. The glass skyscraper is, of course, home to the corporation, which is as inscrutable as its home.
Its executive is expendable and of course metaphorically faceless.
And what of Prince’s ideal but anxious man? His true state is photographic, which is why his
incarnation is so problematic. As a model without context, he lacks subjectivity. He is the ideal
stand-in or extra. Like the vampire, he is a fiction, a symptom of malaise. His function is to induce
desire, but he is empty, soulless.


Photographers (particularly studio photographers) find reflective surfaces problematic. They have the
potential to reveal the construction of the image, its fictional status. But reflective surfaces are the sirens
of the commodity image and a vast range of products are made or finished with them. In the past, pho-
tographers resorted, like Prince’s protagonist, to rendering shiny surfaces matt (using dulling spray) but
this changed the nature of the product depicted. For instance, a stainless steel product may have a
brushed or chrome finish but the use of dulling spray would render the chrome brushed. Photographers


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On reflection

came up with ingenious ways of combining the bright rectangular reflection of the softbox with the
blackness of the studio and polystyrene or card reflectors. This produced pleasing graphic shapes that
delineated the volume of photographed objects and avoided such problems. There was (and is) a pleas-
ure in the production of such reflections that reveal the construction of the image, but in a manner that
is, to the untrained eye, essentially indecipherable, abstract and effectively invisible.
Narrative in advertising is strictly controlled, and requires the blank slate of newness. Another
problem with reflective surfaces is that any mark or flaw is highlighted as an imperfection that
detracts from the commodity’s newness.


Consider the mirror, particularly the round bathroom mirror – the ne plus ultra of reflective surfaces.
Reflecting the dark studio, it is a black circle in the picture. It is faintly chilling, evidencing the image’s
fiction, its lack of an outside and invoking the vampire’s soulless inability to be reflected in its surface:
an absence that is death. One could read this absence as a return of the transcendent blackness
found in the work of the Spanish still life painter and lay Carthusian monk, Juan Sánchez Cotán,
whose most famous painting, Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602), depicts comestibles
hanging by strings in a chilled pantry. Hanging these things separately delayed the onset of their
decay, but it also allowed Cotán to describe a three dimensional parabola with their forms. Not only
did he want to suggest that God can be found in the contemplation of quotidian nature, but also in
the sublime geometry of their positioning against a black infinity of background. The transcendence
evoked by Cotán is typical of Catholic painting, and stands in contrast to the later Dutch vanitas,
which celebrated worldly goods whilst moralizing on the inevitability of death and its levelling char-
acteristics. There is no transcendence afforded in these later works, as Calvin pronounced: ‘We are all
condemned by the Fall and our depravity to inhabit a material world that can never be transcended;
and images will not help us escape this fate’.
At the heart of Dutch still life painting of this period is a very modern anxiety concerning con-
sumption. The seasonal, pre-industrial cycle of scarcity and plenty was replaced by the year-round
surplus facilitated by proto-capitalist trade. In the early to mid-seventeenth-century, the Dutch
became the wealthiest nation on earth. Still lives by Willem Claesz Heda depict knocked-over pitch-
ers and spilled and smashed glasses, the debris of half-consumed food lies scattered on plates that sit
precariously close to the edge of the table. In these paintings, the quality craftsmanship of the table-
ware contrasts with signs of indiscriminate and avaricious consumption. Only the beautifully pro-
duced painting can restore balance.
The glasshouse can be seen as the epitome of modern[ist] reaction to the embarrassment of over-
production and consumption inaugurated by capitalist industrialization. Unlike the Wunderkammer


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Richard Paul

that was the Victorian abode, the glasshouse is stripped, the uber example of the modernist interior
that Norman Bryson describes in Looking at the Overlooked as: ‘carving out from the general profusion
a secluded emptiness that marks an escape from the teeming and seething pool of commodities’
(Bryson 1990: 97). The occupant of the glasshouse has a disdain for the outcome of perpetual growth.
For the contemporary product photographer, generating such associations is verboten. The stand-
ard convention in depicting the bathroom mirror (which, in the glass house, is situated in the ‘pri-
vate’ area, screened from view) is to contrive a reflection that is a spectral grey graduation. In the
1968 Möbel furniture catalogue, the mirror in the set for bedroom model Birgit is completely black,
apart from the reflection of an orange vase directly in front of it.

Bryson, Norman. (1990), Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, London:
Reaktion Books.
Prince, Richard. (1987 ), ‘The Perfect Tense’ in Blasted Allegories, Brian Wallis (ed.), New York: New
Museum of Contemporary Art.


POP 1.1_2_photo_Paul_101-108.indd 104 3/8/10 9:20:30 PM

On reflection

Möbel furniture catalogue, Birgit, 1968.


POP 1.1_2_photo_Paul_101-108.indd 105 3/8/10 9:20:30 PM

Richard Paul

Richard Paul, Auberfin 2 (left), Spheres (right).

Richard Paul, Auberfin 2 (left), Spheres (right).


POP 1.1_2_photo_Paul_101-108.indd 106 3/15/10 11:55:43 AM

On reflection

Richard Paul, Saltgrinder 2 (left), Renaissance 1 (right).


POP 1.1_2_photo_Paul_101-108.indd 107 3/13/10 7:07:10 PM





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POP 1.1_2_photo_Paul_101-108.indd 108 3/8/10 9:20:36 PM

POP 1 (1) pp. 109–127 Intellect Limited 2010

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Reviews. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.109/4


You’ve been framed

Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning, John Tagg (2009)
Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 392 pp., Hardback,
ISBN 0816642877, £51.50, Paperback, ISBN 0816642885, £15.67

Reviewed by Antigoni Memou, University of East London

In his highly influential The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (first pub-
lished in 1988), John Tagg famously argued that ‘the indexical nature of the photograph’ is ‘highly
complex, irreversible, and can guarantee nothing at the level of meaning’ (Tagg 1988: 3). Combining
Althusser’s theory of ‘ideology’ and Michel Foucault’s analysis of ‘power/knowledge’, Tagg elabo-
rated a sociological model of power relations to argue that photography’s evidential status was estab-
lished through restructured power-relations between the state and the citizen, and that photography
became a means of surveillance and control in state institutions such as the hospital, the school, the
police and the prison in the course of the nineteenth century. Photography, he claimed, should not
be seen as a given, unified medium. Rather, photographies’ function, meaning and value can only be
guaranteed within a discursive field.
Disciplinary Frame comes as a continuation of this previous work. In particular, in this collection
of essays, Tagg draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s study of the state as an ‘apparatus of capture’ to
re-examine how, in the nineteenth century, the state was expanded through an incorporation of


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techniques, new photographic technologies, forms of writing and regimes of representation. Crucial
to this is the claim that these ‘technologies, techniques and institutions whose dissemination con-
stituted the disciplinary regime could only operate, insofar as they did, when certain codes of
representation had been put into place’ (54). A new economy of meaning guaranteed ‘a new
order of truth’ and initiated novel modes of documentation. Photography’s function as a means of
surveillance, record, evidence and truth has to be understood within this discursive frame.
This core argument of Tagg’s new collection is intended as a contemporary extension of his earlier
attempts to disrupt the persistent influence of the liberal reformist notions of documentary, documen-
tation and truth. In this context, the relation between documentation and documentary is not consti-
tuted by a natural history or a documentary tradition based on the camera’s access to an external reality,
but from photography’s implication in institutions, discourses and discursive regimens, which set the
limits to its meaning. According to Tagg, understanding the term documentary presupposes the need
to decipher its relation to the state, and more particularly, to the liberal democratic state at a time of
crisis in the early 1930s and the latter’s cultural strategy, which is according to the author, ‘a hybrid of
discipline and spectacle, of documentation and publicity; a strategy of management of meaning and
identity’ (xxxii). This is a key component of Tagg’s forceful argument for the historical specificity of
documentary, and the attempt to establish a history of the term by linking it with a ‘social democratic
version of State corporatism’, namely the period of the New Deal in the United States in the 1930s.
Tagg’s study of photography’s structural relation to the New Deal’s visual, social and political econ-
omy does not, however, leave aside the individual photographers’ responses to and negotiations of the
ideological constraints imposed by the state. Taking as a case study Walker Evans’ refusals, negotiations
and choices in the mid-1930s, Tagg studies Evans’ complex relation to the notion of documentary.
Tracing the ‘currency’ of his photograph of a street in Atlanta, Georgia, from file to museum, Tagg brings
to the fore questions regarding the possibility that the subject might evade, interrupt, refuse or resist such
constraints. He acknowledges that the ‘emphasis on the institutionalization of certain systems of discur-
sive constraint’ does not suggest that the meaning was ever fixed, ‘coherent, accomplished, stable or
secured’ and this stands as one of the major critical contributions made by this book. For Tagg, there are
necessary negotiations, recurrent problems and moments of resistance, which have served to disturb the
‘machineries of meaning’, but, at the same time, have made these machineries more effective. Two key
moments of resistance he analyses arise from the crisis of the impulse to social documentary in America
in 1943: a Farm Security Administration photograph by Jack Delano of wartime women steelworkers,
and a photograph by Louise Rosskam of a man in a zoot suit outside the Savoy ballroom in Harlem.
In the last two chapters of Disciplinary Frame Tagg returns to the theme of an earlier work,
Grounds of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive Field (1992), in order to problema-
tize the traditional assumptions of historical practice and the art historical canon, and to question
Tagg’s own standpoint of practising history within liberal democratic academia. He opens up


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questions regarding the relation of the discipline of history to hierarchies of evidence, and extends
these questions into an examination of the relation between history and photography. Rereading
Barthes’s influential writings on history and photography, Tagg re-examines some familiar dualisms:
‘internal’ and ‘external’, ‘work’ and ‘context’, ‘structuralist analysis’ and ‘history’. He revisits Foucault’s
conceptualization of the discursive event and the discursive field, and relates this to Derrida’s notion
of the ‘frame’, which he takes both to distinguish between the internal and external and to challenge
this division. Deridda’s notion of the ‘frame’ is, according to Tagg, ‘an adjunct that is neither inherent
nor dispensable. Marking a limit between the intrinsic and the extrinsic, it is neither inside nor out-
side, neither above or below.’ John Baldessari’s Two Crowds with Shape of Reason Missing (1984) and
a general notion of the space of the museum are analysed on this basis.
Tagg’s new book is a valuable contribution to the understanding of photographs and the conditions
and boundaries of their meaning. Against the troubling and apparent inexhaustible openness of photo-
graphic meaning that is posited by many contemporary studies of photography, Tagg returns to and
extends his earlier arguments in order to conclude that photographic meaning is structured and organ-
ized within discursive and institutional frames. Proposing a combination of the Foucauldian concept of
the apparatus and the Derridean model of the frame, Tagg points towards a new space of thinking that
is far from ‘a conception of art history as an array of methodologies’, a ‘conventional institutional his-
tory’ or ‘an endless meta-commentary’ – all of which tend to remain detached from the realm of the
social and political. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the disciplinary frame with which Tagg opposes
such tendencies, itself, leaves little space for resistance. The instances of resistance to framing that are
studied in the book are ultimately integrated by the frame, so that we find ourselves dependent on it.
The book’s focus on the specific historical conjuncture of the New Deal, although significant, does not
address the question of how we can understand contemporary photographic practices that might
escape or resist these frames. Tagg’s book demonstrates how vitally important it is to think again about
photography and seriously engage with documentary practices, as they necessarily foreground issues of
power. He draws upon Foucault’s idea that power – as a multiplicity of forces – incorporates a whole
host of resistances that remain integral to force, and which, nevertheless, leave no space for emancipa-
tion. Other studies (such as Antonio Negri’s Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State (1999)
and John Holloway’s Change the World without Taking Power (2002)) have, in this vein, revealed the
contradictory and vulnerable character of power, either in terms of ‘constituent and constituted power’
or ‘anti-power’ and the ubiquity of socio-political modes of struggle and resistance. If one were to agree
with Tagg’s argument about the mutual overlapping of ‘power’ and ‘meaning’, then an encounter
between his return to the theoretical issues (which shaped his earlier writings on photography) and
these other studies of power promises to open up new possibilities for thinking about photography and
documentary that might lead beyond the historical moment of the New Deal. Tagg’s book does indi-
cate some possible ways in which analysis might move in this direction.


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Becoming photographic
Photography, Cinema, Memory: The Crystal Image of Time, Damian Sutton (2009)
Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, 296 pp., ISBN 9780816647392, Paperback, £15.50

Reviewed by Alev Adil, University of Greenwich

Both the philosophy of photography and photography itself are so profoundly and fundamentally
engaged with the experience of time, it is perhaps unsurprising that the most eloquent theorists of
the photographic – from Benjamin and Barthes to Sontag – have tended toward melancholy analy-
ses which connect the photograph to the lost moment, to an image of mortality. In Photography,
Cinema, Memory: The Crystal Image of Time Damian Sutton attempts to move beyond what he sees
as the ‘moribund intellectual debate’ (93) that equates the photograph with death. He rejects the
memorializing function of the photograph in favour of an active embodied participation in the
production and disruption of its meaning; and celebrates narrativity rather than narration, the
indeterminacy, uncertainty and enigma of the image. He wants to move debates about photogra-
phy, and the nature of the photographic, beyond an understanding of photographic perception as
an organization of memory in order to argue that photographic art practice – he explores the work
of contemporary practitioners Steven Pippin, Nan Goldin, Gene McSweeney, David Claerbout,
Hannah Starkey and Hiroshi Sugimoto amongst others – presents the photographic as a mode of
becoming: ‘The photograph’s collapse of past and present, so often mistaken as morbid, is in fact a
glimpse of one’s personal relativity to ongoing totality of duration and, at the same time, to the
whole of humanity’ (230). In order to achieve this he develops a Deleuzian reading of Bergson on
time and proposes that Deleuze’s work on cinema enables one to theorize a taxonomy of time in
the photograph.
The photographic (the moment, the image) and the cinematographic (the present-passing of
immediate memory, image and movement) are central metaphors for Bergson in his analysis of time
and the perception of time:

we take snapshots, as it were, of the passing reality, and, as these are characteristic of real-
ity, we have only to string them on a becoming. […] Perception, intellection, language, so
proceed in general. Whether we would think becoming, or express it, or even perceive it, we
hardly do anything else than set going a kind of cinematograph inside us.
(Bergson 1998: 252)


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Deleuze characterizes the photograph as a ‘mould’ of time that immobilizes the instant and, in a way
that remains alive to the limitations of photography, privileges a given point of view and its creation
of an (institutionalized) subject. In his analysis of Bacon’s oeuvre Deleuze contrasts the possibilities of
painting and photography:

We are besieged by photos which are illustrations, newspapers which are narratives, cinema-
images, tele-images […] Here there is an experience which is very important for the painter: a
whole category of things that one can term ‘clichés’ already occupy the canvas.
(Deleuze 2005: 61–2)

Here, Deleuze plays with the double sense of cliché in French, which signifies both the snapshot and a
stereotyped mode of thought: both of which require only minimal skill, time or effort and both of which
freeze and limit reality. Space is continuous and contiguous, exemplified by ‘any-point-whatever’ as the
indivisibility of movement itself. Photography limits that perception, privileges certain views – of space
and instants of time. Deleuze contrasts the photograph, a mould of space, with the cinematic shot: a
mould of change. Whilst he sees the painting as providing the possibility of ‘the adventure of the line’
photography can only trace the ‘state of things’ rather than becoming.
Sutton argues against Deleuze’s conception of the limitations of photography and challenges his
definition of the medium; seeking, instead, to argue that cinema is merely an event in the photographic
and thus that Bergsonian time can be extended to a theorization of photography. The photograph, like
the time-image in cinema, has the potential to reveal immanence and to present us with the crystal
image of time. The crystal image, the cornerstone of Deleuzeís concept of the time-image, fuses the
past tense of the recorded event with the present tense of its viewing, presenting the difference between
time as duration and the metaphor of time, which expresses that duration. Thus, for Sutton:

One cannot argue against the physical processes in photography that divide time and space
any more than one can argue against them in cinema. But as in cinema, it is the translation of
indiscernibility into the crystal that gives us an image of time in its pure state.

The thought of Bruno Latour is key to Sutton’s discussion of the monadic nature of digital culture and
the potential it offers to map immanence – the ‘force giving the network its connections’ – and to
reconfigure the actor – no longer, necessarily, as a desiring machine but as ‘star-shaped’ (in the sense
that the more it connects the more it exists). The collective identities created by image sharing on sites
like YouTube and Flickr create new relations between processes of recollection and the material of
memory. Yet, like Deleuze and Guattari, Sutton believes it is the artist’s role to make memory pass


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into sensation. He looks to art practice, ‘to uncover or reveal the vertigo of photography, the dialectic
of remembering and forgetting, created by its trans-historical relationship with memory’ (213).
The grasp of photographic culture and theory that underpins these arguments and analyses is
wide-ranging and scholarly. Sutton’s definition of the photographic is subtle and complex. The pho-
tograph is not an object; it is an idea – the photographic – that is used to create the object. He argues
that the photographic depends on an aesthetic prior to any dependence on technology: ‘Technology
cannot enforce change on a societal level but it can provide the potential or precarious possibility of
change’ (3). He is also keenly aware that the objects and cultural practices arising from the photo-
graphic are shaped and given meaning by the contexts of their production and consumption. One
key element of his argument is the contention that there is no real division between photography
and cinema: ‘The substance of photography is continuous, though stretched and formed by culture
into the shapes of cinema and the photograph’ (xii). Digital convergence explicitly dematerializes and
disperses the photograph as object, revealing that the ‘thing’ is an idea, the photographic, which
seeks embodiment across a range of cultural formats and contexts.
Modernity’s division of time is dependent on the idea of the photographic. Photography, cinema
and the comic strip all divide time:

Photography became the metaphor for an objective perception that divided the world in an
instant and privileged the view. The instant reflected the transition of public and private space
from the open-endedness and continual change of duration to the staccato jerks of the mod-
ern, interchangeable moments that were coloured or filled by work or leisure.

The analysis that Sutton gives to early cinema – focusing on Mitchell and Kenyon’s Pendlebury
Spinning Co. in particular – provides a fresh perspective on the era that Tom Gunning once called ‘the
cinema of attractions’. In Mitchell and Kenyon’s films we see:

people moving in and out of the frame, composing and posing themselves, shying towards
and away. This is the logic of the image based in intension, rather than extension, a logic not
of the movement of the camera or of movement across the camera’s view, as if mirroring the
filmstrip, but instead a movement within the frame itself.

Kenyon, the director, is visible in the film: his presence and interventions lay bare how cinema syn-
thesizes time and space. Sutton quotes Sean Cubitt to articulate how the synthetic and constructed


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nature of the cinematic is visible: the cinema’s aesthetic discourse of actuality is not yet in place and
we can see how, ‘cinema thus does not represent time but originates it’ (69).
Photography, Cinema, Memory explains and illuminates Deleuzean philosophy through films and
it does so well – especially, for instance in the analysis of perception and duration through the
examples of A Matter of Life and Death and Memento. However, in the end – excepting Sutton’s
rather brilliant analysis of the ontology of cinema through a reading of Funny Face – the analyses of
film that is developed in this book provide us with a guide to Deleuzean concepts rather than any
fresh perspective on the films or film itself. Photography, Cinema, Memory has, undoubtedly, some
considerable values, but the use of film is so firmly illustrative that it seems not be about cinema but
Deleuze’s idea of cinematic time, which is not the same thing. Sutton has also recently co-authored
the primer, Deleuze Reframed: A Guide for the Arts Student, with David Martin-Jones. In contrast to
the book under review here, in this other publication the appraisal of photography – in particular
that of Sherman and Warhol – are much more comprehensive and engagingly poetic. Despite the
fact that Sutton’s central claim – that Deleuze’s theorization of cinema should be taken as a signifi-
cant event for attempts to theorize the photographic – is rich and well argued, his ambition to pro-
duce a post-Deleuzean taxonomy of the photograph struggles to extend itself beyond a rather too
faithful kind of repetition. Sutton provides us with a Deleuzean theory of photography contra
Deleuze and argues that the photograph is a crystal image of time. In the process, however, he fails
to deliver on the promise that this might enable a novel understanding of any new concepts that the
photographic might give rise to.

Bergson, Henri (1998), Creative Evolution (trans. A. Mitchell), Mineola and New York: Courier Dover
Deleuze, Gilles (2005), Francis Bacon (trans. Daniel W. Smith), London, New York: Continuum.


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The lure of the crime scene

Lacan at the Scene, Henry Bond (2009)
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 256 pp.,
ISBN 0262013428, Hardback, £14

Reviewed by Margaret Kinsman, London South Bank University

In Lacan at the Scene, Henry Bond describes his project as one of ‘thinking psychoanalytically’ about
crime-scene photos. The result is a carefully structured interrogation of police documents of murder
scenes, drawn from the English National Archive. The photographs around which this project revolves
depict murders committed in England between 1950 and 1970. Although still very hard to look at – they
are, quite frankly, gruesome – with the passage of time, these photos have acquired a historical patina
that distances one from how they show the events they depict and from their primary use as an eviden-
tiary tool. These facts are emphasized by the ‘Lacanian annotations’ Bond gives the images. He brings
both a camera and an acutely sensitive gaze to this project, which involved re-photographing the origi-
nals to produce sets of new images that are enlarged to focus not on the victim, but on details of the
setting and other aspects of the photographs. Things in the background are emphasized in a way that
plays on their significance as, perhaps extraneous, but always potentially crucial details that lie fixed in
the photograph. This strategy of re-photographing and reframing is used to raise a series of questions
that are inflected by the project’s Lacanian framework and are oriented to explore what these images
might yield in response to psychoanalytical distinctions between perversion, psychosis and neurosis.
Predominantly, Bond invites the reader/viewer to see the photographs in terms of the tension between
order and disorder emphasized by the act of reframing. In one set of images, the focus rests on a single
stiletto shoe lying sideways on a dining table. Bond’s exploration of the way in which this shoe appears
out of place reminds us of just how used to order we are and how shocking and easy its dissolution is.
Bond wants us to understand how – despite the affective power of these forensic documents of murder
scenes – the familiar everyday objects they contain can still be re-categorized and re-contextualized. As
Slavoj Žižek remarks in his introduction to the book, Bond brings a profound ‘awareness of the potency
of context’ to bear on them. The violent events that displaced these objects and gave reason for their
original documentation are compounded in this later set of artistic displacements. Bond’s interventions
in the photographic material and his discussion of the visual ‘motifs’ that this makes ‘distinctive and
readily discernible’ are, to my mind, stimulating, creative and unsettling in an interesting manner. His
approach evokes a kind of aesthetic pleasure, which unsettles even as it satisfies. It also avoids many of
the problems that dog artworks, which self-consciously seek to provoke a sense of the uncanny.


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The idea that images incorporate hidden meta-narratives, in this context, harks back to G.K.
Chesterton’s famous essay ‘A Defence of Detective Stories’ of 1902, in which he argues that detec-
tive fiction is valuable because it deals with the task of reading the signs and mysteries of modern
urban life. Chesterton saw it as a form of literature that refuses to regard the present prosaically and
declines to treat the common as commonplace. He understood that our enjoyment of crime and
mystery fiction as entertainment is linked to our desire to make meaning and order out of apparent
chaos. But, whilst an analogous emphasis on the relation between order and disorder informs
Bond’s project, what of the centrality of photography to it? Photography already has an important
place in detective fiction. The photograph as evidence, the possibility of retrieval held out by the
photographic archive and the photographic object as vehicle for pivotal plot discoveries are all sta-
ples of the genre. In Lacan at the Scene, the reframing of shockingly real, old crime photographs
complicates the notion that, essentially, photography is a straightforwardly truth-telling medium.
The importance of the camera as a model for fiction is not restricted to the detective novel.
Famously, Christopher Isherwood opens his first-person novel Goodbye to Berlin with the celebrated
claim: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the
man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all
this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed (Isherwood 1992: 243).’ Whilst, on the sur-
face, Isherwood’s focus seems to be on the orderly everyday character of domestic life, his account
of what is happening in 1930s Nazi Berlin, is anything but passive, rather, this way of looking is
disbelieving and anxious. What is revealed, developed, printed, and fixed in the text (which itself
has a contested identity)? Is it a novel? A memoir? Testimony? Documentary? Everything in a pho-
tograph, the implication seems to be, is second-hand, sandwiched in the truth-telling surface of the
print by the eye which points the camera and the finger that presses the button – only to be exca-
vated later by another eye that looks through the surface to the events contained by it.
Žižek’s introduction to Lacan at the Scene identifies the author’s underlying presupposition vis-à-vis,
‘the weird status of the camera’s eye’. Drawing attention to the tendency to compound the camera and eye
in this way links Bond’s project to a set of hotly contested questions that span literature, art, science and
photography. It also calls to mind Žižek’s discussion of detective and crime fiction in Looking Awry and
inflects his observation, from this earlier book, that detective fiction shares a formal problematic with the
realist novel: ‘the impossibility of telling a story in a linear, consistent way, of rendering the “realistic” continu-
ity of events’ (Žižek 1991: 48–9). Lacan’s reading of Freudian psychoanalysis, and the structural necessity
of a dialectic between lack and surplus that it asserts, was thus brought to bear on the literary desire for the
real and its problematic embodiment by the detective in detective fiction, as in the following:

The scene of the crime with which the detective is confronted is also, as a rule, a false
image put together by the murderer in order to efface the traces of his act. The scene’s


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organic, natural quality is a lure, and the detective’s task is to denature it by first discover-
ing the inconspicuous details that stick out, that do not fit into the frame of the surface
image. The vocabulary of detective narration contains a precise terminus technicus for such
a detail: clue.
(Žižek 1991: 48–9)

What, one might ask, does the displacement of the detective novel, itself fictionalized by Bond’s cen-
tral ‘literary’ conceit – that Lacan comes to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s to investigate the murders
depicted in the photos – mean when this project renders so enigmatic the visual reproduction of real
crimes’ photographic documents?
In linking the mechanics and languages of forensics and psychoanalysis, Bond acknowledges
a ‘voyeuristic dimension […] the unconscious wish to look where it is forbidden to look’. This
voyeuristic dimension saturates a popular culture increasingly filled with television programmes
about forensic teams, who entertain us by solving horrific crimes using slickly represented tech-
niques and devices. More and more modern fictions of this genre include characters who bring
clinically informed psychological expertise to bear on the crime scenes they help investigate. In
the time-honoured mode of the police procedural, such characters participate in the processes
of detection but also open the genre – and its idea of truth – to alternative approaches, which
undo conventional categories in order to understand how and why order has been disrupted.
Yet, whilst Bond evidences a similar fascination with technical process, traumatic events and
their interpretation, he also maintains a distance from the psychologism with which conven-
tional psychologist-detectives respond to the interruptive violence that motivates their narrative
In the last chapter of Bond’s book, he expresses the hope that his text will inspire further aca-
demic enquiry and/or practical application of his thesis at crime scenes. The latter wish may be in the
process of being realized in popular culture and it may well even come to inform and inspire those
working in a range of other contexts. However, this idea of Lacan at the Scene’s practical future threat-
ens to distract attention away from the more compelling qualities of its aesthetic remediation of some
striking and instrumental documents of the traumatic past.

Isherwood, Christopher. (1992), Goodbye to Berlin (1930), in The Berlin Novels, London: Vintage,
p. 243.
Žižek, Slavoj. (1991), Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture,
Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1991.


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Re rereading Camera Lucida

Photography Degree Zero, Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Geoffrey
Batchen (ed.) (2009)
Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp. 320, ISBN 026201358, Hardback, £22.95

Reviewed by Richard Paul

On returning to Camera Lucida in preparation for reviewing Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on
Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, I came across André Kertész’s image (given the title ‘Ernest. Paris,
1931’ and illustrated on page 83 of the English edition). Beneath it, one finds Barthes’s caption in
quotation marks ‘Is it possible that Ernest is still alive today: but where? how? What a novel!’ This, as
Nancy Shawcross relates – in her 1997 monograph Roland Barthes on Photography – is him allusively
channelling the sensibility of Balzac (as described in an anecdote by Baudelaire), with a charming
critical naïveté. But, on reading this, I can only think of the classroom in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall
(1977), where a mousy looking girl stands up and says (of her future adulthood) ‘I’m into leather’. I
suppose this means I think, now more than ever, perhaps, that what one might derive from a (re)
reading of Camera Lucida depends on the character of one’s investments in the notions of past and
future, and the ways in which these temporal modalities are figured by photography.
What Shawcross describes as Barthes’s ‘third form’ (and which I read as a kind of narcissistic
mid-point between essay and fiction) continues to inspire writers on photography and seems, inex-
haustibly, to encourage them to exercise the romantic inclination to wax lyrical about death and
mourning. Camera Lucida’s double whammy of musings on Barthes’s recently deceased mother and
the tragi-comic restaging of the death of the author in this, his last book, confirms its status as a work
of melancholic indulgence. And this is despite a counter-wave of critical essays that present trench-
ant critical arguments regarding the serious limitations of Barthes’s theorization of a radically singular
phenomenology of photography’s effects.
Photography Degree Zero is a chronologically organized collection of essays (specifically from an
Anglo-American perspective) that includes readings of Camera Lucida from both camps. On the
upside, the chronology it presents means that many of the essays refer to each other in critical terms
that will be useful for those encountering the literature on Camera Lucida for the first time. On the
downside, it also makes for a good deal of repetition and those readers more familiar with the litera-
ture may experience this as compounding the tendency to take some of Barthes’s unargued assump-
tions regarding the object of his reflections at face value.


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The organization of this anthology produces some intriguing pairings: Margaret Iverson’s
Lacanian reading of Camera Lucida requires as much of a leap of faith as Jay Prosser’s essay reflecting
on the influence of Buddhism on the book (maybe more so, given that the amount of Buddhist refer-
ences throughout Camera Lucida throws into relief its slight and rather gestural relation to Lacan).
Camera Lucida was intended by Barthes as an attempt to free himself from the tendency to reduc-
tive analysis that, at that time, had come to characterize semiotics and, arguably, psychoanalytical
cultural criticism. This seems to have been missed by many of the critics whose readings of Camera
Lucida are reproduced in Photography Degree Zero, as many of them insist on articulating Camera
Lucida according to one or other of these theoretical models. Camera Lucida is replete with sophisti-
cated theoretical allusions. But it is obvious to my mind that no single one of these can be taken as its
hermeneutic key. But, if Camera Lucida is an attempt to free Barthes’s understanding of photography
and mass culture from reductive interpretive tendencies, what was left to him: aesthetics? If so, it
would certainly be at the expense of Saussurian semiotics, for which aesthetic sensuousness or mate-
riality appeared, as one commentator has it, as a ‘non-signifying other’.
The dismissal of aesthetics for Barthes’s followers in photography criticism in the Anglo-American
tradition was based (mainly) on a reaction to the hegemony in 1950s art criticism, which Dave Hickey
once described as Clement Greenberg’s ‘misty bullshit’; a Humean historical framework with a cor-
rupted notion of Kantian ‘indeterminate judgement’ bolted on. Furthermore, as James Elkins points
out in his contribution, the use of C.S. Pierce’s concept of the indexical sign – very often read as a key
element of Camera Lucida – by many of Barthes’s interpreters tends to reduce Pierce’s complex con-
cept to a regrettably simplified register of cause and effect. One thing seems certain, the semiotically-
oriented, critical attempt to politicize photography inspired by Barthes’s earlier writings – both in
response to the problems of Greenberg’s formalist modernism, and photography’s ideological over-
determination in its everyday usage – removed the possibility of finding a way to think the kind of
affect that the later Barthes needed in order to make sense of his mother’s death photographically.
It is now increasingly recognized that a more sophisticated understanding and application of
philosophical aesthetics and the work of C.S. Pierce might provide ways in which to address photog-
raphy’s specific sensuous materiality: the residual non-conventionalized relation a photograph might
have with its referent and photography’s particular relationship to time.
Photography Degree Zero does contain some excellent essays. For instance, Margaret Olin’s
‘Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s “Mistaken Identification”’ is a significant point of reference
for several other contributors. Olin convincingly argues that the central, but famously unpublished,
‘Winter Garden’ photograph of Barthes’s mother as a child does not in fact exist and, furthermore,
that it is a construction based on the description of Franz Kafka’s photograph in Benjamin’s A Little
History of Photography. Given the pathos surrounding the image of Barthes’s mother, and the manner
in which what he says about it is rather too often taken at face value, the implications of Olin’s


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argument still hold out a critical promise that is, as yet, by no means exhausted. Another critical pair-
ing staged in this anthology is that between Michael Fried and James Elkins. This is noteworthy,
mainly because Fried is one of few contributors to have attempted a reading of Camera Lucida that
convincingly draws it into the present. He does so by suggesting that Barthes’s demand for attention
to the non-mannered contingency of photographs chimes with Fried’s own recent attempt to revivify
his art historical notions of anti-theatricality and absorption through their application to interpreting
recent photographic art. The critical value in the pairing of Fried’s interpretation of Camera Lucida
and Elkins’s explicit response to it arises from the fact that the latter remains wary of any attempt to
update Camera Lucida. This is mainly because Elkins sees this as entailing the ‘shrinking of photogra-
phy to the dimensions of vernacular image-making […] vernacular photography is only a tiny pro-
portion of photography and probably its most unadventurous part’ (178). Vernacular for Elkins
includes portraiture, journalism, street photography and snapshots; all practices that form the basis
of the photographic work Fried privileges, though exaggerated to a larger scale.
Geoffrey Batchen, in the final essay of the collection, suggests that Camera Lucida should be read not
for its theoretical possibilities, but as a model of critical history: arguing that the positing of binaries such
as the studium and the punctum – concepts which have come, frankly, to be venerated in writings that
draw on Camera Lucida – were introduced by Barthes only so that he might go on to undermine them.
Batchen elaborates this reading by identifying and critiquing other, more self-evidently spurious binaries
such as Bush and Blair’s ‘good and evil’. Batchen argues that, on the model of Barthes’s late reflections
on photography, we can somehow demolish such dangerous paradigms. But, to my mind, this is stretch-
ing a generous reading of an already allusive theoretical model until it becomes unrecognizable. In terms
of political application I would rather turn to Benjamin. As Peter Osborne pointed out Barthes’s and
Benjamin’s analyses of photography, despite coming from a similar standpoint, have radically different
conclusions: ‘For Barthes, the inevitability of death, the defeat of time; for Benjamin, the rediscovery of
the future. For Barthes, the future as future death; for Benjamin, futurity, possibility and hence politics’
(Osborne 2000: 39). Ultimately, in this vein, I have to agree with Elkins when he says that: ‘There is per-
haps no better evidence of the disarray of contemporary theorizing on photography than the fact that a
book as problematic as Camera Lucida is still read and cited as a source of insights about photography’
(172). Perhaps the fact that Camera Lucida is read and reread so avidly today is, itself, a fact that is worthy
of close critical attention. What desires, affects, disappointments and elisions, one might ask, are at work
in this, its current renaissance? Rather than writing the nostalgic novel of Ernest, I will stick with my
memory of the young woman in Annie Hall and her projected claim on a desirous future.

Osborne, Peter. (2000), Philosophy in Cultural Theory, London & New York, Routledge.


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Conference Report
Humanising Photography, Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies
(organized in partnership with Autograph ABP), 25–27 September 2009

Reviewed by Diane Smyth, British Journal of Photography

Photographic practice and criticism have long been riven by debates about humanism and anti-
humanism. Throughout the twentieth century the tension between, on the one hand, a critical or
reformist concern to depict the social world and, on the other hand, the problematisation of the con-
ditions of possibility of this desire have proven pivotal to discussions of documentary photography.
Of the many instances of such disputes, one might recall the influential critiques of liberal reformist
photography robustly articulated by Allan Sekula and Martha Rosler in the 1970s. One might coun-
terpoise to such critique the faith that many continue to place in the affective power of photography
as a medium that can inform and move the public mood as, for instance, in the work of W. Eugene
Smith and Sebastiao Salgado and in the writings of John Berger and David Levi Strauss. Introductions
to the problem of humanism in photography find it, understandably, very difficult to resist mention
of Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition of 1955 – with its ambition of mirroring the essential
oneness of mankind – in order to note that this desire provoked much criticism of Steichen’s appar-
ent reduction of historical specificity and political difference to an overly generalised and unspecific
One might also trace the history of the relation between humanism and anti-humanism in terms
of the philosophy and influence of photo agencies such as Magnum, famously conceived by Henri
Cartier-Bresson (a founder member) as a ‘community of thought’ which facilitates faithful represen-
tation of shared human qualities. Such viewpoints tend to centre on the historically tendentious fig-
ure of the “concerned photographer”, described by Cornell Capa, (another early member of Magnum)
as one who, when confronted with an unacceptable aspect of their present, attempts to intervene by
letting the world know why it is unacceptable. Another agency, World Press Photo, was founded in
1955, and for many years ran the Novosti/TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) prize for the
best photo on the subject of ‘peace, progress and humanism’. The prize ended with the break up of
the Soviet Union but World Press Photo remains, along with its annual award competition for pho-
tojournalists and documentary photographers. Images of human suffering are featured routinely in
newspapers and magazines. The NGO sector has become increasingly reliant on them. But such
images have also long been the subject of pointed criticism. Susan Sontag, to name one familiar


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example, queried the assumption of shared humanity between the photographer, audience and sub-
ject, highlighting the unequal and exploitative power relations at work, and writing of ‘those profes-
sional, specialised tourists known as journalists’ (in her Regarding the Pain of Others of 2003). The
social and political efficacy of such images has also come under attack. Speaking at VII photo agen-
cy’s European seminar in April 2007, John G. Morris, former picture editor of Life, The New York
Times and The Washington Post, stated that such images do not work.
It was to discuss these related issues that the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies
and Autograph ABP organized the Humanizing Photography conference that took place at Durham
University from 25–27 September 2009. The conference notes framed the discussion of these issues
with following statement:

In the early twenty-first century, the still photographic image continues to be one of the
central visual technologies of humanitarianism: from the all-too familiar images document-
ing successive waves of famine and disease, through those that bear witness to the action
and destruction of war, to the photo ops staged in the arena of struggles for human rights.
[…] Disseminated across a range of media and spanning geographical distances and cultural
divides, photographic images are presented for everyday consumption, produced by practi-
tioners often working explicitly in the name of ‘humanity’ and testifying to acts of injustice
and states of destitution and abjection.

The conference sought, explicitly, to bring together academic and non-academic viewpoints on the
issues thus raised, with varying degrees of success and interest.
Speakers included Mark T. Reinhardt (author of Beautiful Suffering), Sharon Sliwinski, Luis Sinco
(Los Angeles Times photographer), Benjamin Chesterton (multimedia producer), Michelle Woodward,
(photo editor of Middle East Report Magazine, USA) and Christopher Morton, (curator of photo-
graphs at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford). Photojournalist Paul Lowe (best-known
for his work in the former Eastern bloc) summed up the underlying aim of the conference and gave
the clue to the conception of humanism that informed many contributions to it: ‘We need to build a
really solid case that photography can play a role in action so that we can come up with an ethics for
professionals that justifies the presence of a professional witness’. The scene was thus set for a dis-
cussion of issues of documentary representation of political and social issues in photojournalism.
Whilst this may be slightly limited, given the ambitious and general issues projected by the confer-
ence title, it nonetheless enabled many related and often very interesting examinations of the issues
thus delimited.
Photojournalists are only too aware of the ethical debates surrounding their work. Reinhardt’s
paper (‘Sensational Images, Or: The Aesthetics-Politics Relation’) explored this fact. He began with a


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conventional reference to Benjamin’s ‘Work of Art’ essay: ‘self-alienation has reached such a degree
that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order’, which he went
on to discuss alongside traumatic images: from depictions of lynching in the American south to infa-
mous documents of military torture in Abu Ghraib. He ended with an examination of James
Nachtwey’s much discussed photograph of an emaciated famine victim crawling towards a feeding
centre in Sudan in 1993. Reinhardt’s basic point was a familiar but nonetheless trenchant one. Despite
ostensibly working on behalf of the people depicted, the photographer is very often inescapably
caught up in institutions, conventions and networks of interest that fatefully inscribe their work in an
exploitative framework. In this context, expectations placed on such photographs are high and they
are almost bound to be disappointed: the familiarity of this point notwithstanding, it remains an
important issue. As Susan Sontag once remarked: ‘like sexual voyeurism, photography is a way of at
least tacitly encouraging something to go on’ (a typically aphoristic remark drawn from her cele-
brated introduction to On Photography of 1973).
Reinhardt’s questioning of the continuing and problematic intertwinement of sympathy and
voyeurism, exploitation and concern, the desire for change and the fact that representations that
seek to stimulate it so often fall short of the mark, chimed with the accounts of related issues dis-
cussed by other speakers. In this respect his comments on the asymmetry that structures the figure
of the human in relation to the imperatives of politics was typical: ‘The fundamental problem is get-
ting us to recognize the humanity of other […] but this suggests that one-on-one human relation-
ships are the basis of politics when, actually, if all you are is a human being you’re pretty screwed. It
might be interpersonally important but it’s not politically active – in fact it’s fundamentally depoliti-
cizing. We need […] to consider how pictures mobilize us politically’.
Thomas Keenan, director of the ‘Human Rights Project at Bard College’, noted that humanistic
approaches attempt to ‘get viewers to recognize the humanity in the other, who might not appear
entirely human. But this is to deny the political reason of why right now – humanity is not a political
category’. Benjamin Chesterton responded, ‘as someone who has worked in humanitarian settings
I’m pretty simple. We all live on the same planet – photography works best when it breaks down
these barriers.’
Michelle Woodward, photo editor of Middle East Report Magazine, came down firmly on the
side of specificity as a general value in her contribution, ‘Historicizing Humanitarian Photography:
The Case of Magnum Photos’. Her trenchant rehearsal of familiar debates argued that so-called
universal perspectives do not reflect the shared humanity of photographer and subject, but actu-
ally a privileged western gaze. She presented a history of both the Magnum and its aesthetic in
light of the particular manner in which the work of this agency developed a powerfully institu-
tionalized humanitarian impulse, which nonetheless ended by producing, ‘photography as a life-
style’. Her paper turned to discussion of Sebastiao Salgado’s celebrated images of labour in the


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Brazilian gold mines of the mid-1980s. Salgado is exemplary of a now ‘classic’ mode of highly
aestheticized documentary photography that seeks to sway the emotions of its viewers by deploy-
ing all the skills and possibilities of highly wrought and intensely artful imagery. Woodward’s
paper ended with a discussion of the diminution of Magnum’s influence in the 1960s. Gilles
Peress’ photographs of Iran in the early 1980s were taken to be exemplary of an inability to under-
stand what was going on in the revolution through photography: a point that was further explored
in discussion of the resurgence of the aesthetic principles of the Magnum agency in the post-
September 11 period.
Mark Sealy raised a similar set of issues in one of the many question and answer sessions that
punctuated the conference. He questioned the western, and specifically Christian, bias of many so-
called universal impulses in humanist photography. Responding to Patricia Hayes’s paper on the
Namibian-South African war, he asked why one of the images she discussed, (depicting a victim of
war) has come to be known as ‘The Crucifix’, voicing the suspicion that the resurgence of Christian
iconography in photojournalism flattens out the individual experiences of those photographed.
Darren Newbury concurred: ‘Often the images invoked are those that fit into stories we, the western
audience, have available already, i.e., biblical references’.
Hayes objected to this line of argument, making the point that the area of South Africa in ques-
tion is predominantly Christian, meaning that its people are familiar with and can readily read such
imagery and that, anecdotally, the photographers in question often claim it is useful when such an
image becomes iconic and translates into a kind of ‘universal understanding’. Other speakers, unsur-
prisingly, engaged further with the apparently ‘universal’ themes in humanitarian photography.
Christopher Morton, curator of photographs at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford,
attempted to ‘open out what humanism means’ by tracing the museum’s history back to Victorian
comparative anthropology; tracing the critical challenges to which this discipline was subjected in the
twentieth century, he ended with the observation that a subconscious lineage from hierarchical, colo-
nial assumptions persists in contemporary musicological attitudes and practices. Zachary R. Hagins
explored similar terrain in a paper on photography and the Police Municipale in fin de siècle France,
which focused on the figure of Alphonse Bertillon with a view to examining the tension between
humanism and the effective dehumanization of ‘criminals’ documented according to Bertillon’s sys-
tem in nineteenth-century France. Hagins’s paper drew attention to the racial, class, and gender
differences between those operating the system and those subjected to this form of representation,
who were very often non-French, Italian, Spanish or Jewish. Sealy reminded the conference that
inequitable power dynamics persist in contemporary, ostensibly humanist, photography. Marta
Zarzycka’s (Utrecht University) observation to a different panel and to the effect that a grieving
Indian woman shot by Arko Datta (which won the 2004 World Press Photo award) did not even get
a name, served to hammer home this same point.


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Similar power relationships are at work in Israeli human rights agencies’ picture editing, argued
Ruth Ginsberg of the Bar-Ilan university in ‘Taking Pictures Over Soldier’s Shoulders’. B’Tselem, the
Israeli information centre for human rights in the area, she related, invariably chooses images in
which Israeli soldiers are depicted carrying guns and with their backs to the camera. Palestinian sub-
jects, meanwhile, are conventionally pictured head-on facing the advancing Israelis. Her paper went
on to examine the political character of the choices, modes of authority and power embedded in such
Sharon Sliwinski’s paper, ‘Rolleiflex Witness: Picturing the Nazi Camps’, analysed Lee Miller’s
photographs of Auschwitz in terms of subsequent debates about the representation of the
Holocaust. For Sliwinski, Miller created a kind of ‘pre-narrative envelope, testimony for what was
In the end, it was left to two speakers, Eugene Shinkle, from the University of Westminster, and
Paul Lowe, to suggest possible ways forward for photojournalists and documentary photographers. In
an appropriately-named paper ‘Bearing Witness’, Lowe identified a new trend in photojournalism,
which he named ‘the forensic turn’ and which he talked of as an ‘ultra-specific’ approach in which
photographers scale their intentions down from the attempt to encapsulate shared humanity in gen-
eral, towards the task of more limited and, the hope is, effective information-gathering. For Lowe, the
important shift happened after the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s. In this context, Lowe, and other pho-
tographers such as Ron Haviv, became convinced that traditional photojournalism does not help pro-
mote the cause of protecting human rights. Haviv’s 1992 photograph of a Serbian commando casually
smoking a cigarette while kicking a recently shot Muslim was a powerful image, said Lowe – and
taken at considerable personal risk to the photographer – but it did not stop the war. Bosnian photog-
raphers entered this conflict as journalists and left with a different agenda, different strategies. The
significant impulse of Lowe’s ultra-specific approach boils down to the idea that the photographer
might work closely with human rights agencies to collect evidence. Contemporary photojournalists
like Gilles Peres and Marcus Bleasdale, for example, now often work as forensic photographers with
NGOs, in the belief that just presenting a picture is no longer enough, but that gathering specific evi-
dence for particular cases might be. For Lowe, it is no longer enough just to take pictures. Photographers
have to embed themselves in much bigger institutional strategies: ‘I think a move away from editorial
could be the saviour, not the end, of photography’.
Shinkle took an almost opposite stance in her paper ‘Landscapes of Suffering’ and, on the model
of certain contemporary art practices, she urged photographers to seek out an aesthetic of the every-
day. Photographers such as Sophie Ristelhueber, Simon Norfolk, Paul Seawright and Luc Delahaye,
she argued, find purchase on the tensions inherent in humanism by emphasizing things like ‘the
universal rhetoric of concrete and asphalt’. Her argument sought to displace the focus of photogra-
phy on the specificity of the human figure, in a move towards what she called empathetic landscape,


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and the possibility that photographers might act to de-territorialize the mundanity of the everyday.
Shinkle faced a tough question and answer session after her paper, with Reinhardt and Sliwinski in
particular questioning how the images she referenced might affect their audience. Shinkle’s response
was to muse on neuroscience and the problem of experiential evidence, which slightly disappointed
the promise of her cogent paper.
Whilst this means these questions turned out to be fair in the context, it remains the case that
they could have been levelled at any one of the speakers presenting to this conference. And perhaps
they should have been? The conference did provoke some substantive debate on the acute problems
of photojournalism. The organizers should be commended for gathering together photographers,
photo editors and producers, alongside a wide range of academics, for a conference that considered
these issues.


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