Remarks on the nature of Photography

Some years ago - and before the advent of digital photography - I went to an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London: `The Art of Photography 1939-1989'. At the same time the RA was exhibiting prints and paintings by Gauguin and his associates at Pont-Aven. I walked round both exhibitions on the same afternoon. To see photographs framed and hung in an art gallery is an unusual context for looking at them - we usually encounter photographs in newspapers, magazines and snapshot albums - but it does allow me to pose the question: How, if at all, does looking at a photograph differ from looking at a print or painting? Do we - or ought we - to bring different expectations to an encounter with photographs? Should we engage with photographs in a different kind of way from the way (whatever that may be) that we engage with paintings? Do photographs characteristically affect us in ways that differ from the effects of a print or a painting?

Consider the question of belief or expectation. Most photographs are not taken with a view to being framed and hung as `works of art', nor do we often look at them in that way. (Whether we can look at them in that way is an issue I'll come to.) Most photographs are taken to provide a record, a document, a proof, an aid to memory, that something once happened, that someone looked like this (as they look in the photograph), that somewhere you can encounter that (that which can be seen in the photograph). Of course, a sketch, a drawing, a painting can be made with a view to showing how someone or somewhere looked; but the documentary value in this case is intrinsically less than in the case of the photograph. This is because it is the case (and we know that it is the case) that the sketch or painting can show something which never actually existed - that it can be drawn out of the artist's imagination - whereas a (pre-digital) photograph at least is evidence that there was something in front of the camera when the photograph was taken and, ambiguity aside, the photograph also shows what that something was. In other words a drawing is the product of the intentional activity of a person (an artist) using a drawing medium, whereas a photograph is the causally explicable effect of light falling on a light-sensitive medium. We (normally) know this when we look at paintings and photographs. Knowing what we do accounts for at least part of the difference in the ways we look at paintings and photographs, and the ways we respond, until very recently attributing to the latter an evidential or documentary value quantitatively much greater, and perhaps qualitatively different from that we attribute to the former. The advent of digital photography has complicated this situation, and may yet fundamentally change it, but so far digital photographs trade heavily on the inherent credibility of photographs. This is why the Internet houses countless numbers of digitally manipulated images, whether of Osama's beard or Britney's boobs.

It is because photographs have been particularly credible in this way as documents or evidence that it has been worthwhile for the person intent on deceiving us (1) to set up and photograph as `real' a scene which is merely representational, or (2) to interfere with a photograph by cropping and painting in or out to show as real what is merely ideologically preferred. Digital photography has simply extended these pre-existing possibilities.

The RA exhibition I saw included a famous much-reproduced photograph by Robert Capa entitled `Loyalist Soldier, Spanish Civil War, 1938', which at the time purported to show the soldier at the moment of being struck and fatally wounded by an enemy bullet. It is now thought by many that Capa posed the scene with the loyalist soldier, who is merely pretending to be shot. If that is so, the photograph may remain of `aesthetic' interest, but it loses its documentary value and loses whatever affective response belief in its truthvalue would have elicited from us.

There is also a famous photograph from the Russian Revolution of Lenin addressing a crowd from an improvised rostrum. The original photograph shows Trotsky standing close to Lenin. In the version of the photograph reproduced in Russia under Stalin and subsequently, Trotsky has disappeared from the photograph: he has been painted out - visually unpersoned. Photographs of the Chinese leadership under Mao Tse-Tung suffered the same kind of deletions - which are, however, comic when one is left with a gap in a line-up of leaders

For many critics, the way in which photographs are produced has other consequences for how we can and do look at them.

First, it is argued, photographs - which are often taken for `sentimental reasons' - encourage an essentially sentimental response.

Second, knowing how photographs are produced, it is - despite the efforts of the photographer ? difficult for us to look at them as works of art, or to respond to them aesthetically.

Photographs looked at here and now are necessarily photographs of something, someone, somewhere, there and then. They are a present means of access to something past. We can carry here, in our wallet or handbag, a souvenir, a memento, a keepsake, of the look of someone then, all the more valuable because (unlike a miniature painting) the photograph is a trace, a remainder, of the actual light which fell on that person and was reflected through the eye of the camera. Photographs, in virtue of how they are made, encourage nostalgia, sentimentality. So it is argued, and so it is evidenced (for example) in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida: see notably Barthes' response to Andre Kertesz's 1931 photograph of a boy called Ernest , where he exclaims, "It is possible that Ernest is still alive today: but where? how? What a novel!". See also the whole of section 28 of the book, which is a meditation on a photograph of Barthes' mother.

Against this view it can be pointed out that the film medium is - in the respects I have been considering - identical to the photographic medium, and then argued that we do not look at films as the present evidence of something which occurred in the past: film has a here-now rather than a here-then character. We wince because the blow falls now, not because it once fell - and perhaps after all we wince at some photographs in exactly the same manner.

Photographs are necessarily photographs of something, and knowing how they are made, we tend to look through the photograph to what it is a photograph of. This, it is argued, stops us looking at the photograph, especially where the subject-matter is such as to play on whatever is prurient, morbidly curious or voyeuristic in our minds. Opposition to the display of photographs of the nude is stronger than opposition to display of paintings of the nude because it is felt that in the former we (in some sense) have to look at the nude, but in the latter (in some sense) at the painting.

In an important essay, `Photography and Representation' (in his book The Aesthetic Understanding), Roger Scruton ends a critique of photography as a possible artistic medium by declaring, `The medium of photography, one might say, is inherently pornographic' (p. 126). At the very least, the photographer of the nude who wants to avoid pornography is driven to use devices which seek to pull the spectator's attention away from the subject-matter and towards the photographer's art: for example, by securing a distorted image of the body (Bill Brandt), or exploiting the possibilities of close-up (Edward Weston), by etherealizing the image with soft focus, coloured lenses (David Hamilton). Some would say these activities only compound the original inherent pornography. Others would say that it is mistaken in the first place to suppose that we `see through' photographs to what they are photographs of .This position is argued by Nigel Warburton in an essay, `Seeing through Seeing through Photographs'. (Ratio, 1988, pp 64 - 74)

Much could be said on this topic. In my book Key Concepts, from which this essay is extracted, I extend the discussion in the section "Obscenity and Pornography". The general interest of the discussion is that in pursuing questions about if and how photography can be an art form (a medium for art), much light is thrown on what we think we understand by art, its materials and its media. Scruton's essential point in this connection is that because photography is a causal-mechanical process (not an intentional practice) the photograph is consequently just a trace or index (in C S Peirce's sense of 'Index') of that process, resistant to being used as a medium of art. That resistance may (to a greater or lesser extent) be overcome by the intentional activity of photographers in their ingenuity in using this resistant medium.

For other critics, photography is no more `resistant' to art than is a tube of paint. They might go on to say that photography, like the microscope, has allowed new ways of seeing things. `The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses', says Walter Benjamin in `The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. Benjamin also says that `much futile thought has been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question - whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art - was not raised' (p. 229). This primary question is undoubtedly revived by the advent of digital photography where the enhanced scope for image manipulation blurs the boundaries which I have argued underpin our ways of seeing.

Revised from the essay "Photography" appearing in Trevor Pateman, Key Concepts. A Guide to Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education (London, Falmer Press 1991), pages 138-40