The Best Philosophy of Photography? (Intelligible Ontology and Semiotics)
I've done a lot of reading about photography over the last two years or so--beginner "how-to"s, intermediate and advanced technical texts about chemistry and optics, histories of the medium, piles of monographs of the masters, collections of contemporary practitioners and living masters, and lots of philosophy (about representation, epistemics and ontologics of aesthetic, etc)--and without a doubt, the absolute most singularly important book I've read is Henri Van Leir's "Philosophy of Photography." His work has transformed how I think about myself as a practitioner of conventional optical-chemical photography, how I understand the digital "revolution" in image making, and has made obvious to me how I must proceed to explore my work. I would like to present his ideas here that perhaps someone would like to talk about them with me, because so far in my life I'm up to (prospectively) one other person.
Van Lier's philosophical musings on the epistemic nature of photography use the word "indice" as something that is a physical mark in the universe that is connotative (like the latent image on film captured through the lens), void of intention that is required to make it denotative. He uses the word "index" as the intended denotative content of a photograph, which comes from the thematic or contextual aspect of the "spectacle" that the photographer intended to capture.
*the bolding is my emphasis, italics as original.
"After having been scrutinized all of its characteristics, it might be said that photography is best understood in light of the opposition often made today between the real and reality.Reality designates the real inso far as it is already seized and organized in sign systems, thus assuming the forms of intentionally, contentionally and systemically defined signs accordingly distributed in objects and actions, which are the designates that denominate or represent the signs in question. By contrast, the real is that which escapes this conception of reality. It is all that is before, after and underneath reality, it is all that is not yet domesticated by our technical, scientific, and social relations, and which Sartre, for instance, dubbed the quasi-relations of the in-itself. -- Henri Van Lier, "Philosophy of Photography" (2007), 36-38.
Indices hover between the real and reality. They are the chaotic, unnamable and unrepresentable quasi-relations -- mostly suddenly -- constitute relations: schemas, words, drawings, or digits. From there, they enter into relaity, but often only hypothetically, partially and fragilely, in overlap with other possible relations, and consumed by other quasi-relations. In their emergence, indices are not only aided by the internal decision of their more or less analogical or namable texture and structure, but also by the index which, by designating indices, increasse the latter's likelihood to be viewed in a particular context, and thus to be seen as either this or that. Therefore, to start with,indices belong to the real, and only appertain to reality in the final stage, which is furthermore rarely decisive. Moreover, photographic imprints are indices of indices with respect to possible spectacles. They are (very direct) indices of the imbuing photons, and, through their multiple abstractive meditaion, they are (very indirect) indices of external objects and actions. As such, a photograph is not merely a blend of reality and the real. It is a phenomenon where what is represented of reality comes to us across the frame of the real. Moreover, this is a double frame involving the chemistry of the film and the physicality of the lens. However, the termacross is still inexact. One has to use the term within, since the photograph is infintely slender and lacks a before or after, back or front. In a figurative sense, photographs are therefore fragments of reality within the (double) frame of the real.
It is true that, in the case of advertising, pornographic, industrial, and family photographs, extremely imperious indexes and remarkable analogies may ensure that we forget this frame and can only percieve stimuli-signs. However, even in this case, the quasi-relations of the real do not border on therelations of reality; the former can be seen as the mould in which these relations are in continuous and precarious germination. This confirms the priority of perceptual, motive, semiotic, and indicial field effects. Indeed, why is ti that between the quasi-relations of this matrix and the created fleeting relations there is no soliditifaction at any time, as their place of reciprocal conversions, field effects, curvatures and fluctuations? In a figurative sense, a photograph is reality emerging from the real. Conversely, it is reality gnawed at by the real.
One can rephrase this by introducing a different set of categories. The Greeks opposed Chaos -- non-information and noise -- to Cosmos -- (cosmetic) order, which was translated alsmot literally in Latinas Mundus, the cleanly (the non-filthy). In this frame, Chaos pertains to the real, while the Cosmos-Mundus belongs to the realm of reality, of which man could indeed be the ruler and the semiotic epitome, the Microcosm. According to Cicero, Latin had the virtue of introducing a more comprehensive notion, namely that of Universe, the turn-towards-one, capable of embracing Cosmos and Chaos, order and disorder, information and noise, negentropy and entropy, improbabilty and probability, refinement and obscenity, scene and non-scene. One can now clearly see the place of photography. Through its indexes and certain more or less indexed indices, the photograph offers fragments of the Cosmos-Mundus. However, the chemistry of its latent image and the abstractive configuration of its lenses belong to the Universe World of which they are states. The tips of the Cosmos-Mundus therefore appear as states of the Universe.
There is a third way of formulating this. In ancient times, what mattered most was the event, to the extent that, since the times of the pharaohs and of the Romans, many lived for their tomb or posthumous glory, that is to say, for the final consecrations of the event that they had been. Thepossible, uncertain event was distrusted. For the most part, the photograph belongs to the latter. The contingency of the photographic shot and its development. The possibility of indicial imprints, and the possibility of indexed indices. The contingency of re-cuts and ulterior layouts. An event implies a certain emphasis, or else value judgment, and willy-nilly seems to refer to some banality. The possible, as situated between imprint and the indicial, between indices and indexes, between reality and the real, between Cosmos and Mundus, is more readily accessible, and, as is the case with a process, is situated in a course (things have to run their course, as Beckett would put it) that does not necessarily have an end or goal. Moreover, the latter are even discouraged. Reality is comprised of events and objects while the real is characterized by process and relay.
Therefore, the photograph is in every sense a matter of black. What is most important for photography -- as with interstellar space -- is the night. In film rolls and blank paper, the camera, darkrooms and printing laboratiries, it is the night, the darkness and non-light out of which luminous eventualities manifest themselves punctually and incidentally, emerging out of the dark only to return to it. The photographic photon traverses the night of the device only to take hold again of shadows, in the form of negatives and latent images. And this darkness is contained in a room with its secret and genital workings. Here, only solely speaks of spools, paper impregnators, baths, and developing. The photograph is more uterine than phallic. The architect, the dancer, the painter, the sculptor, the artisan, and the writer all work in a lighted room; even their nights are filled with light. By contrast, the photographer inhabits the camera obscura, and he ultimately and always draws in the future viewers with him.
The photograph is even the most vivacious experience of what physicists call the black box, where one can clearly percieve the entrance (input) and the exit (output), without ever knowing quite well what takes place between the two. The function of reality and the cosmos is to dissimulate black boxes, to make us believe that everything can be reduced to signs, referents, objects and events, and therefore to links that clarify and reveal causality. The apprehension of the real and the universe is to dare to confront black boxes wherever they might be, which is to say, almost everywhere when keeping in mind that there are fewer clear-cut cases of causality than what Heisenberg called series of probabilities. These series of probabilityes are statistically claculatble and predictable; however, this does not entail that they are uninterruptedly describable. No matter where it is taken, a photograph renders place and duration, which are peculair to reality, in the form of space-time, non-duration and non-space, which are characteristic of the real. Invented and used by earthlings, the photograph is the stuff of extraterrestrials."
"In its lenses, the photographic process gathers and makes use of the main messenger of the universe, electromagnetic waves. These have remarkable characteristsics. Their movement is linear, apart from an enormous gravitational effect. Their refractivity, when passing from one environment to another, is goverened by fixed laws. Their interference fringes are continuous and calculable. They are isotropic: in a vacuum, their speed is constant in every direction. According to the theory of relativity, this speed is insurmoutnable and gives rise to the cosmic constant c. Because of this, simultaneities are created and thus also a coordinated space and time, a space-time. Through the electromagnetic waves between the space-time islets prodigiously moving away or drawing closer, a kind of unity is instituted which ensures that any event belongs to the Universe, to the turn-towards-One. Working on this set of features revolving around c is, for the lens engineer as well as for the photographer, in itself a remarkable way of connecting with the nature of things.-- Henri Van Lier, "Philosophy of Photography" (2007), 59-60.
Furthermore, the solar system privileges particular electromagnetic waves. As the sun's surface temperature is 5800 degrees Kelvin, its most intense electromagnetic radiation has a wavelength of about 2.9mm (the length of a privileged wave of a black body at 1 degree Kelvin) divided by 5800, or in other words, 500 nano-meters. Thus, Evolution selected the human eye for its adaptation to waves between 400 and 700 nano-meters; 500 for green at the centre, 400 for blue, 700 for red. As a consequence, and in return for other optic capabilities, man captures light in a most balanced and integrating manner. This remarkable ability is one of the elements - together with the standing posture, the hand, the larynx, the neocortex, and the omnivorous diet - contributing to his transformation into the signifying animal, this mammal where analogical and digital signs blossomed, or, in short, humankind as the place where signs originated. The integrating gaze is the fundamental practical, scientific, and aesthetic experience bespeaking the concord between humankind and the solar system, and beyond. In other words, these abilities render man the cosmic and universal animal."
the rest of the book is here, online, for free forever:
It's been a while since I've read him, and just cruising over those quote (which I'd prepared for friends on a note in facebook a year ago) I got chills.
It leaves me cold, too. Too much philosophy; not enough photographs. It's even harder to appreciate than Susan Sontag's On Photography.
Well, I've just made a suggestion that Ethics and Philosophy threads should be user rated from 'Neanderthal' to 'Socrates'. This is pretty heavy stuff.
I'll need to come back to this and give it some more thought, I've only skimmed over it - let's see how far the discussion gets!
But for now I'll say that, through my own self directed study over the past year or so, I've recently come to understand photographic perception - in regard to symbolism and cultural reference - in two spheres; objects and information. Objects I feel are what most photographers think in terms of and critically, are at risk of becoming disillusioned by ("everything has been photographed"). Thinking in terms of 'information', in that oft-quoted 'state of heightened awareness', is where the most interesting work, post-Steven Shore has headed. I'm interested in the uncanny in photography - which is nearly always, it seems to me, a contextual construct - as opposed to an overtly authored message (I'm thinking Minor White specifically for that). This kind of investigation seems to be bubbling under the surface of contemporary photography. Thanks for the link.
hmm. i'd intended these little exerpts to be the appetite wetter for the whole text--on their own I don't think they have enough to really be thoroughly discussed.
Barthes, Sontag, Flusser and others all have their contribution and are worthy reading in their own right, but for whatever reason I connect with these ideas in a tremendously powerful fashion.
btw, don't think that this is anything other than very hard; it took a few re-reads per page my first time through the book, and every revisitation of the text reveals new meaning. this isn't the Monday morning commuter newspaper.
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A photograph is neither taken nor seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos. (Henri Cartier-Bresson)
“The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention”
There's philosophy and philosophy. I am (or was) a philosopher,* but in a different philosophical tradition, and I find that style of writing pretty heavy going. Fairly heavy going, and often fairly -- and apologies here to the original poster, because I understand that it's worthwhile for you -- vacuous, or literal nonsense.
* I don't mean that in a figurative sense. I mean I was paid to teach philosophy, have published (albeit not much) as philosopher, etc.
Van Lier's philosophy of photography is typical of non-photographing philosophers philosophising about photography. The language, the confusion, the jargon, the irrelevant tangents, and the misunderstandings are echoed in similarly arcane outpourings from Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and even Susan Sontag.
It's many years since I was paid to do philosophy and in the interim I have made a full time career in photography.
Since there seems to be a lot of anxiety about reality I would offer the observation that there IS something particularly realistic about a photograph that separates it from virtually any other kind of representation. A photograph is generated when a physical sample of subject matter travels across space (at 300 000 Km/sec!) and penetrates the sensitive surface, lodges in it, and occasions changes that result in marks. This arrangement of marks, if it coheres as a picture, is a photograph.
A number of corollaries follow.
Only real things are capable of delivering physical samples. Photographs cannot be made of imaginary things, past events, or things that have not yet happened.
A photograph and its subject must simultaneously exist in each others presence for the physical connection to be possible. A photograph confirms the existence of the subject. A subject is a necessary (but not a sufficient) precursor to a photograph.
A subject that gives off a physical sample of itself gets lighter. A film receiving an exposure gets heavier. For the record a 8x10 sheet of 100 ISO film absorbing a middling exposure (zone V if you like) experiences an increase in mass of about 10 to the minus 24 kilograms. All of those kilograms come from the subject. This mass does not sound like very much but it is incomparably greater than nothing at all. And if that 10 to the minus 24 kilograms hit you in the eye you would surely feel it. After all it arrives with a muzzle velocity of 186 000 miles per second.
At the moment of exposure the camera rocks backward due to the physical impact of light. The effect is not large but it is not zero. It's a fun calculation. Try it!
One could continue with film getting hotter when exposed, latent images being heavier than no exposure, and so on but the central argument is this: The core of photography lies in an event that takes place in physical reality and many people, not just philosophers, would assert that this physical reality is the only kind of "reality" that actually exists.
Oh, and another outcome is that non-photographing philosophers end up ruminating about their own perplexity and bewilderment rather than the deep values of photography itself. I should think that Van Lier would have done better to sit down and have a good long read of APUG and THEN written his book.
Photography, the word itself, invented and defined by its author Sir John.F.W.Herschel, 14 March 1839 at the Royal Society, Somerset House, London. Quote "...Photography or the application of the Chemical rays of light to the purpose of pictorial representation,..". unquote.
Well, I too thought something of this kind...
Originally Posted by Maris
And I'm not sure whether I ever go into such endeavour of reading this text.
However the text did no come into the world totally un-linked to photography. The book is published by the Flemish Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography, who approach photography mostly from a philosophical viewpoint. But some of their publications have photographs too, one is even technical...
To begin with Maris, it's not clear whether or not you've actually read any of the authors that you dismiss en bloc out of hand. Assuming you have, is your contention with all of them that they wrote on photography, or that they wrote at all? The accusation of esoteric language and complex argument I could understand as a criticism of Derrida or Baudrillard (who I love, for his entertaining flights of insanity and bombast), but absolutely not of Barthes or Sontag. To that end, I reject your (implied) assertion that meaningful inspection of ourselves and our activities (photographic or otherwise) can be adequately executed without the invention of specific language to contain and communicate the novel ideas that a thinker presents us with. Are the confusions 'they' generate an aspect of their flawed thinking, or inattention of the reader? What unrelated tangents are you finding in works of dedicated philosophy?
Originally Posted by Maris
The pursuit of knowledge is a worthy, but difficult endeavor, and I think you should at least pretend you're interested in accepting the burden before attempting to claim that you've got a singular insight or contribution that these others are somehow missing. On that note, your remarks are somewhat in line with Van Leir's observations, but might be one percent (generously) of the range of the subject that he covers in his relatively short book. If you gave it the time, I'm sure that you would find a lot in there that would resonate. For those concerned, there are even pictures to go with the text on the site!
To benefit the interpretation of the exerpts above, I'll make a few more explanatory remarks which should draw some initial contrast between Van Leir's understanding and Maris' remarks.
Van Leir begins with The Real is all of the universe that exists whether or not people exist to see it. Reality is what we people see and know of the universe, and Reality contains all kinds of meaning that we impose on the Real. He reveals through a short exploration of our cultural ancestors' linguistic constructions (semiotic genealogy and deconstruction) the various ways that we have, and can, think about the natural environment we inhabit.
Photographs are interesting objects because they're so very unlike other kinds of images that people have made. They contain indices (which are like an animal's track in sand) and indexes (which are the patterns that we see in the world, like seeing series of animal tracks and observing how it was moving, where it was going, etc) in a complex fashion which is unique to their nature. When you take a picture, you are using your camera to make an object that contains the indices (the 'footprints' of the world in front of you, over a specific amount of time) of a scene that you found interesting, which means something to you because of the way you have indexed the scene. If your picture is a success, you would feel that it describes the world through the indexes that you wanted to show, captured as physical marks by accident of the universe.
Maris' remarks make a few imprecise missteps about the representative quality of a photograph, its epistemic quality, and that it is somehow privileged in happening in 'physical reality.' First, representation is something that is indexical (in Van Leir's language, denotative in Barthes'), it is a sign which contains meaning--I usually defer to Jonathan Friday's ideas on photographic aesthetics on this point, and don't want to confuse the issue further right now. But, what Maris is talking about is specifically indicial (connotative in Barthesianese) which is something else entirely, and to the point, the more important and distinctive quality of photography.The physicality of chemical photographs is not in itself special: all digital images, and other manugraphic (paintings, drawings, etc) images as well, are physically extant. However, this last aspect is something that I was hoping would come up, to present a notion I had about digital images and imaging technologies.
This feeling of realness that photographs possess, which I'm sure we almost all perceive as their distinctive trait, is a result of their nature as changed objects that carry with them an essence of the "possible spectacle" that is recorded on them. Specifically, this belongs to the negative, but Van Leir addresses that much better than I can remember off the top of my head (so read the book). What I want to say is that the key difference between a film picture and a digital one is not about the medium of capture, because digital chips generate analogue signals in a fashion not totally unlike the ionized response that illuminated silver salts--the 'latent image' on boron doped silicon is no less physically real. The difference comes in when the information on the chip (or film, in a scanner bed) is translated into human language--machine code which very, very precisely interprets and records the closest likeness to that real information that we find sufficient for its adequate reproduction.
The difference between "reality, trapped within the double frame of the real" and very precisely generated likenesses from machine code is the difference that people do (or don't) think is the important aspect in the film/digital debate and all that.
Hopefully I haven't been confusing or indulgent, and that I'm helping to make the argument that this text (and many others) are very worthwhile for anyone who wants to practice photography as something more than a technical and nostalgic fetish act (not that I'm saying that's bad).