You know, of course, that the camera obscura was used for centuries to enable painters to get realistic perspective in their paintings? And today many painters work from photographs. But I believe there can be just as much interpretation involved in the making of a photograph as there is in the making of a painting due to the inherently symbolic nature of all visual imagery.

“Two kinds of photographers, reflecting the double aspect of photography made the earliest images; on the one hand there were chemists, optics engineers and all those who liked to dabble in science; on the other, former painters and art students. Yet it is by no means easy to distinguish the products of one intention—to record the visible world—from the products of the other—to create beautiful pictures.” (Alan Thomas, Time in a Frame, p. 18.)

What appealed initially to scientists and artists alike was photography’s factual nature, its precision and objectivity; few in the early days perceived that, like any image or word, the photograph was inherently symbolic, possessed of meaning, and subject to interpretation. As bare fact, the photograph contains uninterpreted analog data—once that data is interpreted the photograph takes on meaning, becomes a symbol for a past or future moment in the space-time continuum which may be either remembered or imagined. As symbol, the photographic image unites the perception of time and space in a single locus. Wynn Bullock sensed something like this when he said: “I immediately began…to think that you couldn’t have space without time, because if you have no time, there’s no time for space. And if you have no space, there’s nothing for time. They co-existed, but they were independent—they had independent significance.” (Dialogue with Photography, Hill & Cooper, p. 323)


“…we are not dealing with an isolated act, but with a progressive process of determination. At the first level, the fixation of the content through the linguistic sign, the mythical or artistic image, seems to do no more than hold it fast in the memory, it does not go beyond simple reproduction. At this level the sign seems to add nothing to the content to which it refers, but merely to preserve and repeat it. Even in the history of the psychological development of art it has been thought possible to identify a phase of mere “recollective art,” in which all artistic endeavor was directed solely towards stressing certain features of what was perceived by the senses and presenting it to the memory in a man-made image. But the more clearly the particular cultural forms disclose their specific energy, the more evident it becomes that all apparent “reproduction” presupposes an original and autonomous act of consciousness. The reproducibility of the content is itself bound up with the production of a sign for it, and in producing this sign the consciousness operates freely and independently. The concept of “memory” thus takes on a richer and deeper meaning. In order to remember a content, consciousness must previously have possessed itself of that content in a way differing from mere sensation or perception. The mere repetition of the given at another time does not suffice; in this repetition a new kind of conception and formation must be manifested. For every “reproduction” of a content embodies a new level of “reflection.” By the mere fact that it no longer takes this content as something simply present, but confronts it in imagination as something past and yet not vanished, consciousness, by its changed relation to the content, gives both to itself and the content a changed ideal meaning. And this occurs more and more precisely and abundantly as the world of representations stemming from the “I” becomes differentiated. The “I” now exercises an original formative activity all the while developing a deeper understanding.” (Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, pp. 89-90).