by Christine Nelson
April 2013

In his article “The Hand Camera – It’s Present Importance,” published in The American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac in 1897, Alfred Stieglitz reflected on his works created with hand cameras. Stieglitz waited for hours until certain figures or natural elements would cross his viewfinder in such a way that they harmonized the composition so it was aesthetically pleasing, such as in The Terminal (Figure 1). While Stieglitz controlled the style of the photograph and the deliberation taken in selecting the exact moment of exposure, the process he ascribed to his photography was causal, meaning that the elements of his composition exist independently in reality. It was only necessary for him to recognize them and the camera to capture them.[1] This idea that photography is merely the mechanical reproduction of an object, rather than a valued, arduously-created representation of a subject, as in painting, is a well-debated subject in the philosophy of photography. One of the most cited proponents of this idea is the philosopher Roger Scruton. In this essay, I will argue against Scruton’s argument that photographs are by definition non-representational by proposing that the subject captured in a photograph portrays the artist’s intention, which is separate from the objects depicted in the photograph. Then one can answer, can photography be a representational art?

In his highly contended essay on photography, “Photography and Representation,” Scruton argues that the difference between photography and paintings’ abilities to represent their subjects is the relation of intention to their subjects. According to Scruton, a photograph has a causal relation to its subject whereas a painting has a relation of intention. The painter intends to represent the subject of their painting whether the representation is a mimetic representation or an impression. So, a painting essentially has two subjects. There is the subject of intention, which is the subject as depicted, and the represented subject, which is what the artist intends to represent.[2]

In his argument, Scruton claims photographs lack these two abilities paintings have. Photographs are not representational nor have the ability to be aesthetically interesting in a representational nature. He argues that the only way a photograph can “represent” a subject would be to reproduce the appearance of the photographed object, which is the defining quality of the ideal photograph. In other words, due to the causal relationship between the subject and the photograph, the photograph can only hold aesthetic interest through the interest the viewer has for the subject, which in Scruton’s argument is necessarily the photographed subject. Scruton maintains that while someone can have an abstract aesthetic interest in the photograph, this interest will be contingent on its form and shape, not its representational nature. The key to Scruton’s argument is this: for an artistic medium to produce an artwork that is representational, then it must have an intentional relationship between the medium and the product. The artist, therefore, intended the subject to be depicted in such a way, not the image randomly occurred.

Objections to Scruton’s argument are important to consider. First, philosophers have found fault in Scruton’s premise that if an ideal photograph is not a representation, then the photograph is not atheistically interesting. Second, they have also found fault in his premise that a photograph is not a representation. I argue it is counterproductive to critique the former premise without likewise arguing against photography’s non-representational nature. In order to deconstruct Scruton’s argument, the implication that the subjects are naturally the depicted objects must be contradicted, since if the subjects are not necessarily the photographed objects, then the subject no longer participates in a causal relation with the medium. Rather, the subject would enter an intentional relation. Thus, contrary to Scruton’s argument, the photograph would actually be representational.[3]

Dominic Lopes challenges Scruton’s argument. He indicates in his article, “The Aesthetics of Photographic Transparency,” the question of whether a replica of an object can contain aesthetic interest outside of that perceived in a photographed object is not merely a question of photography but a question of art in general. For example, is the aesthetic interest derived from Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes different from that which can be experienced from the Brillo boxes themselves? In applying this question to photography, Lopes agrees with Scruton’s premise that a photograph cannot be a representation. However, borrowing from Kendall Walton’s theory on photographic transparency, Lopes argues against Scruton’s conception of the nature of photography. Walton argued that when we look at a photograph of a relative, we are seeing the relative through the photograph in a way that would not have been possible if not through the photograph. Lopes challenges Scruton’s argument by proposing that the aesthetic interest that we take in the photograph is different than the interest we take in seeing the objects of which the photograph is comprised because photographs are transparent and show us the image in a way which is contingent upon its photographic nature.[4]

Like Walton, Lopes argues that seeing through a photograph is different than seeing the object itself in person. Photographs allow viewers to see an object indirectly. Similarly, in his essay “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism,” Walton argues that photography is a method or an improvement to seeing. What is seen in the photograph is not a duplicate or reproduction of the object but the object itself. However, this is not to say that the photograph and the object are separate. We see the photograph and the photographed objects simultaneously as one. According to Walton, photographs help us see while hand-made pictures, like paintings, do not because the photographer’s mental state is not involved as the artist’s mental state is. While the photographer might use various methods to manipulate the photo, his subjective perception of the object will not be in the photograph. Walton contends that since the object caused the photograph, we are really seeing the object. A photograph can have a point of view, but you still see the object. Similarly, you can change the lighting in a photograph, but you will still see the object because the photograph is transparent.[5]

By claiming photographs are transparent, it would appear that both Lopes and Walton would agree with Scruton’s object argument. Yet, Lopes and Walton argue that aesthetic interest in photography comes from viewing the photographed object through the photograph not the object itself. The aesthetic interest in seeing a photograph as a photograph is the same as the interest in seeing the photographed object through the photograph since photography is a means of seeing. This theory on photographic aesthetics assumes that in order to take interest in a photograph, appreciation for the photographed object and the photographed object as seen through the photograph must be different.[6]

In order to differentiate the aesthetic interest taken in the object, as in the case of Scruton’s object argument, and that taken in the photographic object as seen through the photograph, Lopes contrasted the nature of seeing an object face-to-face with seeing it through a photograph. First, photographs capture a particular moment in time. Second, photographic seeing can occur without the object because the moment is captured. Third, seeing through the photograph decontextualizes the object, so its properties cannot change. Fourth, there is the possibility that the process of taking the photograph disturbed the scene in a way that would not be accessible to viewing the scene in person. Fifth, the process of seeing a photograph blends the photograph’s properties and the photographed object’s properties. We can have aesthetic interest in how we see an object. By seeing a photographed object through a photograph, viewers can see features we might have not been able to see face-to-face given the context of seeing the object or the physical defects in the viewer that would not perceive textural details that are clear in the photograph.[7]

In effect, Lopes accepts Scruton’s premise that the ideal photograph cannot be representational, and he changes the qualifications needed for a photograph to be of aesthetic interest. Yet any interest taken in the photograph is still partially the viewer’s interest in the subject. Since the interest in the photograph is still an interest in the photographed object as the subject, Lopes has provided little critique of Scruton’s argument and has instead only qualified how a photograph, given its non-representational nature, can be of aesthetic interest. Therefore, if Lopes is arguing that aesthetic interest can be found outside of representation, as was suggested by his Brillo box preface, then his argument was made in vain. Scruton admits that aesthetic interest can be found in abstract art through its lines and shapes.[8]

The problems that arise in Scruton’s argument concern his premise that photographs cannot be representational. In “Transparent Representation: Photography and the Art of Casting,” Peter Alward argues that not only can photographs be representational but that their status as representations does not necessarily undermine photographic transparency. In order to argue that a photograph can represent a subject in other means than by its physical attributes, Alward distinguishes the pictorial object and the pictorial subject. The pictorial object is causal, being that it is any object that happens to be in front of the camera. The pictorial subject is what the object represents or thoughts expressed about the object. Scruton’s argument implies that the pictorial object is the same as the subject.[9]

Alward argues that representations can be made by representational casting. Casting is a method used by the photographer in which an object or person fulfills a role, making the resulting photograph fictionally competent in that it has a pictorial subject separate from its pictorial object. Scruton would respond in two ways to this argument. First, as Alward identified, Scruton would argue that the photograph would then not be the subject. The subject would be the photographic object. According to Scruton, “Of course I may take a photograph of a draped nude and call it Venus, but insofar as this can be understood as an exercise in fiction, it should not be thought of as a photographic representation of Venus but rather as the photograph of a representation of Venus.”[10] However, as Alward has argued, this same idea can be applied to paintings in which the artists used models. The painting named Venus depicting the model would just be a picture of a pictorial representation as well.[11]

Additionally, Alward suggests that if the photographer took a great variety of pictures, the selection of the exact picture that would then be labeled Venus is another method of photographic representation. However, Scruton would argue that the name of the photograph is merely pointing to its subject, which in Scruton’s essay is necessarily the object, not representing it. Scruton provides the example of  a photographer taking  a photograph of a drunken man and labeling it Silenus. This method of identification arguably would cause the photograph to be fiction or representational. Yet, this act would be the same as if Scruton had pointed to a drunken man on the street and called him “Silenus.” It could be construed that by pointing and calling the man this name, the man is now a representation because he has indicated to those around him to imagine him in this way. Ultimately, the camera is pointing to the subject, not representing it. If one were to accept Silenus as being representational, then this action would open up the possibility of considering anything expressive to be representation, and thus there would be no difference between representational and non-representational art.[12]

Alward dismisses these arguments and clarifies how photographs are representational. Scruton’s hypothetical situation is based on actual practice among appropriation artists such as Sheerie Levine, whose exhibitions are comprised solely of photographs taken by other people. Also, cameras are not used to point or signify an object. They reproduce images of the object. Alward argues that if cameras are means of ostension then so are pens, pencils, and paint brushes. The photographer’s representational act occurred after the photograph was taken. Alward concludes that through representational casting, a photograph can be representational. However, unlike paintings, photographs cannot be intrinsically representational. Even still, photographs can be used as a means of representation. The representation can be understood through extrinsic factors like its art-historical context or the artistic statement. Often, more interest is developed by placing any form of art within context.[13]

In “Photography and Representation,” Scruton tried to prove that ideal photographs cannot be representational, and that by virtue of their inability to be representational, they also cannot be aesthetically interesting in their representational nature. Although philosophers like Lopes have taken issue with Scruton’s aesthetic interest in photography, few have tried to assert that a photograph can be representational on its own without editing. In the case of Scruton’s essay, it is fruitless to argue against the incapability of a photograph to be aesthetically interesting in its representational nature while accepting his premise that photographs cannot be representational. Rather, to undermine Scruton’s essay, one would have to prove that photographs could be representational. If photographs can be representational, then one could argue they would be aesthetically interesting as representational art. For a photograph to be representational, Scruton’s concept that the subject of the photograph is the same object has to be contradicted since he believes that the causal relation between the photograph and the subject prevent the photograph from being representational. Alward ultimately offers a valid explanation as to how the pictorial object and pictorial subject are different and provides a method, representational casting, by which an artist’s intention can be expressed in the photograph.

Figure 1. Alfred Stieglitz, The Terminal. 1893.

Figure 1. Alfred Stieglitz, The Terminal. 1893.

Notes

[1] Ian Jeffrey, “Photography and Nature,” Art Journal 41, no. 1 (Spring 1981): 29-30; Alfred Stieglitz, “The Hand Camera – It’s Present Importance,” The American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac (1897): 19-27.

[2] Damuid Costello and Dawn Phillips, “Automatism, Causality and Realism: Foundational Problems in the Philosophy of Photography,” Philosophy Compass 4, no. 1 (2009): 4-6; Roger Scruton, “Photography and Representation,” Critical Inquiry7, no. 3 (Spring 1981): 577-584.

[3] Peter Alward, “Transparent Representation: Photography and the Art of Casting,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70, no. 1 (2012): 12; Scruton, 577-596.

[4] Dominic McIver Lopes, “The Aesthetics of Photographic Transparency,” Mind 112, no. 447 (July 2003): 433-438.

[5] Ibid., 438; Kendall L. Walton, “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism,” Critical Inquiry 11, no. 2 (December 1984): 252-253, 262; Scott Walden, “Objectivity in Photography,” British Journal of Aesthetics 45, no. 3 (July 2005): 259.

[6] Lopes, “The Aesthetics of Photographic Transparency,” 442.

[7] Ibid., 442-445.

[8]Alward, “Transparent Representation,” 12; Scruton, “Photography and Representation,” 591.

[9] Alward, “Transparent Representation,” 13.

[10] Scruton, “Photography and Representation,” 588.

[11] Alward, “Transparent Representation,” 13-14.

[12] Scruton, “Photography and Representation,” 589; Alward, “Transparent Representation,” 13-14.

[13] Alward, “Transparent Representation,” 14-16.

 

Bibliography

Alward, Peter. “Transparent Representation: Photography and the Art of Casting.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70, no. 1 (2012): 9-18.

Costello, Diarmuid and Dawn Phillips. “Automatism, Causality and Realism: Foundational Problems in the Philosophy of Photography.” Philosophy Compass 4, no. 1 (2009): 1-21.

Jeffrey, Ian. “Photography and Nature.” Art Journal 41, no. 1 (Spring 1981): 26-32.

Lopes, Dominic McIver. “The Aesthetics of Photographic Transparency.” Mind 112, no. 447 (July 2003): 433-448.

Phillips, Dawn M. “Photography and Causation: Responding to Scruton’s Scepticism.” British Journal of Aesthetics 49, no. 4 (August 2009): 327-340.

Scruton, Roger. “Photography and Representation.” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 3 (Spring 1981): 577-603.

Stieglitz, Alfred.  “The Hand Camera – It’s Present Importance.” The American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac (1897): 19-27.

—. The Terminal. 1893. Photogravure, 12.1 x 16.0 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/58.577.11 (accessed December 1, 2012).

Walden, Scott. “Objectivity in Photography.” British Journal of Aesthetics 45, no. 3 (July 2005): 258-272.

Walton, Kendall L. “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism,” Critical Inquiry 11, no. 2 (December 1984): 246-277.

 

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