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Image of Reality / Image not Reality: What is Photography?

By Fiona Loughnane

What is Photography?

From its beginnings, photography has been marked by its versatility. The camera has been employed for personal use in family snapshots; official use to create visual records (examples include passports, medical records and mugshots); commercial use in advertising images; and creative use in art photography, to list just a few examples. Photography has also engaged in constant technological innovations, leading to enormous differences in the physical character of the image; from daguerreotypes to images printed from a negative, from plate glass to film and from analogue to digital. Given this diversity, the photograph has always been difficult to define and contain. The apparently basic question 'What is Photography?' provokes complex responses that need to consider the diverse roles and characteristics of the photograph.

In 1922, in a letter to the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, Marcel Duchamp declared: 'You know exactly how I feel about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.'1 Today the camera seems more firmly embedded in visual culture than ever; every mundane event or passing sight instantly captured and shared in an age of 'smartphones' and social networking sites. The ubiquity of the photographic image has perhaps created an oppressive presence in everyday life. The colonisation of every aspect of life by photography is not a recent development; however the invention of photography in the late 1830s quickly led to a dramatic increase in the production and circulation of images.2

Photography has been seen as a documentary tool, allowing for realistic depictions of the world, and as a creative practice, now a central medium within the fine arts. The interchange between these opposing views of the medium – factual and imaginative, everyday life and 'high' culture – has created a rich field of image production.

Photography and Modernity

Roland Barthes pointed out that photography in its earliest years depicted remarkable things, but over time things became remarkable simply because they were photographed.3 The development of a medium that allowed for a quick and accurate reproduction of the world meant the creation, for the first time in history, of a visual record of all aspects of life. Photographs offer a visual knowledge of the world outside direct experience. This knowledge is abstracted and second-hand, but it nonetheless creates a strong sense of recognition.4 Visual representations became increasingly important in the dissemination of knowledge; the endless reproducibility of the photograph made it a central feature of modern, spectacular, consumer society.

Photography did not simply represent modern life, it became one of the conditions associated with modernity. Advancements in technology, especially those related to transport and communications, gave a sense of life lived at greater speed accross shorter distances. Photography allows for quick, accurate recording of things and its placing of distant objects, places and people, directly in front of the viewer, had the apparent effect of abolishing both time and distance.

Photography inserted itself into discourses, such as tourism, criminology and medicine, often becoming a tool through which institutional power was exercised.5 The photographing of people and places did not always make the distant and strange seem familiar; photography, especially in its institutional use, frequently asserted difference.

John Lamprey, active in the 1870s, sought a standardised means to depict the human body for his anthropological research. He photographed the nude figure, in full-length front and side profiles, against a gridded backdrop. His methods gave the illusion of a neutral, disinterested, scientific discourse, allowing him to compare differences between races. However, Lamprey's work didn't just record difference, it also constructed it. His project was 'steeped in colonial ideology and illicit desire' and served as a visual representation of western power over the 'other'.6

Image of Reality

Early accounts of photography often displayed a clear sense of wonder at a process that showed a miraculous ability to record the world. Walter Benjamin cited the response of German author, Max Dauthendey, to early portraiture:

We were abashed by the distinctness of these human images, and believed that the tiny faces in the picture could see us, so powerfully was everyone affected by the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotypes.7

Despite such accounts, the photograph's distance from reality can be seen from its distortions of time and space; its two-dimensionality; its selection and omission of objects through the framing of the camera's lens; the frequent absence of colour; and its stillness. However, despite these features, photography has been seen to have a necessary link with reality.

This connection to reality is often cited as the reason certain photographs generate a charged or emotional response from viewers. The photograph has been described as indexical, a sign carrying a trace of the real, because of the way analogue photography records a physical trace of the light as it falls on actual objects. Dennis Oppenheim's work from 1970, Reading Position for Second Degree Burn, is an illustration of photography's indexical properties; a photograph of the artist as a photograph. In the work, Oppenheim turned his torso into a light-sensitive plate, sunbathing with a book on his chest, and recording the result in a pair of 'before and after' photographs. It's a compelling demonstration of the way traditional photographic methods both depict the objects that appear before the camera, and contain physical residues of them.

Photography was also considered to offer a truthful depiction of the world because it avoided the personal, subjective expression of media such as painting. In contrast, the camera was seen to offer an objective means of recording subjects that documented rather than interpreted. Photographic documents aspired to a 'straight' photographic style – direct and unmediated – that described 'facts' in a neutral, scientific way. John Lamprey's work demonstrates that claims to scientific objectivity were often spurious. Our experience of images is never entirely free of interpretation, and the meanings we ascribe to photographs are strongly influenced by the context in which we encounter them. Photographs are rarely presented in isolation; even personal snapshots are often experienced in the context of the 'family album'. The supposed truth and objectivity of photography is as much a symptom of institutional authority, as a characteristic of its physical properties.

One way in which the meaning of the photograph is fixed and made clear is through the use of the caption. Walter Benjamin described the caption as an imperative directive to photographic meaning that created signposts for the viewer.8 Another paired set of images, Incident, 1993 and Border Incident, 1994, by the Irish artist Willie Doherty, demonstrates the way our understanding of photographs is informed by the context in which they are viewed and how language supplements the image in the form of title and/or caption. Both images are large, detailed, close-ups of burntout cars abandoned in the landscape. The straight on camera angle in the photographs adds to the sense that we are being presented with a factual description. Both works are given a political charge because of the use of the words 'border' and 'incident' in the titles, immediately evoking the violence of Northern Ireland's recent past and suggesting that we are looking at the aftermath of conflict. However, one of the two images depicts a car that has simply been illegally dumped. Typically for Doherty's work the signposts offered by the titles misdirect rather than guide.

When digital processes first became widespread in the 1990s, they were seen by many to mark the end of any claims to photographic 'truth'. Rather than carry a physical memory of light falling on objects, digital images are reconstructions using binary code, and can therefore be seen as further removed from reality. As we have seen, viewing photographs as a slice of the 'real' has always been problematic, no matter what form they take.

The field of photojournalism is most vulnerable to doubts about photography's relationship to reality. For many the most important role of the camera has been its ability to 'bear witness' to the major events of history. Photojournalism certainly seems less prestigious today than in its heyday from the 1930s to the 1960s, when magazines such as Life and Vu were dedicated to the narration of current events through the picture story. However, the decline in photojournalism has less to do with doubts about photographic truth, than with the emergence of new media and forums for the circulation of news images. Many of the images of the recent 'Arab Spring' revolts were taken by protestors and ordinary citizens, who then circulated the images on the Internet. Such developments offer the possibility of more democratic documentary practices. In the past the figure of the photojournalist or documentary photographer suggested a heroic figure (by virtue of both skill and bravery) who occupied a superior position relative to his/her subjects, often presented as passive victims of events.9 Digital technologies seem to offer the possibility that such victims of circumstance can achieve agency through recording their own trauma.

Outside these debates, in our everyday experience of visual culture, we continue to invest in the belief that photography presents a reliable and truthful account of the world. We expect images of products displayed by online stores to relate to the items for sale, and tend to believe in the image more than the textual description. The item for sale on e-bay, without an accompanying photograph, is assumed to be in dreadful condition, no matter how enthusiastically its virtues are listed by the seller.

Image not Reality

While some have prized photography for its ability to document and record the world, others have been drawn to the creative possibilities offered by the camera. Photography was initially positioned as a creative practice through emulating existing fine art media. The earliest photographs depicted genres established in painting: the still-life, the nude and the landscape. From the 1850s a style of photography known as 'pictorialism' emerged. The pictorialists recreated the type of sentimental, narrative subject found in nineteenth-century art, often producing very elaborate, multi-figural scenes through using techniques like combination printing. Pictorialist imagery tended to employ soft focus and made the surface of the photograph appear expressive and individual, by scratching into or drawing on negatives.

In the early twentieth century, with the emergence of avant-garde groups such as Dada, Soviet-Constructivism and Surrealism, there was a radical change in approaches to photography as art. These groups were drawn to photography's modernity and, rather than relating it to painting, they sought a new aesthetic based on the operations of the camera. Avantgarde photography tended to employ a sharp focus and often depicted modern subjects, such as Albert Renger-Patzsch's images of industrially produced commodities or László Moholy-Nagy's images of the Eiffel Tower.

Aleksandr Rodchenko felt that photography allowed artists to move away from the 'old point of view' which he associated with bourgeois 'belly button shots' and argued that the camera enabled less conventional views of the world, such as views from above and below (bird's eye and worm's eye viewpoints), extreme close-ups and cropping.10 Photography was also seen as an exciting extension to natural vision, recording sights unavailable to the human eye. Microphotography using powerful magnifying lenses, the use of series of cameras to capture motion and X-rays, all extended natural vision, creating what Walter Benjamin referred to as 'the optical unconcious'.11 While avant-garde photographers were interested in photography's connection to reality, they were also concerned to dismantle and subvert the reality of the photograph. Techniques such as photomontage, photograms, doubling and solarisation emphasised the photograph's status as a made image and its distance from the real.

Some art photographers, particularly those associated with Aperture magazine in the 1940s and 1950s, produced a type of modernist pictorialism; moody black and white images that abstracted their subjects and emphasised the expressive qualities of the camera. David Campany has argued that this approach was concerned to separate photography from everyday, vernacular snapshots. This is why they chose to use black and white rather than colour; produced images that were expressive rather than descriptive; and often used unusual angles or framing to create abstract effects.12

In contrast, other art photographers engaged in a 'documentary style', often focusing on urban life in street photography.13 John Szarkowski's influential catalogue, The Photographer's Eye, was centred around these practices by artists who were united by an interest in the vernacular snapshot, using its tropes to give their artfully composed images a careless, everyday quality. As with earlier avant-garde ideas, this approach to photography attempted a codification of the medium, based on qualities inherent to the camera. Szarkowski argued that one of the central features of the camera is the way it causes us to see the world as an image (the thing itself), framed, isolated and ultimately separated from the world by the act of photographing (the frame). The resulting image is separated from the flow of time, and causes an attentive form of viewing, often focusing on compelling details.14

Artists from the 1960s began to move away from seeing the photograph as art, and were instead drawn to its everyday documentation of the mundane. In this they were strongly influenced by conceptual art, in particular its mistrust of the expressive aesthetic of modernist art, engaging instead in an art of intellectual enquiry. Conceptual artists employed photographs as blank, neutral documents, but soon this became an influential aesthetic within art photography, most famously represented by the exhibition, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, held in the Eastman House Museum of Photography, New York in 1975.15

This approach to the image continues to be influential in contemporary art, however, apparently neutral documentation of the everyday spaces of life can often be deceptive. Thomas Demand's practice involves photographing seemingly blank and overlooked environments, such as offices, stairwells and bathrooms; spaces Marc Augé referred to as 'non-places'.16 Demand's photographs are in fact elaborate hand made creations, sculptural models of space, created in paper by the artist and then photographed. Demand's work brings together two opposing tendencies in the use of photographs by contemporary artists: the documentation of the everyday, and the creation of elaborate scenarios for the camera.

While art might engage with the everyday, documentary character of photography in one way, in another it avoids losing the unique, special character of art. Most artists using photographs tend to produce images in single or limited editions, denying the reproducibility offered by photographic technologies. Walter Benjamin famously argued that photography diminished the 'aura' of art, but that it also offered the possibility of more democratic forms of art.17 The economic imperatives of art production prevent the widespread adoption of these ideas, but some artists have used photographic practices to reach a wider public audience. A good example is Yinka Shonibare's Diary of a Victorian Dandy, which was shown as a series of posters on the London Underground, for one month in 1998.

The End of Photography?

Despite our exposure to ever increasing amounts of photographic images, it could be argued that we notice them less and less. Where once photography was seen as representing modernity and speed, it is now often characterised by its slowness and stillness, more marked today as the moving image becomes increasingly accessible. Roland Barthes argued that the frozen quality of the photograph has the effect of suggesting a past moment, but that our belief in its reality makes that moment permanently present.18 Photographs create a powerful nostalgia, evoking the past in the present.

Digital practices mean that photography has become more disembodied, often exchanged from computer to computer without ever taking physical form. But certain photographs are still noticed, embodied, displayed and examined. The best example of this is the family photograph, which often becomes a substitute for absent loved ones, and is sometimes touched and caressed as if it had a type of personhood.19

However, we are attentive to such images, not because of their physical properties, but because of their subject. Barthes argued that the photograph acts as a 'transparent envelope', which we look through in order to engage with its content.20 This unassuming quality has allowed photography to adopt new forms and to insert itself into a wide variety of contexts. The invisibility of photography does not mark the end of the medium, the invisibility of photography is its power.

© Fiona Loughnane, 2011


  1. David Campany, Art and Photography, London: Phaidon, 2003, p. 13.
  2. The question of who invented photography is still subject to debate. For general accounts of the history of photography see Michael Frizot (ed.), A New History of Photography, Cologne: Könemann, 1994 and Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, London: Laurence King, 2002. The classic text by Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982 remains useful.
  3. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981, p. 34.
  4. Susan Sontag argues that photography gives us 'knowledge at bargain prices'. See On Photography, London: Penguin, 2002, p. 24.
  5. See John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, London: Macmillan, 1988 and his recent publication The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2009.
  6. Steve Edwards, Photography: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 24.
  7. Walter Benjamin, 'A Small History of Photography' in One-Way Street, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, p. 244.
  8. Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', in Illuminations, London: Fontana, 1973, p. 224.
  9. Martha Rosler, 'In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)', in Liz Wells (ed.), The Photography Reader, London: Routledge, 2003, pp. 261-274.
  10. Steve Edwards, 'Profane Illumination: Photography and Photomontage in the USSR and Germany,' in Steve Edwards and Paul Wood (eds.), Art of the Avant-Gardes, New Haven and London: Yale University Press and Open University, p. 408.
  11. Benjamin, 'A Small History of Photography', p. 243.
  12. Campany, Art and Photography, p. 17.
  13. Walker Evans coined the term 'documentary style' to separate art photography's approach to documentary from more everyday photographic documents. See Britt Salvesen, New Topographics, Göttingen: Steidl, 2009, p. 16.
  14. John Szarkowski, 'Introduction to The Photographer's Eye', in Wells, The Photography Reader, pp. 97-103.
  15. Salvesen, New Topographics, 2009.
  16. Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London and New York: Verso, 1995.
  17. Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', p. 221.
  18. Barthes, Camera Lucida, pp. 76-80.
  19. Elizabeth Edwards, 'Thinking Photography beyond the Visual', in J. J. Long, Andrea Noble and Edward Welch (eds.), Photography: Theoretical Snapshots, London: Routledge, 2009, p. 33.
  20. Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 5.

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