Photography, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 24, 2024, from

1. The supposed limitations of photography

Photography and the traditional forms of image-making – painting and drawing – differ in important ways. Intuitively, a painting can be ‘of’ something that does not exist (though this idea is hard to make precise in an acceptable way); a photograph can only be of something that actually transmitted light into the mechanism. A photograph can depict more than the artist intended to depict, such as when magnification displays evidence of a crime; a painting records what the artist thought the scene looked like, and the grain of discriminability is set by the artist’s own visual acuity and manual skill. Certain kinds of subject seem to have more force or cause more offence when represented photographically; a photograph of martyrdom would be difficult to appreciate aesthetically, whatever its compositional merits. It has not, however, been easy to explain these judgments within a unified theory of the nature and limitations of photography.

One kind of argument for the artistic inferiority of photography depends on claims about the limitations of what photography can convey – limitations which favour the particular, the instantaneous and the visible or surface features of things over the general, the progressive and the hidden aspects, and especially over the underlying emotional and motivational themes. Most of these arguments apply also to painting, an art against which they are rarely directed. It is true that painting can explicitly present a narrative by placing noncontemporaneous events within the same frame, while a photograph of the ‘pure’ or unmanipulated kind cannot. But even paintings that confine themselves to the depiction of a single moment can draw on beliefs and traditions external to the work to provide narrative force. Photographs can also achieve narrative status by appeal to such sources. It has also been argued that the ‘mechanical’ nature of the photographic method does not allow significant scope for expressive or intentional qualities. In exactly what sense photography is mechanical is a question we shall examine in detail later on, but any acceptable explication of that notion will surely have to accommodate the fact that some photographs do express beliefs, evaluations and emotions through the evident choices the photographer has made concerning such things as lighting, depth of field, exposure and subject. It may be true that there are fewer choices to be made in determining the visible appearance of a photograph than in determining the visible appearance of a painting, where every brush stroke is, in principle, a matter of independent decision. It does not follow that photography is a less expressive medium than painting. Sometimes the restrictions that an artistic form imposes on its practitioners give a special significance to the choices they are able to make within the constraints imposed. Arguments to the effect that photography is, by its nature, artistically limited are most charitably understood as reactions against the excessively ambitious claims sometimes made on behalf of photography: that it makes representational painting redundant, that it has an unrivalled capacity for documentation, or that it represents the world to us in an undistorted and uninterpreted form.

The claim that photography faithfully reproduces appearance, in the sense that photographs of things are or can be superlative likenesses of them, needs to be distinguished from another thesis with which it is sometimes confused: that photography mechanically reproduces the appearances of things. Both these claims have been used to advance a further claim: that photography gives us access to things in the real world rather than providing, as painting does, mere representations of those things. Let us call these claims the likeness thesis, the mechanicity thesis and the reality thesis respectively. Critics of the reality thesis have attacked both the mechanicity thesis and the likeness thesis. Against the likeness thesis I believe they have been successful, having shown that there is nothing about photography as a medium that makes its products essentially more faithful than painting to visible appearances. Against the mechanicity thesis, however, the critics have been less successful, their efforts having been directed against its naive and implausible versions. But while the mechanicity thesis stands, it provides little support for the reality thesis, as we shall see.

Citing this article:
Currie, Gregory. The supposed limitations of photography. Photography, aesthetics of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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