On Photography: A Philosophical Inquiry

On Photography: A Philosophical Inquiry In this short book Diarmuid Costello presents a valuable new framework for philosophical discussion on photography. Costello aims ‘to treat photography philosophically’ (2). He thoroughly investigates our intuitions about the essence of photography, showing that the most sophisticated ‘theoretical’—in a broad sense—claims often turn out to be only reformulations of basic folk intuitions about some uses of photography or paradigmatic examples that are unduly taken to stand for photography per se. Debunking many fallacious distinctions, he introduces new questions that philosophers could ask about photography—as an imaging process first, but also as a set of practices. Theoretical texts about photography have focused on two distinct dimensions of photographic practices: the epistemic dimension and the aesthetic/artistic dimension, which happens to parallel the distinction between mechanical and handmade pictures. Either ‘photographs are taken to be accurate sources of information about the world because a machine rather than a human being does the recording’ and therefore support inferences about the world, or they are appreciated aesthetically insofar as the artist’s intentions are made visible by departing from the pure causal mechanism of photography (4). The tension between handmade and mechanical images or between epistemic capabilities and aesthetic uses is not new and has already been well documented. Still, the way Costello aims to escape the tension is new: it is not enough to distinguish between an ‘information-preserving pure photography’ and a ‘non-information-preserving impure photographic art’ because that is only a way to say that photography can be objective or artistic but not both. Rather than ‘saving the possibility of photographic art, but only at the cost of denying its purity’, Costello considers the possibility of pure photography being art, in virtue of its being pure photography. Demonstrating this possibility is a serious challenge. By clarifying the debates and focusing on two different ways of dealing philosophically with photography (namely Orthodoxy versus New Theory), Costello invites the reader to choose a side and at the same time choose the kind of questions that one thinks philosophy should answer. The boundary between Orthodoxy and New Theory results from the way one considers the opposition between hand-made and machine-made images. If you regard the distinction as strict, if you hold that it parallels the distinction between painting and photography and if this makes it difficult to account for the photographer’s agency, then you are on the side of Orthodoxy. If you hold that both categories cut across one another, if you do not assume that painting and photography are distinct by nature and if you criticize the identification of the essence of photography with the recording event, and criticize the analogy between a trace and a photograph, then you are a New Theorist. One implicit aim of the book is to orient research in good directions. To make progress, Costello starts by divesting the existing views of all the unproved assumptions or unclear intuitions and, for several cases, one must admit that after his criticism, backwards steps seem unlikely. To give one example, he shows that by comparing photography and imprinting, André Bazin conflates the automatic dimension of the image-rendering process with its natural dimension: ‘In sum, a process can be both natural and causal (sunburn, freckles) or both causal and automatic (photography), but one and the same process cannot be both natural and automatic—if “natural” is taken, as it is by Bazin, to contrast with “human”’ (42).1 By focusing in the first chapter ‘Foundational intuitions and folk theory’ on Talbot and Daguerre, on pictorialists and straight photography, or on Bazin and Cavell, Costello does not aim at exhaustivity or deep historical enquiry. But he points out how theoretical debates have been structured by noteworthy stable distinctions or tensions that should be questioned anew. He shows how the statements by inventors of photography like Nièpce, Daguerre or Talbot put ‘emphasis on the “self-generated” aspect of photographic images’, and those of commentators stress ‘photography’s accuracy, speed and labour-saving potential’ (11). These ideas pervade theoretical texts until the twentieth-century. This also applies to the assumption that photography is unable to transform matter and express ideas, which was expressed by Elisabeth Eastlake in one of the first sceptical claims based on a distinction ‘between the manual and the intellectual aspects of making art’.2 This very inability is found in the following century in Bazin and in Roger Scruton. Costello details debates between pictorialists and straight photography by focusing on the way the stakeholders insist on greater or lesser control exercised by the photographer on the various stages of the image-rendering process. In doing so, he reminds us that the question of the photographer’s agency is not new: ‘By insisting on the degree of control that even pure photography permits, [Frederick H.] Evans is responding to a prevailing worry about the possibility of photographic art, and at the same time anticipating twentieth-century debates’ (23). Costello also notes how the opposition between the medium’s purity and intervention by human hands is articulated in Robert Demachy’s work: ‘This is Demachy’s reasoning: if the photograph is to be pure, the photographer must refrain from intervention. But if the photographer refrains from intervention there can be no subjective expression, and where there is no subjective expression there can be no art’ (23). Costello asks, however, directly after: ‘Is it inconceivable that one could demonstrate one’s artistry in how one respects the photographic process?’ and this question is still relevant today if one adds to it an inquiry about the meaning of the term ‘intervention’ (23). Chapters 2 and 3 consider Roger Scruton and Kendall Walton. Both belong to what Costello calls ‘Orthodoxy’ but in its sceptical version for the former (Scruton claims that photography cannot be a representational art) and in its non-sceptical version for the latter (Walton does not deny the possibility for photography to be a representational art). These chapters also deal with responses to Scruton and Walton, in particular the emergence of what Costello calls ‘New Theory’. Like Scruton, Gregory Currie contrasts photography with painting. The classical distinction between traces and testimonies introduced by Currie (together with the opposition between ‘what a photograph is of’ and ‘what a photograph is about’ or the difference between ‘to represent by origin’ or ‘to represent by use’) does not really reduce the tension between the epistemic and the aesthetic dimension of photography.3 Admittedly Currie argues that a photograph can represent a fiction, but, notes Costello, it will not be by strictly photographic means. As Costello puts it: ‘Only demonstrating that photographs can be fictionally competent at the first-order level, by strictly photographic means, would secure its fictional competence in the eyes of committed sceptic like Scruton’ (74). This is exactly the role envisaged by the New Theory which is rooted in Patrick Maynard’s attempt ‘to redirect philosopher’s attention from the photographic product to the process underlying that product’ (7). New Theorists aim to enrich the meaning of what we call ‘strictly photographic means’, which, in orthodox views, is relatively poor and abstract. The first result that one can credit the New Theory with consists in the distinction between the light recording and the photographic image. Costello highlights Dawn Wilson’s (née Phillips) contribution to the New Theory: a photograph is understood as a visual image produced by a multi-stage process. The first stage is a light image; the second is a ‘photographic event’ where the light image is recorded by a photosensitive surface. The resultant record must undergo a further process to become a visible image: a photograph. It is important not to confuse the light image with the photograph because ‘unlike a light image, a photograph does not remain counterfactually dependent on the scene it depicts’. So ‘the “ideal photograph”, on which Scruton’s argument pivots, turns out to be an idealisation of the light image rather than the photograph proper, and Scruton’s argument hangs on conflating a way-stage in the photographic process with its finished product’ (79). Another advantage of defining a photograph through multiple stages, with a distinction between the photographic event and the production of images, is that it unties the link between what is causal or natural in the process and what is mechanical. Photography does have an irreducible causal or natural aspect, since there is a light image and a recording event. But the processes implied in image production need not be strictly mechanical and the photographer’s agency is freed from the requirement of mechanicity. This latter point is to be found especially in Dominic Lopes’ account which ‘does not require that photography be belief-independent, or counterposed to a class of belief-dependent hand-made images’ (88). Costello makes a valuable contribution to the New Theory in chapters 2 and 3 when he introduces a gap between Scruton and Walton. Scruton’s scepticism has been the easier target for the New Theory to promulgate its main results (such as the distinction between the light image and the photographic image or the importance of the multi-stage process for the defence of the artistic potential of photography). But Walton is a far more formidable opponent since he is not sceptical about photographic art and since he does account for the difference between the epistemic and artistic capacities of photography. At this point in his book Costello really gets involved by using two arguments against Walton. First, he explains that:perhaps Walton equivocates between photo graphs and photographic apparatus. As two-dimensional surfaces in which we see three- dimensional scenes, the former are a kind of picture; as series of lenses and mirrors through which we see the world, the latter are a type of visual prosthesis. Cameras are not unlike periscopes and telescopes, with the added functionality of being able to record the images that they provide. The claim that we see through cameras and other lens systems is uncontroversial; the claim that we see through photographs is not. … That photographic apparatuses, such as cameras, are aids to vision need not entail that their products also are. (113–114) The second argument is based on an example of two photographs by Lee Friedlander entitled Stems 1 and Stems 2 (1999), which show, close up, stems of tulips in a transparent vase full of water that is placed on a table. Costello calls the mind-independence thesis into question by building on a distinction between non-occluded and out-of-focus details: when the depth of field is adjusted to a minimum, a detail can remain out-of-focus even if it is visible to the naked eye and what is out-of-focus cannot appear in the photograph independently of the photographer’s mind: ‘unless the photographer notices the difference and intends to record it, by adjusting his camera settings accordingly, it will not show up in the final image’ (120). Eventually, the strengths and weaknesses of Orthodoxy and New Theory are placed in balanced opposition: ‘if the old theory explained photography’s epistemic capacities, but fell down with respect to its artistic uses, the challenge for the new is to provide an alternative explanation of photography’s epistemic capabilities’ (7). Concerning this last point, which is linked to the opposition between photography and painting that is often assumed by folk theories and Orthodoxy, Costello follows Lopes’ proposal to ‘abandon the tendency to align the distinction between belief-independent and belief-dependent features tracking with that between photography and manugraphy altogether’ (124). This is a rather radical thesis which the book does not fully prove, but which helps us to distinguish between photographic practices or uses and the essence of the photographic image:Lopes’ goal is to show that knowledge-oriented practices, widespread though they may be, do not exhaust photography in general, and so should cease to dominate our thinking about it; conversely, aesthetically oriented practices, widespread though they may be, are not coextensive with manugraphy per se, so should cease to dominate our thinking about hand-rendered images. (134) In sum, Costello warns us against the use of ‘a narrow diet of examples that misrepresents the scope of the domain’ (126). We eventually understand why it is so important to read the nineteenth-century texts again. It allows us to discover that most of the theoretical claims about photography are a mixture of folk intuitions and claims that have been ventured by users (scientists, painters, architects, explorers), inventors, and commentators, that is to say by people who, one way or the other, have conflated some particular photographic practice with photography per se. Costello has written an inspiring and useful book to anyone interested in moving forward and escaping the opposition between epistemic and aesthetic dimensions of photography, without neglecting these very dimensions. One can only regret that he does not develop more new arguments that could contribute to the New Theory, but it would certainly have diverted him from his essential goal: writing a brief, synthetic and very clear book about the way philosophers should try to answer the question ‘What is photography?’ in a way that is sensitive to history, art history and artistic practices. Footnotes 1 André Bazin, ‘Ontology of the Photographic Image’, in his What is Cinema?, vol. 1 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967). 2 Lady Elisabeth Eastlake, ‘Photography’, in Alan Trachtenberg (ed.), Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1989). 3 Gregory Currie, ‘Visible Traces: Documentary and the Contents of Photographs’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57 (1999), 285–297. © British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Aesthetics Oxford University Press

On Photography: A Philosophical Inquiry

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© British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com
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Abstract

In this short book Diarmuid Costello presents a valuable new framework for philosophical discussion on photography. Costello aims ‘to treat photography philosophically’ (2). He thoroughly investigates our intuitions about the essence of photography, showing that the most sophisticated ‘theoretical’—in a broad sense—claims often turn out to be only reformulations of basic folk intuitions about some uses of photography or paradigmatic examples that are unduly taken to stand for photography per se. Debunking many fallacious distinctions, he introduces new questions that philosophers could ask about photography—as an imaging process first, but also as a set of practices. Theoretical texts about photography have focused on two distinct dimensions of photographic practices: the epistemic dimension and the aesthetic/artistic dimension, which happens to parallel the distinction between mechanical and handmade pictures. Either ‘photographs are taken to be accurate sources of information about the world because a machine rather than a human being does the recording’ and therefore support inferences about the world, or they are appreciated aesthetically insofar as the artist’s intentions are made visible by departing from the pure causal mechanism of photography (4). The tension between handmade and mechanical images or between epistemic capabilities and aesthetic uses is not new and has already been well documented. Still, the way Costello aims to escape the tension is new: it is not enough to distinguish between an ‘information-preserving pure photography’ and a ‘non-information-preserving impure photographic art’ because that is only a way to say that photography can be objective or artistic but not both. Rather than ‘saving the possibility of photographic art, but only at the cost of denying its purity’, Costello considers the possibility of pure photography being art, in virtue of its being pure photography. Demonstrating this possibility is a serious challenge. By clarifying the debates and focusing on two different ways of dealing philosophically with photography (namely Orthodoxy versus New Theory), Costello invites the reader to choose a side and at the same time choose the kind of questions that one thinks philosophy should answer. The boundary between Orthodoxy and New Theory results from the way one considers the opposition between hand-made and machine-made images. If you regard the distinction as strict, if you hold that it parallels the distinction between painting and photography and if this makes it difficult to account for the photographer’s agency, then you are on the side of Orthodoxy. If you hold that both categories cut across one another, if you do not assume that painting and photography are distinct by nature and if you criticize the identification of the essence of photography with the recording event, and criticize the analogy between a trace and a photograph, then you are a New Theorist. One implicit aim of the book is to orient research in good directions. To make progress, Costello starts by divesting the existing views of all the unproved assumptions or unclear intuitions and, for several cases, one must admit that after his criticism, backwards steps seem unlikely. To give one example, he shows that by comparing photography and imprinting, André Bazin conflates the automatic dimension of the image-rendering process with its natural dimension: ‘In sum, a process can be both natural and causal (sunburn, freckles) or both causal and automatic (photography), but one and the same process cannot be both natural and automatic—if “natural” is taken, as it is by Bazin, to contrast with “human”’ (42).1 By focusing in the first chapter ‘Foundational intuitions and folk theory’ on Talbot and Daguerre, on pictorialists and straight photography, or on Bazin and Cavell, Costello does not aim at exhaustivity or deep historical enquiry. But he points out how theoretical debates have been structured by noteworthy stable distinctions or tensions that should be questioned anew. He shows how the statements by inventors of photography like Nièpce, Daguerre or Talbot put ‘emphasis on the “self-generated” aspect of photographic images’, and those of commentators stress ‘photography’s accuracy, speed and labour-saving potential’ (11). These ideas pervade theoretical texts until the twentieth-century. This also applies to the assumption that photography is unable to transform matter and express ideas, which was expressed by Elisabeth Eastlake in one of the first sceptical claims based on a distinction ‘between the manual and the intellectual aspects of making art’.2 This very inability is found in the following century in Bazin and in Roger Scruton. Costello details debates between pictorialists and straight photography by focusing on the way the stakeholders insist on greater or lesser control exercised by the photographer on the various stages of the image-rendering process. In doing so, he reminds us that the question of the photographer’s agency is not new: ‘By insisting on the degree of control that even pure photography permits, [Frederick H.] Evans is responding to a prevailing worry about the possibility of photographic art, and at the same time anticipating twentieth-century debates’ (23). Costello also notes how the opposition between the medium’s purity and intervention by human hands is articulated in Robert Demachy’s work: ‘This is Demachy’s reasoning: if the photograph is to be pure, the photographer must refrain from intervention. But if the photographer refrains from intervention there can be no subjective expression, and where there is no subjective expression there can be no art’ (23). Costello asks, however, directly after: ‘Is it inconceivable that one could demonstrate one’s artistry in how one respects the photographic process?’ and this question is still relevant today if one adds to it an inquiry about the meaning of the term ‘intervention’ (23). Chapters 2 and 3 consider Roger Scruton and Kendall Walton. Both belong to what Costello calls ‘Orthodoxy’ but in its sceptical version for the former (Scruton claims that photography cannot be a representational art) and in its non-sceptical version for the latter (Walton does not deny the possibility for photography to be a representational art). These chapters also deal with responses to Scruton and Walton, in particular the emergence of what Costello calls ‘New Theory’. Like Scruton, Gregory Currie contrasts photography with painting. The classical distinction between traces and testimonies introduced by Currie (together with the opposition between ‘what a photograph is of’ and ‘what a photograph is about’ or the difference between ‘to represent by origin’ or ‘to represent by use’) does not really reduce the tension between the epistemic and the aesthetic dimension of photography.3 Admittedly Currie argues that a photograph can represent a fiction, but, notes Costello, it will not be by strictly photographic means. As Costello puts it: ‘Only demonstrating that photographs can be fictionally competent at the first-order level, by strictly photographic means, would secure its fictional competence in the eyes of committed sceptic like Scruton’ (74). This is exactly the role envisaged by the New Theory which is rooted in Patrick Maynard’s attempt ‘to redirect philosopher’s attention from the photographic product to the process underlying that product’ (7). New Theorists aim to enrich the meaning of what we call ‘strictly photographic means’, which, in orthodox views, is relatively poor and abstract. The first result that one can credit the New Theory with consists in the distinction between the light recording and the photographic image. Costello highlights Dawn Wilson’s (née Phillips) contribution to the New Theory: a photograph is understood as a visual image produced by a multi-stage process. The first stage is a light image; the second is a ‘photographic event’ where the light image is recorded by a photosensitive surface. The resultant record must undergo a further process to become a visible image: a photograph. It is important not to confuse the light image with the photograph because ‘unlike a light image, a photograph does not remain counterfactually dependent on the scene it depicts’. So ‘the “ideal photograph”, on which Scruton’s argument pivots, turns out to be an idealisation of the light image rather than the photograph proper, and Scruton’s argument hangs on conflating a way-stage in the photographic process with its finished product’ (79). Another advantage of defining a photograph through multiple stages, with a distinction between the photographic event and the production of images, is that it unties the link between what is causal or natural in the process and what is mechanical. Photography does have an irreducible causal or natural aspect, since there is a light image and a recording event. But the processes implied in image production need not be strictly mechanical and the photographer’s agency is freed from the requirement of mechanicity. This latter point is to be found especially in Dominic Lopes’ account which ‘does not require that photography be belief-independent, or counterposed to a class of belief-dependent hand-made images’ (88). Costello makes a valuable contribution to the New Theory in chapters 2 and 3 when he introduces a gap between Scruton and Walton. Scruton’s scepticism has been the easier target for the New Theory to promulgate its main results (such as the distinction between the light image and the photographic image or the importance of the multi-stage process for the defence of the artistic potential of photography). But Walton is a far more formidable opponent since he is not sceptical about photographic art and since he does account for the difference between the epistemic and artistic capacities of photography. At this point in his book Costello really gets involved by using two arguments against Walton. First, he explains that:perhaps Walton equivocates between photo graphs and photographic apparatus. As two-dimensional surfaces in which we see three- dimensional scenes, the former are a kind of picture; as series of lenses and mirrors through which we see the world, the latter are a type of visual prosthesis. Cameras are not unlike periscopes and telescopes, with the added functionality of being able to record the images that they provide. The claim that we see through cameras and other lens systems is uncontroversial; the claim that we see through photographs is not. … That photographic apparatuses, such as cameras, are aids to vision need not entail that their products also are. (113–114) The second argument is based on an example of two photographs by Lee Friedlander entitled Stems 1 and Stems 2 (1999), which show, close up, stems of tulips in a transparent vase full of water that is placed on a table. Costello calls the mind-independence thesis into question by building on a distinction between non-occluded and out-of-focus details: when the depth of field is adjusted to a minimum, a detail can remain out-of-focus even if it is visible to the naked eye and what is out-of-focus cannot appear in the photograph independently of the photographer’s mind: ‘unless the photographer notices the difference and intends to record it, by adjusting his camera settings accordingly, it will not show up in the final image’ (120). Eventually, the strengths and weaknesses of Orthodoxy and New Theory are placed in balanced opposition: ‘if the old theory explained photography’s epistemic capacities, but fell down with respect to its artistic uses, the challenge for the new is to provide an alternative explanation of photography’s epistemic capabilities’ (7). Concerning this last point, which is linked to the opposition between photography and painting that is often assumed by folk theories and Orthodoxy, Costello follows Lopes’ proposal to ‘abandon the tendency to align the distinction between belief-independent and belief-dependent features tracking with that between photography and manugraphy altogether’ (124). This is a rather radical thesis which the book does not fully prove, but which helps us to distinguish between photographic practices or uses and the essence of the photographic image:Lopes’ goal is to show that knowledge-oriented practices, widespread though they may be, do not exhaust photography in general, and so should cease to dominate our thinking about it; conversely, aesthetically oriented practices, widespread though they may be, are not coextensive with manugraphy per se, so should cease to dominate our thinking about hand-rendered images. (134) In sum, Costello warns us against the use of ‘a narrow diet of examples that misrepresents the scope of the domain’ (126). We eventually understand why it is so important to read the nineteenth-century texts again. It allows us to discover that most of the theoretical claims about photography are a mixture of folk intuitions and claims that have been ventured by users (scientists, painters, architects, explorers), inventors, and commentators, that is to say by people who, one way or the other, have conflated some particular photographic practice with photography per se. Costello has written an inspiring and useful book to anyone interested in moving forward and escaping the opposition between epistemic and aesthetic dimensions of photography, without neglecting these very dimensions. One can only regret that he does not develop more new arguments that could contribute to the New Theory, but it would certainly have diverted him from his essential goal: writing a brief, synthetic and very clear book about the way philosophers should try to answer the question ‘What is photography?’ in a way that is sensitive to history, art history and artistic practices. Footnotes 1 André Bazin, ‘Ontology of the Photographic Image’, in his What is Cinema?, vol. 1 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967). 2 Lady Elisabeth Eastlake, ‘Photography’, in Alan Trachtenberg (ed.), Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1989). 3 Gregory Currie, ‘Visible Traces: Documentary and the Contents of Photographs’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57 (1999), 285–297. © British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

The British Journal of AestheticsOxford University Press

Published: May 23, 2018

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