Thinking photography beyond the visual?


Edwards, Elizabeth ‘Thinking photography beyond the visual?’ Photography: Theoretical Snapshots ed. by Long, J.J., Noble, Andrea, and Welch, Edward (Oxon: Routledge, 2009) pp.31-48


[Edwards wants] to consider ways in which we might extend our understanding of photography beyond the visual itself and thus extend our theory of photography beyond the dominant semiotic, linguistic and instrumental models to a more strongly phenomenological approach, in which materiality and the sensual play a central role in how photographs are understood.

Digital environments and technologies have, of course, radically impacted on much that I discuss. However the argument is not only historical. While the means of cresting and accessing images may have shifted from analogue to digital, and ways of storage shifted from shoe boxes to CDs, there still remains a cultural desire for the material object to fulfil specific social functions.


Further, the image on the computer screen still demands levels of sensory and embodied engagement: the slight flicker of the screen, the tap of the keyboard, the physical movement of operating the mouse and the social networks of image exchange. Whilst they are different in their manifestations, they are also ultimately of the same order.


[…] it is not simply the material forms of the image-object that concern me, but the performative strategies which link the body of the viewer with specific sensory formations, in relation to a thing.

Sensory and embodied apprehensions, of course, embed, and are embedded by social relations.


The semiotic model seems to limit our understanding of how images are actually made to have meaning, and there is thus a pressing need to extend this theoretical base by ‘prioritizing the knowledge with which people live rather the knowledge with which Western intellectuals make sense of life’. (Jackson 1996: 4)

Such a project contributes to a ‘corrective anthropology’, which attempts to explain the actual lived experience of people through the making of everyday knowledge.

As such it approaches photography through an ethnographically-grounded consideration of the functions and expectations that make photographs meaningful, rather than a theory that constructs photography as a form of ontological or analytical abstraction.

This is not to divorce photography from its meta-levels or to de-politicize it, for its instrumental qualities  embedded in power structures remain active over a wide range of visualizing and photographic practices.

[…] the presence – or absence – of the sensory as an inseparable component of the photograph’s materiality, has resonated through theoretical writing on photography; if, that is, we care to look for it.


[The neglected study of materiality] reflects the values attached to Western understandings of the hierarchy of the senses, in which seeing and hearing stand for the production of rational knowledge, whereas touch, smell and taste


[…] if we are to begin to develop a sensory theory of photography it is necessary to consider the micro-levels  of sensory experience in which visual objects are enmeshed.

Language has saturated the discourse of photography to the extent that Kracauer saw language as oral tradition as necessary to making photography historically sufficient: ‘were it not for the oral tradition, the image alone would not have sufficed’ to reconstruct the historical moment. [Seigfried Kracauer, ‘The Mass Ornament’]

[Burgin has argued]the photograph is ‘invaded by language in the very moment it is looked at: in memory, in association, snatches of words and images continually intermingle and exchange for one another’. [‘Seeing Senses’]


[Edwards’ concern is to] move beyond the conceptualisation of language as an abstract, symbolic and signifying system, to an understanding of language something heard and integral to the acoustic landscape, in which a series of sonic iterations carries not only the sign, but also emotion. It is this acoustic landscape, moreover, that frames the social interaction of the photograph.

Most photographs exist not in contexts of ‘art’ or formal expression, but in the everyday: as postcards and in family albums, newspapers or magazines. It is these images that shoulder the greatest weight of social meaning. At the same time they exist in multi sensory domains.

Photographs are enmeshed in oral stories – personal, family and community histories – as the narrated world is vocally articulated. They are performed  through the spoken or sung  human voice, telling stories to an audience – formal or informal – and framing social interaction.


[…] photographs both focus  and extend verbalization, as they have dynamic and shifting stories woven round and through them, imprinting themselves in and being played back repeatedly through different tellings. They connect people to people.

Kracauer famously asserted that both history and photography were forms of alienation, distancing and disembodiment, an assertion that resonates with Csordas’s argument concerning the disappearance of the body in accounts of human experience.

By contrast, a sensory approach suggests precisely the reverse, as a merging of the indexical, iconography, material and sensory elements combine reconnects people, history and image.