The photograph


Flusser, Vilem. ‘The Photograph’ Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2000) 41-48


There cannot be black-and-white states of things in the world because black-and-white cases are borderline, ‘ideal cases’: black is the total absence of all oscillations contained in light, white is the total presence of all the elements of oscillation.


‘Black’ and ‘white’ are concepts, e.g. theoretical concepts of optics. As black-and-white states of things are theoretical, they can never actually exist in the world.

Grey is the colour of theory: which shows that one cannot reconstruct the world anymore from a theoretical analysis.

Long before the invention of the photograph, one attempted to imagine the world in black and white. Here are two examples of this pre-photographic manicheism: Abstractions were made from the world of judgements distinguishing those that were ‘true’ and those which were ‘false’, and from these abstractions Aristotelian logic was constructed with its identity, difference and excluded middle. Modern science based on this logic functions despite the fact that no judgement is ever either completely true or completely false and even though every true judgement is reduced to nothing when subjected to logical analysis.

The second example: Abstractions were made from the world of actions distinguishing the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ and religious and political ideologies were constructed from these abstractions.


Black-and-white photographs belong to the same sort of manicheism [as social systems], only they involve the use of cameras. And they too actually function: They translate a theory of optics into an image and thereby put a magic spell on this theory and re-encode theoretical concepts like ‘black’ and ‘white’ into states of things.

Black-and-white photographs embody the magic of theoretical thought since they transform the linear discourse of theory into surfaces.

Many photographers therefore also prefer black-and-white photographs to colour photographs because they more clearly reveal the actual significance of the photograph, i.e. the world of concepts.

It looked as if photographs first abstracted the colours from the world in order to smuggle them back in. In reality, however, the colours of photographs are at least as theoretical as black and white.

The green of a photographed field, for example, is an image of the concept ‘green’, just as it occurs in chemical theory, and the camera (or rather the film inserted into it) is programmed to translate this concept into the image.


It is true that there is a very indirect, distant connection between the green of the photograph and the green of the field, since the chemical concept ‘green’ is based on ideas that have been drawn from the world; but between the green of the photograph and the green of the field a whole series of complex encodings have crept in, a series that is more complex than that which connects the grey of the field photographed in black and white with the green of the field. In this sense the field photographed in green is more abstract than the one in grey.


Colour photographs are on a higher level of abstraction than black-and-white ones.

What is true of the colours of photographs is also true of all the other elements of photographs. They all represent transcoded concepts that claim to have been reflected automatically from the world onto the surface. It is precisely this deception that has to be decoded so as to identify the true significance of the photograph i.e. programmed concepts, and to reveal that in the case of the photograph one is dealing with a symbolic complex made up of abstract concepts, dealing with discourses re-encoded into symbolic states of things.


[…] there is no satisfactory solution to decoding. One would be drawn into an endless process since evry level of decoding would reveal another one waiting to be decoded. Every symbol is just the tip of an iceberg in the ocean of cultural consensus, and even if one got right to the bottom of decoding a single message, the whole of culture past and present would be revealed.

In the case of the photograph, this descent into infinite regression can be avoided, however, since one can be satisfied with recording the encoding intentions at work within the ‘photographer/camera’ complex.

Reduced to basic elements, photographers’ intentions are as follows: first, to encode their concepts of the world into images; second, to do this by using a camera; third, to show the images produced in this way to others so that they can serve as models for their experience, knowledge, judgement and actions; fourth, to make these models as permanent as possible.


In short, Photographers’ intentions are to inform others and through their photographs to immortilize themselves in the memory of others. For photographers, their concepts (and the ideas signified by these concepts) are the main raison d’etre for taking photographs, and the camera’s program is in the servoice of these raison d’etre.


Likewise reduced to its basic elements, the camera’s  program is as follows: first, to place its inherent capabilities into the image; second, to make use of a photographer for this purpose, except in borderline cases of total automation (for example, in the case of satellite photograph); third, to distribute the images produced in this way so that society is in a feedback relationship to the camera which makes it possible for the camera to improve progressively; fourth, to produce better and better images.

In short: The camera’s program provides for the realization of its capabilities and, in the process, for the use of society as a feedback mechanism for its progressive improvement.

 As mentioned previously, there are further programs behind this one (that of the photographic industry, of the industrial complex, of the socio-economic apparatuses), through the entire heirarchy of which there flows the enormous intention of programming society to act in the interests of the progressive improvement of those apparatuses. This intention can be seen in every single photograph and can be decoded from it.


Every single photograph is the result, at one and the same time, of co-operation and of conflict between camera and photographer.


Consequently, a photograph can be considered to have been decoded when one has succeeded in establishing how co-operation and conflict act on one another within it.

The task of photography criticism should therefore be to identify the way in which human beings are attempting to get a hold over the camera and, on the other hand, the ways in which cameras aim to absorb the intentions of human beings within themselves.


If photography critics do not succeed in this task, photographs remain undecoded and appear to be representations of states of things in the world out there, just as if they reflected ‘themselves’ onto a surface. Looked at uncritically like this, they accomplish their task perfectly: programming society to act as though under a magic spell for the benefit of cameras.

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