Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image


Damisch, Hubert. ‘Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image’ October, 5, Summer 1978, 70-72


Theoretically speaking, photography is nothing other than a process of recording, a technique of inscribing, in an emulsion of silver salts, a stable image generated by a ray of light.This definition, we note, neither assumes the use of a camera, nor does in imply that the image obtained is that of an object or scene from the external world.

The reluctance one feels, however, in describing such images [photograms] as photographs is a revealing indication of the difficulty of reflecting phenomenologically – in the strictest sense of an eidactic experience, a reading of essences – on a cultural object, on an essence that is historically constituted.

To consider a document of this sort like any other image is to claim a bracketing of all knowledge – and even, as we shall see, of all prejudice – as to its genesis and empirical functions.

The photographic image does not belong to the natural world. It is a product of human labor, a cultural object whose being – in the phenomenological sense of the term – cannot be dissociated precisely from its historical meaning and from the necessarily datable project in which it originates.


Imprinted by rays of light on a plate or sensitive film, these figures (or better perhaps, these signs?) must appear as the very trace of an object or a scene from the real world, the image of which inscribes itself, without direct human intervention, in the gelatinous substance covering the support.

Here is the source of the supposition of “reality,” which defines the photographic situation.

A photograph is this paradoxical image, without thickness or substance (and, in a way, entirely unreal), that we read without disclaiming the notion that it retains something of the reality from which it was somehow released through its physio-chemical make-up.

This is the constitutive deception of the photographic image (it being understood that every image, as Sartre has shown, is in essence a deceit). In the case of photography, however, this ontological deception carries with it a historical  deceit, far more subtle and insidious. And here we return to that object which we got rid of a little too quickly: the black box, the photographic camera.

Niepce, the successive adepts of the Daguerrotype, and those innumerable inventors who made photography what it is today, were not actually concerned to create a new type of image or to determine novel modes of representation; they wanted, rather, to fix the images which “spontaneously” formed on the ground of the camera obscura.

The adventure of photography begins with man’s first attempts to retain that image he had long known how to make.

This long familiarity with an image so produced, and the completely objective, that is to say automatic or in any case strictly mechanical, appearance of the recording process, explains how the photographic representation generally appeared as a matter of course, and why one ignores its highly elaborated, arbitrary character.

In discussions of the invention of film, the history of photography is most frequently presented as that of a discovery. One forgets, in the process, that the image the first photographers were hoping to seize, and the very latent image which they were able to reveal and develop, were in no sense naturally given; the principles of construction of the photographic camera – and the camera obscura before it – were tied to a conventional notion of space and of objectivity whose development preceded the invention of photography, and to which the great majority of photographers only conformed.

The lens itself, which has been carefully corrected for “distortions” and adjusted for “errors,” is scarcely as objective as it seems. [French for lens is objectif]. In its structure and in the ordered image of the world it achieves, it complies with an especially familiar though very old and delapidated [sic] system of spatial construction, to which photography belatedly brought an unexpected revival of current interest.

(Would the art, or rather the craft, of photography not consist partly in allowing us to forget that the black box is not “neutral” and that its structure is not impartial?)


The retention of the image, its development and multiplication, form an ordered succession of steps which composed the photographic act, taken as a whole. History determined, however, that this act would find its goal in reproduction, much the way the point of film as spectacle was established from the start.

So that photography’s contribution, to use the terms of classical economy, is less on the level of production, properly speaking, than that of consumption. Photography creates nothing of “use” (aside from its marginal and primarily scientific applications); it rather lays down the premises of an unbridled destruction of utility.

But it is important to note that even when it [photographic activity] gives us, through the channels of publishing, advertising, and the press, only those images which are already half consumed, or so to speak, “predigested,” this industry fulfils the initial photographic project; the capturing a restoration of an image already worn beyond repair, but sill, through its physical nature, unsuited to mass consumption.

Photography aspires to art each time, in practice, it calls into question its essence and its historical roles, each time it uncovers the contingent character of these things, soliciting in us the producer rather than the consumer of images.

No Responses Yet to “Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s