Phenomenology of Photography


Crowther, Paul. ‘The Phenomenology of Photography’ Phenomenology of the Visual Arts (even the frame) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009) 139-142


[cites Bourdieu]

Bourdieu’s point here is that photography is more than common visual communication, but it, nevertheless, so useful in terms of its mundane social documentary functions that these functions always subvert attempts to present it as high art. Issues of technique and form can never quite overcome the spectre of documentary significance.

However, this is not the insuperable problem which Bourdieu takes it to be. They key is to find an explanation of what makes photography art, which is based on factors involving both technical and formal achievements, and photography’s documentary functions.


Autographic media such as painting and sculpture offer only direct traces of those gestures by the artist, by means of which the referent is represented. In such cases, whether or not the subject ever existed in reality is not an issue which can be resolved with certainty purely on the basis of the image’s mode of representation.

The photograph, in contrast, is causally rigid in terms of its relation to the referent (though Barthes himself does not put it like this). What we see is, by virtue of the mechanical and chemical processes involved, a direct causal trace of the referent’s visible being. And even if the photo is a fake, it is composed of elements that involve the physical traces of some visual item or states of affairs that have actually existed.

On the basis of this distinctive causal rigidity, photography can be characterized in terms of three fundamental aspects – the viewpoint of agent, subject, or spectator.


Now the punctum and air are not features which are in any way intrinsic to photography (though Barthes seems to think that they are).

It may be that the occurrence of such factors in photography gives them an experiential impact that is different from their occurrence in other media, but they are not features intrinsic to photography itself.

Barthes’ linkage of photography to intimations of mortality, in contrast, is grounded on factors which are distinctive to photography. But we must make an important qualification here. For whilst these responses are grounded in the ontology of photography, whether or not they are manifest is a function of the relation between particular photographs, and particular individuals , in particular historical circumstances. They are privileged interpretative perspectives based on photography’s casual rigidity, but not features which are themselves intrinsic to the description of what photography is (i.e. to what Barthes calls its noeme.

Daguerrotypes and the very earliest photographs, for example, involve long time-exposures, and a limited range of immobile subjects. This means that whilst the ontological structure is in place, it is not historically and technologically developed enough to bring out all the distinctive intimations of mortality noted by Barthes.

Indeed, whilst Barthes takes the photograph to be an intrinsic testimony to someone having witnessed the referent, this does not have to be the case. There are circumstances where photographs are taken without someone looking through the lens, or without having seen the referent as presented to the lens. This means that the link between photographic agency and spectatorship cannot be intrinsic to photography per se.


One can, of course, have many copies of a print or digital original, but these are taken from a negative or from a specific configuration of electrical signals (as in digital photography). In such cases the prints are tokens of a type, and it is the type which is unique.

This has some remarkable consequences. Every appearance of a visible item is contingent, in the sense that it can be seen from a number of other possible perceptual viewpoints.


Hence, whilst each actual spatio-temporal component of an item comes into being and passes away with seeming contingency, it forms a necessary component in the identity of that item. The causal rigidity of the photograph’s relation to its referent not only shows that the referent once existed, it also reveals one of the particular visual aspects which is a necessary factor in that referent’s identity.

Ironically, through being photographed, the aspect comes to exist independently of the object as a causal trace. But because of the causal rigidity of its relation to the referent, we know that this trace presents an inescapable aspect of the referent’s identity. The photograph not only testifies to the necessity of its referent having existed, but also to features which were, or are, essential to that existence.

Let us now rethink his insight that the photograph presents its referent as something which is dead and is going to die. Again, this characterization needs qualification. It is literally true of photographs of people or other living things who have died since the photograph was taken.

However, many photographs are of people or living things which are still alive, and many other such images, of course, are of inanimate items – in which case it seems absurd to say that they are dead and they are going to die.

Obviously the photograph is not a duplicate of its referent, but because of the existence and identity factors analyzed above, it is ontologically bound to it. Whilst the photograph survives, so does a form of some of its referent’s visual aspects – and it is the visual dimension which describes what is most fundamental to something’s existence and identity, namely its mode of occupying space.


It is, indeed, the creative tension between temporal loss and spatial presence which makes of photography much more than the imprint of something which has existed at least once.

[introduces Nietzsche’s eternal return]


[cites Susan Sontag On Photography]


Indeed, Sontag is making some rather more serious errors of the kind which I identified previously in relation to Barthes, namely the conflation of intrinsic with contextual factors.


Sontag’s problems here are extremely instructive in terms of their origin. Her analysis constellates, in effect, around the implications of snapshot photography. She emphasises factors which are mainly functions and effects of the instantly captured image realised in specific kinds of socio-historical context.

However, the wealth of factors which Sontag identifies, and the very fact that she sees them as intrinsic to photography, points to ward an interesting and decisive issue. It is that of whether there is something about the snapshot itself  which is of intrinsic significance for the ontology of photography.

Now historically speaking, the technology of the snapshot is secondary to that of time-exposure, and it arose in a specific cultural context. However, in ontological terms, there is a case for regarding it as prior – as something which is intrinsic to the medium in its most complete form.

This is because (whilst there is still a role for time exposure) the immediate shot makes time – and thence the recording of action – into an active feature of the photographic image, rather than a factor which has to be overcome in order to even take a picture.

The image taken by the immediate click of the shutter, in other words, is what photography must tend towards if the full range of its semantic possibilities is to be realized.

This offers a broad parallel with the achievement of fully developed linear perspective in pictorial representation. Through linear perspective it becomes possible to represent visual reality as a systematically connected continuum, of which the particular picture functions as a spatio-temporal cross-section.

Analogously, the snapshot allows photography to encompass the realm of action, thus enabling the single photograph to offer a spatio-tempral cross-section of systematically continuous reality.


[…[ the sheer capacity to vary the size of the referent per se is something intrinsic to the ontology of the medium itself.

It is not, of course, unique to photography, insofar as similar transformations of scale are also intrinsic to any pictorial art. However, in photography, it takes on a distinctive and extraordinary power precisely because  the variation of spatial scale constellates around a causally rigid trace of the referent’s visual appearance.


The ontology of photography, then, is intrinsically connected to factors which are basic to our embodied inherence in the world. Our intuitive fascination with this is the basis of photography’s phenomenological depth. The fact that photography has such intrinsic meaning is precisely what enables its informational function to be reconfigured as an object of aesthetic, and thence artistic significance, in its own right.

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