Tactile Looking


Olin, Margaret. ‘Tactile Looking’ Touching Photographs (London: University of Chicago Press, 2012) 1-21


Photographs are visible, but photography is not only a “visual” practice.


There is a tension between looking and touching; the two activities seem to alternate like a blinking eye, as though we cannot do both at the same time. Many of us are blind to what touches us most nearly.


Walter Benjamin knew that as a mode of perception, distraction involves touch. It pertains especially to architecture, appropriated through vision and touch, “noticing the object in an incidental fashion.” But photographs are the architecture of a mostly paper environment made up of newspapers, flyers, posters, and screens, and distraction pertains to them,too, even when we fall in love with them.

Like architecture, the medium of photography to a large extent, and in a variety of ways, engages the tactile sense.

The word photograph, meaning “light-writing,” evokes both vision and touch, and in exploiting the slippage between two parts of its name, photography gains power as a relational art, its meaning determined not only by what it looks like but also by the relationship we are invited to have with it.

Distraction does not make for a perception of something as less real. In fact, while the details may diminish, the representation viewed distractedly may impart an enhanced sense of presence.

And, along with distracted viewing, the sense of presence can lead to mistakes, like the mistakes we make when confused by the presence of our lover. There inattention and the attendant careless errors are not at stake, but rather the heightened attention that produces heightened mistakes.

The significance of tactile looking, mistaken or not, is that is is more act than reading, it produces more than it understands. In contrast, readings aimed at understanding rely on a visual conception of looking.


The notion of touch as a conduit to reality survives in metaphoric expressions of ordinary language that invoke touch to convey a sense of validation, evidence, and proof. A “touch” is a metonymic part: a little bit of something, just a trace, is a touch of it.

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