It was suggested that I have a look at a book entitled Classic Essays on Photography edited by Alan Trachtenberg, and particularly the essay by Andre Bazin on The Ontology of the Photographic Image.  I was a little bit surprised and shamed that I had not come across it during my MA.  I was interested to read Bazin’s views as the more I think about developing my practice and the academic discourse that underpins it, the more I ask myself what is my approach to the ontology of the photographic image?

Andre Bazin (1918-1958) was primarily a French film critic and was interested in analysing film in terms of its cultural, sociological and historical significance.  In doing this he combined a scholarly approach to the field of film analysis with the more journalistic writings as a critic.  He begins his essay by introducing man’s need to preserve our life after death – the preservation of life through a means of representation.  He talks about the Egyptians practise of embalming, and erecting statues as substitutes for mummies.  Through history, people represented their life through different art forms – such as Louis XIV who was happy to be remembered through a portrait.  But, as Bazin says:

“Civilization cannot, however, entirely cast out the bogy of time.  It can only sublimate our concern with it to the level of rational thinking.  No one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image, but all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death.  Today the making of images no longer shares an anthropocentric, utilitarian purpose.  It is no longer a question of survival after death, but of a larger concept, the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny . . . If the history of the plastic arts is less a matter of their aesthetic than of their psychology then it will be seen to be essentially the story of resemblance, or, if you will, of realism.”  (Bazin in Trachtenberg (ed) 1980: 238).

Bazin then examines the balance that painting has struck between the symbolic and realism suggesting that the decisive moment came with perspective – the ability to create the illusion of a three-dimensional space – thus reproducing the reality – how things appear through our eyes.  This tension in painting between the symbolic and realism manifested itself through two ambitions:  aesthetic, the expression of spiritual reality and psychological, the duplication of the external world.

“The quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding , from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological; between true realism, the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and its essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind): a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances.” (Bazin in Trachtenberg (ed) 1980: 239-40).

Thus, the painter was always open to the charge of subjectivity, which in turn cast doubt over the image they produced.  Photography on the other hand, was seen as a mechanical reproduction, in which man’s hand played no part.  It was about the process rather than the outcome.  As Bazin says:

“For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent.  For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.  The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind.  Although the final result may reflect something of his personality, this does not play the same role as is played by that of the painter.  All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.”  (Bazin in Trachtenberg (ed) 1980: 241).

He argues that the production of an image through mechanical means has influenced our psychology of it.  It confers on the photographic image an objectivity and quality of credibility absent from other art forms.  It encourages an acceptance of existence of the object in time and space.  Photography transfers reality from the object to its reproduced form.  Bazin argues that the photographic image is the object itself and furthermore the object is freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.  So photography, freezes a moment in time, in life, freed from destiny – it embalms time.

“The aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare the realities.  It is not for me to separate off, in the complex fabric of the objective world, here a reflection on a damp sidewalk, there the gesture of a child.  Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those way of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love.  By the power of photography, the natural image of a world that we neither know nor can know, nature at last does more than imitate art:  she imitates the artist.”  (Bazin in Trachtenberg (ed) 1980: 242).

In conclusion, Bazin suggests that photography has freed Western painting from an imperative for realism and enabled it to work with aesthetic autonomy:

“. . . the photograph allows us on the one hand to admire in reproduction something that our eyes alone could not have taught us to love, and on the other, to admire the painting as a thing in itself whose relation to something in nature has ceased to be the justification for its existence.”  (Bazin in Trachtenberg (ed) 1980: 243).

In my view, Bazin presents a naive perspective on reality and does not articulate what he means by the term.  From the perspective of object-oriented ontology (OOO) and the likes of Heidegger, there is a separation between presence and being, which Bazin conflates.  What we see are the sensations and perceptions, but the real object is withdrawn.  However, Bazin’s view, is that what you see is what you get.  He sees the photographic image as a new object and  a real entity.  For Bazin, it is an image of reality.  He assumes that all images are a literal representation unaffected by the hand of man.  He does not acknowledge in any sense that the camera might look both ways – both to the object and to the photographer.  In OOO, the object is more than its pieces (the subject, the photographer and the image itself) and less than its effects.  The ‘more than’ being the relationship between the photographer and the object’s qualities – its essence – there is a reality beyond the pieces.  In terms of ‘less than’ it is impossible to describe all the effects the photographic image might have – for example, it might hang on someone’s wall or be used for specific commercial purposes.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to read more of the essays in Trachtenberg’s book and post my thoughts on this blog.



Trachtenberg (ed), Alan. 1980. The Ontology of the Photographic Image. New Haven: Leete’s Island Books.

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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