objet de désir
"PHOTOGRAPHY AND REPRESENTATION"
Stefan Beyst of
'Photography and Representation'
in "The Aesthetic Understanding', Essays in the Philosophy of Art
Methuen, London and New York, 1983.
THE LOGICAL IDEAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Roger begins with warning us that he is not dealing with real
photography, but with photography as an ideal, as opposed to an
equally ideal art of painting. In this logical opposition, the
'intentional' relation to the subject of the painter is contrasted with
the 'causal' relation of the photographer. Photography is 'causal'
because there is a point-to-point relation between the subject and the
photograph, whereas, in a painting, there is also the interpretation of
the painter: 'thought, intention or mental act' (p.104). Or, to
phrase it more simply: a photo is an 'exact copy' (p. 106), a
'simulacrum' (p. 166) of the subject, the painting is an
'interpretation' of it. Again, to approach it from the photograph or the
painting themselves: ''If a painting represents a subject, it does not follow that
the subject exists, nor, if it does exist, that the paintings represents
the subject as it is' (p 103). ' If a photograph is a photograph of a
subject, it follows that the subject exists, and if x is a photograph of
a man, there is a particular man of whom x is the photograph' (p. 103)
We completely agree that there are two kinds of images: there are images
that imitate the existing world and images that transform the existing
world or even conjure up entirely imaginary worlds. We formulate this
difference as the difference between
uncompleted and completed mimesis, because mimesis comes to its
apogee when it comes to create itself the world which it imitates. That
being said, it immediately appears that there are 'exact copies' in
painting as well as in photography, and that there is, conversely,
transformed or imaginary reality as well in photography as in painting.
We therefore do not understand why the distinction is not formulated in
terms of 'resemblance' but in terms of techniques of image production.
In the view of Roger Scruton, the causal relation of the photograph to its
subject entails also our being referred from the photograph to the subject.
That is already apparent from that remarkable phrasing in the quotation
above, in which the causal relation between subject and photograph is
approached from the side of the photograph that allows us to infer to the existence
of its 'cause'.
But, the photograph not only allows us to infer to the existence of its
cause, it also refers us to it:''Our attitude toward photography will be one of curiosity, not
curiosity about the photograph but rather about its subject ' (p. 114).
'Looking at a photograph is a substitute for looking at the thing itself'
(p. 111). Remarkably enough, Roger Scruton describes this difference in
Kantian terms: a painting is appreciated 'aesthetically' ; whereas a
photograph stirs our 'interest' in the subject: 'The photograph is a means to the end of seeing its
subject; in painting, on the other hand, the subject is the means
to the end of its own representation (p.44). Such Kantian phrasing seems
to be an attempt at avoiding the semiotic/linguistic model, that
nevertheless continues to shimmer through in the 'deictic' function of
the photograph: 'The
camera, then, is being used not to represent something, but to
point to it' (p. 113). This distinction can be coined more accurately as
the distinction between instrumental
and autonomous mimesis. There are images are appreciated for
their own sake, and images merely refer us to the real world -
think of the photograph of an ice-cream in a restaurant. And, again, it
is immediately evident that photographs as well as paintings can be
merely instrumental. There is no justification whatsoever to phrase the
distinction in terms of 'a difference between photography and painting.
Quite the contrary: iconic signs' are mostly far more efficient when
schematised rather than 'causal' (see: 'Mimesis
There is no problem with logical opposition, provided it is logical. And
that is not the case with the opposition of Roger Scruton: he fails to
distinguish between two different oppositions (that between uncompleted
and completed mimesis, and that between instrumental and autonomous
mimesis), and overlooks the fact that both painting and photography can
be found on both poles of both oppositions.
MIMESIS OR SEMIOSIS
But there is more. And that appears immediately when we have a close
reading of the quotation above: '''If a painting
represents a subject, it does not follow that the subject exists, nor,
if it does exist, that the paintings represents the subject as it is'.
'If a photograph is a photograph of a subject, it follows that the subject
exists' (p. 103). It immediately catches the eye that Roger Scruton has the
painting ' 'represent a subject', but not the photo: of a photo he
prefers to say that it 'is a photograph of a subject'. Why not
just have also the photograph 'represent a subject'?
Because it is Roger Scruton's explicit intention to deny photography - the
causal relation between a photo and its subject - the status of
representation. And that goes not only for the photograph, but for
the mirror as well: ' 'When I see someone in a mirror,
I see him, not his representation'......(p.119)'. What we see in
the mirror is, according to Roger Scruton, no 'representation', but the
thing - reality - itself...! That is particularly evident when
compares a photo of staged reality not only with a mirror image of
it, but also with what we get to see when looking through a frame as
through a window or a keyhole (§ 9). It seems that
Roger Scruton has not yet
outgrown the stage of Narcissus who reached to his mirror image, to find
out that he was merely staring at a ''representation'.
Precisely the fact that we cannot touch the
subject in a photograph nor in a mirror makes that these images are no 'point-to-point' 'exact copies' - doubles
- of their subject, even when, to the eye, the resemblance is striking -
and it is precisely thŕt difference which is constitutive for something
to be an imitation
(representation) - not the difference between 'causal' and
'intentional'. For, it is evident that an imitation is not a duplicate
of an original: there is resemblance for the eye, but sheer difference
for the other senses.
Although Roger Scruton does not mention the term, it is evident that, though
his aversion for photography, he only mouths aversion for a theory
that defines the image in terms of 'resemblance', 'imitation' - or to be
To be sure, he does not resort to Gombrich's 'conventionalism' nor
Goodman's 'linguistic' approach (see §
3). He sticks to the idea of 'resemblance', although he is talking more
of 'reference', and although such resemblance/reference has to
testify to some 'intention' to be a genuine 'representation': Something is a representation only if it is
capable of carrying a reference to its subject without merely standing
as a surrogate for it' (p.115).
The impact of the semiotic/linguistic model reaches deeper still. In the
good tradition of Goodman, literature
and painting are understood in terms of 'worldview': '(painting and
literature) can be understood in terms of a descriptive thought which
they articulate' (p.121). Or also: ''To understand a painting involves
understanding thoughts. These thoughts are, in a since, communicated by
the painting' (p. 195).
Common sense, and the everyday language to which it uses to resort
continue to haunt Roger Scruton, as when he writes: 'By
its very nature, photography can 'represent' only through resemblance' (how
else can we represent?)' (p. 133). That does not prevent the 'linguistic
model' as an anti-mimetic model, to continue to exert a fundamental
influence on his thinking. That is all too apparent from the following
sentence:'That is a
reason not only for an interest in the subject, but also for an
interest in the picture'
(p.110). As if, in matters of images, there would be a relevant
distinction between the 'subject' and
'the painting': there is no such thing a a 'real Duke of Ellington'
about whom the painting would tell us something. The paint on the canvas
conjures up the one and only 'Duke of Ellington' that appears there
before our eyes. And that is the Duke of Ellington as Goya has painted
hem. The painting is no comment on the real world: it rather pretends to
be reality itself.
ABOUT REAL PHOTOGRAPHY THAT TURNS OUT TO BE
Remind that Roger Scruton told us that he was merely talking about photography
as the purely 'logical' opposite of painting. Nevertheless, it comes
as a big surprise when we suddenly read the following
sentence about 'real' photography: 'The
history of the art of photography is the history of successive attempts
to break the causal chain by which the photographer is imprisoned, to
impose a human intention between subject and appearance, so that the
subject can be both defined by that intention and seen in terms of it '(p.
118). In that case, the photograph becomes 'representational', just like
a painting - and that is precisely what we always have known. But
our feeling of being back home again is immediately spoiled in that we
get to hear that we are no longer dealing here with 'photography', but
with 'painting': ''When the photographer strives toward representational art, he inevitably seems to
move away from that ideal of photography toward the ideal of painting'
Our pleasure is all the more spoilt, since Roger Scruton had nearly convinced
us through pointing to the fact that the photographer has no overall control
over the image that he is producing:' The causal process of which the
photographer is a victim puts almost every detail outside of his control'
(p. 117). We immediately thought of the sovereign command of the
painter over all the dimensions of the image, form, colour, tone.
But, it turns out that Roger Scruton is talking about rather futile
details: ''There will be an infinite number of things that lie outside
his control: Dust on a sleeve, freckles on a face, wrinkles on a hand' (p.
117). For such futile details, photographers have from the beginning
found equally banal solutions, as also Roger Scruton knows: ''(The photographer) can proceed to paint things
in, to touch up, alter or pasticher as he pleases' (p. 117). And it is,
of all things these banal proceedings, that inspire Roger Scruton to make his
'salto mortale' from 'logical photography' to real photography that
turns out to be painting: 'But of course he has
now become a painter, precisely through taking representation seriously'
(p. 117). When banal interventions as retouche suffice to turn a
photo into a representation, of which photography Roger Scruton
has been talking then
all the time? Or, to put it the other way round: does it really
suffice to retouch a documentary photo to transform it in a 'representation'
that is enjoyed as such? Does it suffice to remove the fly from our
photograph of the ice-cream to turn into a 'painting' and
to have my 'interest' in ice-cream disappear?
ABOUT REAL PAINTINGS THAT ARE IN FACT LOGICAL
We are not finished yet. The very same Roger Scruton, who just comes to
proclaim retouche as a sufficient ground for the transformation of a
photo in a representation, suddenly denies that more important
interventions like lighting, arranging of the subject, choice of
the appropriate moment, and what have you, do not suffice to work that wonder. For, according to
Roger Scruton, these
intervention merely turn the real subject into a representation, and the
photo of that representation remains a mere 'exact copy' of that
'A photograph of a representation is no more a representation than a
picture of a man is a man"...
But, what about real paintings then? When da Vinci places his Mona
Lisa in a special light, and asks her to take the required pose and to
have her lips smile that mysterious smile of hers, did he merely
transform the real Mona Lisa in a representation of which his painting
is merely the 'exact copy'? And, if that is the case, do we not
witness the reverse process as that of the 'logical photograph': that
the 'logical painting' increasingly moves away from the ideal of
painting and approaches the ideal of photography? Did not da Vinci
himself teach us that a painting can be called perfect only when it does
not differ from the mirror image of the subject - at least when we cover
one eye to eliminate the stereoscopic superiority of the mirror?
Besides, on what grounds are interventions like retouche (and the
countless other possible inventions after the exposure of
the negative) reckoned to the photographical process, whereas the preparatory
interventions like lighting, choice of the appropriate moment, arranging
of the subject and what have you are excluded from it? Because retouche
resembles painting? But that goes also for lighting, since light and
shadow in the real world will soon be transformed in light and dark
zones on the negative. And that goes equally for the make up of the
eyebrows of the model....What is more: it is plain rhetoric to reduce
photography to that one single moment in which the light falls on the
negative. To be sure, this is a purely mechanical - causal - process
executed through a machine. But that machine has to focus on an object,
from a determined place and at an appropriate moment, and all these
interventions are purely manual - intentional. The camera turns out to be
a mere instrument in the hands of the photographer, just like the brush
of the painter or the chisel of the sculptor, with the minor
difference that the instrument of the photographer is a mechanised one.
And the role of that mechanised instrument dwindles even further when
all the phases of the highly complicated process of photographing are
taken into account...
Our surprise comes to an apogee when we get to read that, of all
Henry Peach Robinson, one of the oldest pictorialists, does not make
photographs, but 'representations' on the ground of the fact that he
combines up to five negatives. Whereas it is more than plain that the
seperate negatives are 'posed' and lighted, and hence, according to
Roger Scruton, mere 'exact copies' of representation.
And these mere copies would suddenly turn into representations through
being combined in one single image? Why not simply regard
all the phases
before and after the intervention of the camera as integral parts of the
process of photographing? And, suppose that it suffices to combine
copies to get a representation, does that also apply to the combination
of the photo of a cow, the photo of cheese and the photo of
mountains in an advertisement for Swiss cheese? Or to the combination of a draped woman and a
grotto to prove that the Holy Virgin did appear?
THE TABOO ON THE CONCEPT OF MIMESIS
Roger Scruton's construction clearly demonstrates in what dead ends
those end up who try to get rid of the theory of mimesis on the biased
assumption of the presumed 'mechanical' character of the process of
photography. In that sense, Roger Scruton's theoretical constructions are
merely the counterpart of the practical dead ends in which the
photographers and the painters have ended up in their futile attempt at
positioning themselves against each other.
© Stefan Beyst, November 2006
stefan beyst theory of art
Even the so-called 'causal' relation between photography and reality
should be questioned. The photograph below is taken with a digital
camera and the subject is lighted with one single spot. There is no
posterior intervention whatsoever (no Photoshop or what have you). In
short: something that approaches Scruton's 'logical photograph'...
Nevertheless, I guess
that nobody can possibly find out what might have been the 'model' for
this photograph - and in fact would really be surprised if he knew. No
doubt, there is a 'causal relation' between what has been
photographed and the image. But the image is by no means a
representation of the fragment of the real world in question. Rather
does it represent an imaginary subject. And that demonstrates clearly on
what poor basis a theory about the logical opposition between 'causal'
and 'intentional' relation is built....
© Stefan Beyst,
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