roger scruton's photography

review of

Photography and Representation'
"The Aesthetic Understanding', Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Culture',
Methuen, London and New York, 1983.


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 s 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). And ' '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 and semiosis'.

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.


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 thàt 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 plain: mimesis. 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.


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' (p.118)

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 out or 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?


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 representation: '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 photographers 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?


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.


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'...

unidentified object
study for 'objets de désir'

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, Januari 2007.

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