PHO702 Week 1: Photography – the Shape-shifter

Week 1 has posed a lot of different questions, too many to address in a single entry in a research journal. Some of the questions are complex and lack any one answer. In fact they may not have any answer at all.

To cut to the chase, my understanding is that the current focus of the module is the intention of my practice, but in order to get a fuller idea of that I need to have a better idea of the nature of the photographic image itself.

John Szarkowski’s five characteristics of the photographic image strike me as practical and helpful though Frame, Detail and even the Thing Itself are not necessarily exclusive to photography (Szarkowski 1980).

Stephen Shore’s interpretation of similar ideas – his three levels of the physical, depictive and mental and his four tools – are equally practical and helpful, but again not all of them are exclusive to photography (Shore 2007). Both Shore and Szarkowski reference framing techniques in Japanese painting and printing, for example.

To this one might add two things. First there is Ming Thein’s proposal of the four things that make an image work effectively, something not to be overlooked by a working photographer (Thein 2014). Second, there is Mary Price’s observation that ‘The use of a photograph determines its meaning’ (Price 1994). In other words, context is all.

While all of these ideas contribute to an understanding of the characteristics of a photographic image, however, none of them tell us what a photograph actually is and in my view all of them struggle not only with the ontology but with distinctly separating the photograph from other media in which images are presented.

It seems to me that if detail, framing and ‘the Thing Itself’ are only questionably exclusive to photography, we are left with only two distinct qualities of the photographic image: time, and indexicality (photography as a trace of reality ‘out there’). Neither is straightforward.

Time in the sense Barthes uses it as ‘not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing … but an awareness of its having-been-there’ is in constant conflict with the present and the context in which the photograph is viewed (Barthes 1977: 44).  It is problematic, too, because we cannot be sure what was really there to begin with. What is time anyway? Like water, it cannot be grasped.

Reality ‘out there’ is not something the modern world is any longer comfortable with. Reality is taken to be a mental construction and post-modernism has blown up the notion that there is any one ‘true’ reality to which to appeal. In fact some artists like Wall and Crewdson have gone so far as to construct entirely artificial ‘realities’ for their photographic practice. ‘The world must be staged so that it will deliver images that explain it’ (Belting 2014: 164).

A third category might be the photographic print itself to which Shore pays attention (Shore 2007). However, images taken with a camera can be presented in many media now and photography is not limited to the print alone as once perhaps it was, so the print is a very shaky category these days.

As for the ontology of the photograph, perhaps this cannot be ascertained. Geoffrey Batchen looks at the question and then slides away from it, citing Derrida that the search for essences means ‘the establishment of an origin as the basis of a hierarchy that always wants to privilege the first or purest terms over all subsequent ones’ – though ruefully admitting that origin stories are ‘a historical necessity’ because, presumably, we cannot help but look for them (Batchen 2013: 58-9). And in the search for the El Dorado of ultimate meaning in the practice of Cindy Sherman, for example, many critics have been braving the jungles of theory for several decades now and are no nearer their goal.

The best approach to these questions I have found is that of Hans Belting in his fascinating book An Anthropology of Images (Belting 2014). Belting reminds us that images are first created in the mind. The form in which the image may appear is secondary and is heavily influenced by culture and technology. In fact in Belting’s view, ‘Photography constitutes a short episode in the old history of representation. But even so, the world changed in our eyes when it began to be photographed. “The world after photography,” as the American conceptual artist Robert Smithson calls it, turns into a kind of museum of itself’ (Belting 2014: 147).

Belting’s long view from the Palaeolithic to today connects the photographic image to all the images and all the arts in human history. There is no need for exceptionalism – that photography is somehow special and different – and no need to become gloomy and think photography is ‘over’. What was photography in the first place? Photography changes all the time and the technology changes too. The analogue print was, perhaps, a passing phase but the images taken with cameras will continue to come even if perhaps they are closer to the reality-distrusting conceptual art on display in What is a Photograph? (Squiers 2013) than to the landscapes of, say, Adams or O’Sullivan. Belting again:

When an image finds its way into this technological medium, it is a symbolic product of the imagination that has already come a long distance. To force the issue, one might say that what is at issue is the journey of the image to the photograph. From this perspective, photography, the quintessential modern medium, operates like a mirror in which images of the world appear. Human perception has repeatedly accommodated itself to new pictorial technologies, but in keeping with its nature it transcends such medial boundaries. Like perception, images too are inherently intermedial (Belting 2014: 145).

This has been a long post on some very complex topics (for me, at least) that I barely understand. It will take a long time for me to work out how these ideas influence my practice. I have no instant answers, though Belting is very close to answers that works for me.

I will end it by saying that I am open to offering my work in any medium – images being in Belting’s view ‘inherently intermedial’ – but I am most at home with classic photography because at present that is all I know. And I do not want to lose the emotional connection with my practice that much conceptual art seems to lack. It strikes me as emotionally sterile.

I am also aware that culture has changed a great deal since many of the writers cited here were at work. Notions of ‘the real’ may have had far more force 30-50 years ago than they do today, in our world of digital simulacra. Television news has replaced stills photography as the index of the now and may have pushed stills photography towards the after-event, ‘Late Photography’, addressed by David Campany (Campany 2003).

The rise of digital imaging is likely to change everything over again. For example, it seems fairly clearly that traditional photography as an art form has largely retreated to museums and art galleries. And it could be argued that most (but crucially not all) of the photography on social media – by far the bulk of all the world’s images now – is not really photography at all. The photograph on social media is not there for itself but simply as carrier for other information that can be summarized as ‘I have a human need to communicate’ or ‘I would like to sell you something’. Once that message has been received, the photograph can be discarded. It was always ephemeral and was never the point.

However, I said ‘most’ – but not all. My impression is that there is also a flourishing, semi-underground and highly creative practice among young people online. See, for example, the zine scene on Instagram. In time their work will perhaps become mainstream, and it will invigorate us all.


BARTHES, Roland and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

BATCHEN, Geoffrey. 2013. ‘Photography: An Art of the Real’. In Carol SQUIERS. What Is a Photograph? Munich: DelMonico, 47-62.

BELTING, Hans and Thomas DUNLAP. 2014. An Anthropology of Images : Picture, Medium, Body. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

CAMPANY, David. 2003. ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the Problems of Late Photography’. In David GREEN (ed.). Where Is the Photograph? Brighton: Photoforum [online]. Available at: [accessed 19 Jan 2020].

PRICE, Mary. 1994. The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space. Stanford (Calif.): Stanford University Press.

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. (r.) London: Phaidon Press.

SQUIERS, Carol. 2013. What Is a Photograph? Munich: DelMonico.

SZARKOWSKI, John. 1980. ‘Introduction’. In John SZARKOWSKI (ed.). The Photographer’s Eye. London: Secker and Warburg, 6–11.

THEIN, Ming. 2014. ‘The Four Things’. Ming Thein [online]. Available at: [accessed 30 Jan 2020].