2. Reflection
Veröffentlicht: 22.01.2012
in der Serie Photographic Realism, an Attempt
zurück vor

A second approach for considering photographic realism is to define photography as a “reflective medium.” In a theoretical context, this term (“Reflexionsmedium”) featured prominently in Walter Benjamin’s dissertation Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism). Benjamin writes, “Reflection constitutes the absolute and constitutes it as a medium” (“Die Reflexion konstituiert das Absolute und sie konstituiert es als ein Medium”). [Walter Benjamin, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik, ed. Uwe Steiner, p. 39.] He continues: as the absolute, reflection is a “metaphysical credo” (“metaphysisches Credo”) that claims to be the “interpretation of all things real” (“Deutung alles Wirklichen“)[p. 67]. What for Benjamin is the absolute, is, in my opinion, replaced by the concept of the real or realism in photography. In other words and to rephrase Benjamin: Photography constitutes the real and constitutes it as a medium. Photographs lay claim to being not merely an interpretation but a medial representation of the real—or at least they are perceived as such. Photography is the technical medium of realism. This legacy is unique to photography and still continues to shape our notion of photography. Even now it has not managed to free itself of this idea. This “realism” of photography itself is medially conveyed and strangely refracted, and it is visualized and reflected in images. Photographs make visible what is respectively understood to be reality; photographs construct forms of an assumed truth of the visible.

Photographs are medial constructions of reality. Photography represents a desire to see reality, a materialization of certain notions of reality in images. Herein lies the continuity of but also the discrepancy between the various forms that protean photography can assume and has assumed within the applications is has claimed thus far. And this is simultaneously also the meaning of photography in a dual sense of the word: the meaning that is culturally, historically, epistemologically and also aesthetically assigned to photography and the meaning these images have. Photographs are the performative of the real, the medial translation of the real. At different times they take on highly divergent and mutually exclusive forms; focus vs. blur, art vs. science, document vs. simulation, analogue vs. digital images are some fundamental and classic differentiations.

Also CCTV (i.e. Closed-Circuit Television; CCTV-equipment is commonly used for surveillance) advertising photos, snapshots taken with a mobile phone, and montages represent very different types of images that pose varying strategies through which photography gains a certain type of relationship to reality, construction of reality, and interpretation of reality. This remains unaltered by the changes that photography has undergone in various medial contexts and the ontological questions that have arisen in the wake of digitalization. Photographs are still visual reflections on reality; they entail a mediated realism that is concentrated in images—even if this reality is a radical construction that sometimes consists of nothing more than computer generated, reworked visual material. Even then photography is still a visual abbreviation of a certain concept of reality, which can thus be grasped as a radical construction and is sometimes understood as such from the start. This “reality principle” of photography constitutes both its referential and reflective character. The “meaning of the meaning” of photography is to produce and disseminate forms of constructed reality.

9 Kommentar(e)
Martin Jaeggi
Abgesendet am 23.01.2012 um 00:09

Dear Bernd

I believe privileging the real to the degree that you do in your second statement runs the danger of a dangerously reductive view of photography. When I read your statement, suddenly a passage from Robert Smithson's 1967 essay "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey" came to my mind:
"Noon-day sunshine cinema-tized the site, turning the bridge and the river in one over-exposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph. The sun became a monstrous light-bulb that projected a series of detached "stills" through my Instamatic in my eye. When I walked the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous black." (Robert Smithson: The Complete Writings (Ed. Jack Flam), Berkeley, 1996, p. 70)
A baffling inversion takes place in this passage. Often the vicariousness of the image is overlooked, consequently the photograph is mistaken for the reality for which it is nevertheless merely a substitute. Smithson calls this bluff by turning it on its head. If reality already appears to be an image, then the hierarchy of object and representation, wherein the first is the source of authority of the second, is collapsed. The representation is no longer grounded in presence, since the real itself assumes the quality of copy. The real here appears as an image, since Smithson sees it as mere reflection of the qualities of the photographic images that have preceded it. The real evaporates in this interplay of images; the photographic image rather turns into the source of a certain experience of unreality. The image and the real are not necessarily mutually stabilizing, they can also mutually destabilize each other, revealing each other's artificiality. This dimension of artifice and "de-realization" seems to me to be an as important aspect of photography as its relation to the real.

Bernd Stiegler
Abgesendet am 23.01.2012 um 12:25

thank you,


for your comment. My idea is, in fact, to think photography far from any ontological or indexical (or what so ever) reference. That allows to conceive an historically wide open field of different aspects and different concepts of "photographic realism" including scientific photography or "spirit photography" as well as postmodern theories like Baudrillard and others. This is a sort of "second order" theory with a double perspective: on one hand the idea is moderate concerning the foundation of a "theory of photography", but on the other pretending and claiming to describe quite precisely historical formations of the history of photography. So modesty as a theory of photography in general and pretension concerning the history of photography. Or to put in other words: thinking "photographic realism" in second order terms and photography as a "reflective medium" is another way of introducing history into theory.

David Campany
Abgesendet am 23.01.2012 um 11:04

Thanks again Bernd. Nicely provocative! I think Martin's point is valid. Realism and reflection. I'll take them in that order:

I've always had difficulty separating the technological claims for photography's realism from the question of desire and what we might want, or not want the photograph to suggest or communicate. Reality, argued Freud toward the end of his life, is essentially that which gets in the way of our fantasies. In this sense the photographic real is never just a matter of formal technique or 'objective style'. In photography it is often the ugly that seems more real than the beautiful; the flawed seems more real than the perfect (that's why "cleaning up " an image with Photoshop makes it look less real); plain buildings seem more real than named architecture; cheap commodities seem more real that luxury goods; work seems more real than leisure; TV dinners more real than posh food; the passport photo more real than the glamour portrait. As a result the photographic real is always marked at a social and political level. This may account, at least in part, for why it is that documentary photography - which has invoked realism the most - has generally taken as its subject matter the various obstacles to fantasy and the various states of unfreedom that exist in the world (in recent decades documentary photography has looked to consumption and commodities as subject matter, but still the aim has been to show them as obstacles - false, distracting things that in the end come between us and our happiness). No doubt this is in part a consequence of the "reality effect" of photography, derived from its blind inability to distinguish between what might be desirable in the picture and what might not. As the photographer Lee Friedlander famously put it: "I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary's laundry, and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It's a generous medium, photography." The photographic reality of Uncle Vern and the Hudson were guaranteed, so to speak, by their co-oexistence with the undesired stuff. (Interestingly Roland Barthes illustrates the same point with a startlingly similar example in his 'Camera Lucida' (1980). Talking of André Kertész’s image 'The Violinist's Tune' of 1921 he asks "How could Kertész have separated the dirt road from violinist walking on it?") Of course if we are not interested in Uncle Vern or his Hudson everything in the picture flattens to a banal equivalence with everything else. This is a phenomenon - seen as both attractive and dangerous - that runs through many of the conceptions of photography. It is there in the earliest accounts of the medium in the 1840s and in different guises in Benjamin, Bazin, Barthes, Baudrillard, Batchen and Burgin.

Reflection is, for obvious reasons, a particularly loaded term in relation to photography, what with all those mirror metaphors that have clung to it from the beginning. But if we take reflective to mean self-reflexive i.e. capable of, or designed to reflect upon its own conventions and conditions, then I think we need to consider photography's discursive and institutional place. In its attention to form and materiality, Art cannot help but suspend photography's claim to documentary status, at least in part, and the challenge for those wishing to pursue a documentary project in the space of art has been to prevent the work being reduced either to an authorial gesture or a pictorial statement. But photography became a modern art only once the question 'What is art?' had become so central to art itself, and it did so by flirting with photography's non-art applications (the document, the commercial portrait, advertising, the archival image and other vernacular forms). Photography in art still remains in dialogue with photography outside of art, and this seems to be where its 'reflective' potential resides.

Bernd Stiegler
Abgesendet am 24.01.2012 um 12:00

Dear David,

thank you for your rich comment.

Firtst of all I would like to think "reflection" as a strictly philosophical term. So no mirrors, no images, only concepts and their particular mode of existence.
How can we perceive "ideas", "concepts" or "theoretical convictions" in photography? That's the central question. How can we think photography philosophically as a sort of visual interrogation of concepts of "reality" such as "objectivity" (cf. Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison, "Objectivity" - Zone Books) , "document", "evidence", "subjective expression", "pencil of nature" (Talbot), "mirror with a memory" (Oliver Wendell Holmes) etc. "Reality" in photography has to be considered in a pluralistic way, in different dimensions and modes of articulation.
But in fact philosophy - and even prephotographic philosophy, especially of the period of German Idealism (Fichte, Hegel etc.) - is implicitely thinking about the mere possibility of an "objective reality" beyond the subject, about singularity and evidence etc. and, consequently, has implicitly a "photographic dream".
But to go back to more photographic areas: my idea is to consider photography as a means of articulation of the real, or, more precisely, of the "dream of the real". "Reality" is shifting from an objective existence to a visual representation including history, subjectivity - and reflection.
Documentary photography is only one of the most important forms of a "photographic realism" - but not the only one. And we have to include, as you suggest it, discursive and institutional dimensions and contexts.

David Campany
Abgesendet am 24.01.2012 um 16:35

"How can we think photography philosophically as a sort of visual interrogation of concepts of “reality” such as “objectivity” , “document”, “evidence”, “subjective expression”, “pencil of nature” , “mirror with a memory” (Oliver Wendell Holmes) etc.? You like the difficult questions, Bernd.

We tend to think of photography telling us something about subject matter, or at least about what subject matter can look like when photographed. But it also works the other way around. It is barely possible to understand photography outside of what and how it photographs. Subject matter affects what we think photography 'is'. For example industrial subject matter (say, a steel and glass building) makes photography seem industrial. Nature (a forest or a cloud) can make it seem natural. The fleeting (a man jumping over a puddle) makes it a medium of the shutter. The immobile (say, a water tower) makes it a medium of the lens. And the desirable or the past (in the end they are much the same thing) make it an existential medium of connection and contact (indexicality, the light sensitive surface). The actual technical procedure of the photo might be exactly the same in each case (lens, shutter, film and so on) but the subject matter seems to dictate how the photography is 'felt'.
It can sometimes seem as if photography awaits definition from the world. I recall John Szarkowski's first major attempt at a definition of the medium when he was at New York's Museum of Modern Art. In his show/book 'The Photographer's Eye' (1966) he came up with a set of categories. If a photograph (any photograph) 'excelled' in one or more of these categories it would be worthy of serious attention (his and presumably ours) and would be a source of philosophical reflection upon the image, the subject and the imaging of the subject. The categories were: The Frame, The Detail, Time, Vantage Point and The Thing Itself. It is a flawed if fascinating attempt, as many critics have pointed out. Nevertheless his inclusion of The Thing Itself is instructive. The other four categories seem to pertain directly to the procedures of the camera. The Thing Itself, i.e. subject matter, is resolutely not 'of' the apparatus yet it is necessary for the making of a photograph (even abstract photos seem to announce their negation in this respect). So we could go the whole way and say that subject matter could be considered part of the photographic apparatus. It is a drastic redefinition but in granting all the things necessary for photography a place in our thinking, it might get us closer to grasping the problem and attaining the kind of philosophical reflection we seek and need. In some respects this is close to both Baudrillard and Debord's notion that photographs result from an intricate collusion (as much mutual exploitation as symbiosis) between the world and the apparatus that pictures it.

Bernd Stiegler
Abgesendet am 25.01.2012 um 23:52

Dear David,

thank you again for your great comment.
Maybe it's useful to put my idea - which is maybe not too far from yours - in other terms.

The realism principle constitutes photography’s referential and reflexive characters. The meaning of photography is in the production and dissemination of modes of constructing reality. Specific interpretative forms can thus circulate and consolidate themselves in images. The history of photography is a historical sediment of such visualizations of reality that seek to link the subjectivity of perception to the putative objectivity of the “pencil of nature,” as photography was called by Henry Fox Talbot. Photographs are the index fossils of historical reality and the history of photography is thus not only a complex history of interpretations of reality but also a history of perception. This function is exclusive to photography and gives the medium its meaning. Even if for several decades there has been talk of the end of photography or of the photographic age, such Cassandra cries fail to recognize that the ontology of the photographic image is determined less through its materiality than through its being capable of making reality visible for the first time in the image and to fix and disseminate these images. This constitutes photography’s societal-cultural relevance as well as its mission. Through photographs we secure those truths we inhabit and regard as our reality.
This is to be understood dynamically as well as historically, so at no point is photography a matter of naive realism. Although texts from photography’s early period spoke of simulacra or of natural images, these descriptions are in weight and content by no means identical with the theory of simulacra as defined by Jean Baudrillard. A different conception of reality applies to the studies after nature from the mid-nineteenth century than to the digital experiments of recent decades, but for each, photography is not concerned with simple mimesis, but with a mimesis of mimesis, with the meaning of meaning: photography duplicates the image of reality. It is neither a matter of naturalism nor of constructivism, but rather of a reflection on constructivism as well as on naturalism conveyed by means of this medium. Photography also makes implicit presuppositions explicit, visualizes conceptions of reality and consequently visualizes an always already present, but not necessarily explicit “naturalism.”
Photography, thus, can be defined specifically as a “reflective medium.” In photography it comes down to rendering self-evident what at specific times and in specific contexts can be understood as reality and as visual truth. This is one of photography’s outstanding societal functions. Through this perspective, the history of photography not only becomes decipherable as history of visual constructions of truth but also reveals the history of perception as something that is historically encoded itself. And not infrequently does the history of perception become decipherable in the images, since not a few photographs implicitly or explicitly render the tradition legible.

Ian Collins
Abgesendet am 24.01.2012 um 22:39

Dear Bernd, Martin and David,

I think the question of photography and reality can never be resolved because, as we know, there are many realities and therefore a photograph carries many meanings. But in all the discussions about reality in photography, nobody seems to consider reality, that is 'absolute reality', aside from photography. Regarding Benjamins 'absolute' - isn't that 'absolute reality' that he was talking about?

Absolute reality can be perceived but can nott be photographed. Absolute reality has no concepts. And because photography is understood to be communication, it can only work with concepts. Put another way, as soon as you try to describe (in a photograph or whatever medium) reality, you miss it. BUT, absolute reality can be perceived in a photograph, just as it can be perceived in anything. (I think this is where 'found photography' and 'imperfection' could be interesting). This requires not just the photographer, but a great viewer of the photograph. Someone who can 'see' Possibly what the photographer did not see. Infact that would most likely be the case (again found and imperfect (amateur) photographs).
The challenge for the great photographer is to lose all sence of concepts, and still take the photograph.
I like David Campanys' thought that: "subject matter could be considered part of the photographic apparatus." I would go further and say that subject, photograph (not yet taken) and photographer should be one.
Bernd, is this what you are getting at when you talk about your thoughts on: "photography as a means of articulation of the real, or, more precisely, of the “dream of the real”"?.

Bernd Stiegler
Abgesendet am 25.01.2012 um 23:56

Dear Ian,

thank you! I tried to explain my - quite abstract - concept of photography as "reflective medium" in my answer to David's comment (see the comment above) hoping that things become clearer and more precise now.

Dieter Hammer
Abgesendet am 25.01.2012 um 14:54

Well, the dualism of medium and message in terms of Marshall Mc Luhan´s therories, certainly works well for photographs. Nothing to contradict here, Bernd.

Antwort verwerfen