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Photography and PhilosophyReview - Photography and Philosophy
Essays on the Pencil of Nature
by Scott Walden (Editor)
Blackwell, 2008
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
Jul 22nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 29)

The nature of photographs or photography has entered our common language to the extent that we find ourselves speaking easily of photographic memories or photographic likenesses. We have theatre that titles itself, "I, camera". We even say that the camera cannot lie; an oxymoron worthy of Orwell himself. It is therefore both timely and important that we turn our attention to the philosophical ideas and constructs that underlie the nature of photography; what it is and is not; what it can be and cannot; how it is used and how it should not; how it is understood and misunderstood.

This collection of essays edited by Scott Walden represents both a broad sweep of the major perspectives of the debate that is accessible to the generalist interested reader, and a degree of seminal scholarly work that will enlighten the student and refresh the informed.

Walden reminds us that the philosophical debate around photography received considerable and fashionable attention in the 1970s and 80s, especially when in the orbit of writers like Barthes and Sontag, but the technology has changed so much that we need to seriously reconsider the issue. Of course, we no longer think of the photograph as being the pencil of nature as Fox Talbot did in his landmark series of essays published between 1844 and 1846 in which he speaks of sun-pictures unaided by the artist's pencil. We know that there is both a machine and a person, both editorial eye and mechanical interference in the production of the final print. We know that what is included is as important as what is excluded. And we know that photographs are both evidence and red herrings when it comes to the search for and verification of truth.

However, what we do not know so clearly, and what Walden and his contributors help us to uncover, is what this really means for our relationships with the world; what we see, how we see it and why.

There are 13 essays and an epilogue in the book, as well as a very useful introduction by Walden himself. Most are newly written for the collection, but some contributions, from Roger Scruton and Arthur Danto for example, are included because of their enduring significance to the debate. The book can be read sequentially or in a more random manner, for although there is a sense of the essays forming a thesis, each is also independent of the others.

Kendall Walton begins by considering the nature of photographic realism, and arguing that photographs are in some sense actually transparent, that is to say they are more important for the way in which they are pictures through which we see the world than they may be as pictures in themselves. He notes that photographs, even if they are fakes, are at some level of something real. They may be touched up, airbrushed, collaged, transposed, mocked up, cropped or whatever, but they are not imaginary in the way that a painting can be. Even pictures of fairies at the bottom of the garden were real in some sense, albeit a fraudulent one. However, it may be a category mistake to think that the realism that we would associate or attribute to a painting -- a portrait's likeness to the sitter for example or the accurate rendition of a building in all its detail -- is realism in the same sense as we should understand the term in relation to a photograph. It is probably true that a court of law would regard a photograph of an event as more trustworthy than a pencil sketch. We need only think back to the way divorce cases somehow needed a photograph of the adulterous couple, usually in some hotel bedroom taken by a man with a trilby hat and stained trench coat, in order to provide incontrovertible truth that the event actually took place -- he was there, he took the photograph, here is the proof. A quick sketch or artist's impression would not be quite the same. But it is truth and proof of a certain kind. And just as the invention of photography changed forever the nature of painting, so also was the nature of representational truth. As Walton suggests, while the invention of the camera gave us a new way of making pictures of the world, it also gave a new way of seeing the world. To some degree or another, this is the kernel of the debate, and the centre of the book.

Cynthia Freeland, Aaron Meskin and Jonathon Cohen, Scott Walden and Barbara Savedoff pick up similar themes in later chapters when considering icons, evidence, truth and documentary authority respectively. David Davies uses Cartier-Bresson's hugely influential work as an example around which to refute Roger Scruton's argument against photography being art. Patrick Maynard begins the discussion of composition and technique. Dominic McIver Lopes considers the ability to appreciate photography differently. Kendall Walton has a second contribution in which he examines the photographic capture of nature and landscapes. And in a thematic grouping to end the book, Noel Carroll, Gregory Currie and Arthur Danto consider movie stars, narrative power and the control of imagery.

Like any good collection of essays the contributions to this book encapsulate the major themes and debates, but neither produce definitive answers nor are partisan in their approach. It is to be recommended to both students of the discipline and the general reader. It undoubtedly contributes greatly to the literature and occupy a favourite spot on the book shelves of many a student.

© 2008 Mark Welch

Mark Welch, British Columbia


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