Notes on the indexical property of the photograph:
The course notes define the indexicality of photography as the ability of a photograph to reproduce exactly what is in front of the camera – a notion that is at the heart of the myth of photographic objectivity, something that is intrinsically linked to documentary as a photographic practice.
Wells (2009) makes the following points: Indexicality is the manner in which a photograph can be understood as a chemical imprint, via the passage of light of an existing (or once existed) physical object. This is linked with the idea that photographs are closely related to memory, the past, presence, absence, death and also that they are tangible evidence of a things existence. One of the key characteristics of photography is its dependence on, and reference to, a physical person or object present at the time of making the original exposure – the origin/source of the image which stands as an index of physical presence. The indexical status is the source of authority for the image and central to theoretical debate relating to realism and truth. (Wells, 2009: 37, 348)
Short (2011) states that indexicality is particularly relevant to photography as a photograph is a literal ‘trace’ of its original subject. The medium itself, rather than the function and intention of a photograph, is the important issue when regarding notions of truth and reality. (Short, 2011: 124)
Bull (2010) states the term indexicality originates from the writings on semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce. In his 1894 essay ‘What is a sign?’, Peirce defined three categories of signs that are usually placed on photographs: indexical, iconic, symbolic. A sign that is indexical is seen to have a direct physical relationship to its object, photographs are an example of this because they are interpreted as having a direct connection to the material world. This can still apply even if the photograph does not look like the item it has a material relationship with, for example, if it is blurred.
The idea of indexicality and its relationship to photography came to prominence as a matter of debate in the 1970s. Critic Rosalind Krauss applied the term to refer to conceptual artists using photographs and other media to make direct links to the real world. (Bull, 2010: 14-16, 138)
Edit 4/8/17: Additional notes on Indexicality
An article I came across via fellow student Sarah-Jane Field cites the book ‘Photography’s other histories’ edited by Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson, specifically the introduction in which Pinney rethinks the long-held belief in the indexicality of photographs: “the idea that photographs have a natural, even physical, relationship with their referents, and thus somehow truer or more accurate than other forms representation.” Although photographs show what was there, this can be much more than what the photographer wanted the viewer to see. The fact that the photographer’s lens must be left open, unlike the painter whose brush can exclude whatever they want, is described by Pinney as the “margin of excess” and a “subversive code.” He argues that rather than being a guarantee of truth, photographs are “volatile, fertile, open, and available to uses that the photographer may not have intended.” (Sentilles, 2017)
Write a reflective commentary on the following quotes by André Bazin and Allan Sekula and compare their respective positions as well as your own view on photographic objectivity:
André Bazin: ‘The ontology of the photographic image’
“For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man…in spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually, re-presented… ”
(André Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in ‘What is Cinema?’ 1945, p.7)
“For the first time”: hints at the changes mechanical photographic processes have made to the world of imaging, through the paper Bazin makes particular reverence to the differences between painting and photography.
“between the originating object and its reproduction”: suggests the importance of reality and the real world in photography. “Reproduction” reminds us that although the photographic image may look real it is not while acknowledging a photographs ability to produce multiple copies are one of its key attributes.
“An image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.”: Here Bazin is emphasising the mechanical nature of photography as well as reality. There is also the suggestion that Bazin does not consider photography to be an art, or at least lacking in creativity and creative input – the photographer is classed as an operator using the camera to record what is in front of the lens. This view fails to acknowledge choices made by the photographer that fundamentally affect any photograph taken: placement, composition, selection, processing and editing for example. Durden (2013: 36- 40) stresses the importance of Bazin’s emphasis of photography as an automatic process because of the implication that photographers do not mediate/construct what they see, unlike painters for example who can only represent the world in a subjective way: photography presents the world shorn of subjective mediation which lays bare realities and presents the world objectively stripped of preconceptions.
“We are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced”: I find the use of “forced” to be interesting, is Bazin suggesting that we are mindlessly accepting of photography as reality? Could this also show that Bazin is sceptical about the ability of photography to reproduce reality – a subtle acknowledgement that what we see may not be as straightforward as it appears.
Allan Sekula: ‘On the invention of photographic meaning’
“If we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.”
(Allan Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’, 1997, p.454)
There is a directness in Sekula’s comment here that I find appealing – a common sense statement that immediately brings me to his way of thinking. “Culturally determined” is significant, as is “universal meaning”, this demonstrates a paradigm shift in cultural thinking that Sekula is articulating. That the reader of an image is the most important aspect and that images are polysemous in meaning (and can also be read in multiple ways by individuals) is, I believe, now commonly accepted. Despite this, Bazin’s assertion that the very process of photography, the fact that real objects are captured as images by a mechanical device at a particular moment in time, and it is this process which leads to our
belief that photography is a medium that is better able to capture reality above all others is also compelling. Unlike Bazin, Sekula does not dwell on the process itself. For him, it is the reader rather than the author that is paramount – something that he demonstrates throughout the essay with examples from photographic history that are imbued with notions of documentary realism – he asserts that even this is a cultural construct deeply grounded in ideological intent.
On a basic level, the difference between the two essays can be summed up with Bazin championing the objective nature of photography and Sekula arguing that a photograph is always subjective both in creation and understanding. Bazin believes photography’s inherent realism is proved by the mechanical nature of the process itself and the indexicality of the photograph – the fact that a photograph is always of something that really existed, even when it does not resemble this. Sekula emphasises the cultural impacts that affect how we understand photography, however, he also strongly cautions about how society influences our reading which is learned rather than inherent. Personally, I am very much aligned with Sekula’s thesis, however, Bazin makes many interesting and thought provoking points that are best understood as the product of the time he was writing.
Bate, D. (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts. (2nd Ed.) London: Bloomsbury.
Bazin, A. The ontology of the photographic image in Trachtenberg, A. (1980) Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books. Pps – 237-244
Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.
Bull, S. (2010) Photography. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Durden, M. (2013). Fifty Key Writers on Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.
Field, S. (2017) Ariella Azoulay’s “The Civil Contract of Photography.” SJFSelf&Other. Available online at: https://ocasjf.wordpress.com/2017/08/05/book-ariella-azoulays-the-civil-contract-of-photography/ [accessed 4th August 2017]
Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books
Sekula, A. The invention of photographic meaning in Burgin, V. (ed.) (1982) Thinking photography. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd. Pps. 84-109
Sentilles, S. (2017) How we should respond to photographs of suffering. The New Yorker, 3rd August 2017. Available online at: http://www.newyorker.com/books/second-read/how-we-should-respond-to-photographs-of-suffering/amp [accessed 4th August 2017]
Short, M. (2011) Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.
Wells, L. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.