Towards a Philosophy of Photography

I have been reading a book titled ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ by Vilém Flusser (1983) which I found highly enjoyable and more importantly for my course quite timely in influencing my thought process for taking photographs.

I liked Flusser’s use of terminology that the photograph’s surface is a place for ‘magic’. He used this term frequently and after reading why he used such an archaic term to describe a photograph’s surface, I have to agree with him. His reasoning was that the magic of a photograph is non-linear and can recur again and again. This is in contradiction to the linear nature of the texts produced before technical images were invented.

‘images come between the world and human beings. … Instead of representing the world, they obscure it until human beings’ lives finally become a function of the images they create.’ – (Flusser, 1983). This to me seemed a lot like Jean Baudrillard’s (1981) descriptions of hyperreality in Simulacra and Simulation, although I found this description by Flusser more eloquent and easier to understand. As I understood, instead of images functioning for us, we’ve come to function for the image-world. One contributing factor for this line of thought would be the prevalence of images nowadays and the escalating volume they are produced at.

The idea that the camera can control the photographer was a thought-provoking one for me. This would occur if the photographer makes largely ‘redundant’ photographs and succumbs to the ambition of ‘only’ producing images as new variations of a theme. I had already been thinking about this during the course and kind of agreed it was present in my own photography but didn’t know how to mitigate this trend. Therefore I was intrigued to see whether Vilém Flusser could answer this burgeoning question in my head.

Thinking of photographs in terms of numbers rather than text was an interesting concept for me. I thought of it as meaning I would come up with new and exciting combinations of numbers making up each photograph’s identification. However, would I simultaneously just be helping to exhaust the well of information that the photographic universe possesses, without giving much thought to the order I gather up this information?

One explanation Flusser argued for was that instead of the photographic universe constantly being in a state of flux (as in new photographs constantly being produced), he proposes ‘a standstill situation: to find the same newspapers on our breakfast tables every day or to see the same posters on city walls for months on end.’ – (Flusser, 1983). This interested me because images seem to change so fast now. It would be refreshing to see an Instagram feed or magazine with images that stay similar or the same in a standstill situation while people continue their lives. It would be my inclination that people would take more notice of the news for instance if there was a standstill situation in the image world.

At the end of the book (in the afterword) there resides a quote by Flusser regarding what he thinks ‘freedom’ means – a key attribute to developing a philosophy of photography in his conclusion to his book. He defines being free as: ‘Not cutting off one’s ties with others but making networks out of these connections in co-operation with them. – (Flusser, 1983). I felt this was a touching quote to be left with and one that was also thought-provoking. It made me think about how photographer’s can break the chain of ‘just’ discovering new combinations for a variation on a theme by being free. Also looking forward to Assignment 3, which was to be based on my local community, this quote gave me hope of finding some freedom in my photography within connections I’d already made.


Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. 2nd ed. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Flusser, V. (2014). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 3rd ed. London: Reaktion Books.

Simulacra and Simulation Notes

I have been making notes on Jean Baudrillard’s (1981) essay Simulacra and Simulation. Although the sentences were sometimes very long and the language used challenging for me to say the least, I discovered there was much food for thought present amidst this.

As the language used was challenging, I found thinking about certain topics/concepts Baudrillard brought up in more colloquial terms worked for me in ‘deciphering’ the text. For example ‘dissimulate’ simply translates to conceal and reality he often speaks of I found more useful to think of as three-dimensions with a fourth-dimension looming around. The world he compares reality to is this fourth, somewhat invisible dimension which seemingly has no limits. While the real stays stuck in three dimensions, the fourth dimension multiplies seemingly infinitely as ever more data/information is added to it.

‘Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.’ – (Baudrillard, 1981). I deciphered from Baudrillard (in the above quote and later on in Simulacra and Simulation) that today we see around us a hyperreal; a simulation based on abstractions of reality but of a reality that has since passed. Baudrillard to my understanding goes on to say how the hyperreal precedes the abstractions of reality (images etc) even though the hyperreal formed afterwards. This is because since reality has passed, the hyperreal now controls what the abstractions of reality are. Another way I perceived of saying this was for example the image-world is now governed by an autonomous structure – the hyperreal. The hyperreal while affected by remnants of reality, has since usurped the remnants as it is now so prevalent. So the hyperreal formed from these simulacra selects information from them based on capital and forms a new order of images.

Baudrillard balances the two sides to the image which I hadn’t considered in depth before: ‘the murderous capacity of images, murderers of the real, murderers of their own model as the Byzantine icons could murder the divine identity. To this murderous capacity is opposed the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the Real.’ – (Baudrillard, 1981). Although Baudrillard used extreme and complicated language here, I felt I understood what he was communicating. That is while the image could be seen to be ‘bad’ or ‘murderous’ as Baudrillard puts it, by defacing reality and indeed their own image, they could at the same time be seen as providing a meaningful, visible discourse of reality. However, such is the desire to represent reality in the form of images, that the image-world takes over and reality ceases to exist. Masking this ‘absence of a basic reality’ – (Baudrillard, 1981) would be images themselves, now forming their own world but not one which bears relation to reality. I had myself recently begun to wonder as I sometimes created photographs which had similarly been photographed a lot of other times, whether I was helping accomplish anything meaningful or perhaps instead just contributing to the deluge of oversaturated media? I felt secretly the latter was probably true and I hoped for a way of thinking about my photography which would enable me to achieve the former. Reading through this part of Baudrillard’s text I felt there was a chance of finding other, useful bits later on which could further clear up in my head how to make meaningful images if possible.

I enjoyed reading the examples Baudrillard gave to explain the points he was making, although I didn’t fully comprehend all of his points. One example which I felt I understood better was about the caves of the Lascaux: ‘It is in this way, under the pretext of saving the original, that the caves of Lascaux have been forbidden to visitors and an exact replica constructed 500 metres away, so that everyone can see them (you glance through a peephole at the real grotto and then visit the reconstituted whole).’ – (Baudrillard, 1981). This example reminded me very much of Datong in China where replicas of famous bridges and parts of cities are built. I only knew about Datong because I stumbled across an article about it on the Guardian. The article: ‘Back to the future: the fake relics of the ‘old’ Chinese city of Datong’ – (Ren, 2014) made me think about these replicas and the implications for building them but I didn’t make the connection until I reread Baudrillard’s text and what he goes on to say. Baudrillard (1981) goes on to say: ‘It is possible that the very memory of the original caves will fade in the mind of future generations, but from now on there is no longer any difference: the duplication is sufficient to render both artificial.’ If this same line of thinking about the caves of Lascaux was applied to Datong (even though Datong’s replicas were built on the same ground), it would mean the new and old cities would become ‘artificial’, while the memory of the original fades. This same analogy could somewhat be applicable to the real world compared to photographs/images, where there are so many replicas of the real world made in the image world that both the real world and image world become artificial.

‘Parody makes obedience and transgression equivalent, and that is the most serious crime, since it cancels out the difference upon which the law is based.’ – (Baudrillard, 1981). Parody interested me as one kind of simulation because I would say it is a kind of sarcastic humour which is dangerous in a way. For example it is difficult to tell whether someone is telling a joke when they say it sarcastically because it is founded upon real life. By making a parody of real life the person telling the joke is leaving it up to the observer to make up their mind which way to take the ‘joke’. I could imagine this to be quite powerful in the form of visual parody, especially in a photograph form. Perhaps introducing this type of humour would be a way to create provocation in my images, if I so desired.



Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. 2nd ed. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Ren, Y. (2014). Back to the future: the fake relics of the ‘old’ Chinese city of Datong. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 15 Jun. 2017].

Context and Narrative by Maria Short – Chapter 5

I observed Short described the study of signs (semiotics) in a clear and concise manner, without being either too pedantic or complicated. She compared the dyadic and triadic systems for signs of de Saussure and Pierce respectively, for which Pierce used an additional element. Even though de Saussure’s model was easier to grasp, I felt that Pierce’s model satisfied all aspects of any sign’s reading. This was because it introduced the ‘object’ and the ‘interpretant’ in place of just the signified.

Once aware of how to recognise a sign in photography, it is important to be clear what kind of a sign it is. There are three types – symbolic, iconic and indexical. Indexicality in photography interested me the most as this property is intrinsic in every photograph. It means its there-ness – it is a part of something that happened and was recorded through light by the camera. This differs from the symbolic (where something represents something else) and the iconic (something which is perceptibly similar). Reading about the various types of signs did make me wonder whether they could be used in combination. Because indexical signs could be apparent within a photograph as well as be the photograph itself I wondered what the implications of an indexical sign appearing on an indexical photograph would be. Would the effect be like a double negative or compound the indexicality to the viewer?

Signs give extra information for the photograph to be read as the photographer intends. In this way they act as a visual metaphor, reading to the viewer pointers for meaning to be inferred. They can be subtle and unobtrusive or fill the entire photograph. They can also be a mood in the photograph so not something tangible. Ways I could envisage signs appearing in the photograph as visual metaphors after reading Chapter 5 of Context and Narrative would be:

  • a simple object out of place or unusual in the context of the photograph which signified something more
  • the use of focus where sharply focussed symbolises in the present while out of focus in the background is more distant and of the past
  • a visually recognisable sign or symbol appearing high up in the frame of the photograph standing for power or authority
  • lighting in the photograph creating a pointed mood because of the time of day which lends to the subjects of there photograph

Implementing signs into photographs I would imagine is easier if the photographer has time/inclination to construct the photograph. Because a lot of documentary is unconstructed where the photographer has to work quickly it becomes harder to think about which signs should appear where in the photographic frame. Yet this placement can give the signs extra meaning or none at all if left out of the frame. Short alludes to this in Chapter 5 and gives some pointers as to how to work with this – ‘If the photographer is clear as to the function, purpose and intention behind the photographs, these [on-the-spot] decisions are easier’ – (Short, 2011). For this reason, I would think it is very important to have a clear rationale or concept behind your images beforehand so that you can implement the signs as you see them.


Short, M. (2011). Context and Narrative. 1st ed. Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA, pp.120-141.

Context and Narrative by Maria Short – Chapter 4

Right at the start of Chapter 4 – ‘Narrative’, I liked the description Short uses for the question what is narrative in photography. Here Short describes the techniques used to provide narrative in photography to be ‘seen as a kind of visual punctuation.’ – (Short, 2011). From this I gathered certain techniques provide the framework from which a photographer could structure their vision, much like the commas and full stops in this written sentence.(!)

The chapter starts properly by identifying what narrative is and I reconfirmed in my head it is essentially a story. However, because the medium is photography the format can be linear or in other ways too because it is a visual medium. I saw this as the ‘visual punctuation’ informing the visual word order and meaning of the sentence.

The first half of the chapter is dedicated to narrative within a series or set of photographs and while this may be less applicable to me for Assignment 2 of documentary, where I have to produce single-image narratives, it will no doubt prove of use beyond the assignment. Some techniques key to providing a strong narrative within a series or set of photographs Short outlined consisted of aesthetic continuity, so a theme is formed, size of the images in relation to each other as they appear and juxtaposition of the images in the series. I felt the latter of these techniques (juxtaposition) could also be assigned to the components of a single image in order to provide narrative there as well.

This led me onto the second half of the chapter ‘Narrative’ dealing with single-image narratives. Short initially poses the question: ‘what exactly is narrative within a single image and how does a photographer work to convey or create it?’ – (Short, 2011). I was left slightly frustrated after reading the page she poses the question on because she seems at first to not answer the latter part to the question directly or at least not as I had expected. I would have expected the answer to be solely the juxtaposition of compositional elements within the single-image. Reading this page and beyond again however, she does indeed hint at the juxtapositional element of not only composition but light and colour too when she asks: ‘What is the relevance of the empty space/dark sky/colour of the carpet?’ – (Short, 2011). She then additionally goes on to add in the next few pages ,methods for creating meaning in single-images – some of which I want thought of before. For example, she states that it is important to have clear preconceptions about the aim of the project. At the same time she suggests how ‘being open to unexpected elements contributing to the photograph’ can add extra, unforeseen meaning. This is later backed up at the end of the chapter with the case study. I had begun to understand that experimentation with photographs as they are being taken and after they are taken improve on concepts, which is very important. It is good practice to have a clear reason for taking the photographs in the first place though.

Another aspect I discerned from the single-image narrative part of the chapter was about immersing yourself in a project to the point that you are absorbed by your practice and are not thinking about creating art. This approach can yield work which is art once it has been selected from the larger body produced form the documentary practice. Short used the example of Cartier-Bresson’s lesser known photojournalistic bodies of work like his coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral to illustrate this concept. Perhaps I had been taking a wrong or at least starkly contrasting approach to that of Cartier-Bresson’s practice. Whereas I had tried to produce documentary images which could be considered as art, Cartier-Bresson produced large volumes of work where he was completely absorbed in producing images before selecting images he felt were art. Ironically, I had been heavily influenced by Cartier-Bresson’s art photographs in the first place as they seemed to exist as single decisive moments in time and I had only observed them singularly previously. Therefore it was a bit of a revelation at least some of them weren’t taken with art in mind particularly, like with Short’s example of Cartier-Bresson’s coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral. This reminded me of an article I had recently been reading by Eric Kim about forgetting composition when shooting photographs, entitled: Don’t Think About Composition When Shooting Street Photography. I had been browsing the internet, looking for inspiration for my assignment when I came across this fairly provocatively titled article with regards to street photography. I found it useful however in a similar way to Short’s example of of Cartier-Bresson’s coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral. The emphasis was to take photographs first and worry about (composition in this case) later. Kim still gives a list of basic compositional techniques to bear in mind before going on a shoot but argues: ‘use composition as a tool after you’ve taken a bunch of photos, in order to know which photo to keep (and which to ditch).’ – (Kim, n.d.). He then backs this up with a quote: ‘I would rather choose an emotional photo with soul (with poor composition), rather than a soul-less photo (with a great composition)’ – (Kim, n.d.) which resonates with some of what I had been thinking. Short is of the opinion that ‘total immersion in the process enables the photographer to be highly tuned into the vital aspects of the photograph’, so much so that as an experienced photographer absorbed in the process you can anticipate ‘At what angle and place in the frame movement will be frozen’ and ‘How and where light is falling’ – (Short, 2011). This implies once the photographer is absorbed in the project completely, composition becomes natural. It seems that with ‘total immersion’ in a project the photographer gets the best of both worlds – soulful photos (as there is now a more meaningful interaction with the subject) and good composition. If the composition isn’t exactly right the photographer could presumably select another photograph to use from the many they’d taken. One of these photographs is more likely to be ‘art’ than shooting sporadically and without absorption into the process.


Cartier-Bresson, H. (1948). Mahatma Gandhi’s last days and funeral procession, 1948. [online] Magnum Photos. Available at: [Accessed 23 Mar. 2017].

Kim, E. (n.d.). Don’t Think About Composition When Shooting Street Photography. [online] Eric Kim Photography. Available at: [Accessed 23 Mar. 2017].

Short, M. (2011). Context and Narrative. 1st ed. Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA, pp.96-119.

Photography: The Key Concepts David Bate

While I was working through landscape course, a book I regularly referred to because of its concise and yet stimulating prose on photography, caught my eye again. The book was aptly named Photography: The Key Concepts by David Bate and I found I had skipped the chapter entitled ‘Documentary and Story-telling’ while mainly focussing instead on the chapter ‘In the Landscape’. Therefore I have been closely reading the documentary chapter amongst others and here are some of my notes for the documentary chapter.

The chapter ‘Documentary and Story-telling’ I discovered started with an overview of Documentary’s history within photography. This was very useful for me when getting my head around its attributes at the time the genre’s name was coined and its subsequent years.

Use/ownership of social documents featured heavily in this history with both sides being outlined by Bate – from editors of magazines having full control over what was done with the images to ‘auteur’ photographers who published their own photo books and controlled the layout themselves.

The inherent indexicality photographs possessed, as the technological advancements increased ‘the sense of immediacy and spontaneity’, helped make the photographs ‘intrinsically ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’’. – (Bate, 2009). This ‘democratic vision’ of informing other ordinary people of each other’s societies through picture, sounds and text was the overriding, optimistic tie in documentary before the second world war took place.

The conflict between photographs as documents (some kind of evidence) and social documentary (where photographs depicted real world and real people in it recording social experience) which Bate described interested me greatly. The same complication had been in my mind for some time (ever since trying to define documentary) . Therefore when I read: ‘it would be wrong to confuse the value of a photograph in the court of law with the affective value of social documentary pictures on a more general public.’ – (Bate,2009), I began to understand the difference. Here, I observed that they were two different kinds of pictures affecting their target audiences in totally different ways. On the one hand there was a photograph or set of photographs functioning apparently solely to inform fact. For example an as sharply in focus and highly detailed a picture of an object with as little aesthetics as possible. As Bate alludes to this could be any photograph as any photograph can be a document. The above example was just the ideal kind of photograph as a document.

On the other hand there was social documentary and although this may have seemed by many at the time to be objective in some shape or form, the photographer invariably affected the viewer’s feelings towards the scene through their framing choices etc. For example a photograph like ‘Migrant Mother’ by Dorothea Lange (1936) taken in the ‘real world’ to bring about social reform was tightly framed and captured at a specific timing to get the famous expression on the mother’s face. The various styles of social documentary were subjective too because of what they were trying to convey. Grouping them or separating them in the sub genres of documentary classifications was problematic because the photographic styles used to affect the public target audience were not definitive.

This realisation of the difference between document and documentary was good to finally grasp. However, it did make me wonder if there could be a possible middle ground between these objective and subjective approaches. My mind wandered to the work of August Sander, mentioned in the next part of the chapter.



Bate, D. (2009). Photography: The Key Concepts. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Lange, D. (1936). Migrant Mother. [Photograph].