The Philosophy of Photography

April 01, 2013

By Dawn Roe

Dawn Roe, photographer and assistant professor of studio art, discusses five books that expand how we think about—and understand—photography and photographs.

On Photography

Susan Sontag

Still a seminal text in many photography courses, Sontag's essays on photography question our sometimes-passive response to the photographic image and challenge readers to consider their role in the process. In the book's opening essay, "In Plato's Cave," Sontag asserts that "photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire." At times critical of both photographs and photographers (meaning anyone who picks up a camera), her analyses bring forth important considerations that touch upon voyeurism, ethics in photojournalism, and personal/travel photography in relation to tourism and spectacle.

Camera Lucida

Roland Barthes

This book, the last published before the author's death in 1980, serves as a meditation of sorts on our relationship to photographs and how we make sense of them in relation to our lives. It's an esoterically written long-form essay that takes the reader on Barthes' journey to determine why certain images are more poignant than others. Initially, he sets out to find an image of his deceased mother that seems to reflect her essential aspects. Locating this in an image of her as a young child that he dubs the "Winter Garden Photograph," Barthes begins his process of questioning. This text includes the noted discussion of "studium" and "punctum"–two terms that Barthes uses to distinguish between images that are competent and hold our general interest and those that demand our immediate attention, bringing us in closer to the image and provoking a more prolonged interaction.

On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton

Hollis Frampton

This compilation of the writings of Hollis Frampton offers a glimpse into the mind of this prolific photographer and filmmaker, whose life was sadly cut short in 1984. Deeply concerned with the larger histories of these mediums (and their relationship to one another), Frampton brings the work, methods, and philosophies of early practitioners into conversation with his own practice. Heavily interested in systems of language, Frampton often includes literary or textual references in his work. (He was known for his eloquent and intricately worded phrasing both in speaking and in writing.) Although these essays and notes may seem esoteric at times, a close and careful read is worthwhile, as readers will quickly find themselves as captivated as Frampton with his seemingly varied references, all leading back to the ™camera arts.

The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media

Walter Benjamin

While not necessarily a book about photography, Benjamin's writings remain essential to contemporary considerations of the medium. This volume is defined by the newly translated title of the oft-cited essay earlier known as "The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction." The publisher's description states, "This book contains the second, and most daring, of the four versions of the `Work of Art' essay–the one that addresses the utopian developments of the modern media." As the title suggests, Benjamin was concerned with the technological implications attached to the dissemination of images in photographic form and what this meant for the "aura" of works of art, as well as how we might begin to understand photography as a distinctly reproductive medium. Although relevant at the time of their writing, these essays are now seen as particularly prescient in relation to rapid advancements in technology in the decades since, resulting in the abundance of photographic imagery we regularly encounter today.

The Nature of Photographs

Stephen Shore

Following up on John Szarkowski's
The Photographer’s Eye, which provides a modernist, formal language of photography (i.e., the detail, frame, vantage point), Shore's book uses similar categories to help define essential aspects of the photographic image. An accomplished photographer and teacher, Shore seems to have written this book to serve as a starting point for thinking through his own work as well as to assist students and others interested in wading through the slippery surface of the photograph in order to find the meaning underneath. The Nature of Photographs provides both the reader and practitioner with criteria that can be applied to any photographic image–and is deliberately and specifically concerned with the inherent characteristics of this form
of representation.

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