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Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image Author(s): Hubert Damisch Source: October, Vol.

5, Photography (Summer, 1978), pp. 70-72 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 11/05/2013 00:31
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Five Notes fora Phenomenologyof the PhotographicImage.



1. Theoreticallyspeaking, photographyis nothingotherthan a processof in an emulsion of silversalts,a stableimage a techniqueof inscribing, recording, we note,neitherassumes theuse of a generatedby a ray of light. This definition, camera,nordoes itimply thattheimage obtainedis thatofan objector scenefrom the externalworld. We know of printsobtained fromfilmdirectly exposed to a source. value of this The of endeavor is to a induce reflection on light prime type of thephotographicimage. And insofaras it successfully thenatureand function of thevery eliminatesone of thebasic elements idea of "photography"(thecamera it the an obscura, camera), produces experimental equivalent of a phenomenolowhich to the essence of the phenomenon under gical analysis purports grasp consideration that a to series of imaginaryvariations. by submitting phenomenon 2. The reluctance one feels, however,in describingsuch images as phoof reflectingphetographs is a revealing indication of the difficulty the strict of sense an eidetic nomenologically-in experience, a reading of essences-on a cultural object, on an essence that is historicallyconstituted. thefullpurviewof a photographicdocumentclearlyinvolvesa certain Moreover, numberof "theses" which, thoughnot of a transcendental order, appear nevertheless as the conditions for apprehending the photographic image as such. To considera documentof thissortlike any otherimage is to claim a bracketing ofall knowledge-and even, as we shall see, of all prejudice-as to its genesis and It therefore followsthatthephotographicsituationcannotbe empiricalfunctions. defineda priori, the division of its fundamentalcomponents from its merely in the absolute. contingent aspects cannot be undertaken The photographic image does not belong to the natural world. It is a productof human labor,a culturalobjectwhose being-in thephenomenological sense of theterm-cannot be dissociatedprecisely from itshistoricalmeaningand fromthe necessarilydatable project in which it originates.Now, this image is characterized by the way in which it presentsitselfas the resultof an objective
* Firstpublished in L'Arc (Paris), 1963.

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(or process. Imprintedby rays of light on a plate or sensitivefilm,thesefigures better perhaps, thesesigns?) must appear as the verytraceof an object or a scene fromthe real world, the image of which inscribesitself,withoutdirecthuman in thegelatinous substancecoveringthe support.Here is thesource intervention, oi the supposition of "reality," which definesthe photographic situation. A or substance(and, in a photographis this paradoxical image, withoutthickness way, entirely unreal), thatwe read withoutdisclaiming thenotion thatit retains fromwhich it was somehowreleasedthroughits physiosomethingof thereality chemical make-up. This is the constitutive deceptionof thephotographicimage image, as Sartrehas shown,is in essencea deceit). (it being understoodthatevery In the case of photography, however,this ontological deceptioncarrieswith it a historicaldeceit,farmore subtle and insidious. And herewe return to thatobject which we got rid of a littletoo quickly: theblack box, thephotographiccamera. 3. Niepce, the successiveadepts of the Daguerreotype, and those innumerable inventorswho made photography what it is today, were not actually concerned to create a new type of image or to determinenovel modes of representation; they wanted, rather,to fix the images which "spontaneously" formedon the ground of the camera obscura. The adventureof photography to retainthatimage he had long known how to begins with man's first attempts make. (Beginningin the 11thcentury, Arab astronomers probablyused thecamera obscura to observe solar eclipses.) This long familiaritywith an image so produced, and the completelyobjective,that is to say automatic or in any case strictlymechanical, appearance of the recording process, explains how the photographicrepresentation generallyappeared as a matterof course,and why one ignores its highly elaborated, arbitrarycharacter. In discussions of the inventionof film, thehistory of photography is mostfrequently as that presented of a discovery. in the process,thattheimage the first One forgets, photographers werehoping to seize,and theverylatentimage which they wereable to revealand of the develop, were in no sense naturallygiven; the principles of construction camera-and of the camera obscura before it-were tied to a photographic conventionalnotion of space and of objectivity whose development precededthe inventionof photography, and to which thegreatmajority ofphotographers only conformed. The lens itself,which had been carefully corrected for"distortions" and adjusted for"errors,"is scarcely as objective*as it seems.In its structure and in the ordered image of the world it achieves, it complies with an especially familiarthoughvery old and delapidatedsystem of spatial construction, to which interest. photographybelatedlybroughtan unexpectedrevivalof current of photographynot consist partly in (Would the art, or ratherthe craft, us to that the black box is not "neutral" and thatits structure is allowing forget not impartial?)
* The play here is on the Frenchword forlens: objectif.-ed.

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of the image, its development and multiplication,forman 4. The retention ordered succession of steps which composed the photographic act, taken as a itsgoal in reproducwhole. Historydetermined, however,thatthisact would find tion, much the way the point of filmas spectaclewas establishedfromthe start. inventorsworked to fiximages and simultaneouslyto (We know that the first which is whytheprocessperfected develop techniquesfortheirmass distribution, thevery outset,sinceit could providenothingbut a by Daguerrewas doomed from to use the termsof classical unique image). So thatphotography'scontribution, level of is less on the economy, production,properlyspeaking, than on thatof creates its marginaland consumption.Photography nothingof "use" (aside from it scientific rather down the applications); lays premisesofan unbridled primarily of utility.Photographic activity, even though it generallytakes the destruction in principle,industrial;and this implies thatof all is nonetheless, formof craft, the character-wears images photographic one-leaving aside its documentary out the most quickly. But it is importantto note that even when it gives us, and thepress,only thoseimages throughthechannelsof publishing,advertising, which are already half consumed, or so to speak, "predigested,"this industry fulfills theinitial photographicproject:thecapturingand restoration of an image already worn beyond repair, but still, throughits physical nature,unsuited to mass consumption. 5. Photography aspires to arteach time,in practice,it calls intoquestion its essence and its historicalroles, each time it uncoversthe contingent character of thesethings,solicitingin us theproducerratherthan the consumerof images. (It is no accidentthat the most beautifulphotographso farachieved is possiblythe first in 1822,on theglass of the cameraobscura-a image Nicephore Niepce fixed threatened so in and its fragile, image, close its organization,its granulartexture, emergentaspect, to certain Seurats-an incomparable image which makes one dream of a photographicsubstancedistinctfromsubject matter, and of an artin which light createsits own metaphor.)

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