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University of Iowa

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Theses and Dissertations

Summer 1992

Understanding Photographic Representation :

Method and Meaning in the Interpretation of
Gerald John Davey
University of Iowa

Copyright © 1992 Gerald John Davey Posted with permission of the author.

This dissertation is available at Iowa Research Online:

Recommended Citation
Davey, Gerald John. "Understanding Photographic Representation : Method and Meaning in the Interpretation of Photographs." PhD
(Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 1992.

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Part of the Graphic Communications Commons, Mass Communication Commons, Other Philosophy Commons, and the Photography

Gerald John Davey

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy
degree in Mass Communications in the Graduate
College of The University of Iowa
August 1992

Thesis Supervisors: Professor John Soloski

Professor Hanno Hardt
Copyright by
All Rights Reserved
Graduate College
The University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa



This is to certify that the Ph.D. thesis of

Gerald John Davey

has been approved by the Examining Committee

for the thesis requirement for the Doctor of
Philosophy degree in Mass Communications at the
August 1992 graduation.
Thesis committee:
Thesis supervisor

Thesis supervisor




Hermeneutics is concerned with the interpretation of
any expression of existence which can be preserved
in a structure analogous to the structure of the
text....As a redescription of reality, it helps us
to recognize both who we are and what we might do.
- Pellauer (1979)


Special thanks to the School of Journalism and Mass

Communication for partial support of this project through
a Murray Scholarship Grant In Support Of Dissertation


The "linguistic turn” in early twentieth century

philosophy established that through language we not only

live in a world but create it as well. Language, in this

sense, incorporates the entire range of media and cultural

artifacts through which we create and share meaning.

In contemporary post-industrial societies,

photographic images play a central role in communicating

and creating the world in which we live.

In part, this increasingly visually oriented culture

is possible because we tend to eguate what we see in

photographs with what is real. Photographs, however,

bring to light a vision of the world, not the world


From the inception of photography, traditions of

aesthetic interpretation have challenged this dominant view.

Here, the created image becomes a vehicle for the artistes

unique expression. Proponents of social scientific and

critique of ideology perspectives, however, reject the

aesthetic view and typically see art objects as social

constructs, instruments which enhance and maintain a certain

social order.

Each o f .these perspectives ultimately holds that the

meaning of photographs can be determined objectively. At

the same time, each presents a world view which tends to

exclude the insights of the others. Any attempt to preserve

the apparent insights of these views must, then, transcend

the basic contradictions and incompatibilities between them.

basic contradictions and incompatibilities between them.
Philosophical hermeneutics holds that the presumption
of an absolute, objective grounding represents a failure
to grasp the nature of the path toward understanding, a
path which can never arrive at its destination because it
always exists in history. It argues that 1) the photograph
cannot be transparent to the world for the world is
constituted in our representations of it; 2) art is a
creation whose origin and meaning always exceeds the
artist's own understanding of it; 3) critigue is not the
application of universal reason but a reading from a
particular vantage point and is always grounded in a
tradition of its own. Most importantly, however, it calls
us to recognize the participatory nature of all
understanding, the universality of language and provides a
criteria for assessing the relative value of our
interpretations across the entire language world.

LIST OF FIGURES............................... viii
LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS......................... ix
OBJECTIVE PHOTOGRAPH.................. 20
Transparency, Picture and the "Untamed"
In the Photograph................. 21
Roland Barthes.................... 21
Rudolph Arnheim................... 25
Roger Scruton..................... 28
Kendall L. Walton................. 31
The Photograph As Picture............ 33
Discussion.......................... 37
The Origin and Character of Modern
Aesthetics....................... 46
Arnheim's Aesthetics: Art vs. Photo­
graphy .......................... 49
"Picture Prefect:" John Szarkowski's
Campaign For a Photographic
Aesthetic........................ 53
The Methodological Primacy Of Aesthetic
Consciousness In Szarkowski's Looking
At Pictures...................... 63
Photography and Anti-Aesthet^ics : Andy
Grundberg and Conceptual Art...... 64
Discussion.......................... 67

PHOTOGRAPHS.......................... 71
Introduction......................... 71
John Taaa's The Burden of Representa-
tion: Essavs on Photoaraohies and
Histories................. ....... 80
Maren Stance's Symbols of Ideal Life:
Social Documentary Photoaraohv in
America. 1890-1950................. 97
From History To Hermeneutics.......... 103


GRAPHIC INTERPRETATION................ 113
The Hermeneutic Critique of the Critique
of Ideology....................... 122
The Hermeneutic Critique of Aesthetic
Consciousness..................... 125
The Occasional....................... 133
Hermeneutics, Ontology and the Photo­
graphic: Some Photographer's
Reflections....................... 138
Discussion........................... 148
INTERPRETATION....................... 150
Play and Understanding................ 153
The Nature of Understanding and the
Hermeneutic Circle................. 158
The Role of The Classic............... 166
VII. TEXT AND PICTURE....................... 176
REFLECTIONS......................... 191
DIALOGUE........................... 200
Summary............................... 209
NOTES........................................ 214
BIBLIOGRAPHY................................. 219

Figure Page
1. Bill Brandt, "Young Housewife in Bethnal
Greene, 1937." 59
2. Russell Lee, "Son of a Sharecropper Combing
Hair in Bedroom of Shack, Missouri," 1938. 62
3 . Lewis nine, "Young Couple," 1936. 86
4 . Russell Lee, "Hidalgo County, Texas," 1939. 89
5. Jack Delano, "Union Point, Georgia," 1941. 90
6. Lewis nine, "Cotton Mill Worker," 1912. 99
7. Lewis Hine, "Ready for a Hot Job," 1907. 102
8 . Lewis Hine, "Between Spells," 1908. 102
9. W. Eugene Smith, "Tomoko in her Bath," 1972. 185


CL = Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida.

PA = H. G. Gadamer's Philosophical Apprenticeships.
TM = H. G- Gadamer's Truth and Method, rev. ed..
OP = Edward Weston's ”0n Photography.”



Sooner or later, then, the study of communications

leads to questions of philosophy.
- William L. Rivers, et al. The Mass
Media and Modern Society (1971)

The "linguistic turn" in early twentieth century

philosophy (Rorty, 1967) established that through
language we not only live in a world and come to
understand our world but also create the world in which
we live.
Language, in this sense, incorporates not only
written and verbally articulated signs, but also the
entire range of media and cultural artifacts through
which human beings create and share meaning.^ Language
too gives form to this larger world and brings it into
existence as a shared reality. It provides the
underlying ground for change and continuity and the
limiting horizon of our world (Gadamer, 1989, 302-7).
In contemporary post-industrial societies,
photographic images have come to play a central role in

communicating and creating the world in which we live.

The use of images in political life, in the news media,
in channeling our desires and actions through
advertising, and in structuring our inter-personal world
through televised, model relationships and values, has
given a primary role to the photographic image (and its
derivative forms) in the development, maintenance and
dissemination of our world (see e. g., Twitchell, 1992;
Ewen, 1988; Williamson, 1978; Sontag, 1973; Barthes, 1975
and 1980; Boorstin, 1961).
In part, our tendency to equate what we see in
photographs with what is real has made possible this
increasingly visually oriented culture. Still today, the
photograph retains much of its original aura as a medium
inherently tied to and reflective of what objectively
exists in the world. It seems to differ from the window
and the mirror only in its greater permanence and fixity.
Indeed, the photograph shows us what we want to see, what
we would not otherwise see, and even what we don't want
to see. For most of us, photographic seeing is still
Unlike verbal and written communication which
requires a largely analytic-sequential and consciously
cognitive mode of processing, the photograph can convey

its message without the abstract and arbitrary

intermediary of syntactic language and is not typically
perceived as part of a learned process.^ The seemingly
instantaneous and direct quality of visual perception,
critically useful in facilitating survival under direct
and immanent threat, tends to leave the relation between
the photograph and reality non-problematic for the
Our perception of the photograph as intrinsically
realistic is also inextricably bound to our faith in
technology and the objective knowledge it produces. That
faith militates against an awareness of the
transformation of the "thing itself" (i.e. the object,
event or scene photographed) that takes place in the
photographic process as well as the learned ability to
read the latter as if it were a direct manifestation of
the object itself. (Kohlers, 1977) Thus, we learn to
ignore the inherent transformation of the scene, object,
event or person photographed from a three dimensional
reality to a two dimensional image; the implied spatial
relationships that vary according to the focal length and
aperture of the lens used and the distance between camera
and a chosen object; the selective focus which forces the
viewer's eye to concentrate on a certain object or person

and which makes other elements in the scene inaccessible

to the viewer; the reduction of an infinite array of
colors in varying intensity and hue to a limited range of
grey tones or color palette. So, too, the reduction in
the perceptible range of brightness from a ratio of
10,000 to 1, which occurs in the natural world, to
approximately 100 to 1, the maximum range reproducible on
photographic paper (Adams, 1981). And finally, we accept
the frame - a seemingly arbitrary and artificial
contrivance, a convention and sign - as somehow almost
naturally constituting a single, unified whole, a
meaningful unit to be understood in itself.
Yet, as in oral and written language, the photograph
projects a world of human creation onto its subject and
in so doing, already defines (gives meaning to) the
object that we see (Cresswell, 1985). Photographs bring
to light a vision of the world, not the world itself.
Each photograph is something new, something beyond "what
was there."
Thus, the intrinsically realistic quality of
photographs, our faith in technology and objective
knowledge, and the inherent visual bias of our species'
sensorium combine to militate against our awareness of
the transformation of the object inherent in the

photographic process. This is especially evident in

those fields where the claim to objectivity holds pre­
eminent value and is maintained through strong
institutional support. Such fields constitute a wide and
disparate group including photojournalism, social
documentary and news photography; advertising;
governmental and other institutional uses of photographs.
Still today, in Horton's The Associated Press:
Photojournalism Stylebook (1990), George Wedding,
Director of Photography at the Sacramento Bee,
characterizes photojournalism as "holding a mirror up to
society, so society can look at itself." (26)
The actual and potential cost of this constricted
perception is beyond measure. It provides the constant
opportunity for - and perhaps the inevitability of -
mistaking a view of the world for the view of the world.
It reduces the opportunity for meaningful dialogue by
confusing specific, historical social, political,
cultural and economic structures and practices with
natural, even inevitable, characteristics of the "real"
world. This constricted view is not only difficult to
challenge (and even recognize) but also successfully
reduces the opportunity for realizing more encompassing,
more radically open and diverse world making processes.

Ultimately, it diminishes opportunities to challenge

misunderstandings that jeopardize our relations with
others and our understanding of ourselves as creative,
world-making beings.
Nevertheless, it is indisputably consistent with our
everyday experience that a close tie, if not identity,
exists between a photograph and "what is there" (Barthes,
1981, 115). The limitation of this view lies in our
common failure to recognize that we do not just see the
object or event photographed. Rather, the object or
event is defined ^ object, and indeed created ^ object,
by the photograph in and through which we encounter it.
The photograph brings into existence as object that which
it reveals. It defines the nature of that object and
characterizes it as having certain qualities and not
having others. Each of these qualities is inherent in
every photograph that we encounter in our daily life and
ensures that what we see when we look at a photograph has
meaning for us. Indeed, even our own process of
understanding, the associations and meanings which we use
to understand what we see, and which determine the way in
which we see it, lie largely outside our conscious
awareness. (See e.g. Lewicki, 1986; Hample, 1987.)

The objective character of the photographic image

has, of course, not gone unchallenged. From the
inception of photography, traditions of aesthetic
interpretation and the creation of photographs as works
of art have challenged this dominant view (Schwarz, 1985;
Scharf, 1974; Gernsheim, 1962). From this perspective,
the photograph presents more than a mere visual record of
the event or object photographed. The photograph as well
as the unique "vision" of the artist which it expresses
become artifacts - aesthetic creations which communicate
something beyond the original subject, something uniquely
the artist's own. Here, the created image replaces the
referent as the object of our attention and the referent
itself becomes a vehicle for the artist's unique
Such aesthetic interpretations, with their emphasis
on the creative power of the individual photographer, not
only militate against objectivist interpretations of
photographic images, but those which emphasize the role
of broader social, cultural and economic forces in
producing photographs - like other artifacts - at
particular times and within particular contexts. Indeed,
photographic works do not occur in isolation from the

broader society within which they are created and where

their ultimate fate lies.
Perhaps, the dominant form of this perspective in
contemporary scholarly, photographic literature - the one
which will be addressed in this essay - is broadly termed
the critique of ideology.^ Proponents of this tradition,
originating in Critical Theory as first developed by
members of the Frankfort School at the Institute for
Social Research, tend to see aesthetic traditions
themselves as instruments which enhance and maintain the
economic and political interests of a dominant social
order, interests inimical to the genuine needs of
dominated classes, gender and races. (Eagleton, 1991,
222.) Further, the aesthetization of photographs has
indeed, served to further the economic interests of a
limited number of photographer-artists and the schools
and markets that have developed around them. Thus, it
has restricted and canonized a limited range of
photography's expressive and communicative potential.
(Schwartz, 1992)
Modern aesthetics^ has focused upon individual
artists and traditions defined largely by that which set
them apart from other serious photographic work as well
as the everyday snapshot (Berleant, 1991; Fiss, 1990;

Grundberg, 1987; King, 1984; Szarkowski, 1973). This,

in turn, has resulted not only in de-historicizing the
former but in limiting serious study of the latter as
resource for understanding the communicative value of the
photograph and more importantly, the central importance
of the meaning of photographic messages as situated in,
reflective of and constituting our world.
Proponents of the critique of ideology, like modern
aesthetics, challenge the apparent objectivity of the
photograph. The critique of ideology necessarily
emphasizes the distance between the object or event
photographed and what the photograph, as an artifact,
communicates to its audience i.e., what it means. It
differs from the aesthetic, however, in its emphasis upon
larger social, political and economic determinants which
shape the subjectivity of the photographer, determine the
production and distribution of photographs, and thus,
their content and communicative potential as well. Here,
the primacy of the unique genius of the individual
photographer, its essentially ahistorical, transcendent
character is challenged. The creation and appearance of
specific photographs in mass media and culture is - at
least in part - a manifestation of their ideological
function in the maintenance of dominant structures and

power relations. Photographs appear in cultural milieux

neither as a result of the uncoordinated acts of
individual photographers nor as works best understood as
part of ongoing artistic and pictorial traditions which
transcend the broader political, social, and economic
context of the time. Nor, of course, do they mirror a
pre-existing reality. Rather, they appear as ideological
constructions which present a world view that serves the
interests of present power relationships.
Contemporary as well as historic approaches to
understanding the nature of photographic communication,
then, fall broadly into three categories: those that
emphasize the objectivity of the photographic medium per
se (i.e., regardless of subject matter) as a record of
the world and its events; those that emphasize the
capacity of the photograph - exercised to varying degrees
- as a vehicle for unique artistic expression; and those
which de-emphasize both of the above and argue that
social, economic and political forces ultimately - though
not necessarily exclusively - account for the existence,
distribution and function of photographs - whether
artistic, documentary, advertising, amateur or
journalistic - as well as other media.

Each of these approaches has successfully presented

a largely coherent and yet strikingly different
interpretation of the photograph and its communicative
potential. While an emphasis on the objective quality of
the photograph minimizes the creative role of the
photographer, the emphasis upon the subjective and/or
social-cultural dimension in photographic communication
characteristic of modern aesthetics and the critique of
ideology tends to minimize what appears to remain an
inherent characteristic of the medium itself, i.e. its
fundamental tie to a referent, the world of visually
available objects and events and its seeming
irreducibility to what is presumed to be the
producer/creator's intention. These approaches reduce as
well the photograph's capacity for "surprise," what
Barthes (1981) terms its "punctum" (59) - its access to
"untamed reality" (118) and thus, the certainty that what
we see "has been" (118).
A fundamental issue, however, separates
aesthetic and critique of ideology approaches to
photographic meaning. For the former, photographic works
can be expressions of the unique sensibility of gifted
artists who, although situated in a particular time and
place, are able to touch upon and give expression to the

universal and the abiding.^ Such works come to be

appreciated and valued because of their artistic merit,
their intrinsic worth. From a critique of ideology
perspective, however, photographs - inclusive of those
most widely appreciated by the artistic community - are
in reality instruments which further entrench dominant
economic, cultural and political interests, a fact which
transcends the photographer's intent and firmly situates
the meaning and value of a photographic work in a
particular context. (Eagleton, 1990, 28)
Any attempt to preserve the apparent insights of
each of these views must, then, transcend the basic
contradictions and incompatibilities between them -
incompatibilities which extend to fundamental differences
concerning the relation between individual and society,
art and its audience, the nature of perception and
creativity, intentionality and, indeed, communication
Nevertheless, each assumes that the meaning of
photographs can be understood objectively. For each, the
relation between the knowing, perceiving self and the
world in itself is ultimately non-problematic. Still,
each also holds to a world view which tends to exclude
the insights of the others. As Richard Kostelanetz

writes in Esthetics Contemporary (1989): "Different

esthetic philosophies emphasize different issues, as
their basic choices often, on the one hand, reflect prior
metaphysical or epistemological assumptions (which may
not always be explicit) and, on the other, determine
their approach to remaining esthetic issues." (18)
Philosophical hermeneutics provides an avenue for
addressing these fundamental issues. The historic
origins of hermeneutics can be traced as far back as
Aristotle's "Peri hermeneias" ("On Interpretation") in
the Organon. Plato and the works of other Greek authors
and historians (Palmer, 1969). In the nineteenth
century, F. Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey explored
the limits and nature of hermeneutics when extended to
the issues of society more broadly and in the twentieth
century, Heidegger, especially in his early work and
later H. G. Gadamer began to address the question of the
nature of understanding itself (Wiehl, 1990; Schmidt,
1990; Gadamer, 1985 and 1989; Palmer, 1969).
Philosophical hermeneutics characterizes the nature
of the relation between self and world as one in which
access is never direct but mediated through language and
always in history. Here, it provides a basis for
bringing into question and indeed, transforming the

approaches discussed here. By breaking down this

presumption of objectivity of meaning and recognizing the
participative character of the reading of the photograph,
hermeneutics removes the fundamental source of
irreconcilability between these views.
The aesthetic approach, the critigue of ideology and
the objective approach as well, are fundamentally
normative. Each places a relative value upon a given
photograph or other artifact according to an often
implicit, unexplicated and thus, largely unchallenged
standard. From the stand-point of philosophical
hermeneutics, the presumption of such an absolute
grounding represents a failure to grasp the nature of the
path toward understanding, a path which can never arrive
at its destination because it always exists in history.
For philosophical hermeneutics, then, each is an
expression of a historical moment and no methodology can
exempt it from that fundamental reality.
Thus, philosophical hermeneutics holds that the
methodological privilege, or objectivity claimed by each
of these approaches cannot be reconciled with the
radically historical nature of human being. On the other
hand, it rejects as well the relativistic perspectives
from which objectivity has served to shield us.

Philosophical hermeneutics offers no assurance that any

perspective or method has a future in itself. Such an
assurance would require standing outside of history.
Yet, it holds that each participates in the dialogical
and dialectical process in and through which
understanding takes place.^
The following text demonstrates that philosophical
hermeneutics holds substantial value in resolving the
competing claims of photographic objectivity (as
discussed in Chapter II), aesthetic consciousness
(Chapter III) and the critique of ideology (Chapter IV)
as presented in contemporary literature.
As Alan Trachtenberg observed in 1977:
We have not as yet witnessed a true community of
writing, in which individuals engage with each
other, criticize or complete the production of
others, pose issues to be taken up again, stake
positions, take stands.... But there are signs that
such intelligence is indeed beginning to emerge....
Because of an increasing concern about the potential
impact of photographic communication in our society, the
nature of photographic communication and meaning have
recently become a source of continuous scholarly
Chapter II, for example, draws primarily upon an
ongoing and intense debate which began in 1984 in the

British Journal of Aesthetics and the Journal of

Aesthetics and Art Criticism. That debate concerns
whether the objective/mechanical character of the
photographic process excludes the possibility of its
classification as an art form. Here, related monographs
by the same authors are discussed as well.
Widely disparate views supporting the expressive
potential of the photograph as an art form have been
presented by such figures as P. H. Emerson and H. P.
Robinson in the nineteenth century; most notably
Stieglitz, Weston and Adams, Man Ray and Moholy Nagy and
Walker Evans in the first half of the twentieth century,
along with many others. Since the publication of John
Szarkowski's The Photographer^s Eve (1966) and his
Looking At Photographs (1973), works in which he a
attempted to set forth a systematic aesthetics of the
photographic medium as such, however, this issue has
continued to occupy the attention of a significant
segment of the larger art community.
Chapter III, then, lays out Szarkowski's position,
its relation to modern aesthetics and the ongoing debate
concerning the potential of photography as an art form.
This chapter includes as well recent works by such major

contemporary figures as Jonathan Green, Andrew Grundberg

and Kathleen McCarthy Gauss.
Chapter IV focuses upon two recent monographs in
which the authors attempt to interpret photographic works
in light of their ideological function with the larger
culture. The works discussed are John Tagg's The Burden
of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories
(1988) and Maren Stange's Symbols of the Ideal Life:
Social Documentary Photography in America. 1890-1950
(1990). Also discussed in this chapter are insights
proyided by recent works from the historical community,
most notably Lawrence Leyine and Alan Trachtenberg's
obseryations on interpreting photographs as historical
documents as well as recent reflections on the role of
interpretation in historical research by Jack Hexter,
Francois Furet and others, some of whom gathered to
address the subject at the 1985 American Historical
Association conyention in New York City. This discussion
seryes to introduce philosophical hermeneutics which
focuses, in turn, precisely on the issue of
interpretation and understanding as an historical
Chapter V introduces central concepts of
philosophical hermeneutics: the radically historical

character of human being, the dialogical and dialectical

nature of understanding, the ontology of representation
and language as a universal medium. The implications of
this perspective for issues raised in the three previous
chapters are discussed as well as the relative
consistency of this perspective with insights and
reflections on the nature of the photographic craft as
made by some notable photographers whose writings
characterize more personal reflections on the medium,
historically the strongest trend in photographic
Chapter VI discusses more fully the fundamental role
of interpretation, the hermeneutic circle, the
participative nature of our understanding of texts and
the limits of methodology. This chapter introduces
Gadamer's concept of play and its realization in dialogue
as the ground of understanding. It also introduces the
fundamental role of the classic and tradition in the
construction and interpretation of photographic texts.
Chapter VII returns to the issue's raised by Sontag
and others concerning the role of the photograph in
bringing about the alienated character of modern culture,
in light of philosophical hermeneutics. It further
addresses the photograph's status as a text. Chapter

Vili discusses briefly some major critical perspectives

on philosophical hermeneutics and the Conclusion (Chapter
IX) focuses on the photograph's capacity to participate
in human dialogue and understanding and summarizes the
findings of previous chapters.
Like Weinsheimer's Philosophical Hermeneutics and
Literary Theory (1991), this work makes no pretense of
providing a thorough, critical evaluation of
philosophical hermeneutics. Indeed, as Page suggests
(see below. Chapter IX), a adeguate critigue of
philosophical hermeneutics may ultimately reguire a focus
upon its metaphysical commitment, a topic well beyond the
narrow confines of this study. In addition, the breadth
and large and diverse bodies of literature involved in
the topics explored here necessitate a far from
exhaustive treatment of any one topic or tradition. This
study does not address, at least directly, other areas of
significance today, notably feminist criticism. The
approaches and issues discussed, however, are basic and
in many respects foundational to other contemporary
approaches and debates. On that basis, philosophical
hermeneutics is presented as a cogent and fecund
perspective which warrants deeper explorations into areas
discussed as well as others not here addressed.


While notable voices throughout the photographic era

have called for us to look at the "subjective" aspects of
photographic practice - especially from the beginnings of
the pictorialist era in the last two decades of the
nineteenth century, the objective emphasis remains
dominant even today. Indeed, this issue, more than any
other, remains at the center of discussion when
evaluating photography's place within the visual arts.
As Peter Wollen (1982) asks in "Photography and
Aesthetics": How can photography be an art if it is tied
to the automatic production of information?" (331) Even
now, while myriad photographs motivate, suggest and
persuade, the presence of heavily manipulated and
propagandistic images rarely seems to challenge our
fundamental acceptance of the objectivity of the
photograph. Whole industries are devoted to shaping and
constructing photographic images in order to suggest a
reality that often conflicts directly with our experience

of the world. Yet, we continue to see the photograph as

somehow incapable of deceiving us. We make an ill
considered jump from the presumably objective character
of the photographic process per se to the photographic
picture, a confusion that greatly reduces our capacity
for critical analysis. And as Fred Richtin holds in In
Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography, the
expanding technologies for photographic manipulation lend
a new urgency to this problem, for:
As a society we have come to the historic moment at
which it is increasingly urgent to reject the myth
of the photograph's automatic efficiency and
reliability. (81)

Transparency. Picture and the "Untamed”

In the Photograph

Roland Barthes
In "On the Alleged Transparency of Photographs"
(1986), Donald Brook observed that: "The idea that
photographs (unlike paintings) are... transparent seems to
be gaining currency." (277) In Camera Lucida, certainly
the best known single work on the photograph since Susan
Sontag's On Photography. Roland Barthes describes the
photograph as: "an emanation of past reality: a magic,
not an art." (80) According to Barthes, photographs are

always "transparent" and "bound to their referent."(5)

He continues:
In the Photograph, the event is never transcended
for the sake of something is the absolute
particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and
somehow stupid. (4)
Thus, for Barthes, "A photograph is always
invisible: it is not it that we see." (5-6) Indeed,
photography is "impotent with regard to general ideas (to
fiction)," even though "its force is nonetheless superior
to everything the human mind can have conceived to assure
us of reality....this reality is never anything but a
contingency ('so much, no more')." (87)
In "The Photographic Message" (1974), he described
what he termed "The Photographic Paradox," i.e. the fact
that photographs are essentially "denotative," and yet,
through the process of transmission and the means of
reception, become a thoroughly "connoted message." (7-8)
According to Barthes, a photograph is a "perfect
analogen" of a "literal reality," and it is this
characteristic "which, to the common sense, defines the
photograph." (9) Photographs do not transform reality,
i.e. require a break-down and reconstruction of the image
through signs that are substantially different from the
objects which they re-present. Thus, the photograph is a
"message without a code." (9) At the same time, however.

the photograph is "thoroughly connoted" through "the

imposition of a second meaning upon the photographic
message proper...[a] coding of the photographic analogue
[which does] not strictly belong to the photographic
structure." (9)
This forms the basis for the "photographic paradox."
As Barthes writes:
The photographic paradox would then be the co­
existence of two messages, one without a code (this
would be the photographic analogue) and the other
with a code (this would be the "art," or the
treatment, or the "writing," or the "rhetoric" of
the photograph). (7-8)
Ultimately, then, the photographic paradox is that "the
connoted (or coded) message develops here from a message
without a code." (8) The photograph is a:
paradox which makes an inert object into a language
and which transforms the non-culture of a
"mechanical" art into the most social of
institutions. (20)
Barthes maintains an explicit, theoretical
distinction between objective (denotative) and subjective
(connotative) characteristics. He holds that, especially
in an occasional photojournalistic photograph, purely
denotative photographs occur, a view justified, no doubt,
on the grounds that the photograph is inherently
denotative and its connotative qualities do "not strictly
belong to the photographic structure." (9)

Barthes' suggestion that the photograph is a paradox

when considered in light of our general experience - the
only context within which we know our world, is a
persuasive feature of his analysis. Indeed, the
photograph is paradoxical. What it shows is there, and
yet it is not; it is somehow objective and yet
simultaneously represents the subjectivity of the
photographer and indeed, does so through that objective
character. The photograph is at once full of life, and
yet "flat” as death. It is both proof of time's passage,
and yet extends the boundaries of time. Indeed, in the
photograph, subject and object have merged in a way
unique in pictorial representation.
Moreover, the photograph typically presents us with
a picture. Yet it is uniquely transparent - so much so
that as Barthes (1980) remarks: "it is not it [i.e. the
photograph] that we see." (87) The photograph, then, is
a picture which we perceive as a window to the world. We
look through the plane of the photograph to what lies
beyond it and it is that which draws our attention.
Indeed, the photograph is simultaneously mirror and
window and yet neither - it is a picture that we don't
see. As Barthes (1981) writes: "neither image nor

reality, a new being, really: a reality one can no longer

touch." (87)

Rudolph Arnheim
Despite the fecundity of Barthes' characterization
of the photographic paradox, Rudolph Arnheim
characterizes his analysis as "one of the more confusing
statements of recent years." ("Nature," 1986, 109) In
particular, Arnheim finds Barthes' notion of a "message
without a code" essentially incoherent. As he writes,
"To me, it seems necessary to keep insisting that an
image cannot transmit its message unless it acquires form
at its primary level." (109) In other words, the
photograph is connotative from the start and it is the
connotation that determines its denotative content.
There is, then, no purely denotative content.
Arnheim accuses Barthes of "reducing the message to
meager conceptual fare... [where] one accepts the
impoverished practical responses of the modern man in the
street as the prototype of human vision." (Ill) Arnheim
proposes an alternate view of the communicative capacity
of the visual (and photographic) image:
In opposition to this approach we must maintain that
imagery can fulfill its unigue function whether
photographic or pictorial, artistic or informational
- only if it goes beyond a set of standardized
symbols and exerts the fact and ultimately

inexhaustible individuality of its appearance. (111-


The role of the photograph is to make that world

available to us, a task made possible by the intelligent
responsiveness and intentionality of the photographer.
According to Arnheim:
in order to make sense of photographs, one must look
at them as encounters between physical reality and
the creative mind of man - not simply as a
reflection of that reality in the mind, but as a
middle ground on which the two formative powers, man
and world, meet as equal antagonists and partners,
each contributing its particular resources. (112)
Arnheim stresses the communicative power of the
individual manifestation of the image, a unique creation
which cannot be reduced to mere signs. In other words,
the photograph is not exhausted in our encounter with it
but continues to act as source of meaning. Moreover, its
distinguishing feature is that the photograph is only
partly responsive to the intentions of the photographer.
Despite the differences in their approach, Arnheim
agrees with Barthes that the photograph has an ultimately
objective character. According to both, the photograph
is, in part, the product of the world.® As Arnheim
writes :
the fundamental trait of the photographic medium:
the physical objects themselves imprint their image
by means of the optical and chemical action of
light. (108)

Since the photograph is only partially the creation

of the photographer, Arnheim concludes that its artistic
potential is limited in comparison to more plastic modes
of pictorial presentation. Thus, he asserts:
a medium that limits the creations of the mind by
powerful material constraints must have
corresponding limitations....[the photograph] has
been consistently limited in its range of expression
as well as in the depth of its insights. (112-3)
As a result of its material constraints, Arnheim
argues that the transforming potential of the photograph
is limited to negative (subtractive) technigues whereas
painting and the other plastic arts utilize positive
(additive) technigues. He writes:
If it is to remain a photograph, the picture should
be seen as an artful disguise of the real body of
the model, which continues to lurk in whole or
worldly actuality behind the transformation.
(Splend. Mis., 121)
Photography, in short, communicates meaning by
exclusion, rather than inclusion and as such, is
inherently open to suspicion. For Arnheim:
traditional not originate in the visual
world they depict....Painting and sculpture come
from the inside out; photography comes from the
outside in. (116)
It is perhaps this basic limitation which accounts for
the observation that: "as to their depth of meaning,
photographs look significant, striking, revealing, but
rarely profound." (Nat. Phot., 113)

A similar point is made by art and photography

critic Max Kozloff in The Privileged Eve: Essays on
Photography (1987). Kozloff argues that the objective
nature of the photograph limits its creative pretensions.
He writes:
some people speaking plainly and with apparent calm,
have nevertheless made inflated claims about the
photographic image, and by so doing have
aestheticized the banal. (239)
According to Kozloff, an aesthetic interest in a
photograph is not due to any inherent aesthetic
gualities, but results indirectly from its banal nature:
Since the image is deprived of its social context,
you have little choice but to think of it as
aesthetic. You suddenly begin to wonder about the
photographer, who is opague, instead of about the
subject, which would give up its secrets right away,
if they weren't delayed by a fantasy about the
creative mind. (239)
Both Arnheim and Kozloff emphasize that the photograph
remains resistant to shaping by the human mind, an
unreformed object in the world.

Roger Scruton
In The Aesthetic Understanding: Essays in the
Philosophy of Art and Culture. British aesthetician Roger
Scruton observes that:
Typically... our attitude toward photography will be
one of curiosity, not curiosity about the photograph
but rather about its subject. (114)

For Scruton, this common perception convincingly

demonstrates the incoherence of all arguments supporting
the representational nature of the photograph. Scruton
notes that:
It is commonly said that an aesthetic interest in
something is an interest in it for its own sake: the
object is not treated as a surrogate for another; it
is itself the principle object of attention. (109)
Thus, he argues that :
an aesthetic interest in the representational
properties of a picture must also involve a kind of
interest in the picture and not merely in the thing
represented. (109)
But the photograph, as observed by Scruton, does not
interest us "as" a photograph, an artifact. It only
interests us as a means to access the real object of our
interest which lies beyond it. Scruton writes:
The photograph addresses itself to our desire for
knowledge of the world, knowledge of how things look
or seem. The photograph is a means to the end of
seeing its subject; in painting, on the other hand,
the subject is the means to the end of its own
representation. (114)
According to Scruton, "The being used
not to represent something but to point to it." (113)
The photograph is transparent to its subject, and if
it holds our interest it does so because it acts as
a surrogate for the thing which it shows. (114)
Scruton argues that the "ideal photograph," a
photograph in which "we know that we are seeing something

which actually occurred and seeing it as it appeared."

(114) He proceeds as follows:
It is impossible, therefore, that the ideal
photograph should represent an object except by
showing how it appeared at a certain moment in its
history....Consider the following sentence: x is an
ideal photograph of y as z. It seems that we have
no means of filling out the description "z", no
means, that is, of filling it out by reference only
to the photographic process and not, say to some
independent act of representation that precedes or
follows it. (114)
In short, outside of the context in which we meet the
photograph, which presents us with cues to tell us that
this photographic image is to be understood in some way
or another, the photograph is incapable of saying
anything about its' object. Yet, "It is precisely when
we have the communication of thoughts about a subject
that the concept of representation becomes applicable."
Scruton's point is similar to one made by Susan
Sontag in On Photography. where she writes: "Strictly
speaking, one never learns anything from a photograph."
(24) Indeed, "photographs do not explain; they
acknowledge." (99)
The assertion that photographs are an objective
medium, limited in their ability to transform reality
coincides, of course, with our common perception of
photographs i.e. that photographs are a means for a

literal seeing of their referent. Indeed, it is rare for

a viewer to attend to a photograph "as" a photograph.
Even Scruton's assertion that "if one finds a photograph
beautiful, it is because one finds something beautiful in
its subject" (114) seems to capture the sense in which
viewers usually speak of the beauty or interest, humor or
horror in a photograph.
Few of us, however, have not been exposed to and
appreciative of the formal beauty of at least some
photographs, most typically perhaps, the landscapes of
Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother or the great
Life essays of W. Eugene Smith.

Kendall L. Walton
In "Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photo­
graphic Realism" (1984), Kendall L. Walton also argues
that photographs are non-representational i.e.,
transparent. He holds that the photograph is essentially
like the mirror and the telescope, i.e. something that we
see through. As he writes:
No one will deny that we see through eyeglasses,
mirrors and telescopes. How, then, would one
justify denying that a security guard sees via a
closed circuit television monitor a burglar breaking
a window or that fans watch athletic events when
they watch live television broadcasts of them? (252)
Walton then concludes:

Seeing is often a way a finding out about the world.

This is as true of seeing through photographs as it
is of seeing in other ways. (253)
Walton acknowledges that most mechanical aids to
vision do not make pictures. Yet, photographic pictures,
as he notes above, are not pictures just like those
produced by other means. Rather, "They are pictures
through which we see the world." (252)
Walton acknowledges that, on occasion, we choose to
attend to the photograph as a photograph rather than
merely as a window through which we see something else:
One may pay no attention to photographic images
themselves, concentrating instead on the things
photographed. But even if one does attend
especially to the photographic image, one may at the
same time be seeing, and attending to, the objects
photographed. (253)
Thus, the photograph as picture does not "represent" the
object photographed. It contextualizes it and presents
it in a certain way. The object itself, however, is
directly, visually accessible to us. Walton writes:
I must warn against watering down this
suggestion....! am not saying that the person
looking at a dusty photograph has the impression of
seeing his ancestors....Nor is my point
that... photographs are duplicates, or doubles or
reproductions of objects or substitutes or
surrogates for them. My claim is that we see, quite
literally, our dead relatives themselves when we
look at photographs of them. (251-2).
By discussing the photograph within a larger group
of other optical devices designed to extend vision across

space and even time (as when looking through the

telescope we observe a phenomenon which actually took
places in the distant past) , and by concentrating on what
he perceives as the essential and typical, everyday
context in which photographs form a part of our lives,
Walton's analysis proceeds from an unusually strong base.
Technically, of course, his discussion of optics
addresses only one aspect of the "science" that makes
photography possible. Yet, of greater significance is
Walton's failure to discuss more thoroughly the sense in
which a photograph is a picture. In what way is a
photograph "through which we see the world" a picture?
What does picture mean in this context? Indeed, is there
a significant difference between picture and mere frame
in this context?

The Photograph As Picture

It is precisely this issue of picturing that is
raised by Donald Brook (1986) in "On the Alleged
Transparency of Photographs" (277-282). Brook attempts
to counter what he perceives as a downgrading of the
expressive, creative qualities of photographic pictures
by arguing that the fundamental datum of photography is
not the photograph but the photographic picture. Citing
the works of Walton and Scruton, among others. Brook

argues that many current scholars fail to realize that

"what really concerns us is not the transparency of
photographs but the alleged transparency of photographic
pictures." (278)
According to Brook, a picture is by definition an
object of human creation and thus, an intentional
construction. It necessarily "represents a subject in a
quite specific way." (282)
Brook asserts that something may be said to
represent another in three ways: symbolically, i.e.
through arbitrary stipulation, through exemplification,
the presentation of shared properties, and through
simulation of whatever is represented. (278-80)
In a picturing relationship. Brook maintains that
only simulation is essential. Since things do not
naturally simulate other things in a "systematic way," a
picture is necessarily an artifact, i.e. made possible
through the development of a (picturing) convention.
(282) Thus, Brook says that:
Pictures are intentional objects in the sense that
certain elements in them are meant to be received as
simulations...[and] this is as true of pictures that
have been made mechanically - photographically - as
it is of pictures that have been made by hand. (282)
According to Brook:
The notion of picture, both logically and
temporally, precedes the invention of photography as

a picturing device. We know what pictures are - we

had to know what pictures are - before we could
invent a device that would save us the trouble of
making them by hand....True photographs [i.e.
photographic pictures] are no more transparent than
oil paintings, and their opacity has exactly the
same origin. A convention about simulating
conditions stands firmly behind the representation,
blocking our direct view of whatever may be
represented. (282)
Brook's emphasis underscores the fact that photographs,
when perceived as pictures are also perceived as wholes
in which communicative and meaningful intent is present.
Here, Brook's view reflects the views of a multitude of
photographers and viewers alike. In American Images
(1977), the photographer Dennis Feldman observes:
There is something overwhelmingly appealing to me
about containing the world in one of those
rectangular shapes - to live my life in one room.
That is what a picture is - a world contained in a
frame. (3)

Similarly, Janet Malcolm, then photography critic for the

New Yorker. in Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of
Photography (1980) observes that a WaliCer Evans
photograph: "Allie May Burroughs, Hale county, Alabama,
1936," has appeared in various publications with notable
variations in cropping and that the latter are:
significant when we consider the gestalt of the
whole, the essential basis for meanings in
photographs - often overlooked even by the
sophisticated museum curatorial staff. (147-8)

Yet, Brook's assertions that 1) photographic pictures,

which alone are "true” photographs, are "no more
transparent than oil paintings", and 2) that the degree
of perceptual transparency that we choose to assign to
photographs "is entirely irrelevant to whether or not
photographically made pictures ["true" photographs] are
transparent" (282) does not accord well with our everyday
understanding and experience of photographs. As Gombrich
(1982) writes:
"To insist on the subjective element in our visual
experience does not mean to deny its objective
veridical component." (176)
Brook's argument in support of photographic opacity
also occludes what to many is the greatest power of
photography, i.e. its ability to escape the purely
subjective realm of the photographer's intent. As Robert
Wicks writes in "Photography as Representational Art"
(1989) :
The causal process characteristic of photography -
one allegedly responsible for the expressive
limitations of the medium - is in fact a positive
aspect of photography." (8)
Similarly Kozloff observes:
There are things in a photo that a photographer may
not have liked but couldn't have helped. I am
certainly grateful for a photo's deliberateness,
when it amounts to something, but I am especially
thankful for this helplessness, which makes a
photograph unigue. (236)

Referring to our common experience of photographs, he

writes that every photograph is prized for its function
as witness, the sense we have in peering into it of being
transported to a different time and place. (239) Still
more strongly, Kozloff writes:
A main distinction between a painting and a
photograph is that the painting alludes to its
content, whereas the photograph summons it, from
wherever and whenever, to us. (236)
Indeed, even so great a photographic artist as Edward
Weston, wrote :
I am not trying to express myself through
photography,...but... to know things in their very
essence, so that what I record is not an
interpretation- m y idea of what nature s h o u l d be-
but a r e v e l a t i o n or a piercing of the smoke-screen
artificially cast over life by irrelevant, humanly
limited exigencies.... ("Statement," 1931, 67)
And he appreciated as well that:
it is this belief in the reality of the photograph
that calls up a strong response in the spectator and
enables him to participate directly in the artist's
experience. ("Photographic Art," 1940, 133)

There is a sense in which the contention that
photographs are open to the world, represented here in
the works of Scruton, Walton, Arnheim and Barthes, seems
persuasive. While the photographic picture is, of
course, literally opaque, we do seem to see objects and
events "through" photographs. Moreover, Roland Barthes'

(1980) assertion that the distinguishing characteristic

of the photograph is its potential for "madness" (117) i.
e., its irreducibility to the intentions of the
photographer and the values and mores of civilized
society, is consistent with much of our common experience
of the photograph, especially those most unwelcome
pictures of war, famine and death.
That the photograph is often the result of a
struggle in which the photographer attempts to wrestle
meaning from the world, as Arnheim maintains, will also
ring true to many photographers' experience and many
photographs testify to a valiant, but ultimately
unsuccessful attempt to do just that.
Nevertheless, it is also true for photographer and
viewer alike - as Brooks maintains - that we often see
photographs as pictures. In our everyday experience, we
complain when we see ourselves in a photograph where we
just don't look right. When we look too heavy we don't
say that we are too heavy. Rather, we imply that the
photographer or the camera made us look that way. So,
too, we complain when a room looks small, and we even
complain about the composition and sense of balance as
when a photograph "just doesn't feel right." And when
everything looks just right, we seem almost programmed to

say "What a beautiful picture?" and so acknowledge

implicitly a distance between reality as pictured and
reality itself.
An important distinction, however, often goes
unrecognized in popular as well as scholarly discussions
of photographic objectivity, namely that between
photographic processes in themselves and the meaning
attached to their typical product. When proponents of
photographic objectivity argue that the photograph is an
objective medium, they tend to emphasize that it captures
what lies before the camera's lens, even though to
varying degrees, they acknowledge that the process is not
a pure science. On the other hand, those who speak of
the non-objective characteristics of the photograph tend
to emphasize the ultimate content of the photograph
itself, its pictorial and expressive gualities, its
production by human hands and for human purposes and the
concomitant responsiveness of the medium to a multitude
of manipulative practices.
What is critically important here, however, is that
the two are not separate in practice. Every photograph
is meaningful from the moment of its inception. And
every photograph reveals to some extent the world before
the lens.

Just as important, when we speak of the similarity

between what we see in a photograph and "reality," we
must recall that it is not reality in itself that we
compare to the photograph, but our perception of reality.
Our lack of awareness of the interpretive qualities of
perception itself and the apparent similarities between
photographs and human vision, e.g., their optical
similarities, their response to the visible spectrum of
light, as well as the typically unrecognized manipulation
of the photographic medium to mimic human visual
perception,^ combine to assure us of a knowledge and
familiarity with the world that lies beyond our capacity.
Thus, despite the superficial appeal of Walton's
contention that the photograph is a picture through which
we see the world, as Brook points out, the very idea of
picture demands that we see only a world i.e., a
particular view of the world, an artifactual and
meaningful creation. What, for Walton, is an objective,
transparent medium is in actuality a meaningful, human
artifact from its inception. And the goal of
photographic technique, even in the most routine,
mechanical processes is to present, preserve or at times,
alter that meaning through the transformative power of

photographic technology, a medium inherently distinct

from human vision.
Yet, it is thus not only photographic pictures that
stand in service of human meaning. Any photograph other
than that produced by an accident tripping of the shutter
in some sense shares in this process of meaning-making.
Indeed, even the latter often serve as resource for
discovering unexpected and valued meaning.
In addition, the photograph stands in relation to a
frame or border, which serves as ground of vision and
transforms all that we see within it into a single whole
(Stroebel, Todd and Zakia, 1980, 164), and which thus
acts as a sign of communicative intent and
While the photograph, then, may well serve to link
us to its subject matter, it is not it in itself that we
see in the photograph. Rather, we see the result of a
controlled, representational process. Among such
processes, the photographic picture is unique, so close
to its subject matter that it is difficult to recognize
the distance between the subject itself and the subject
as seen in a photograph. How, then, are we to conceive
of this relation between picture and world? The first
and by far the most popular approach focuses on the

transformative power of the individual creative agent,

the photographer him or herself who acts upon the world,
transforming it from a raw state of meaninglessness into
a form and shape of beauty and worth. This is the
approach characteristic of modern aesthetics.


Those who believe that photographic reportage is

"selective and objective, but cannot interpret the
photographed subject matter," show a complete lack
of understanding of the problems and the proper
workings of this profession.
- W. Eugene Smith, "Photographic Journalism"
(June, 1948).

I am constantly torn between the attitude of the

conscientious journalist who is a recorder of, an
interpreter of facts, and of the creative artist who
often is necessarily at poetic odds with the literal
- W. Eugene Smith, Exhibition Catalogue. Univ.
of Minnesota (1954)

Claims in support of the expressive potential of the

photograph have accompanied this new, objective medium
from its inception. While Daguerre argued that the
photographic image (as Daguerreotype ^^) "consists in the
spontaneous reproduction of the images of nature" and
that it is nature that "reproduces herself" through its
chemical and physical processes, the nearly simultaneous

inventor of the calotype , William Henry Fox Talbot saw

in his new invention "a new Art" which he termed
"photogenic drawing." While Daguerre spoke of "imprints"
(12), Talbot (1844-46) spoke of "pictures." (29) Helmut
Gernsheim notes in The Rise of Photography 1850-1880; "In
1856 Nadar himself suggested that photography should be
admitted to the exhibitions of the Academie des Beaux-
Arts." (35) The traditional role of composition, balance,
unity, harmony, contrast, expression, tone were readily
evident in the work of the early landscape artists and
genre photographers. Oskar Rejlander wrote of his "The
Two Ways of Life" in 1857:
as far as the conception of a picture, the
composition thereof, with the various expressions
and postures of the figures, the arrangements of
draperies and costume, the distribution of light and
shade, and the preserving it in one subordinate
whole - that these various points, which are
essential in the production of a perfect picture,
require the same operations of mind, the same
artistic treatment and careful manipulation, whether
it be executed in crayon, in paint, or by
photographic agency. (Gernsheim, 38)
From that time forward, the defenders of the expressive
potential of the photograph have never ceased to
challenge those who argued that the photograph, because
of its inherent restriction to the reproduction of
objective reality, could never qualify as an art form.
Yet, if photographers were to successfully argue that the

new medium of photography was capable of serving as a

medium of personal and artistic expression, it was
necessary to liken it to existing visual arts in its one
central capacity. While the photograph was clearly
superior to all that had gone before in its ability to
present a picture of reality, it had to be more than a
mere mechanical process.
At the heart of this problem lay the tenets of
modern aesthetics as evolved especially from the
aesthetic philosophy of Immanuel Kant. As Wollen writes:
”No sooner had Kant announced that objective distinctness
must be distinguished from subjective, concept from
intuition, hence science from art, than advances in
chemistry and geometry made possible the invention of
photography and modern technical draughtsmanship, twin
threats to painting...." (331) He notes that "Painting
responded by embracing the Kantian perspective, stressing
the subjective and the intuitive... and increasingly
returning to nature [which] necessitated a very clear
distinction between the 'artistic' and the
'photographic,' which became a term of abuse." (332)
Shaw (1901) captured more colorfully the spirit of this
relation when he wrote:
I know nothing funnier in criticism than the
assurance of the painter and his press parasite, the

art critic, that all high art is brush work; except,

perhaps, the humility of the photographer, who is
not yet allowed a parasite of his own, and must
timidly beg for a contemptuous bit or two from that
of the brusher. (141)
In order to understand the basis for this rejection,
and the power which it still holds, we must also
understand the central concepts of this dominant

The Origin and Character

of Modern Aesthetics
In The Critique of the Faculty of Judgment. Immanuel
Kant made the first systematic effort to establish a
basis for aesthetics as an independent, philosophical
enterprise. (Gadamer, 1989, 43) This independence of the
aesthetic has remained the distinguishing feature of
modern aesthetic thought.
Kant characterized aesthetics as a purely subjective
phenomena but one that, at the same time, makes an appeal
to universal standards of beauty. He noted that in
matters of mere preference, we rarely seek a warrant
beyond our own personal feelings. Yet, when we remark
that some object or thing is beautiful, we typically seek
and expect agreement from others. In so doing, Kant
argued, we implicitly appeal to a universal, though
subjective, standard.

From the above, certain fundamental tenets of modern

aesthetics follow. As maintained by Kant, our common
assumption that the beauty we perceive in an object is an
attribute or property of the object is mistaken.
Aesthetic feeling does not originate with the object but
in our reaction to it. Thus, aesthetic judgement does not
involve cognition, i.e. knowledge about the world. It
is, rather, a judgement "whose determining ground can be
no other than the subjective." (355)
Secondly, as Kant argued, the feeling of pleasure we
derive from the aesthetic contemplation of beauty is
disinterested. The aesthetic, then, differs radically
from desire because there is no personal concern about
whether the object exists in the world. (355) As Kant
wrote :
For since it does not rest on any inclination of the
subject nor upon any other antecedent interest, and
since the person who judges feels himself quite free
as regards the satisfaction which he attached to the
object, he cannot find the ground of this
satisfaction in any private conditions connected
with himself, and hence he must regard it as
grounded on what he can presuppose in every other
person. (358)
Thus, the aesthetic posits "A claim to subjective
universality" and its subject " is that which pleases
universally without a concept." (358) Aesthetic
experience imparts no knowledge about the objective

world. The latter becomes exclusively the subject of the

natural sciences.
This severing of aesthetics and our feeling nature
from cognition had further consequences. Since the
aesthetic tells us nothing about the world, and its
origin lies in the subjective realm of human experience,
a third major tenet of modern aesthetics follows, namely
that the ability to bring that experience into visible
form is rare and special, a gift of artistic genius.
Kant writes: "nature in the person of the artist must
give the rule to art." Thus, "fine arts must necessarily
be considered as arts of genius." (381)
From this follows a fourth tenet of modern
aesthetics, namely that in an aesthetics without recourse
to rules, the discernment of the genius of the artist is
left to the genius of the observer, which similarly
relies upon special insights that surpass rules and
ordinary perception. As a result, "every encounter with
the work has the rank and rights of a new production."
(Gadamer, 1986, 95) This quality is most evident in the
role of the art critic who is bound by no rule and whose
critique is based fundamentally on special insight and
unique sensitivity which confers upon him or her a
similarly unique status.

Arnheim's Aesthetics; Art vs. Photography

In "Splendor and Misery of the Photographer,"
Arnheim contrasts the photograph with "true" art as
follows :
The photographic documents are not the creations of
an idealizing imagination that responds to the
imperfections of reality with a dream of beauty.
Instead, they are the trophies of a hunter who looks
for the unusual in the world of what actually
exists. (121)
For Arnheim, art presents an idealized
transformation that stands in contrast with the world as
a dream stands in relation to reality. Like the dream,
art is presumed to be a product of the artist's
imagination - his personal, subjective, intentional
being. This being and its intended creations stand above
mere objective reality. They transcend it in a timeless
realm of beauty and perfection, a realm of perfect form.
True art, then, is not contaminated by the everyday. It
transforms the world of experience - like straw into
The photograph, however, is not wholly amenable to
the artistic intention of its producer and is neither
fully responsive to nor expressive of the subjectivity of
the artist-genius.
Moreover, according to Arnheim, the photograph fails
to structure or set parameters upon the

interpreter/viewer's understanding of its meaning.

Unlike the painting, the photograph is understood
primarily according to the dictates of each viewers'
subjectivity. Arnheim also suggests that as a product
of contingency rather than intentionality, the photograph
shows the world raw and incomplete. He argues:
It is true that photography puts the viewer in the
direct presence of relevant facts. It thereby
exposes him to what may be called the raw effect of
matter, the impact created by the immediately given.
If the viewer is at all sensitive to what he is
being shown, this impact may set him to
thinking.... But what his thoughts will be when he
looks at a good shot of a political demonstration, a
sports event, or a coal mine will depend on his own
intellectual orientation, to which the picture will
accommodate. (119) [emphasis added]
For Arnheim, then, photographs originate in the
world, not in the artist's imagination. Therefore, they
are not art. The photograph cannot transcend the world
because it is inescapably bound to it. There is no
distance, no free reign between the world as it stands
before the camera and the world as it appears in the
photograph. The photograph can only bring the world to
us as it is, i.e., unformed, in all its imperfection and
its contingency. Arnheim, like Barthes above, sees the
photograph as never rising above "mere contingency."
The true work of art, on the other hand, structures
the viewer's interpretation and thus, precludes arbitrary

interpretation. It can stand alone, without commentary,

"because everything in a painting or a drawing is
understood to have been put there by intention" (119).
In a photograph, there is no certainty about whether
something that we see is an accidental feature of the
subject or intended to convey a certain meaning or
attitude toward the subject. According to Arnheim, an
entirely different relationship exists between the work
of art and its audience and the viewers of a photograph
(119). As Arnheim writes:
instead of merely admiring the artist's invention,
[the viewer of a photograph] also acts as an
explorer, an indiscreet intruder into the privacy of
nature and human activity, curious about the kind of
life that has left its traces and searching for
telltale clues. (122)
The photograph shows us what its subject does not
intend to reveal. It is a world not made human by being
transformed into meaning, but trapped by a technology
which indiscriminately captures whatever passes before
it. The communicative intention involved, is often opaque
unless supplanted by an accompanying written text. So,
too, no unique sensitivity of the interpreter is called
upon as a source of special insight into understanding
the photograph because the photograph itself is not a
production of special genius. Rather, a straight forward
investigative approach is all that's necessary to

determine what of value the photograph tells us. In sum,

the photograph tells us about the world, its gualities
and character, and does so simply by presenting it to us.
Here, we have utterly left the realm of the aesthetic.
A final point of contrast between the photograph and
the traditional visual arts lies in what Arnheim
perceives as the timelessness of art, in its purpose and
its effect vs. the historical particularity of the
photograph. He writes:
Whatever the style and purpose of art, its goal had
always been the representation of the lasting
character of things and actions. Even when
depicting motion, it was the abiding nature of that
motion that the artist portrayed. (122)
Art, then, transcends the individual moment. Like
the dream, it does not simply show us the world. Rather,
it transforms it into something else which is no longer
rooted in mere time and space, but in the absolute, the
eternal realm of perfection. For Arnheim, true art
removes itself from the realm of the particular to the
realm of the perfect form. He writes: "the artist
presents the human body cleansed of the accidents of
imperfection and individuality." (122) Art is not
objective because it is not of the world. Art, unlike
the photograph, exists in a realm beyond mere

"Picture Prefect”
John Szarkowski's Campaign
For a Photographic Aesthetic
The independence of art brought about by modern
aesthetics was a moment of liberation for the practicing
artist. Aesthetics provided a means of distinguishing
art from craft, a basis for dedication to art as a
calling and for many, some independence from and
resistance to control of art themes and content by
political, economic and social forces.
At the same time, it is this conception of the
nature of art as a creation wholly produced by and
amenable to the intentions of artistic genius that is
responsible for the widespread reluctance to admit
photography into the world of expressive visual arts.
When arguments in favor of the artistic potential of the
photograph have been mounted without a radical revision
of this underlying conception of art, they have largely
failed to persuade the larger critical and artistic
John Szarkowski, who succeeded Edward Steichen in
1954 as Director of the Museum of Modern Art, is widely
regarded as the dominant influence in bringing
photographic works into the world of art museums and
galleries. As Richard Woodward (1988) writes: "No one

has done more to uncover important new work, expand and

redefine tradition, and foster an appreciation of the
unique contributions of photography to art history."
(168) So, too, Johnston (1992) writes:
Better than anybody else ever has, John Szarkowski
explicated and elucidated the great power of the
still photograph as a document of fact, its status
as a text, its rich potential meaning as history,
the great power it can draw from its native and
natural connection to the real. (32)
In his critical discussion of Szarkowski's writings and
career at the Modern, Johnston characterizes Szarkowski's
work as having the "austere and rigorously reasoned
beauty of his essentially philosophical investigations
into the enigma that is still Photography." (60)
Peter Plagens (1990), describes Szarkowski as "the
man who has most singularly shaped our contemporary
vision of photography as art." (62)
Szarkowski is best known for his contention that
photographic art had its own trajectory, one rooted in
the uniqueness of the medium itself and thus not
reducible nor comparable to other, more traditional forms
of the visual arts. As Szarkowski wrote in The
Photographer^s Eye (1966):
The invention of photography provided a radically
new picture making process.... The difference raised
a creative issue of a new order: how could this
mechanical and mindless process be made to produce
pictures with clarity and coherence and a point of

view? ... Certainly the medium could not satisfy old

standards. (6)
Nonetheless, a tradition within photography grew and "the
vision they [i.e. photographers] share belongs to no
school or aesthetic theory, but to photography itself.
The character of this vision was discovered by
photographers at work, as their awareness of
photography's potentials grew." (7) Indeed, he
continues: "The history of photography has been less a
journey than a growth. Its movement has not been linear
and consecutive, but centrifugal. Photography, and our
understanding of it, has spread from a center: it has, by
infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like an
organism, photography was born whole. It is in our
progressive discovery of it that its history lies." (11)
Yet, despite the many innovative features of his
thought, Szarkowski's most popular work Looking at
Photographs (1973), where he analyzes individual
photographs and traces the history of the medium, remains
a pre-eminent example of an approach to the understanding
of photographs still largely consistent with modern
Szarkowski's recognized skill in interpreting
photographs as aesthetic creations is here demonstrated

in the individual analysis of over 50 photographic

images. In his Preface, Szarkowski notes:
In 1929, when the acquisition of a painting by
Cezanne was still considered adventurous, the
proposition that photography deserved serious
critical study would have been simply unintelligible
to the leaders of most art museums. (9)
In fact, the rationale for the acquisition of photographs
at MOMÀ was not that the photograph had marked artistic
and aesthetic value, but that "the visual arts were so
intimately interdependent that one medium could not be
properly studied in isolation." (9)
Against this background, and the continuing
resistance to the inclusion of photography in collections
and discussions of art, members of the photographic
community widely felt a need for an intensive defense of
the aesthetic potential of the photograph. That such
works had appeared with great frequency from the hands of
practitioners and even a few avant-garde art critics was
insufficient. Such a work had to come from within the
traditional confines of the art establishment.
Szarkowski, himself a professional photographer when
called - much to his surprise - to the museum post, took
up the challenge.
The proposition basic to Szarkowski's work is that
the photographic medium itself has a unique capacity for

artistic expression. This accounts for Szarkowski's

inclusion of a broad spectrum of photographers over the
entire history of photography and with content varying
from news photos to aerial reconnaissance, with no more
than one photograph per photographer represented.
It is important to note, however, that this emphasis
does not, in fact, reduce the central importance of the
creative artist to Szarkowski's aesthetic approach.
While Szarkowski notes that his work includes photographs
from a wide range of known and unknown photographers,
forty seven of the fifty photographs included were made
by widely collected and well known photographers. The
other three are listed as the work of an unknown
photographer: one is an early nineteenth century
daguerreotype and the other two are aerial reconnaissance
photos from World War II.
Among the better known photographers is Bill Brandt
whose work is represented by his "Young Housewife in
Bethnal Greene, 1937." (120) In this photograph [Fig.
1], a young woman in heavily soiled and stained clothing
is on her knees and appears to be rinsing out a cloth or
sponge, which she is using to clean an entry-way floor.
The woman's face is downcast, and she appears to be
crouched down and tired. The lighting is overhead which

accentuates the woman's face, shoulders, arms, and knees.

The bucket is in the low center of the composition. The
woman is framed by that part of the doorway which is
visible in the photograph and she is placed toward the
upper right of the photograph. Within the frame, only
the doorknob of the entry door is visible. There is no
discernible detail of the interior of the house, only a
suggestion of darkness and a flat, closed-in space.
Szarkowski begins his commentary on the photograph with a
general discussion of the nature of artistic tradition,
which he holds "exists in the minds of artists, and
consists of their collective memory of what has been
accomplished so far....Its function is to mark the
starting point for each day's work." Szarkowski then goes
on to note Brandt's early study with Man Ray, his
exposure to Atget and "the French Surrealist film­
makers." He writes, Brandt's "own work already possessed
a strongly surreal character" which he characterizes as a
"mordant, poetic romanticism suggestive of de Chirico and
Dorè." (121)
Szarkowski notes Brandt's relative isolation from
contemporary photographers and argues that for some "of
the most independent talents" such isolation can

Figure 1. Bill Brandt, "Young Housewife in

Bethnal Greene, 1937."

constitute "a sanctuary where radical visions can develop

undisturbed." (121)
In commenting upon Brandt's corpus of work,
Szarkowski notes: "In the years following his return to
England, Brandt concentrated on photographing his
countrymen, of all classes and conditions." He adds:
"These pictures are moving and strange; they express both
sympathy and tranquil detachment, as though Brandt were
photographing something that existed long ago." Finally,
he asserts: "Though unsparingly frank, his pictures seem
to refer less to the moment described than to the issues
of role, tenacity, courage, and survival." (121)
Szarkowski's emphases suggest some of the most
salient features of modern aesthetics. Even though the
subject matter of Brandt's photographs concentrates so
heavily upon "his countrymen, of all classes and
conditions," Szarkowski says nothing about Brandt's own
social, political and economic status in or concerns
about English society. Here, Brandt's whole identity is
that of photographer-artist, a special genius nearly
uncontaminated by social or other mundane influences
beyond his control or knowledge. Moreover, this
individual, artist-genius stands in a tradition that cuts

through history like a knife, largely uncontaminated by

the everyday world around him.
Szarkowski's commentary on Russell Lee's "Son of a
Sharecropper Combing Hair in Bedroom of Shack, Missouri,"
(1938) [Fig. 2], illustrates another characteristics of
modern aesthetics. As H. G. Gadamer (1986) writes:
"Aesthetic experience is indifferent to whether or not
its object is real, whether the scene is the stage or
whether it is real life. Aesthetic consciousness has
unlimited sovereignty over everything." (89)
Szarkowski contextualizes this image within the pictorial
tradition of the toilette "an important subject for
artists since the Egyptians." (134) His only observation
concerning the surroundings in which the young boy's
grooming takes place is that "the nature of his
surroundings make the moment no less private or
ceremonial." (134) No other mention is made of the
poverty in which the boy lives, as if only the universal
activity itself were of real significance in appreciating
this photographer's work. Even the seemingly sad,
disheartened expression on the boys face - reflected in a
broken mirror - fails to warrant the attention of
Szarkowski's interpretive gaze. Here, it seems, the
material circumstances are merely the occasion, the

Figure 2. Russell Lee, ”Son of a Sharecropper Combing

Hair in Bedroom of Shack, Missouri," 1938.

accidental accompaniment to the universal, the thematic

in art history - this in a medium in which particularity
is the dominant characteristic.

The Methodological Primacy

Of Aesthetic Consciousness
In Szarkowski^s Looking At Pictures
Szarkowski's interpretation of Lee's picture
contrasts sharply with the description of Lee presented
by F. Jack Hurley, Lee's close friend and author of
Russell Lee Photographer (1978). Hurley writes:
Lee's work is and has been from the beginning pre­
eminently discursive. It is concerned with precise
description in an almost literary sense. This
discursive approach clearly sets Lee apart from such
contemporaries as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans,
who took their visual cues more directly from the
painterly arts and generally looked for one
photograph to express the essence of a given
situation. (14)
Whatever the reason, Lee took pictures in series from the
very beginning. (14) Hurley recalls:
Lee became known for his ability to dissect a
situation with his cameras and show all its parts.
This ability seems to have appeared quite early. In
one interview he was asked, "Were you looking for
one great picture in those early situations, or were
you thinking in terms of series?" Lee's answer
seems to indicate that the one great photograph
approach probably never occurred to him. (15)
Hurley's historical monograph suggests a very
different understanding of Lee's work and throws into
sharp relief features of aesthetic consciousness that

dominate Szarkowski's analysis. First, Szarkowski seems

to assume that the single photograph is the primary
legitimate object of analysis. Neither the context of
the FSA assignment of which this photograph was one
miniscule part, nor Lee's corpus of photographs of the
time are here explicitly considered as part of the
aesthetic value and meaning of the photograph discussed.
Szarkowski relies upon personal insight and cultivated
taste “ along with, no doubt, a long familiarity with
most of the selected photographic works and the
photographer's who made them - rather than the
constraints of historical research to arrive at an
understanding of the object before him.

Photography and Anti-Aesthetics

Andy Grundbera and Conceptual Art
Szarkowski's aesthetic interpretation of photo­
graphic art has come under severe criticism in recent
years from proponents of Conceptual Art, a post-modern,
anti-aesthetic which calls for the expression of ideas
through art and thus, a single, radical break from the
modern aesthetic tradition. Andy Grundberg and Kathleen
McCarthy Gauss discuss these new developments in
Photography and Art: Interactions Since 1946 (1987).
Like Szarkowski, Grundberg sets out to uphold the

artistic potential of the photograph. Yet, he argues

that it was precisely the modernist^^ approach taken by
Szarkowski that prevented photography from entering the
ranks of the visual arts. According to Grundberg:
Under the tenets of modernism, each medium was
supposed to follow its own inherent qualities and
capabilities without external reference - either to
other means of picture-making, or to the world
itself. (16)
Grundberg rejects the idea of "something intrinsic
to photography," i.e. 'the photographic'" (16), a view
perpetuated in "late modernist practice" by Szarkowski.
He characterizes the "very essentials" of Szarkowski's
aesthetic as: 1) "that the art of photography consists of
exploiting the medium's unique qualities;" 2) "that its
functions and purposes are different than those of
painting or any other visual art;" and 3) "that it has
its own tradition, history and criticism." (135)
Grundberg sees this perspective as forming a barrier
between photography and other visual arts. He writes:
"The interaction of photography and art was one of
modernism's greatest repressions." (16). He argues,
however, that actual practice has moved beyond it:
Today the integration of photography and the other
visual arts has advanced to the point that it no
longer seems appropriate to distinguish them as two
categories of expression, or to view photography as
a medium unto itself. (15)

The result, he observes, is that:

never before has the medium been so fully integrated
with the other, more established visual arts....This
idea goes against the widely held modernist premise
that each medium has its own discrete, self­
generating aesthetic. (15)
Therefore, he concludes:
The oft-asked, hoary question "Is Photography an
art?" has been answered in the most convincing
possible way: not by any claim to uniqueness or
self-sufficiency, but by the widespread, vital
presence of photographs within the art world. (15)
Indeed, during the 1980's photographic art moved from
exclusively photographic galleries to multi-media
galleries. As a result, greater openness to contemporary
photography began to change the market from its emphasis
upon the classic single photograph of the "great
photographer's" tradition to the radically new
photography of such artists as Cindy Sherman, Barbara
Kruger, and Robert Gumming. Not surprisingly, Szarkowski
has been reluctant to endorse this work, even to the
point of leaving out reference to it in his recent
Photography Until Now (1989).^^
In an equally radical shift from the modern
position, Grundberg notes that such recent works "avoid
any aestheticism." According to Grundberg:
Customary analytical guages - design, color,
texture, form, line, metaphoric nuance, and so on -
were irrelevant to conceptual images, which were
produced primarily as illustrations of intellectual
ideas. (170)

In a sense, the conceptual art movement consists of

what he calls "anti-photographers.” (171) He notes that:
In most conceptual art the photograph functions as a
sign or indicator of an organizing idea, not as a
precious object to be savored for its formal
organization, surface appearance, or expressive
capacity. (136)
Thus, conceptual art moves beyond modern aesthetics.
It is concerned only with the idea, not the traditional
concerns of aesthetic analysis and evaluation. Even the
central position of the picture is now replaced with
"multiple frame works, some of them involving a series of
comparisons.... some of them sequences proceeding in time
and space." (171)
As a result, Grundberg perceives a fundamental
revolution in the nature and value of photographic
representation. This is a move away not only from modern
aesthetics, but from photography's claim to accurately
present the world. Grundberg writes:
Photographers no longer had to work with extant
subjects and forms, available light, and the other
trappings of reality; no longer had to play the role
of witness. The fabrication introduced into the
photography of the 1970's was diametrically opposed
to the notion of photographic evidence as
certifiable truth. (174)

Grundberg's assertion that conceptual art
constitutes a radical break with what went before is not

a matter of contention. Yet, his assertion that this

break resolves or transcends the underlying issue of the
relation between art and photography as conceived in
modern aesthetics is subject to guestion. The issue
remains the same. Whatever the status and origin of its
referent, the photograph presents what is there in a way
not fully amenable to the producer's subjective desires.
What has transpired has not resolved the issue of the
relation between photography and art. It has, in effect,
defined the latter out of existence. It reflects much
contemporary thinking in which "we are willing to
consider anything as art." (Gablik, 1984, 11) Here, as
Grundberg notes, the photograph has become a sign and art
has been severed from the aesthetic. Indeed, if we
renounce the aesthetic as a criteria for understanding
art, what makes art "art," what distinguishes art from
non-art? Perhaps, Jamieson (1986), who finds no clear
answer to his query "what does it mean?" to call a work
conceptual "art," is correct when he writes that
"conceptual art has very little to offer to aesthetics."
(122) Indeed, only two criteria remain possible: either
art is art because it is produced by those who claim to
be, or who are seen as, artists or it is art because it
expresses ideas through media traditionally associated

with the arts. Each of these options must ultimately

return us to precisely the modern aesthetic perspective
that Grundberg asserts we have herewith escaped.
Ultimately, to resolve the problem of the relation
between photography and art requires an understanding of
man's relation to the world in which subject and object
are an indivisible unity, one in such a way that to speak
of the "intention" of the subject as if the subject were
something apart from the world and to speak of the world
as if it were an "object" to the artist rather than the
very ground of his being and ultimately, then, to speak
of the creative act as something other than what comes to
be when subject is no longer subject and object no longer
object, in the play in which world and self are one.
Yet, such a development will serve purposes far beyond
the relation of photography and art. For, as Gablik
(1990) writes:

the rational framework of modern aesthetics has left

us with an ontology of objectification, permanence
and egocentricity, which has seriously undermined
art's inherent capacity to be communicative and
compassionately responsive, or to be seen also as a
process, rather than exclusively as fixed
forms....our model of aesthetics needs therapeutic
attention, because it has lost its sensitivity not
only to the psychological conditions of individuals
and society, but also to the ecological and process
character of the world. (60)

There remains another problem as well. Art is a

social product. It fulfills social functions.
Ultimately, what constitutes art is socially defined.
What then, is the relation between art, artist and


In Constructing a Sociology of the Arts (1990),
Zolberg describes two broadly disparate approaches to the
study of the arts. First, a "humanist" approach, largely
identified with the aesthetic, which holds to an
"internalist" perspective. Here, emphasis is placed on
the art work itself, its formal elements, aesthetic
relation to other works and the content of its imagery or
language. Each work is regarded as "a unigue meaningful
expression of its creator's being," as expressions of
"their individual genius." (5) Key to the proper
interpretation of a work is the observer's unigue
"sensitivity."(6) A second, sociological approach, holds
to an "externalist" position. It focuses on what
Peterson (1976) defines as the "relations of the artist
and art work to political institutions, ideologies and
other extra-aesthetic considerations." (Zolberg, 8)
While aestheticians focus on the unique, sociologists

focus on r e g u l arity, c o n s t r u c t t y p o l o g i e s , r e s e a r c h the

underlying conditions of artists' work and so on. (9)

Zolberg argues that the aesthetic leaves "gaps" in
our understanding. What, after all, is the relation
between the artist and society? How is it that meaning
is conveyed in an artwork unless it is preceded by a
common language, a referential world which the artist and
his audience share? What are the commonalities between
artists, what characteristics do they share as a social
Nonetheless, Zolberg shares Jean-Claude
Chamboredon's (1986) concern that "when sociologists
short-circut a complex process, they tend to reduce art
works to mere outcomes of social processes and
interactions leaving moot the analysis of works as
specific entities." (12) For Zolberg, these
characteristics are common to Marxist and non-Marxist
sociological traditions. (210)
Echoes of this basic dichotomy are present
throughout the literature of photographic interpretation.
In "How Fine is the Art of Photography?," a review of
Janet Malcolm's Diana and Nikon. Jed Perl argued that
since Malcolm understands photography only in relation to
painting, her essays constitute "a series of ruminations

in a social vacuum." (19) Pierre Bourdieu in On

Photography (original Fr. ed., 1965) argued:
Adequately understanding a photograph...means not
only recovering the meanings which it proclaims.
that is, to a certain extent, the explicit
intentions of the photographer; it also means
deciphering the surplus of meaning which it betrays
by being a part of the symbolism of an age, a class
or an artistic group. (6-7)
Contemporary critique of ideology perspectives
constitute some of the more coherent, systematic
expressions of this viewpoint. (Grossberg, 1984)
Critique of ideology originated with the Frankfurt School
at the Institute for Social Research where, in a 1937
essay by Max Horkheimer, the term "Critical Theory" first
appeared (Ingram, 1). Disssatisfied with the failure of
the postivistic social sciences to produce substantial
change in western capitalist society, concerned with the
rise of fascism and the dire results of communism under
Stalin, the founding members of the Frankfurt school
produced a unique synthesis of critical social philosophy
consisting of an amalgam of insights from Marx's
political economy and Kant's critical philosophy, psycho­
analysis and social science that remains widely
influential today.
Stuart Hall, a major figure in British Cultural
Studies, a scholarly movement strongly reminiscent of the

Frankfurt school, characterizes the problem of ideology

as "to give an account, within a materialist theory, of
how social ideas arise" and notes further "it [ideology]
has especially to do with the concepts and the languages
of practical thought which stabilize a particular form of
power and domination; or which reconcile and accommodate
the mass of the people to their subordinate place in the
social formation." (1986b, 29) John B. Thompson, in
Ideology and Modern Culture (1990), writes similarly:
The analysis of ideology... is primarily concerned
with the ways in which symbolic forms intersect with
relations of power. It is concerned with the ways
in which meaning is mobilized in the social world
and serves thereby to bolster up individuals and
groups who occupy positions of power. Let me define
this focus more sharply: to s t u d y i d e o l o g y is to
s t u d y the w a y s in w h i c h m e a n i n g s e r v e s to e s t a b l i s h
a n d s u s t a i n r e l a t i o n s of d o m i n a t i o n , (56) [emphasis
Ideology, then, in the literature addressed here, seems
inseparable from some notion of consciousness as imposed
upon and not truly reflecting the interests of the
population holding to it.^^ As Paul Ricoeur (1986)
writes, ideology is "the systematic distortion of
communication by the hidden exercise of force." (301)
Janet Wolff (1981) offers a contemporary view of
artistic production from a critique of ideology
perspective. As she writes: "Critical social science
explains meanings and ideologies, by disclosing the

social and material interests which give rise to them."

(104) According to Wolff: "Ideas and beliefs are not
transparent, but always originate in and conceal social
structures and processes." (105) As a result: "We refrain
from 'taking seriously' what a person thinks or believes,
but instead, in an act of 'partially suspended
communication,' we take what is said as a symptom of the
objective situation." (104-05)
Wolff readily acknowledges that ideology critique is
not value free. She denies the existence of any value-
free approach.
Ideology critique is emancipatory in intention.
For Ideology critique, the notion of universal,
emancipatory reason i.e., the ability of reason to
provide insight into the true nature of social phenomena,
or ideologies, so that their underlying structure and
function can be determined and thus challenged.
The fundamental ground of ideology critique is the
assertion that:
The ideology of a society in general is founded on
that society's material and economic basis, and
promulgated (not necessarily consciously, and in no
sense conspiratorially) by those groups in a
privileged position of power in relation to that
basis. (Wolff, 53)
Wolff notes that no simple theory of reflection in
art works or other social production can be sustained.

Rather, the relationship between artworks and social

structure is extremely complex. Ideology is "mediated by
the aesthetic code." (120) She continues:
Without accepting any simplistic theory of
reflection, it can be shown that the perspective (or
world-view) of any individual is not only
biographically constructed, but also the personal
mediation of a group consciousness. (119)
Critique of ideology and aesthetic traditions conceive of
the role of the creator of an artwork in substantially
different terms. Following Althusser, Wolff writes: "So
individuals are always subjects, and, as subjects, are
constituted in ideology. There is no 'subjective
essence' which escapes this constitution...." (131)
Thus, one task of ideology critique is to explicate
"The way in which authors are produced, or constructed."
(123) Here: "Psychoanalysis provides a way of exploring
how it is that subjects are constituted in ideology.
Moreover, it destroys the notion of a unified subject of
consciousness-the subject identified with the ego-and
replaces it with a complex concept of a 'de-centered'
subject." (133)
In "Historical Genesis of a Pure Aesthetic," Pierre
Bourdieu (1989) provides another critical perspective on
modern, western aesthetics, one which focuses especially
on one strikingly common element in aesthetic theory.

namely that, despite other differences, they all (with

the possible exception of Wittgenstein) share the
ambition of capturing a transhistoric or ahistoric
essence." (148) As Bourdieu writes:
"Essentialist thought" is at work in every social
universe and especially in the field of cultural
production - the religious, scientific and legal
fields, etc., - where games in which the universal
is at stake are being played out. But in that case
it is quite evident that "essences" are norms. (155)
Bourdieu characterizes the sociological aim in
understanding the arts as follows:
It is a question of describing the gradual emergence
of the entire set of social conditions which make
possible the character of the artist as a producer
of the fetish which is the work of art. (152)
Accordingly, understanding the artist, his or her
message per se, is not here the goal. Rather,
as the field is constituted as such, it becomes
clear that the "subject" of the production of the
artwork - of its value but also of its meaning - is
not the producer who actually creates the object in
its materiality, but rather the entire set of agents
engaged in the field. (153)
While aesthetic consciousness emphasizes the unique
creativity of the individual artist and the
transformative power of his/her own subjectivity, the
critique of ideology emphasizes the primacy of political
and economic structures in the generation of meaning. As
Walter Benjamin (1936) wrote in his classic essay "The
Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction":

theses about the developmental tendencies of art

under present conditions of production....brush
aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as
creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery.
Cultural production, then, functions as an extension
of the forces of domination in society. Thus, the
interpretation of cultural texts as ideology i. e., as
means for maintaining and expanding dominant power
structures in society, holds primacy.
In Against the American Grain: Essays and Photo
Works 1973-1983 (1984), Allan Sekula became the first
American photographer-critic to set forth a cultural
critical approach to American photographic practice as an
explicitly ideological production. In an essay entitled
"On the Invention of Photographic Meaning," Sekula
observed :
The overwhelming majority of messages sent into the
public domain in advanced industrial society are
spoken with the voice of anonymous authority and
preclude the possibility of anything but
affirmation, (xii)
He held, too, that:
Taken literally, this traffic [in photographic
images] involves the social production, circulation,
and reception of photographs in a society based on
commodity production and exchange, (xv)
Jonathan Green in American Photography: A Critical
History 1945 to the Present (1984), writes that Sekula,

together with Sontag, "defined the critical center of the

seventies" (197). According to Green:
Their hard-hitting condemnations of photography's
inherent characteristics provided a new set of
parameters for "reading" photographs. To "read" a
photograph, as Minor White first demonstrated in
Aperture. meant to form connections between the
image and the actual world. "Reading" implied that
these connections were obscure and needed to be
explicated: photographic truth is not self-evident.
For Sekula and Sontag, however, the "context for
photographic 'reading' was neither the interior,
expressive life nor the life of forms; it was the
exterior political life." (198) Thus, according to
Green, their work was:
an attack on the formalist aesthetic, which had
buttressed the photographic canon, and on
photography as an instrument of class, property and
consumption. (195)
That aesthetic lay at the heart of John Szarkowski's
work. As Green writes:
In the sixties, Szarkowski shifted photography's
critical center by essentially refusing to "read"
the image. Not to read a photograph meant to leave
the image as a totally private, self-contained,
self-referential, formal system of meaning, a system
that was difficult to explicate or translate into
any other language. (197)
Indeed, it was the whole of modernism itself that Sekula
and Sontag rejected:
For Sontag and Sekula modernism - with its
ahistorical perspective and its tendency to subsume
any visual activity under the rubric of abstraction

- had distorted the social uses and social nature of

photography, hiding from both the photographer and
the viewer the essentially propagandistic and
exploitative character of the process. (196-7)
Sontag and Sekula criticized as well the cult of genius
inherent in modern aesthetics, naive assertions of
photographic objectivity, the emphasis upon photographic
ambiguity and the resulting disuse of narrative
approaches to interpreting images and "sought in their
place a more generous notion of human responsibility,
equality, community, and reality. (Green, 197)
While the impact of ideology critique can be seen in
the work of many photographic critics, historians and
commentators, only recently have its proponents begun to
produce scholarly monographs directed specifically toward
the ideological critique of photographic works. Two such
studies are John Tagg's The Burden of Representation:
Essays on Photographies and Histories (1988) and Maren
Stange's Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary
Photography in America. 1890-1950 (1989).

John Tagg^s
The Burden of Representation: Essays
on Photographies and Histories
Fundamental to Tagg's analysis is his assertion that
a radical distinction exists between the photograph and
the world which it purports to present objectively:

At every stage, chance effects, purposeful

interventions, choices and variations produce
meaning, whatever skill is applied and whatever
division of labour the process is subject to. This
is not the inflection of a prior (though
irretrievable) reality, as Barthes would have us
believe, but the production of a new and specific
reality, the photograph, which becomes meaningful in
certain transactions and has real effects, but which
cannot refer or be referred to a pre-photographic
reality as to a truth. (3)
This view is shared by a wide spectrum of
commentators. In the broadest sense, it is compatible
with aesthetic consciousness as well. So, too, is Tagg's
The projected image of these objects is focused,
cropped and distorted by the flat, rectangular plate
of the camera which owes its structure not to the
model of the eye, but to a particular theoretical
conception of the problems of representing space in
two dimensions. (3)
Like Szarkowski, then, Tagg notes the material
character of "photographic” vision. And, as opposed to
Arnheim, Tagg writes: "The photograph is not a magical
'emanation' but a material product of a material
apparatus set to work in specific contexts, by specific
forces, for more or less defined purposes." (3)
However, Tagg looks well beyond photographic and
aesthetic traditions in seeking the origin of this
difference between "what is there" and what we see
through photographic representation. As he argues: "we
have to see that every photograph is the result of

specific and, in every sense, significant distortions

which render its relation to any prior reality deeply
problematic." (2)
For Tagg, then, whose work is variously informed by
perspectives from Althusser to Foucault, the problematic
nature of the relation between the photograph and its
referent is the result of ideologies which develop and
maintain structures of domination and thus, constitute a
distorted relation between man and world. Indeed,
according to Tagg, the act of picturing, i.e. framing the
subject, is inherently an ideological imposition upon the
The projected image of these objects [i.e. the
referents of the photograph] is focussed, cropped
and distorted by the flat, rectangular plate of the
camera which owes its structure not to the model of
the eye, but to a particular theoretical conception
of the problems of representing space in two
dimensions. (3)
For Tagg, the photograph must be understood as an
artifact which reflects the institutional interests of a
dominant social order empowered in a certain historical
moment. Any attempt to understand the photograph apart
from such structures results in a failure to grasp its
meaning. Thus, he writes:
It will be a central argument of this book that what
Barthes calls "evidential force" is a complex
historical outcome and is exercised by photographs
only within certain institutional practices and

within particular historical relations, the

investigation of which will take us far from an
aesthetic or phenomenological context.... It is a
history which implies definite techniques and
procedures, concrete institutions, and specific
social relations - that is, relations of power. (4-
In "Currency of the Photograph: New Deal Reformism
and Documentary Rhetoric," Tagg attempts to demonstrate
the efficacy and value of an ideology critique as applied
in the interpretation of several well known F. S. A.
photographs. Tagg first discusses Lewis Mine's "Young
Couple" (1936) [Fig. 3], which he describes the image as
follows :
They are young, nice folks; clean, hair neatly
brushed; making a start....the personal jewellery,
the furnishings, the room or "home", their ankles
which seem to be touching (she supposedly needing
reassurance, he the sense of command), his bare arms
unmarked by labour, her stockingless legs, their
unglancing awareness of each other, scarcely
absorbed in their carefully divided but
inconsequential domestic pursuits (he doesn't read
for learning, she doesn't sew or knit) - these
things are so many moments, retrievable only with
difficulty, instated here as Mine's young couple:
the generation of the New Deal, healthy, leisured,
free from the factory, ignorant of child labour,
assembling the signifiers of family and home,
stabilizing society in its fundamental unity,
content, hopeful, shut in by the cupboard up against
the door. (186)
Tagg's sensitivity to revealing details in the image
is immediately apparent. At the same time, however, he
presupposes what he hopes to establish - namely that his
ideological reading is valid and exclusively so. Tagg

notes apparent contradictions in the photographic

presentation based upon his ideological reading:
Something is not right. Some flaw in the ensemble.
1936: seven years after the Wall Street Crash and a
year before the "Roosevelt Depression." The style
of the furniture undatable; perhaps second-hand.
The image unplaceable; perhaps Mine's "late period."
Unexpected. Unreliable. (186)
As a result, Tagg questions the apparent intentions
of the photographer. He asks:
Does Mine's personal disappointment cut across his
reformist script and its public, political enactment
a sudden movement of light over those few objects
and this closed stage? The flash that lit this image
and set the shadow of the standard lamp on the pale,
receptive surface of the wall beyond, revealed too
much and the pleasure of the ideology is spoilt.
Tagg asserts that interpretation begins with the
text, but the text appears to serve here to mirror the
ideological stance with which Tagg approached his
analysis. A key element in justifying this process is
the presumption that the photograph itself is severed
from a reality which it therefore cannot reasonably be
claimed to re-present. And since the photograph is an
ideological construction, Tagg finds it easy to move from
photograph to the photographer's intent. There is no
equivocation here, no consideration of other approaches.
Authoritative voice is presumed and no challenge

In his analyses of Russell Lee's "Hidalgo County,

Texas," (1939) and Jack Delano's "Union Point, Georgia"
(1941), Tagg emphasizes the necessity of interpreting the
image as a whole and the inter-relation of each element
within it, a characteristic shared with an aesthetic
approach. It is necessarily a part of any view of the
photograph as in some sense a statement or a presentation
of a point of view. His emphasis upon an ideological
reading of that whole, however, sets him apart from the
The photographs are dense with connotations, as
every detail-of flesh, clothes, posture, of fabric,
furniture and decoration-is brought, fully lit, to
the surface and presented. Just as we see each
detail within the meaning of the total photographic
image which they themselves compose, so we see every
object both singly and coming together to form an
ensemble: an apparently seamless ideological
structure called a home. (159) [emphasis added]
He explains the presence and function of ideology in
the photograph as follows:
On the one hand, the ideological construction put on
the objects and events concretises a general
mythical scheme by incorporating it in the reality
of these specific historical moments. At the same
time, however, the very conjuncture of the objects
and events and the mythical schema dehistoricises
the same objects and events by displacing the
ideological connection to the archetypal level of
the natural and universal in order to conceal its
specifically ideological nature. (160)

Figure 3. Lewis Hine, "Young Couple," 1936.


Compare his description with Janet Malcolm's

aesthetic commentary on the same Russell Lee photograph.
As Malcolm writes:
sitting in respectful symmetry around their
magnificent floor-model studio of Aztec modern
design, she sewing and he leafing through a magazine
(82). Over the enormous radio (which had taken the
place of the hearth in 1939, with people warming
themselves around its songs and comedies and
romances) hangs a machine-art tapestry printed on
black cloth and depicting a scene from a French
rococo court, with aristocrats in powdered wigs
graciously gathered about a harpsichord. The stout,
swarthy American woman's head is covered with a
black hairnet, to keep her pincurls in place, and
her stockingless feet are comfortably encased in
disreputable laceless shoes. The husband's right
sock has an enormous hole at the ankle, about which
he is equally unconcerned. This picture's life - its
"action" - comes out of the contrast between Art
Deco and life plain (and homely and poor), but its
irony is gentle and good humored. (159-60)
The details in Malcolm's description seem to bring
the picture to life as a narrative, something which
concerns Tagg secondarily, if at all. Tagg searches
below the surface of the picture for its hidden message,
dismissing all else as subterfuge. Malcolm, on the other
hand, provides no significant contextualization within
the history of the New Deal nor the communicative/
propagandistic efforts of the Farm Security
Administration. She sees the mind of the photographer as
preoccupied with art deco and the plain, homey and poor
life of the couple. Tagg, on the other hand, reduces the

photographer to a functionary with no apparent

independent intent.
Tagg describes ideological discourse as follows:
On the one hand, the ideological construction put on
the objects and events concretises a general
mythical scheme by incorporating it in the guality
of these specific historical moments. At the same
time, however, the very conjuncture of the objects
and events and the mythical schema dehistoricises
[sic] the same objects and events by displacing the
ideological connection to the archetypal level of
the natural and universal in order to conceal its
specifically ideological nature. What the mythic
schema gains in concreteness is paid for by a loss
of historical specificity on the part of the objects
and events. (159-60) [emphasis added]
More concretely, he writes:
If the discrepancies in these two photographed rooms
clearly signify that the difference between the two
is a difference of class. then it is equally clear
that the one has been realised within the dominant
form of the other and that this dominant form is an
ideological form constituted in the form of life and
by the realisation of the values, beliefs and modes
of thought of the dominant class. (161) [emphasis

In their interpretive efforts, Tagg and Malcolm both

utterly neglect to consider possible relevant evidence
from the project of which it forms a part. Both ignore
the corpus of Lee's FSA pictures and other traditional
historical resources, interviews, comments about the
photographs, immediate context, letters, and so on. Both
have seemingly total confidence in the truth-revealing
nature of their method. So much so that more traditional

Figure 4. Russell Lee, "Hidalgo County, Texas," 1939.


Figure 5. Jack Delano, "Union Point, Georgia," 1941.


canons of scholarship can be safely ignored. Tagg begins

above with "If the discrepancies in these two
photographed rooms clearly signify that the difference
between the two is a difference of class." but then
proceeds as if - once mentioned - it is self evidently
true that such is the case. For Tagg, presumably, the
other works of Lee are not relevant because it is the
ideological context that determines what is done, not the
individual photographer's effort or vision. Indeed, as
Chaney observes: "the fury of his analytic project means
that respect for the image is sacrificeable to more
abstract goals." (414-5) For Malcolm, the traditions of
art criticism demand the ability to read and understand
the individual picture as an expression of the artist's
Tagg interprets this picture, its objective meaning
with reference to only one other photograph. Jack
Delano's "Union Point, Georgia." Yet, the relation
between these photographs lies solely in the theory
proposed by Tagg. There is no historic connection
between them other than that which applies to hundreds of
thousands of F. S. A. photographs. Since the role of
this photographer is irrelevant, there is apparently no
reason to look at a context closer to its historic origin

as an interpretive aid e. g., the other works of Lee or

the works of Evans, the photographer whose work Lee most
admired. Why is it that this photograph, for example,
constitutes the context in which the Hidalgo County
picture should be read, rather than, for example, the
larger body of photographs made by Lee in Hidalgo County
and indeed, Russell Lee's FSÀ photographs in general.
Even a cursory examination of Lee's photographic
corpus of the FSA years shows a distinct penchant for
capturing the humorous and the anecdotal, many of which
had little or no obvious relation with Lee's official
assignment. Looking to the larger corpus of Lee's FSA
work, there is reason to note a humorous or ironic tone,
as in "Donaldson, Louisiana, 1938," a photograph of a
psychic reader; "Iron River, Michigan, 1937" where a sign
reading "choice farm land for sale" stands before a
severe, weathered and dry landscape; "Hobbs, New Mexico,
1940" where a movie poster for "White Zombie" stands over
wooden signs for two fundamentalist churches, an oil
lease sign on dry rocky ground with housing in the far
background. Yet, the humor expresses never moves to the
point of sarcasm nor overwhelms his straightforward
humanity, his concern for the well being of his subjects
and their plight and their worth as human beings. All of

his subjects are presented as full beings, dignified,

even reverently, presented. In another photograph
entitled "Hidalgo Texas, 1939," where a severely
modernized kitchen dominates the frame, a strangely white
- even immaculate - kitchen with an overall scattering of
sguare black hinges for every door, and nothing to
suggest "home" no food-stuffs, kitchen utensils, counters
empty, there stands a young woman, lacking an apron or
any other suggestion of the actual housework of life,
stands in the lower right corner. But interestingly, in
this almost surreal image, the woman is turned so that we
don't see her face. She is not personal for us. In
contrast, his typically straight-forward, simple
presentation of his subjects, which Tagg sees as an
ideological vantagepoint, seems to emphasize the dignity
and the humanity of his subjects, as in "New Madrid
County, Missouri, 1938"; "Robstown, Texas, 1939"; "Tipler
Wisconsin, 1937"; "Weslaco, Texas, 1939" and the intimate
"Vale Oregon, 1941."
There is as well something of the human comedy in
Lee's pictures of the middle classes. Such pictures as
"San Angelo, Texas, 1940," his four pictures entitled
"San Augustine Texas, 1939" all have an element of humor
in them. Perhaps they stand in such sharp relief to

those of his others where poverty and dignity seem to go

hand in hand and where the plight of children seems to
dominate so strongly. (See, for example, Christmas
Dinner, Smithfield, Iowa, 1936.) The working poor, too,
receive an empathic reading by Lee, as of course, did his
urban black's pictures from Chicago in 1941 under Ed
Rosskam for the Richard Wright book Twelve Million Black
All of the above bring into question the
interpretations of Malcolm and Tagg. In the case of any
given photograph, what would serve as disproof of similar
interpretations? By analyzing what photographs, could
Tagg not argue that it was similarly an ideological
construction? What photograph could be shown not to be
an aesthetic construction or a comment about aesthetic
Still, Tagg's critique of ideology perspective
points to the fundamental importance of the institutional
function of the photograph in understanding how we see
the image. Tagg writes, there is a "power to bestow
authority and privilege on photographic representations"
held by "certain ideological apparatuses, such as
scientific establishment, government departments, the
police and law courts." (160)

Indeed, for Tagg, the photograph is reducible to its

ideological content and function:
What I am trying to stress here is the absolute
continuity of the photographs' ideological existence
with their existence as material objects whose
"currency" and "value" arise in certain distinct and
historically specific social practices and are
ultimately a function of the state. [emphasis added]
Thus, for Tagg, the true meaning of the photograph can be
read objectively. "The" message of the photograph can be
determined. His reading is not simply a reading,
produced in interaction between the photograph and the
viewer, but the meaning actually there, residing in the
image itself, discerned by the vision of the
authoritative interpreter. In spite of their sharply
divergent readings, this faith is basic to Malcolm's
aesthetic approach as well.
Tagg holds that through "Photographs and
photographic practice":
the internal stability of a society is preserved at
one level through the naturalisation of beliefs and
practices which are, on the contrary, historically
produced and historically specific. It is in this
light that we must see photographs and the various
practices of photography. (164-5) [emphasis added]
And it is only in this light for not to do so defeats the
totalizing nature of the ideology critique.
In discussing Lewis Mine's "Cotton Mill Worker"
(1912), Tagg holds that the frontal pose employed by Hine

is a manifestation of its class content, and not an

indication of an "unprecedented systematic power and a
new kind of aesthetic consciousness" developed by Hine,
as maintained by Valerie Lloyd. (193) According to
Valerie Lloyd argues that Hine transformed
accepted notions of what constituted a "picture,"
drawing on the mode of the traditional commercial
photographer, to produce images of an unprecedented
systematic power and a new kind of aesthetic
consciousness. What Lloyd misses is the class
content of the frontal, symmetrically posed picture.
This is an excellent example of a direct clash
between aesthetic consciousness and the critique of
ideology. Tagg again assumes the nearly absolute
priority of structures of domination as key to
understanding individual behavior and its apparent
In opposition to the objectivist emphasis upon
the evidential nature of the photograph, Tagg holds
that Mine's belief in the empirical proof supplied by
photographs is naive. According to Tagg:
He [Hine] saw the camera as a means to "vivify"
empirical, scientific facts; to flesh them out, to
prove them. The camera, for Hine, was fundamentally
a source of truth. The photograph was an unmediated
reflection of the world "outside," a true record of
the subject stood before it. (195)

Maren Stange
Symbols of Ideal Life:
Social Documentary Photography
in America. 1890-1950.
In Symbols of the Ideal Life, a much more rigorously
researched and self-consciously historical work, Maren
Stange writes: "My argument proposes that documentary, a
central mode of communication, has assisted the liberal
corporate state to manage not only our politics but also
our esthetics and our art." (xy) Stange characterizes
her work as concerned not with the images produced for
reform purposes by Riis, Hine, the FSÀ photographers and
others, but with "the dissemination of photographs as
reform publicity, [which]...giyes attention to the work
of the editors, text writers, and organizers who
presented the photographs in the lantern slide lectures,
exhibitions, pamphlets, magazines, and books where they
appeared." (xiy)
According to Stange:
[for] the sponsor and the audience of the
documentary exhibition or publication, the
photograph necessarily took on meaning within a
particular rhetorical framework created by its
interaction with caption, text, and agency, eyen
though the photographer and his or her subject did
not always intend such a meaning or share its
ideology, (xiy)
Not the photograph alone, then, but the image set in
relation to a written caption, an associated text,
and a presenting agency (such as the reform

organization or, later the museum) constituted the

documentary mode shaped by these men. (xiv)
Here, the classification of a photograph as documentary
comes to depend upon the context in which it is presented
rather than on the intrinsic properties of the photograph
itself. Indeed, it seems difficult to maintain that
"documentary photography" refers to a particular style or
approach to a specific subject matter. Stange's thesis
that the photographer's communicative intent and the
integrity and communicative value of the photograph can
be completely overwhelmed by the overall context in which
it ultimately reaches a public suggests that the
documentary photograph may well have no intrinsic
communicative value and thus, the notion of documentary
photography itself becomes problematic.
What James Curtis (1989) calls the revisionist
character of Stange's thesis becomes fully evident in the
next stage of her argument. She holds, quite unlike
Tagg, that :
Even during the FSA, the subjects and experiences
documented by photographers were often more
subversive, their implications more radical, than
any message they conveyed under the auspices of an
increasingly technocratic and professionalized
reform movement, (xv)
Stange undertakes substantial historical research. She
examines her subjects, particularly their writings,
correspondence and photographic corpus, to obtain a

Figure 6. Lewis Hine, "Cotton Mill Worker," 1912.


better sense of their expressed understanding of the

photographs they created. Jonathan Green's critique of

Sontag and Sekula, that "Photography is conceived to be
not the discovery of truth but the elaboration of
doctrines already known" is less applicable to Stange.
(201 )

Stange provides a strikingly different perspective

on Mine's work. She describes his photographic practice
as follows:
Mine's masterful and controlled camera practice
presented a concatenation of social and human
meaning - a content specific to the working class -
that was, and remains, rich and complex. (86)
According to Stange, the problem does not lie in Mine's
work, but in the context in which it was used. She
writes :
Mine's work, like the other particularities that set
forth workers' humanity, politics, and autonomy from
reform apparatus, was ultimately denied in favor of
the ideal of a neutral reform community of business
leaders and experts, excluding workers. Mine's
belief in the authority of exact information about
people was, inevitably, fragile. It verged on the
subversive, and it was overridden by the powerful
ambitions implicit in survey ideology. (86)
This diverges sharply from Tagg's argument that Mine's
views were naive. According to Stange, the
"ideologization" of Mine's work took place as follows:
The survey linked the documentary photographic style
to the ever-increasing cultural authority of social
expertise, and it collaborated with corporate

capitalism by providing a theory of benign social

engineering that helped to mask the facts of class
exploitation. (86-7)
She argues that nine's straight-forward style,
which, according to Tagg, signified the assumed
superiority of the middle class observer, in fact
directly contradicts the ideological content of the texts
which freguently accompanied the photographs. She finds
that their "formal complexity as well as radical content
were suppressed in the pictures that became popular."
Stange describes two of nine's photographs: "Ready
for a not Job," and "Between Spells" (1907/08), as
follows :
They are calmly posing in their work clothes.... the
very pride nine's photograph inscribes in their
faces and their poses utterly denies the pitiable
condition that Fitch's text ascribes to these
workers. Fitch's prose, detailing workplace
oppression and its effects extending throughout
workers' lives, is undercut by nine's images
displaying the workers' personal self-assurance and
pride. (80)
Stange's method of interpretation is based on a
dialectical reading of text and picture. She writes:
To make sense of the documentary instance offered
here reguires that we bring to bear a mode of
perception that, placing the text and image in
dialectical relation, allows them meaning and
significance not only in themselves, but also in and
from the very process of opposing each other. (80-
81 )

Based on her readings, Stange offers a


Figure 7. Figure 8.
"Ready for a Hot Job" "Between Spells"
(1907) (1908)

characterization of Mine's work:

Mine practiced an insistently interrogatory and
self-reflexive camera work....he created documentary
that included in its revelation of social fact an
acknowledgement not only of its own constructed
rather than transparent nature, but also of the
multiple meanings of reform, (xv-xvi)
Stange draws similar conclusions regarding the FSA
project. She notes the role of Rexford Guy Tugwell
(Director of the Resettlement Agency) and his impact on
diversifying and even undermining the project's agenda.
So too, she writes of the photographers who worked on the
project, and who, according to Stange, looked to the non-
compliant Walker Evans as the greatest among them.
Stange sees the photographers and some of the agency
staff undermining of entire effort. She concludes:
The project stands today as a compelling and
enduring monument to the cultural prestige of
liberal reformers; but the acclaim it is granted
reveals the extent to which central institutions and
communications modes have diminished the authority
of artistic and political perceptions and installed
in their place the devalued currency of instrumental
discourse. (130-1)

From History To Hermeneutics

The critique of ideology addresses some of the
critical lacunae in modern aesthetics. What, after all,
is the relation between the artist and the society of
which he or she is a part? How does art function within
society? What is the relationship between art, its

sponsoring institutions and its audiences? Indeed, who

defines art? And by what standard? Critique of ideology
provides a theory which addresses each of these issues in
a coherent and productive manner. The great danger,
however, is that it is so compelling that its mere
existence is taken by some as adequate proof of its
veracity. Rooted in critical theory, Marxism and often
informed by psychoanalysis the critique of ideology is
founded on a moral mandate combined with a peculiarly
modern sense of the possible. Its future orientation
naturally appeals to many with keen observational skills,
a strong sense of purpose, a high level of commitment and
a belief in the their own powers of universally
applicable, critical reason.
In reviewing Stange's thesis, photographic historian
Naomi Rosenblum (1990) agrees that "documentary style in
photography was perverted by its being embraced by media
and museum establishments." (181) Yet, she questions
Stange's contention that media giants such as Life and
Look dominated their readers' interpretations of
photographs as much as Stange suggests. As Rosenblum
argues: "even such generalized imagery may have had an
impact other than merely 'to conciliate public opinion.'"
(129) Rosenblum questions too the implicit culture of

expertise assumed by Stange and wonders if the

"subversive" nature of Mine's photographs and those of
others was not also apparent to previous viewers. For
Rosenblum, Stange over-estimates the totalizing power of
the structures of domination over all "readings" and
underestimates the communicative power of the photograph
itself - an observation similar to Chaney's critique of
Tagg above.
Rosenblum's critique, of Stange's work raises perhaps
the most critical issue: what constitutes "history" and
historical knowledge? What is the relation between
history, the historian's craft and theory? By what
standard do we judge the adequacy of interpretations of
historical documents and texts, such as photographs?
In Documenting America: 1935 to 1943 (1988),
American cultural historian Lawrence Levine observes:
That the photographs from Stryker's [F. S. A.]
section are filled with...tensions and ambiguities
is a clue to their essential soundness as guides for
the historian. (22)
Levine criticizes those contemporary historians who's
interpretation provides "a closed universe whose
inhabitants act according to a predetermined script."
As he notes :
The poor and the weak, who were treated like ciphers
by the more powerful during their lives, would
hardly be surprised to find themselves being treated

like ciphers by scholars long after their deaths.

According to Levine, "Historians....must recognize their
[subject's] humanity, search for their points of view,
respect their complexity." (23) Opposing what he terms
"the sustained search for the ideal" (23), Levine
argues :
The importance of the photograph is precisely this:
it can freeze conflicting realities, ambiguities,
paradoxes, so that we can see them, examine them,
recognize the larger, more complex, and often less
palatable truths they direct us to. (24)
Thus, for Levine, it is not the ease with which a
photograph can be read according to some predetermined
theory, but its resistance to such a reading, its
challenge issued to the interpreter to come away from the
encounter with a changed world. Accordingly, he argues:
What needs to be remarked upon is the extent to
which the most widely known photographs-as well as
many of the creations of the other most popular
iconographic form of the period, the movie- went
beyond comfortable consensus to show crisis and
breakdown. What is equally important is the extent
to which the photographers were able to rise beyond
a simplistic rendering of their ideological concerns
to create a record of those aspects of American life
and culture that were generally ignored or
downgraded by most cultural and artistic agencies.
Countering strong trends in both aesthetic theory and the
critique of ideology, Levine writes:
Photographs, then, are a source that needs to be
interpreted and supplemented by other evidence.

They are incomplete, as historical sources always

are. (30)
And further:
Roy Stryker observed that "the work we did can be
appreciated only when the collection is considered
as a whole. The total volume, and its staggering
volume, has a richness and distinction that simply
cannot be drawn from the individual pictures
themselves." (30)
For Levine, then, the truth of the document lies in
its ability to rise above and challenge any simplistic
theory. History is inherently complex. We must, as
Levine writes, use "insight and sensitivity" (40) in
interpreting photographs.
Even so, as Alan Trachtenberg notes in his recent
Reading American Photographs: Images as History - Matthew
Brady to Walker Evans:
the relation between images and imputed meanings is
fraught with uncertainties, for, like opaque facts,
images cannot be trapped readily within a simple
explanation or interpretation. They have a life of
their own which often resists the efforts of
photographers and viewers (or readers) to hold them
down as fixed meanings, (xv)
Granted such difficulties, how can we make sense of
photographs? By what principle do we organize what we
There is a deeper issue here as well, namely the
underlying assumption of the historian's objective
relation to the past, the belief that "a" reading can
function as the authoritative reading of a document. It

is here perhaps most directly that Stange's approach to

interpretation falls into the modern perspective along
with other exponents of the critique of ideology. It is
here as well, that hermeneutics challenges the model of
objectivist understanding basic to critique of ideology,
modern aesthetics and photographic objectivity as well.
Trachtenberg cites approvingly the view of Siegfried
Kracauer (1969), who wrote:
facts must be made intelligible, must be given an
order and a meaning which does not crush their
autonomy as facts. The historian's [and all
understanding is historical] task resembles the
photographer's; how to make the random, fragmentary,
and accidental details of everyday existence
meaningful without loss of the details themselves,
without sacrifice of concrete particulars on the
altar of abstraction, (xiv)
He added "Both seek a balance between "reproduction
and construction," and "between passive surrender to the
facts and active reshaping of them into a coherent
picture or story." (xiv)
Kracauer proposed that the historian must reshape
the facts of history into a coherent whole. Yet, what
constitutes a "coherent" picture or story, and what is
its relation to what must be, in part, the random nature
of events? If coherence is the essence of history, that
which makes understanding possible, then what do we

really understand when we speak of history? To what

"truth" does history give expression?
Jack Hexter, too, has raised the issue of
objectivity in the historian craft. In his classic text
Doing History (1971), Hexter characterized the way in
which historians make these basic and most important
choices :
They [historians] tend to ascribe their general
aptitude for making better rather than worse choices
to "knowing the ropes" and "having been around a
long time in this period." In effect, the knowledge
that a historian relies on for a very considerable
part of his work is experiential and results from a
long and extensive familiarity with the historical
record. (25)
Hexter describes a practice in which values and
judgments rely upon unknown or unexplained rules,
traditions and insights and so necessarily defy any
attempt to transform history into a science.
In recent years, a number of historians, including
Hexter, have systematically begun to address the
guestion: how do historians make sense of historical
facts, events and texts? Francois Furet, noted French
historian specializing in early modern and revolutionary
France, notes in In the Workshop of History (1984):
"Interpretation more often than not involves hypotheses
that are not proven or not provable." (66-67) He argues

that narrative necessarily constitutes the overall

framework of the interpretive task and that:
an event, if considered in isolation, is
unintelligible. It is like a pebble picked on a
beach-meaningless. For it to acquire significance,
it must be integrated into a pattern of other
events, in relation to which it will become
meaningful. That is the function of narrative. (55)
Similarly, Paul E. Corcoran, a social and cultural
historian specializing in nineteenth century Europe,
writes in Cultural History (1989):
Our language cannot prevent an indulgence in the
mythical conceit that history has shape and purpose,
and is even somehow a reflection, however distorted,
of the hopes and sorrows of human life. We are
intelligent enough to know, of course, that this is
not really true, or cannot be held to be true. Yet
history, as the very word implies, is a story that
cannot be deprived of its fictive elements.
Yet, as creators of story, and meaning proceeds from
story, we must always already inhabit stories in order to
have a place from which to begin. Stories so inhabited
precede and constitute the ultimate "ground" of
understanding itself. These observations lead inexorably
to hermeneutics for, as H. G. Gadamer writes in Truth and
What distinguishes the process of refining
hermeneutic practice from acquiring a mere
technique, whether it is called social technology or
critical method, is that in hermeneutics history
codetermines the consciousness of the person who
understands. (567)

From a hermeneutically informed stance, we do not

interpret facts by placing them within a story because it
is only through story or narrative that we see the world
in the first place. The facts which we make meaningful
through narrative are already part of a narrative before
we see them as facts. As Paul Ricoeur (1981) observes:
the explanatory procedures of scientific history
cannot replace a prior narrative but function in
conjunction with it, insofar as they are grafted
onto its configurational structure. (280)
And, more simply:
We belong to history before telling stories or
writing history. (294)
At the 1985 American Historical Association
convention in New York City, where Hexter and others were
invited to speak on the role of interpretation in
historical research, Robert W. Fogel, founder of
Cliometrics - a guantitative approach to historical
research - lamented the inescapability of interpretation
in the historian's task:
It is in the area of interpretation that the role of
the scientific methods is weakest. Interpretation
is based on rigorously established scientific facts,
but no matter how scientific the work on those
facts, the interpretation itself probably doesn't
deserve a more honorific title than merely the
historian's vision. Such interpretations are bound
to be value ridden. (Winkler, 11)
From the vantage point of hermeneutics, however, to
lament interpretation is to lament the doing of history

itself. For it is only in the realm of meaning for the

present that the study of history has value. The doing
of history enlarges the horizon of the present. Ricoeur
writes :
to recognize the values of the past in their
differences with respect to our values is already to
open up the real towards the possible. The "true"
histories of the past uncover the buried
potentialities of the present. (295)
For hermeneutics, historical understanding serves as
model for all understanding in the humanities and social
sciences. We are all not only in history but at a
historical distance from all others. Indeed, in our
efforts at self-understanding as well, we are always at
such a distance from ourselves. Thus, our attempts to
understand texts and other forms of communication are
forms of historical understanding as well. In order to
understand photographs, then, we must first explore what
it means to "belong to history."


I realized in looking at his photos that by looking

at things aesthetically, just as much as by looking
at things moralistically, or pragmatically, we are
destroying their value, their significance....The
object and the vision are one.
-Henry Miller, on Brassai's Paris de Nuit
(Newhall, 1989)
Reading is not just a matter of standing safely
outside texts, where their power cannot reach us.
It is a matter of entering, of passing through the
looking glass and seeing ourselves on the other
-Daniel Cottom, Text and Culture:
The Politics of Interpretation (1989)

Philosophical hermeneutics, like the critigue of

ideology, is fundamentally concerned with what Gadamer
describes as "the increasing unfreedom...that is
beginning to characterize modern society." (188)
Gadamer, however, rejects the universalistic claims of
the critique of ideology. Indeed, it is in large part
the increased rationalization of the modern era along

with its faith in science and technology that

hermeneutics holds accountable for closing off cultural
resources necessary for value and meaning in human life.
At the same time, like aesthetic consciousness,
hermeneutics finds in the arts a continuing potential for
transforming society and opening it to ever new
possibilities of change. Yet, like proponents of
conceptual art as well, it rejects the separation of art
and from knowledge characteristic of modern aesthetic
consciousness along with its cult of genius, the
fetishistic devotion to the art object "as object," and
art's accompanying separation from everyday life.
Indeed, for hermeneutics, the purpose of the art object
is always ultimately to disappear into language where its
transformative power will be most broadly felt.
Then, too, like those who hold that a photograph is
an inherently objective medium, hermeneutics places
primacy on the document itself and ties it meaningfully
and essentially to the outside world. Yet, it recognizes
that in the world of practical reason, all human activity
is meaningful only in relation to man's "world view"
which is based in his everyday practical relations with
the world as he perceives it to be, not as it is in
itself. In the world of man's day to day living, the

doctrine of "objectivity" brings about more confusion

than enlightenment.
Unlike any of the above, then, hermeneutics
recognizes above all that as historical being, the very
notion of objectivity in practical life is self­
contradictory. It is precisely because what we perceive
and do is not objective that it has meaning for us and
contributes to our construction of a world, an always
necessary and always incomplete horizon through which we
orient ourselves in the world.
Moreover, it is precisely this contrast between the
subjective and the objective that is at the root of the
inherent conflict between each of these modes of
understanding the nature and role of photographs as human
artifacts. It is this that lies at the core of the
modern conception of method as the avenue to objective
knowledge in the human sciences. Yet, photographs cannot
be egually and objectively: 1) objective representations
of "reality," 2) expressive, original, aesthetic
creations of individual or even corporate artistic genius
and insight, and 3) ideological constructs which serve to
lull society into false consciousness and thus persuade
people to ignore their own true interests.

At root, here, is the fundamental failure to

understand the full implications of what it means for man
to be a historical being. In his classic text Truth and
Method. Hans Georg Gadamer holds that it is always and
only in history i.e., as historical beings, that we
experience any form of understanding. Accordingly:
Real historical thinking must take account of its
own historicity. Only then will it cease to chase
the phantom of a historical object that is the
object of progressive research, and learn to view
the object as the counterpart of itself and hence
understand both. (299)
Underlying the nineteenth and twentieth century
separation of being and knowledge, of subject and object,
lies a failure to take seriously the radically historical
character of human being. Each of us can understand only
from our own situatedness in time and place. Thus, all
understanding is radically historical and all knowledge
is interpretive, i.e. understood from the vantage point
of and in relation to one's own concrete historical
situation. (104)
Gadamer claims that philosophical hermeneutics is
the true heir to Kant's "practical reason." For Gadamer,
it is the lack of "practical reason" that lies at the
heart of the failure of modern philosophy and culture - a
failure of the search for objective knowledge and
material advancement to result in a more humane and

"enlightened" civilization. As Richard J. Bernstein

writes :
According to Gadamer, there has been a forgetfulness
and deformation of what praxis really is. He
characterizes our world as one in which there has
been a "domination of technology based on science,"
a "false idolatry of the expert," a "scientific
mystification of the modern society of
specialization," and a dangerous "inner longing in
our society to find in science a substitute for lost
orientations." (93)
Indeed, in an 1985 interview with Boyne, Gadamer argues:
the "chief task" of philosophical hermeneutics is to
"correct the peculiar falsehood of modern
consciousness" and "defend practical and political
reason against the domination of technology based on
science." It is in this sense that "hermeneutic
philosophy" is the heir of the older tradition of
practical philosophy. (95)
Following the lead of M. Heidegger, Gadamer turned
to a rethinking of what had been left behind in the rush
toward the peculiarly "modern":
For my own hermeneutic theory-building, I therefore
became convinced that we had once again to take up
this Socratic legacy of a human wisdom that is
ignorance itself when measured against the divine
infallibility of what is known by science. (TM, 183)
According to Gadamer, "To this end, the practical
philosophy developed by Aristotle can serve as a model."
As he writes:
Aristotle shows that practical reason and practical
insight do not possess the "teachability" of science
but rather win their possibility in praxis itself,
and that means in the inner linkage to ethics. (TM,

Here, for Gadamer, lies the missing link between thought

and action which had been lost in the move to the modern.
He writes; "...authentic not detached
from the interpreter but constitutive of his or her
praxis." (TM, 91) Like Bellah, et al, who write:
If we, too, have had to find a new way to deal with
new realities, we have done so not by imagining that
with us a truly scientific social science has at
last arrived but by consciously trying to renew an
older conception of social science, one in which the
boundary between social science and philosophy was
still open. (297-8)
Gadamer speaks of a return to the practical knowledge
lost to a culture of expertise;
Yes, if human wisdom were such that it could pass
from one to the other as water can be led from one
vessel to another over a strand of wool....
(Symposium, 175d) But this is not the way of human
wisdom. A knowledge of our own ignorance is what
human wisdom is. The other person with whom
Socrates carries on his conversation is convicted of
his own ignorance by means of his "knowledge." (TM,
In other words, for Gadamer, it is the certainty of
methodologically derived knowledge and its confident
distinction between objective and subjective knowledge
that convicts us today of ignorance.
The goal of philosophical hermeneutics, then, is not
an all-inclusive, world dominating knowledge. Indeed, as
Gadamer writes, "Totality is not an object, but the world
horizon that embraces us." (PA, 190) Thus;

A full set of experiences, meetings, instructions,

and disappointments do not conjoin in the end to
mean that one knows everything, but rather that one
is aware and has learned a degree of modesty. (TM,
The way to understanding, for Gadamer, then, is not
through learning a certain set of rules, a method or
technigue. Rather, understanding is always established
in praxis. And it comes into existence as "meaning” only
through a dialectical and dialogical encounter with
others. Indeed, understanding is the always incomplete
result of critical appropriation:
Dialectic is the art of carrying on a conversation,
and this includes the conversation with oneself and
the following out of the agreement reached with
oneself. That is the art of thinking. But this is
an art of raising guestions about what one actually
intends with what one thinks and says. (TM, 186)
Contrary to the nineteenth and twentieth century
separation of being and knowledge, of subject and object,
Gadamer writes: "all understanding involves appropriation
to our own concrete historical situation." (TM, 104)
Each of us can understand only from our own situatedness
in time and place. There is no escaping history. Thus,
for hermeneutics, all understanding is radically
historical and all knowledge is interpretive, i.e.
understood from the vantage point of and in relation to
one's own concrete historical situation.

Structures of human thought and experience, then,

including what we term scientific, "objective” knowledge
are limited by the historical character of understanding.
There are no supra-historical methodologies and all
knowledge is ultimately uncertain and open to continuous
Thus, philosophical hermeneutics rejects the
absolute dichotomy between subject and object basic to
modern, "objective" methodological consciousness. It
argues that the presumed split between subjective and
objective knowledge is itself grounded in a failure to
comprehend the radical embeddedness of our historical
being, the "situatedness" of all understanding and the
realization that all understanding is interpretation
within history.
And breaking sharply with the modern identity of
self as reflective self-consciousness, Gadamer holds
that: "the prejudices of the individual, far more than
his judgements, constitute the historical reality of his
being." (TM, 277) As Gadamer writes:
Prejudices are not necessarily unjustified and
erroneous, so that they inevitably distort the
truth. In fact, the historicity of our existence
entails that prejudices, in the literal sense of the
word, constitute the initial directedness of our
whole ability to experience. (TM, 89-90)

According to Gadamer, language, provides the

"condition of the possibility for understanding."
Language has performed in advance the abstraction
that is, as such, the task of conceptual analysis.
Now thinking need only make use of this advance
achievement. (TM, 103)
Thus, our understanding at any given moment is
conditioned by what "prejudices" we bring to it, for that
is ultimately what we are at any moment, and the future
we anticipate is based upon those prejudices. As Gadamer
writes :
there is one prejudice of the enlightenment that is
essential to it: the fundamental prejudice of the
enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice
itself, which deprives tradition of its power. (TM,
According to Gadamer, then: ^
this recognition that all understanding inevitably
involves some prejudice gives the hermeneutical
problem its real thrust. (TM, 239)
For hermeneutics, then, it is our "prejudices" that
provide us with a ground within which we can "understand"
anything at all. And the sum of these prejudices lies in
what Gadamer terms "tradition." As he writes:
Tradition is always and only that from which we have
no distance. The authority that we critigue is
never our authority, speaking from our tradition.
Our tradition, our authority, is that by which we
critique it. (TM, 186)

Thus, as Warnke writes: "Our interpretations are not our

interpretations alone but have historical roots." (90)
Gadamer warns against a static conception of "tradition:"
Tradition is not simply a permanent precondition;
rather, we produce it ourselves inasmuch as we
understand, participate in the evolution of
tradition, and hence further determine it ourselves.
Indeed, in the process of the "fusion of horizons"^ that
constitutes understanding, tradition is continuously
being created and altered. (306) "It is only through the
dialogical encounter with what is handed down to us that
we can test and risk our prejudices." (90)

The Hermeneutic Critique of

the Critique of Ideology
According to Gadamer, then, critical reflection
cannot lead to a legitimate undermining of authority on
grounds independent of one's prejudices. Rather, it
leads to a dogmatic acceptance of authority because it is
based on insight into the influence of historical
prejudices and hence an understanding that judgments
against authority are always fallible. At the same time,
as Warnke writes: "Gadamer has warned us against
deifying tradition and thinking that it is something
simply given." (98) And she adds:
tradition is not a seamless whole. There are
conflicting traditions making conflicting claims of

truth upon us. If we take our own historicity

seriously, then the challenge that always confronts
us is to give the best possible reasons and
arguments that are appropriate to our hermeneutical
situation in order to validate claims to truth. (98)
From a hermeneutic standpoint, the presumption of
methodological primacy constitutes the fundamental error
underlying the critique of ideology approach. In
Philosophical Apprenticeships. Gadamer recounts:
The concept of reflection that lies at the heart of
the critique of ideology implies an abstract concept
of coercion-free discourse, one that loses sight of
the authentic conditions of human praxis. (184)
Hermeneutics asserts that we always accept more of
tradition than we acknowledge, and thus, no method is
self-grounding. Historical traditions are the typically
unacknowledged ground of every point of view. Similarly,
critical distance, basic to ideology critique,
constitutes a moment in the process of understanding and
is not complete in itself. It requires a prior and
unstated belongingness, a place from which to speak.
Hermeneutics, then, opens reflection to the radical
nature of history and contextualizes and limits the
claims of critical distance. Indeed, the tradition
acknowledged as "tradition" through critical distance is
inherently not.
Like modernity itself, the critique of ideology is
primarily "future" oriented. As Ricoeur notes:

In contrast to the positive assessment by

hermeneutics, the theory of ideology adopts a
suspicious approach, seeing tradition as merely the
systematically distorted expression of communication
under unacknowledged conditions of violence. (301)
The critique of ideology pursues a mode of communication
free of [or at a minimum, moving toward freedom from] the
patterns of dominance that have been and remain
characteristic of human social existence. In
Philosophical Apprenticeships. Gadamer notes that
hermeneutics rejects:
this abstract concept of coercion free
discourse... as an illegitimate transference of the
therapeutic situation of psychoanalysis. In the
field of practical reason, there is no analogy to
the knowing analyst who can guide the productive,
reflective achievement of the analysand. (184)
For Gadamer, the critique of ideology radically
over-estimates the revelatory power of its rational
critique. Only in this way can it claim to be a method
for movement toward radical - and in the view of
Hermeneutics, an ahistorical/utopian - freedom. As
Gadamer writes, ideology critique does "not give a
sufficient accounting for the ideological implications of
...[its] own Ideology Critique." (PA, 177)
The critique of ideology, then, sees tradition as a
systematically distorted expression of communication
which exists under unacknowledged conditions of violence

and which must be overcome through an explication of

those conditions. Hermeneutics, however, holds that
understanding - which is presupposed and logically prior
to any critical stance - reguires a continuous re-
encounter with the past as the ground through which we
"create” our world. It looks to the past as the
necessary and always present ground for re-creative
integration into new and unfolding possibilities of
meaning. Here, the possibility of any future is
dependent upon continually re-encountering and critically
re-appropriating traditions, bringing them into our
conscious awareness and in so doing, challenging those
values and beliefs from which we otherwise have no
distance. In this way, we create our world anew.

The Hermeneutic
Critique of Aesthetic Consciousness
The key to the hermeneutic critique of aesthetic
consciousness is the primacy of the ontological
relationship between the photographic picture or
photographic work and its referent. While hermeneutics
holds that each interpretation is always a mediation in
history and thus, is always an interpretation for us, it
holds as well that all interpretation must ultimately be
brought back to the thing itself. Thus, the aesthetic

ultimately produces knowledge about the world. As

Gadamer writes, "The picture contains an indissoluble
connection with its world." (TM, 144) Indeed:
To be fixed in a picture, addressed in a poem, to be
the object of an allusion from the stage, are not
incidental and remote from what the thing
essentially is; they are presentations of the
essence itself. (TM, 147)
Thus, it is only as a result of being pictured
that the referent comes into being as "referent" and
thus, as a meaningful coherent unity. The referent is
defined, even constituted, in and through picturing.
Accordingly, Gadamer continues:
Every such presentation is an ontological event and
occupies the same ontological level as what is
represented.... The content of the picture itself is
ontologically defined as an emanation of the
original. (TM, 140)
Thus, pictures constitute a presentation of "the"
world as "a" world. Yet, a picture stands apart from its
referent as a "new being." This, of course, is most
apparent in the photograph where a "scene" is composed
from an otherwise apparently chaotic landscape or a peak
moment in an exchange is captured and magnified through
tight framing, but it is just as true where the
photograph displays a singular object in a way that
suggests a similar unity of vision - a visual coherence.
Pictures, then, do not lead us back to the object

"as it is." Still, they are defined as "emanations" of

their referents. "The" world always transcending any
world is also ground of every possible world. Every
meaning is inextricably bound to it and ultimately,
derived from it. Thus, the relationship between pictures
and their objects has primacy over any role played by
artist or photographer, even though the latter bring them
into being. Indeed, "Only if we 'recognize' what is
represented are we able to 'read' a picture.' In fact,
that is what ultimately makes it a picture." (TM, 91)
Still, unlike the sign, a picture represents
"through itself, through the increment of meaning that it
brings." (TM, 154) As Gadamer concludes: "this means
that in it what is represented - the "original" is there
more fully, more genuinely, just as it truly is." (TM,
Nonetheless, "the picture has its own being." (TM,
140) It is not merely a re-presentation of its object.
There is no free access, then, no unmediated entrance to
a world "out there." Such a world would be without
meaning, incomprehensible - that which a picture
(pictorial or textual), by definition, cannot be. "The
world," then, is known only through an encounter that not
only discovers it, but which has already established it

as "the world" before that discovery. The world is never

"seen" except in our encounter with it. It is not the
world that we encounter in the photograph. Rather, the
photograph constitutes a world and only through it is
that world accessible. At the same time, the photograph
instantiates that which we take as "the world," that
which constitutes our horizon and exists only beyond our
conscious awareness. In so doing, that world changes and
becomes open to challenge and change. As Gadamer writes:
The appeal to immediacy, to the instantaneous flash
of genius, to the significance of "experiences"
(Erlebnisse), cannot withstand the claim of human
existence to continuity and unity of self­
understanding. (TM, 97)
Gadamer characterizes a picture as "situated halfway
between a sign and a symbol." As he writes:
Its representing is neither a pure pointing-to-
something nor a pure taking-the-place-of-something.
It is this intermediate position that raises it to a
unique ontological status. (TM, 154)
According to Gadamer, then, "The world which appears
in the play of representation does not stand like a copy
next to the real world, but is the latter in the
heightened truth of its being." (TM, 137) Indeed, "Word
and image are not mere imitative illustrations, but allow
what they represent to be for the first time what it is."
(TM, 143) "Hence," Gadamer writes, "in presentation, the
presence of what is represented reaches its

consummation." (TM, 137) Representation differs in this

from "copy," where there is no distinction between the
representation and what is represented. A copy "fulfills
itself in its self-effacement." (TM, 139) Thus, Gadamer
concludes: "The picture is an event of being - in it
being appears, meaningfully and visibly." (TM, 144)
For Gadamer, then: "Every picture is an increase of
being and is essentially determined as representation, as
coming-to-presentation." (TM, 148) Thus:
Despite all aesthetic differentiation, it remains
the case that an image is a manifestation of what it
represents - even if it brings it to appearance
through its autonomous expressive power. (TM, 149)
Meaning, here, is neither limited to nor necessarily
reflective of the conscious intent of the photographer.
Here, the possibility of surprise exists not only in the
limited sense of Barthes' "punctum" nor only for the
viewer, but for both viewer and photographer since
meaning is always in process.
This, in turn, affects the relevant conception of
it is necessary to replace the notion of truth as
conformity of proposition to a thing, with a more
comprehensive notion founded on the concept of
Erfahrung. that is, on experience as a modification
that the subject undergoes when he encounters
something that has real relevance for him. We can
then say that art is experience of truth if it is
"true" or authentic experience, if the encounter

modifies the observer. (Vatimo, summarizing Gadamer,

Here, then, "aesthetics becomes a history of
worldviews i.e., a history of truth, as it is manifested
in the mirror of art." (TM, 98)
At the same time, the key to understanding a
representation lies in perceiving the relation between
the picture, pictorial or photographic work and the
continuity of experience. Thus:
Since we meet the artwork in the world and encounter
a world in the individual artwork, the work of art
is not some alien universe into which we are
magically transported for a time. Rather, we learn
to understand ourselves in and through it, and this
means that we subiate (aufhebend the discontinuity
and atomism of isolated experiences in the
continuity of our own existence. (TM, 97)
Yet, the truth value of the presentation is determined
against the whole of our experience and in ongoing, never
ending dialogue. Thus:
non-differentiation [from the world] remains
essential to all experience of pictures. The
irreplaceability of the picture, its fragility, its
"sacredness" are all explained in the ontology of
the picture here presented. (TM, 139)
It is this connection to the world that gives the
picture its "sacredness," its "wildness," its ability to
escape the fully cognicized world of human meanings. It
is in part this relation which accounts for the
reverence, the esteem, the fascination with photographic
pictures and works.

According to Gadamer, "being that can be understood

is language" and that language itself has already
enfolded within it much of the thinking that we
mistakenly tend to view as the creation of the individual
thinker. For Gadamer, then, the human agent is always
working within this larger, historical process.
Individuals carry out the larger process of history of
which they are both product and agent. Thus, Gadamer
writes :
Understanding is to be thought of less as a
subjective act than as participating in an event of
tradition, a process of transmission in which past
and present are constantly mediated. (TM, 290)
Rejecting the tyranny of the cult of "genius,"
hermeneutics rejects the very ground upon which
photography and art are so readily distinguished. Art,
then, is the product of dialogical play and as art it
constitutes a new world born of that game. Herein, the
artist is as much shaped by the art as the art is shaped
by the artist. So too, art becomes contiguous with the
entire range of human endeavor. Indeed, it is symbolic of
Photographs, then, cannot be transparent to the
world for "the world," that alone which is communicable
and thus, capable of being understood, is constituted in
the act of photographing, an act which in turn is only

understandable as part of a larger world of human meaning

of which this is a representation and a coming into
being. "The world" is a product of human creation.
While the thing in itself is always the final
arbiter of meaning, it exists as an object only for us,
as we understand it to be. The essence is always in
relation to us. There is no absolute, true essence which
we perceive. Rather, in the perception, the truth of its
being is revealed "for the first time." But this does
not mean that the insights here are meaningless or
idiosyncratic. They are, indeed, compelling. But we
cannot escape the radical historicity of all insight.
Thus, dialogue is still and always reguired. The artist
as independent source of "truth," the hero-discoverer is
also abandoned here. We all exist in the dialectic of
history. Secondly, the meaning of the work is never
complete in itself. It is completed in the reading, the
viewing of it.
So, too, the meaning potential of the photograph
greatly exceeds any momentary understanding of it. That
meaning potential is open but not arbitrary. A "world"
is there but it is never fully disclosed in any encounter
with it. Indeed, the world is not so much "out there" as
"in here." As Gadamer writes, "Totality is not an

object, but the world horizon that embraces us." (PA,

190) Each meaning is new and yet not new. It is a
continuation of tradition, a grounding and a moving
forward. At the same time, the world is neither a closed
system, nor an arbitrary creation. It is always produced
in and through our encounter with that which exceeds our
expectations of it, a reality that, in itself and as
itself i.e., free of representation, is unknown and
unknowable. The reality that we know emerges in
dialogue. Here, the world comes into being. A world
true to the degree that it reflects the whole of our
experience with it and yet, existing in history, one that
remains open to dialogical encounter.

The Occasional
"Occasionality," as noted by Gadamer, means that the
picture's "meaning and contents are determined by the
occasion for which they are intended, so that they
contain more than they would without this occasion." (TM,
144) The occasional is the "uninterpretable." (TM, 146)
As Gadamer writes: "In this case there is something in
the picture that cannot be figured out, namely its
occasional aspect." (TM, 146) And he adds:
But what cannot be figured out is not therefore not
there; it is there in a quite unambiguous way. (TM,

It is precisely the presence of the occasional and

the accidental, the "unintended" that constitutes a
seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the photograph and
other modes of communication, whether visual or written.
It is this that has lead to its presumed self-evident
character. The photograph is "real;" it is "objective"
because it records "what is there" and not what the
photographer wants to put there. It is not in itself a
work of fiction. It is a product of a machine. Indeed,
our common experience adds weight to this view for we all
have had the experience of later finding in a photograph
what, as we recall, we did not see at the moment of
exposure. Yet this view, too, fails to recognize the
inseparability of "world" and "self" and reifies both.
Here, too, the occasional and the accidental,
constitute the boundaries that separate art from non-art,
the intentional from the accidental. Here, the highest
art is that which places the least material constraint
upon the artist, one in which there is no rupture of the
finite and unreformed "world" into the picture until and
unless fully transformed by the artist's aesthetic
It is this rejection of the unreformed, the
contingent that forms the cornerstone for the aesthetic

rejection of the photograph. Without the occasional, the

photograph loses its reason for existence and the
accidental is merely an inescapable concomitant of the
mechanical nature of the photographic process. The
photograph, then, is reducible to the occasional and
limited by the accidental. It stands outside the
aesthetic transformation that is the essential
characteristic of art.
From the dialogical and dialectical perspective of
hermeneutics, however, such a view is untenable. The
occasional cannot be excluded from the interpretation of
the picture. It is not incidental to any human creation.
Rather, it is constitutive of it. As Gadamer writes:
"Occasionality must appear as a meaningful element within
a work's total claim to meaning...." (TM, 497)
Occasionality is the ground of the picture, its time
and place. It is history itself and the essence of all
human production just as it is our finitude that
constitutes our historical being. Gadamer writes:
What was said in general about the ontological
valence of the picture includes these occasional
elements. With respect to the element of
occasionality, these phenomena represent particular
cases of a general relationship that obtains for the
being of the work of art: namely that it experiences
a continued determination of its meaning from the
"occasion" of its coming-to-presentation. (TM, 147)

Artwork, then, does not result from an act of genius

applied to a neutral object. Rather, it is a coming into
being of the object, a fulfillment of the object that
occurs through play, a process quite unlike the
conscious, decision making character of subjectivity
assumed by aesthetic consciousness and the ideology of
the reified self. Art is the product of a process which
always leads beyond the anticipation or conscious
planning of the artist and is inextricably bound to its
object in a way that brings the latter more fully into
The classic example of the occasional is the
portrait. Yet, as Gadamer writes:
The portrait is only an intensification of what
constitutes the essence of all pictures. Every
picture is an increase of being and is essentially
definable as representation, as coming-to-
presentation. (TM, 148)
As such, it is a coming to presentation of history;
it is history itself.
Here, then, art fulfills time and place, and in so
doing is ”of" them. Only the latter allow art to come
into being as art. Finitude is the ground of being and
history is the coming into being of meaning. Thus,
Gadamer writes:
With respect to the element of occasionality, these
phenomena represent particular cases of a general

relationship that obtains for the being of the work

of art: namely that it experiences a continued
determination of its meaning from the "occasion" of
its coming-to-presentation. (TM, 147)
From this perspective, the role of the contingent in
the photograph is radically altered. It is the
unreformed that fractures our world at any moment, in
order to create a new one and that, thus, frees us toward
further new integration as historical beings. It is,
then, finitude that is the ground of human freedom and
action, the ground of intentionality as well.
Our fundamental analyses of the nature of aesthetic
being have given the idea of occasionality a new
justification that goes beyond all its particular
forms. The play of art is not as transcendent of
space and time as the aesthetic consciousness
maintains. (TM, 497)
Indeed :
The occasional in such works has acquired so
permanent a form that, even without being figured
out or understood, it is still part of the total
meaning. (TM, 147)
The picture, then, whether a painting, photograph or
written text is not opaque to the world because it is
inextricably bound to and indeed, a product of the
occasional, i.e. history itself, that which constitutes
our existence as historical beings. As Gadamer writes:
The self-playing-out of play does not take place in
a closed world of aesthetic appearance, but as a
constant integration in time. (TM, 499)

Hermeneutics, Ontology and the Photographic:

Some Photographers^ Reflections
The dissatisfaction with modern aesthetics, its cult
of genius, separation of art from knowledge about the
world as well as the aesthetic from other forms of human
action and realms of meaning, was a major issue in the
development of twentieth century photography. Thus, it
is not surprising to find some parallel insights into the
nature of art among practitioners of the New Realism,
social documentary and photojournalism, which typified
the work of many photographers after the abandonment of
pictorialist aesthetics.
Edward Weston, for example, surely one of the most
prolific writers on his own photography, its nature and
purpose, argued in 1927: "Photography has been
devitalized by anemic impressionism. Impressionism is
skepticism, it puts what one casually notes above what
one positively knows." (I, 46) And he added: "Incoherent
emotionalism must be supplanted by clear thinking;
cleverness must give way to honesty." (I, 46) Weston,
here, contrasted mere aestheticism with "knowledge" about
the world. Weston's goal was to present through his
Realist photographs what he termed "The quintessence of
the object or element before my lens," (I, 46) and to do
so through "honesty" and "clear thinking." For Weston,

the photographer had the capacity through his or her

"wisdom" and the "innate honesty" of the camera to
produce insight into the real world i.e., the world apart
from human interest. As he wrote in "Statement," (1932):
"In a civilization severed from its roots in the soil,-
cluttered with nonessentials, blinded by abortive
desires, the camera can be a way of self-development, a
means of basic form, - with nature, the source." (OP, 70)
Weston sharply criticized the separation of the
aesthetic from the world, the cult of the artist and its
concomitant view that art is an expression of the
artist's unigue genius rather than a revelation of
knowledge about the world. As Weston wrote:
Fortunately, it is difficult to see too personally
with the very impersonal lens-eye: through it one is
prone to approach nature with desire to learn from,
rather than impose upon, so that a photograph, done
in this spirit, is not an interpretation, a biased
opinion of what nature should be but a r e v e l a t i o n -
an absolute, impersonal recognition of the
significance of facts, [underlining added, italics
original] (OP, 70)
According to Weston, authenticity is "one of the most
powerful and appealing qualities possible in a
photograph." (OP, 154) He held that photography had the
unique quality of thus holding the artist's work to the
world. As he wrote: "the photographer is forced to
approach nature in a spirit of inquiry, of communion/ of

desire to learn. (OP, 67) In contrast to what he

perceived as the hero-genius cult of the artist, Weston
I am not trying to express myself through
photography, impose my personality upon nature (any
manifestation of life) but without prejudice nor
falsification to become identified with nature, to
know things in their very essence, so that what I
record is not an interpretation- my idea of what
nature should be- but a r e v e l a t i o n or a piercing of
the smoke-screen artificially cast over life by
irrelevant, humanly limited exigencies, into an
absolute, impersonal recognition, [emphasis added]
(OP, 67)
Indeed, Weston argued that: "Any expression is
weakened in degree by the injection of personality: the
warping of knowledge by petty inhibitions, life's
exigencies." (OP, 67) Thus, he was happy to claim that:
"If any medium is capable of rendering 'things in
themselves,' it is photography." (OP, 53)
A photograph has the capacity, then, to transcend
ordinary seeing. Indeed:
Guided by the photographer's selective
understanding, the penetrating power of the camera-
eye can be used to produce a heightened sense of
reality-a kind of super realism that reveals the
vital essences of things. (OP, 154)

For Weston, in the hands of a true artist, the camera

could reveal a world more objectively than mere human
seeing. Such objectivity, however, required a piercing
into the essence of what is, a "deep perception," an

intuition and insight into the ultimate nature of things,

the essence of "what is." This contrasts with self
expression which:
is usually an egotistical approach, a willful
distortion, resulting in over or understatement.
The direction should be toward a clearer
understanding through intentional emphasis of the
fundamental reality of things, so that the
presentation becomes a synthesis of their essence,
[emphasis added] (OP, 70)
Weston then sharply contrasted the technology
available only through the innate honesty of the camera
with previous forms of visual presentation. But it was
the use to which the technology was put that made the
critical difference. He criticized those concerned only
with recording the superficial and the transitory. The
camera was for him a way of presenting the world in its
abiding, essential character and it could do so only as
an extension of human intelligence, insight and above
all, "wisdom." It was the profound mind that was key to
fulfilling photography's potential. Yet this mind was
profound precisely in its openness, its desire to learn
from the world - on its own terms - perceived and indeed
discovered through the camera. Meaning ultimately
resided then in the world not in the self. The latter,
with ego set aside, must depend on intuition - rooted in

the world - as the source of knowledge of the world. As

he wrote:
An intuitive knowledge of composition in terms of
the capacities of his process, enables the
photographer to record his subject at the moment of
deepest perception; to capture the fleeting instant
when the light on a landscape, the form of a cloud,
the gesture of a hand or expression of a face,
momentarily presents a profound revelation of life.
[emphasis added] (OP, 133)
The camera, then, can produce for Weston, "a heightened
sense of reality-a kind of super realism that reveals the
vital essences of things." [emphasis added] (OP, 154)
Contrasting with ordinary human sight, for "the
human eye is utterly incapable of duplicating the
camera's seeing":
The photographer's power lies in his ability to
recreate his subject in terms of its basic reality
and to present this re-creation in such a form that
the spectator feels that he is seeing not just a
symbol for the object, but the thing itself is
revealed for the first time, [emphasis added] (OP,
Indeed, in "What is Photographic Beauty?" (1951):
If the photographer attempts with this superior and
impartial recording instrument to duplicate the
shortcomings of human eyesight, he is wasting its
most important ability. For the camera is capable
of enlarging human vision by revealing the world in
new terms and new dimensions. (OP, 153-4)
For Weston, the goal of photography was to present a
true revelation of knowledge about the world - a vision
not compromised by human concerns, its concern is with

the world as it is in truth. The truth bearing potential

lies in the camera when used with intelligence and
insight. Here, technology has allowed man to see as he
could never see before, to see truly and to communicate
this knowledge to others. The artist, here, is a shaman
and his camera is his talisman.
Dorothea Lange shared with Weston a favorite
guotation. While Lange placed a guote from Francis Bacon
for many years on her Darkroom door, which read "the
contemplation of things as they are, without substitution
or imposture, without error or confusion, is in itself a
nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention" ("Memo"
to Nancy Newhall, 1958), Weston freguently noted Van
Gogh's dictum: "A feeling for things in themselves is
much more important than a sense of the pictorial." (OP,
W. Eugene Smith conveyed a similar spirit when he
wrote :
My principal concern is for an honesty of
interpretation to be arrived at by careful study and
through the utmost possible sensitivity of
understanding. I would further, if the strength of
talent be within me, have my accomplished image
transcend literal truth by intensifying its truthful
accuracy, indicating even of the spirit and
symbolizing more. And my only editor would be my
conscience and my conscience would be of my
responsibilities-in constant disciplined rejudgment
of my failures and of my fulfillments, [emphasis
added.] (Exhibition Catalogue)

In a 1974 interview, Brassai, too, noted:

In photography you can never express yourself
directly, only through optics, the physical and
chemical processes. It is this sort of submission
to the object and abnegation of yourself that is
exactly what pleases me about photography. [emphasis
added.] (Newhall, 40)
Similarly, Cartier Bresson, a one-time critic of
Weston, wrote in The Decisive Moment (1952), that
"Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the
world of real things" (46) and "We work in unison with
movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in
which life itself unfolds." (46)
Each of these photographers shares, then, a
fundamental commitment to the primacy of the world and an
effort to reveal it in its essence, what it is in its
"true" self. Through the photograph, we are enabled to
see the world in a way different from our ordinary seeing
- and the difference is not simply technical. As Weston
wrote :
But if the camera's innate honesty works any
hardship on the photographer.... it is that very
quality that makes the camera expressly fitted for
examining deeply into the meaning of things. The
discriminating photographer can direct his
penetrating vision so as to present his subject-
whatever it may be-in terms of its basic reality.
He can reveal the essence of what lies before his
lens with such clear insight that the beholder will
find the recreated image more real and
comprehensible than the actual object, [emphasis
added] (OP, 132)

Similarly, Gadamer observes that:

Word and image are not mere imitative illustrations,
but allow what they present to be for the first time
fully what it is. [emphasis added] (TM, 143)
Weston, too, drew a sharp distinction between the
mastery of skills or method per se and gaining insight
into the world. Skill was nowhere to be excluded. It was
essential, for, as he wrote: "To take advantage of its
penetrating seeing-power, the photographer must develop
an exacting control. He must learn to distinguish
important detail from meaningless detail and must guide
his camera eye accordingly." (OP, 153-4) Yet, genuine
insight does not come from method. As he wrote:
I have no unalterable theories to proclaim.... To be
directed or restrained by unyielding reason is to
put doubt as a check on amazement, to question fresh
horizons, and so hinder growth. It is essential to
keep fluid by thinking irrationally, by challenging
apparent evidence and accepted ideas-especially
one's own. (OP, 70)
Concerning the portrait, too, Weston wrote:
There can be no rules, no formulas, for success in
this field because each individual demands different
treatment. (OP, 110)
As he wrote (1926):
Only the photographer can register what lies between
himself and the object before his lens at a given
moment of time. Whether the registration be
significant or not depends upon the man behind the
camera. At least the opportunity is in Photography
revealed before us. [emphasis added] (OP, 45)

Here, then, the camera captures, records the relation

between the photographer and the world in this moment of
communion. As he wrote in "I photograph trees":
The photographer's problem, after all, is not how to
make a maple look happy or a cedar sad, but how to
render to the fullest the very thing that has made
him wish to photograph this particular maple or
cedar. (OP, 115)
Thus, Weston recognized to some degree that it was the
relation between the photographer and the world that was
the source of truth - a truth available once one set
oneself aside, an opening, indistinguishable from what
Gadamer terms the abandonment of the self in play.
The product was a re-creation and a presentation for
the first time. And it stemmed not so much from the
artist per se, but through him. He is only a means to an
end. The process extended beyond the self. It is a
process of the coming into being of the world as a world
in its truth. This, too, was a process of discovery. In
his Daybooks. for August 31, 1924, Weston observed as
well :
Just the trunk of a palm towering up into the sky;
not even a real one - a palm on a piece of paper, a
reproduction of nature: I wonder why it should
affect one emotionally - and I wonder what prompted
me to record it. Many photographs might have been
done of this palm, and they would be just a
photograph of a palm - Yet this picture is but a
picture of a palm, plus something - something - and
I cannot quite say what that something is - and who
is there to tell me? [emphasis added] (I, 89)

And again as Weston wrote in his Daybooks for August 14,

My work is always a few jumps ahead of what I say
about iti I am simply a means to an end: I cannot,
at the time, say why I record a thing in a certain
way, nor why I record it at alii...The artist is not
a petty individual God on a throne, free to exploit
and expose his heartaches and bellyaches-he is an
instrument through which inarticulate mankind
speaks: he may be a prophet who at a needed moment
points the way, forming the future, or he may be
born at a time when his work is a culmination, a
flowering in soil already prepared. (II, 221)
Of course significant differences remain between
Gadamer and Weston, Smith, Lange and Cartier-Bresson.
Weston, with his concentration on nature, sought to
perceive the "true” unchanging world, a world of primary
forms and realities. Gadamer is concerned with the
construction of revelations, but views all as in time and
characterized by change rathern than unchanging essences.
Yet, this fundamentally philosophical issue would
potentially not greatly concern Weston. His seemed a
lonely battle and it was one in black and white. It was
practical and reform minded. As Weston wrote:
Photography is not for the escapist, the "mooning"
poet, the revivalist crying for dead cultures, nor
the cynic, or a sophisticated weakling; it is for
the man of action and awareness, who as a cognizant
part of contemporary life, uses the means most
suitable for a clear statement of his
recognition...." (II, 67)

Gadamer's ontological viewpoint shifts the focus
toward looking at the actual change that takes place
rather than measuring the picture against the mythic
ideology of aesthetic consciousness. Indeed, the artist
need not ever consciously know or be aware of a meaning
in the work. Rather, "as an individual, a thinking
consciousness, he does not need to know explicitly what
he is doing and what his work says." (TM, 133) This is
so because:
He himself stands in the same tradition as the
public that he is addressing and which he gathers
around him. (TM, 133)
Indeed, understanding this meaning may have little
to do with the meaning attached to the object by the
artist. Accordingly:
The meaning of a text surpasses its author not
occasionally, but always. Thus understanding is not
a reproductive procedure, but rather always also a
productive one....It suffices to say that one
understands differently when one understands at all.
(TM, 280)
Yet, this is not a function of the unique aesthetic sense
of the photographer/artist but a result of his historical
being, a characteristic shared with all others as well.
His uniqueness from them lies not in the vision itself-
which is always unique-but in his ability to bring it
into language. Then, too, as Gadamer writes:

Every time will have to understand a text handed

down to it in its own way, for it is subject to the
whole of the tradition in which it has a material
interest and in which it seeks to understand itself.
(TM, 280)
ÄS a result:

The real meaning of the also always co­

determined by the historical situation of the
interpreter and thus by the whole of the objective
course of history....(TM, 280)
Further, Gadamer contends:
the obvious fact, that every interpretation seeks to
be correct, serves only to confirm that the non­
differentiation of the interpretation from the work
itself is the actual experience of the work. (TM,
To explain this process, Gadamer turns to the
concept of the classic.
Gadamer presents the notion of the classic to
designate those texts or text substitutes that constitute
such traditions in embodied forms. Understanding of
texts proceeds through encounter with understandings,
acknowledged or not, of classics. It is only by
encountering the new text that tradition becomes apparent
and it is only by distancing oneself from one tradition
through the encounter with another that the text itself
becomes accessible to us.


The written text, and the picture alike, lack the

fullness of expression of personal dialogue. The
questioning back and forth, the further elucidation, the
accompaniment of meaningful gestures and expressions that
characterize the living voice are never available in
either. They are "at a distance" from the original
situation of their creation and are now autonomous.
Interpretation alone fills them out, brings them to life.
Only in this way can we come to understanding them and
thus, encounter ourselves in relation to them.
Thus, the critical moment in which we enter into
dialogue with the world of the text allows us to tell a
new and different story and bring about a new
understanding. As Magnum photographer Robert Doisneau
said in a 1977 interview:
You have to let the person who will look at the
picture-provided that he isn't an ass-always walk
along that visual path for himself. We must always
remember that a picture is also made up of the
person who looks at it. This is very, very
important. Maybe this is the reason behind these

photos that haunt me and that haunt many other

people as well. It is about that walk that one
takes with the picture when experiencing it. I
think that this is what counts. One must let the
viewer extricate himself, for the journey. You
offer the seed, and then the viewer grows it inside
himself. For a long time I thought that I had to
give the entire story to my audience. I was wrong.
(Hill and Cooper, 1979, 92-3)
If, however, we conceive of our task as explanation
rather than understanding, the text no longer speaks to
us as other and what we learn from it will no longer
address us in the fullness of our being. Thus:
The person with understanding does not know and
judge as one who stands apart and is unaffected but
as one who is united by a specific bond with
another, he thinks with the other and undergoes the
situation with him. (See Hoy, 1988, ft. 11)
In addition, understanding does not proceed by one
isolated intelligence encountering a text in a lifeless
void. As Gadamer writes:
Hermeneutics must start from the fact that
understanding is related to "the thing itself" as
manifest in the tradition, and at the same time to a
tradition from where "the thing" can speak to me.
(TM, 155)
Understanding, then, requires the abandonment of the
pretense of the self-sufficiency of self-reflexive
consciousness, the isolated, knowing self. It calls for
risking ourselves, the "rightness" of our own world, our
own self-enclosure. Even more, understanding is not
something that one can enter into now and then. It is a
praxis of everyday life. Holdheim writes:

Above all, it is no mere exegetic procedure, no

"method" that we are free to "apply" or not. It is
a fundamental mode of being in the world. (241)
Here, then, is the critical point. To understand the
photograph is to understand it as a message to us about
some subject of common concern. It requires a reading
that brings to bear the whole of what we are as a person
and in so doing, challenges that being. It calls us to
open ourselves to the risk entailed by entering into
conversation with an other. As Gadamer notes:
All that is asked is that we remain open to the
meaning of the other person or text. But this
openness always includes our situating the other
meaning in relation to the whole of our own meanings
or ourselves in relation to it. (TM, 268)
There is a corollary to the above. As Gadamer writes:
The real event of understanding goes continually
beyond what can be brought to the understanding of
the other person's words by methodological effort
and critical self-control. It is true of every
conversation that through it something different has
come to be. (TM, 58)
If we bring our world into our encounter with the
world of the photograph, clearly we cannot proceed by
method alone which leaves us untouched. To understand,
requires us to place ourselves at risk and thus control
is relinquished. As James Hans writes in The Play of the
World (1981), this is the nature of play for:
The game properly exists only when it is played -
that is, when object and subject coalesce so that

object is no longer object and subject no longer

subject. (8)
Gadamer's contrast of method with play, then, fills out
this process of understanding for:
One who plays always has a direction, an
orientation, but it is a direction or orientation
loosely held, and subject to revision, that is being
played with precisely because it is subject to
revision. The direction is in question and only a
willingness to put the perspective into question can
generate play. (Hans, 8)
And as Gadamer writes:
a person trying to understand a text is prepared for
it to tell him something.... a hermeneutically
trained consciousness must be, from the start,
sensitive to the text's alterity. (TM, 269)
This, then, forms the basis for the model of under­
standing characterized as the hermeneutic circle: "The
playing out of play is thus the back and forth movement
...of the hermeneutic circle." (Hans, 8)
Play constitutes the model of the process of

Play and Understanding

It is, then, in the concept of play that the radical
shift from the subject-object dichotomy characteristic of
much of modern thought to a process of understanding
which transcends subject-object boundaries becomes most
a p p a r e n t . T h e radical break between "play" and
relations in which subject-object boundaries are

maintained is revealed in such statements as: "We lose

ourselves in play," "the mode of being of the game does
not permit the player to behave toward the game as to an
object" and "What takes over is the game....What we see
here is the 'primacy' of the play over the consciousness
of the players." (101-2) As Hans writes:
it is the self-forgetfulness, the self-absorption,
that is central to the experience of play; and the
archaic conventions and the connections to the "God-
smitten" and the like are important in their
suggestion that something in our rational views of
the world causes us to ignore the world of play
precisely because it is not rational. (9)
Indeed, play provides a model of understanding wholly
unlike that provided by the modern conception of method.
Hans notes:
The activity of play does not concern itself with an
instrumental attitude toward the world; there is no
sense in which the player is a subject opposed to or
separated from an object or objects. Rather, the
person is absorbed into the activity of play itself,
and the focus of play is on the activity and not the
subject or objects involved. (7)
Thus, while "method" is detached from the
experiential, changing self, play is fundamentally
Play is an experiential mode of confirming or
denying the connections we make with our world, and
all experience within such a mode is confirmed or
denied in the playing-out of the
experience....(Hans, 12)

Entering into play need not result from an

intentional action on the part of a participant: "
falls into play, not necessarily intending to do so...."
(Hans, 12)
Dialogue, for Gadamer, is the full realization of
play. As he writes:
When one enters into a dialogue with another person
and then is carried further by the dialogue, it is
no longer the will of the individual person, holding
itself back or exposing itself, that is
determinative. Rather, the law of the subject
matter is at issue in the dialogue and elicits
statements and counterstatements and in the end
plays them into each other. (TM, 103)
Thus, the very nature of the understanding we
achieve is always changing and never fixed. The text,
then, is never truly understood "in itself." It is only
proceeding from who we are at any moment that
understanding is possible at all. To understand, as
Gadamer writes, "is always to understand differently."
(TM, 91)
Understanding, for Gadamer then, proceeds from being
open to being addressed by the text as the voice of an
"other." Here, the object of understanding is not the
dialogical partner. All understanding proceeds through
dialogue about some object or event. As Gadamer
continues:" The essence of the question is to open up
possibilities and keep them open...."(TM, 299)

At the root of all understanding, then, lies the

question to which the "text" is a response. It is that
question about which we enter into dialogue if we are to
understand the text and it is the text's response to that
question which we encounter as "other." In a work
entitled Beauty in Photography: Essays In Defense of
Traditional Values (1981), Robert Adams describes, in the
broadest sense, what question underlies even the formal
photographic works of photographers like Weston. As he
writes :
it [the work] is designed to give us courage.
Society is endangered to the extent that any of us
loses faith in meaning, in consequence. Art that
can convincingly speak through form for significance
bears upon the problem of nihilism and is socially
constructive. Restated, photography as art does
address evil, but it does so broadly as it works to
convince us of life's value; the darkness that art
combats is the ultimate one, the conclusion that
life is without worth and finally better off ended.
[emphasis added] (70)
Such work responds, then, to the questions "Is life
Meaningful?" and "What is the nature of that meaning?"
For Weston, it seems, it is the abiding truth of
structure and permanence amidst decay and apparent chaos
- a view that I cannot encounter without feeling its
power or lack of it in my life, my world and entering
into dialogue with it. Such an encounter, then, in part,
reveals and questions my truth as well.

Yet, "To be historically means that knowledge of

oneself can never be complete." (TM, 302) As a result,
Gadamer notes: "Hence...the concept of ^horizon.' The
horizon is the range of vision that includes everything
that can be seen from a particular vantage point."
[emphasis original] (TM, 302)
Understanding always proceeds, then, from the
question that we bring to a text, a question grounded in
our own historical situatedness. It proceeds, too,
dialectically i.e., back and forth in the manner of a
conversation about an object.
This brings us to the hermeneutic circle of which
Gadamer writes:
The circle, then, is not formal in nature. It is
neither subjective nor objective, but describes
understanding as the interplay of the movement of
tradition and the movement of the interpreter. The
anticipation of meaning that governs our
understanding of a text is not an act of
subjectivity, but proceeds from the commonalty that
binds us to the tradition. But this commonalty is
constantly being formed in our relation to
tradition. (TM, 293)
As Gadamer argues:
Thus, the circle of understanding is not a
"methodological" circle, but describes an element of
the ontological structure of understanding. (TM,

The Nature of Understanding

and the
Hermeneutic Circle
Hermeneutics makes two fundamental requirements of
interpretation. First, that the best interpretation is
also the most complete. As a coherent text, we must
assume its unity and its non-self contradiction. (TM,
294) The right interpretation, therefore, must speak of
the text as a whole and be self-consistent.
The anticipation of meaning in which the whole is
envisaged becomes actual understanding when the
parts that are determined by the whole themselves
also determine this whole. (TM, 291)
Put differently:
Thus the movement of understanding is constantly
from the whole to the part and back to the whole.
Our task is to expand the unity of the understood
meaning centrifugally. The harmony of all the
details with the whole is the criterion of correct
understanding. The failure to achieve this harmony
means that understanding has failed. (TM, 291)
Understanding, however, is always cognizant that:
the discovery of the true meaning of a text or a
work of art is never finished; it is in fact an
infinite process. (TM, 298)
What, then, is the object of understanding of the
photograph, the matter of the text, the document itself.
Just as the one who understands is a juncture at which
history and tradition meet, so to the text is not
ultimately a material object to us. As Gadamer writes:
In as much as the actual object of historical
understanding is not events but their

"significance," it is clearly an incorrect

description of this understanding to speak of an
object existing in itself and of the subject's
approach to it. (TM, 328)
Accordingly, as Gadamer writes:
Understanding must be conceived as a part of the
process of coming into being of meaning, in which
the significance of all statements - those of art
and those of everything else that has been
transmitted -is formed and made complete. (TM, 146)
Since the text itself only comes into being in being
played, i.e., in the reading, so too to understand the
text itself as object is necessarily to fail to truly
encounter it.
This brings us to the ultimate purpose in
understanding the text which is always and only in
relation to the subject matter at hand and our own self­
understanding through access and openness to this other.
The photographer is trying to say something to us.
In the process of doing so, often he or she comes to
understand it himself. At times, the photographer cannot
verbalize the content of their effort. They, like us,
live within a tradition which possesses them and creates
their world. For us to understand the meaning of a text
we must enter into the spirit of the communicative
effort. We cannot truly understand the text as an object
or end in itself. Further, understanding reguires that
we bring to the text all that we are, which is invariably

more than we know ourselves to be. We thus enter into a

process in which we risk our world by entering into play
with no guarantees about the end result, except that in
opening to the otherness of the text our world changes
and thus, we bring that effort to completion in the
praxis of our everyday lives.
For hermeneutics, then, understanding is not an
instrument toward some other goal, nor the result of
method. It is the whole thrust of our being, our
ceaseless, historical task. Moreover, understanding is
made possible only through the "prejudices" which
structure our initial encounter with an "other." Thus,
our task is to critically re-appropriate traditions, as
selectively appropriated sources of meaning, through our
dialogical and dialectical encounter with others and
other "texts" and ultimately, the worlds which they
Then, too, in the process of understanding:
A always performing an act of
projecting. He projects before himself a meaning
for the text as a whole as soon as some initial
meaning emerges in the text. Again, the latter
emerges only because he is reading the text with
particular expectations in regard to a certain
meaning. The working out of this fore-project,
which is constantly revised in terms of what emerges
as he penetrates into the meaning, is understanding
what is there. (TM, 236)

In other words, interpretation begins not with the

gradual accumulation of evidence which ultimately leads
to an interpretation of the text, though this is the
picture presented in the idea of "method." Rather,
understanding begins with a meaning based in our
practical experience of the world and the pre-conceptions
with which we approach a text. There is no separation
here of understanding from the time and place within
which we encounter it and the perception or "world view"
with which constitutes the ground of our everyday
experience. As Gadamer continues:
This constant process of new projection is the
movement of understanding and interpretation. The
working out of appropriate projects, anticipatory in
nature, to be confirmed "by the things" themselves,
is the constant task of understanding. The only
objectivity here is the confirmation of a fore­
meaning in its being worked out. (TM, 236-7)
Since understanding ultimately serves to transform us in
the act, the ultimate guestion is what do we become in
the process of understanding a text. And as R. Chartier
writes :
In such a perspective...the act of reading is
strategically situated at the point of "application"
(Anwendung. in the hermeneutic lexicon) where the
world of the text meets that of the reader, where
the interpretation of the work ends in the
interpretation of the self. (157)

The result of this encounter, then, in history is to

"bring to life new meanings of the text." As Gadamer
writes :
"Understanding must be conceived as part of the
process of the coming into being of meaning." And
this a form of moral-practical
knowledge that becomes constitutive of what we are
in the process of becoming....(TM, 94)
Properly carried out, "authentic hermeneutical
understanding truly humanizes us, it becomes integral in
our very being.... (TM, 94-5) And here, as R. Chartier
writes :
Reading is to be understood as an "appropriation" of
the text, both because it actualizes the text's
semantic potential and because it creates a
mediation for knowledge of the self through
comprehension of the text. (157)
Gadamer holds that we must subsume ourselves to the
text itself, become one with the text in order to
understand its claim to truth and thus its claim upon us.
He contrasts this with the modern conception of method:
modern science is following the rule of Cartesian
doubt, accepting nothing as certain that can in any
way be doubted, and adopting the idea of method that
follows from this rule. (TM, 271)
Understanding a text, then, reguires understanding
its claim to truthfully present an answer to the matter
to which it is a response. In so doing, we come to
understand its world. In order to do that, we must enter

into the text and stand beside ourselves as we do in

"play." In method, we proceed differently:
By factoring the other person's standpoint into what
he is claiming to say, we are making our own
standpoint safely unattainable....Acknowledging the
otherness of the other in this way, making him the
object of objective knowledge, involves the
fundamental suspension of his claim to truth. (TM,
So, too, application, i.e. to "the concrete situation to
which the text is speaking" (TM, 308), constitutes an
essential part of this one, unified process:
He must relate the text to this situation if he
wants to understand at all. (TM, 308)
As a result, Gadamer concludes:
We can, then, distinguish what is truly common to
all forms of hermeneutics: the meaning to be
understood is concretized and fully realized only in
interpretation, but the interpretive activity
considers itself wholly bound by the meaning of the
text. (TM, 332)
For Gadamer, then, understanding proceeds only from
submitting ourselves to the text and its claim to truth.
Contrary to the modern emphases upon "rationalistic" and
"empirical" methods, Gadamer holds that this is the
necessary mode of all understanding for all understanding
takes place within a tradition to which our judgment is
already anchored. Thus, one cannot approach any
understanding from any standpoint that is not already
bound to a tradition to which it itself is subjected.

Understanding, then, must involve a dialogue between the

text itself and the tradition that constitutes our
situatedness at any moment. Understanding takes place
through such an encounter and nowhere else. Indeed:
Understanding is to be thought of less as a
subjective act than as participating in an event of
tradition, a process of transmission in which past
and present are constantly mediated. This is what
must be validated by hermeneutic theory, which is
far too dominated by the idea of a procedure, a
method. (TM, 290)
The veracity of this insight is amply demonstrated in the
readings of photographs presented above by proponents of
both aesthetic consciousness and the critique of
ideology. Each approaches the photograph under
discussion from a vantage point embedded within
traditions of interpretation. Each sees the photographs
with perceptions shaped and informed by them. The
perception precedes, accompanies and justifies the
Yet, Gadamer writes, "every understanding begins
with the fact that something calls out to us." (TM, 157)
Understanding, then, must have the character of
"participation in the common aim," namely, the
understanding of the subject matter at hand. (TM, 147)
The text, unlike a conversation, has a fixed character.

It is "at a distance" from its author. Thus, Gadamer

compares it to receiving a letter. As he writes:
When we receive a letter we see what is communicated
through the eyes of our correspondent, but while
seeing things through his eyes, it is not his
personal opinions, but rather the event itself that
we believe we ought to know by this letter. In
reading a letter, to aim at the personal thoughts of
our correspondent and not at the matters about which
he reports is to contradict what is meant by the
letter___(TM, 154)
Here, too, Gadamer distinguishes understanding from
those relations in which the subject/object split is
maintained, i.e., the other is the object of our concern.
The art of conversation, required to understand any human
document or artifact, any text, requires a relation of
equality in which neither is reduced to an object for the
other. We must listen to the voice of the text. Our
everyday human relations illustrate the point well. When
we look to our relations to those in our personal day to
day life, especially those in our family, our relation is
qualitatively different than to those whom we don't know,
who are different from us, of whom we are suspicious.
"Can they be trusted, we ask?" Yet, to understand, we
must trust. That is what Gadamer means when he refers to
recognizing the claim to truth in the text - that it
seeks to present the truth, even though it is always only

a truth, and only by accepting this claim can we

understand that text as a whole.
Yet, so to trust requires a giving way to the voice
of the text rather than simply taking from it.
Accordingly, Gadamer writes:
Therefore the aim of hermeneutics, is always to
restitute the authentic intention and reestablish
the concordance, to fill in the lacunas of the
argumentation. (TM, 147)
Only by being with the author/photographer, joining in
the effort to understand can we grasp the text in its
wholeness. We do not, then, reduce the photograph to
object if we wish to understand it. We join with it in
order to understand the question to which it is a
response. In so doing, we enter into the spirit of the
communicative effort of the photograph. This is made
possible for us by our common participation in tradition,
best exemplified in the role of the classic.

The Role of The Classic

Gadamer argues that a proper understanding of
historical being entails a view of human actions in which
those actions constitute end points in a long chain of
events, practices and meanings all of which are already
embedded in the language that we speak, that world in
which we live. For Gadamer, this view contrasts sharply

with those which emphasize the primary role of the

authors or creators of texts. We are all born into and
live within a language and cultural world that has
already established and carried out much of the thinking
that traditionally, we have tended to ascribe to the
conscious creation of individuals and groups. Thus,
understanding a text or a work does not consist in
understanding what the author intended. Again, as
Gadamer writes: "Not just occasionally but always the
meaning of a text goes beyond its author." (TM, 296)
Thus, we must turn to the text itself if we are to
understand anything at all.
According to Gadamer, the classical:
does not refer to a quality that we ascribe to
particular historical phenomena but to a notable
mode of being historical: The historical process of
preservation (Bewahrung), that through constantly
proving itself (Bewahrung), allows something true
(ein Wahres) to come into being. (TM, 287)
The classics, i.e. those works which maximally
fulfill and thus establish the ideal type or genre in any
field of endeavor, are not selected out by later
generations on the basis of a free and reasoned choice.
On the contrary:
The classical is something that resists historical
criticism because its historical domination, the
binding power of the validity that is preserved and
handed down, precedes all historical reflection and
continues in it. (TM, 287)

The normative sense is the most important even though:

Since it became part of the aesthetic vocabulary of
historical studies, the concept of the classical
retains the sense of a normative content only in an
unacknowledged way. (TM, 286)
Yet, as Gadamer argues "the most important thing about
the concept of the classical... is the normative sense.
(TM, 288) The classical as normative "says something to
the present as if it were said specifically to it." (TM,
In Protocols of Reading (1989), the semiologist
Robert Scholes notes that even though W. Eugene Smith's
"Tomoko in the Bath" is "a powerful, disturbing picture
even in our first, hasty glance at it" understanding
requires that we "come to grips with the sources of this
power...." (24)
As a clue to understanding these "sources" Scholes
cites an interview with Smith in which the making of this
photograph is discussed:
Q: How did the famous picture of the mother washing
her daughter come about?
Smith: By that process of getting to know the
individuals. We looked after the child at times
when the parents were on protests. They lived
about a ten minute walk from our house. Every time
we went by the house, we would see that someone was
always caring for her. I would see the wonderful
love that the mother gave. She was always cheerful,
and the more I watched, the more it seemed to me
that it was a summation of the most beautiful aspect
of courage that people were showing in Minimata in

fighting the company and the government. Now this

is called romanticism. But it was courage that I
was interested in. Courage is romantic, too. I
wanted somehow to symbolize the best, the strongest
element of Minimata.
One day I said to Aileen, my wife, "Let's try
to make that photograph." I imagined a picture in
which a child was being held by the mother and the
love was coming through. I went to the house, tried
very clumsily to explain to the mother that I wanted
to show a picture in which Tomoko was naked so we
could see what had happened to her body. I wanted
to show her caring for the child. And she said,
"Yes, I'm just about to give Tomoko her bath. Maybe
that will help you." She first held the child on the
outside of the bath and washed her as the Japanese
do; then she put her into the bath. And I could see
the picture building into what I was trying to say.
I found it emotionally moving, and I found it very
difficult to photograph through my tears. However,
I made that photograph. It's as romantic as could
be. (25)
As Scholes observes:
The picture is firmly and terribly grounded in
history.... It would be a serious error to read the
picture as if it were not grounded in this history
or to forget the need for a continuing struggle to
protect ourselves and our planet from the vast
carelessness of a "market economy" that is reckless
of economy. (26)
But Scholes adds the following proviso: "Yet, it
would also be an error to read it only in this way." (26)
As he notes. Smith's "concept and his message preceded
the image itself. Indeed, it is the history that
inspired/brought into existence the picture through the
What is operative here, as Scholes discerns, is the
normative role of the classic, in this case, presumably.

Michelangelo's Pieta. Yet, as Scholes also notes it is

not the single work alone, but its connection to the
larger context of the whole range of meanings, images,
beliefs and myths which are necessary to fill out its
From a hermeneutic perspective, however, the process
does not stop there. The same applies to the whole of
traditions and their normative role in taking hold of our
consciousness and the way in which we see and interact
with the world around us. We do not interact with these
as we do objects. We are not able to free ourselves from
their hold in the first place. And even if we could do
so, we would not understand them for it is only
continuity through history, our common tradition, that
opens them to us. Therefore, the dialectical process of
dialogue is necessary to establish the critical distance
necessary to move beyond them.
Scholes also notes that Smith: "mediated this
history with the objective being its truth. In reference
to Smith's statement: "I could see the picture building
into what I was trying to say," Scholes writes:
I should like to suggest. Smith knew what he was
looking for because he knew one of the most
persistent and elaborate linkages of image and
concept in our cultural history: the iconographic
code of the pietà: the image of the mater dolorosa,
holding in her arms the mutilated body of her

crucified child. What Smith experienced as "the

picture building” was in fact the movement of the
bodies of mother and child toward this already coded
icon. (26)
But there is more here than this. Smith did not simply
know this image. It formed an horizon through which
Smith saw the Minimata scene. He did not apply a coded
icon. He perceived it in the first place through the
world horizon represented by the Mater Dolorosa. Yet,
this in no simple repetition of what went before. It is
a re-production that is also a new production that
addresses us in the present directly. Smith mediates the
image for us. He interprets it and its meaning for us.
He brings it to life now. This is no stale resurrection
of a code. It is the production of a tradition through
which we understand what Smith is trying to tell us.
The world that we encounter as we encounter the
photograph, which precedes the latter and opens it to us,
that world is not simply the world of Minimata, nor the
personal and professional world of Smith. Nor is it the
world of modern technology, of human arrogance and greed.
It is, however, all of these, brought into existence as
one world in and through Smith's photograph. Here is a
world made one under the horizon of a Christian
tradition, represented by the "mater dolorosa" and the
crucified Christ, the "lamb of God," who took upon

himself the sins of the world. Here, too, is a dark

world in which innocent children are betrayed, a world in
which the only remaining evidence of the goodness and
beauty of the human soul is the broken body of a child,
"a little lamb," bathed in the warm light of a mother's
loving gaze.
Here, however, there is no mythic frame of
redemption, no justifying rationale. What Smith presents
to us is pure, wanton destruction, an act in which all of
us, ultimately share and for which we are accountable.
The relative value of this and all interpretations
can only be justified by a return to the text in light of
the principles of non-contradiction and completeness. In
the photograph itself, we enter into a dark and detailess
world surrounding an innocent child-victim, terribly
deformed and yet bathing in the warm light of a mothers'
love. The intense and highly directional light from a
point above the scene, which illuminates the mother's
expressive, loving face and in contrast, the child's
almost empty stare, and which casts deep, bottomless
shadows elsewhere as if the mother and child are a world
unto themselves, suggests a beacon of light shining into
the black hole that is our world. By calling, even
demanding our attention to this single, isolated portion

of the photographic frame, the universal significance of

this deeply personal moment is forced upon us. In a
sense, the light is for us a call out of the darkness,
led by a child whose pain we cannot bear to look upon,
whose strength we cannot match, whose struggle we cannot
ignore, whose authority we cannot question. Here, too, a
mother models for us the selfless love and care that
puts our world to shame. This, at least, is one viewer's
"re-production" of this picture-world, a world in which
no one is reduced to object for another and no self is
for itself.
This brings us to the ultimate purpose in
understanding the work which is always and only in
relation to our own self-understanding through access and
openness to this other. As Gadamer writes:
The true historical object is not an object at all,
but the unity of the one and the other, a
relationship that constitutes both the reality of
history and the reality of historical understanding.
(TM, 299)
Neither the picture nor the perceiving self, then,
are independent objects of understanding. To see them in
this way cuts off the basis upon which understanding can
come into existence. To objectify them is to destroy
them. Ultimately, the photographer and interpreter
disappear into language, to so make worlds accessible, to

bring them into human existence, to create an opening for

us to enter into and become tradition. In sum, to open
worlds for us which open further worlds. In this way
they truly live.
The "style" of the work is not something applied to
the object of the photograph, but something that grows
out of the relation between the photographer and his
subject. As John Leongard notes in Pictures Under
Discussion (1987): "The style is not something I can
impose on a subject." (6) Cartier Bresson similarly
observed in The Decisive Moment (1952): "Composition must
have its own inevitability about it." (46) Its value,
then, is not that it inheres in the photographic artist,
but in its facility in bringing the subject matter into
meaningful being through the photograph. Style is the
further development and refinement of language that
brings the picture into our world of understanding, and
opens that world to new possibilities of human being.
Style comes into existence through the interaction of
photographer and subject. In the broadest sense, style
is the further and continuous coming into being of
history itself.
As Gadamer writes:
An artist creates a style when he is no longer just
engaged in imitation but is also fashioning a

language for himself.... Rare though the

correspondence is between "faithful imitation" and
an individual manner (or way of understanding), this
is precisely what constitutes style. (TM, 494)
For Gadamer, then, the subjectivism of aesthetic
consciousness is wholly untenable. As he writes:
Aesthetic experience is indifferent to whether or
not its object is real, whether the scene is the
stage or whether it is real life. Aesthetic
consciousness has unlimited sovereignty over
everything. (TM, 89)
Thus, from a hermeneutic perspective, the completion of
works is inclusive of our encounter with them. Gadamer
writes :
all encounter with the language of art is an
encounter with an unfinished event and is itself
part of this event. This is what must be emphasized
against aesthetic consciousness and its
neutralization of the question of truth. (TM, 99)
Indeed, Gadamer maintains:
The transformation is the transformation into the is itself redemption and transformation
back into true being. In being presented in play,
what is emerges. It produces and brings to light
what is otherwise constantly hidden and withdrawn.
(TM, 112)
And being brought into light is to enter into language.


an object is an artwork at all only in relation to

an interpretation....The interpretation is not
something outside the work....
- Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical
Disenfranchisement of Art (1986)

Susan Sontag argues that the photograph itself is in

part accountable for the apparent superficiality of
understanding and lack of humane values in western
societies today. She argues that it is the plurivocity
of the photograph that is the source of its destructive
potential. According to Sontag:
A photograph changes according to the context in
which it is seen: thus Smith's Minimata photographs
will seem different on a contact sheet, in a
gallery, in a political demonstration, in a police
file, in a photographic magazine, in a general news
magazine, in a book, on a living room wall....It is
in this way that the presence and proliferation of
all photographs contributes to the erosion of the
very notion of meaning....(94-95)
Sontag argues that "each photograph is only a fragment,"
and so "its moral and emotional weight depends on where
it is inserted." (94)

For Sontag, the photograph is mute, it has no voice

except that given to it by its context. She criticizes
those who look to the photograph to do "what no
photograph can ever do - speak." (97)
Fundamental to Sontag's critique is her assertion
that the photograph promotes as well as symbolizes modern
bourgeois society and its acquisitive, exploitive
relation to the world, its inability to encounter reality
except as packaged into digestible, purchasable "bits",
its desire to own the world rather than acknowledge being
"in" and "of" the world, and its perhaps willful
confusion of reality with appearance. For Sontag,
"Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality, understood
as recalcitrant, inaccessible...." (144) Further, "It is
not reality that photographs make immediately accessible,
but images." (145) Sontag argues that "One can't possess
reality, one can possess (and be possessed) by
images....To possess the world in the form of images is,
precisely, to reexperience the unreality and remoteness
of the real." (144) Photography provides the means for
our solipsistic social existence, cut off from the world
of real life. It is the siren's call to a world of
bourgeois illusion. This, in sum, is photography's role
in contemporary western society.

Underlying Sontag's argument is the belief that the

photograph does not - can not - constitute a text, which,
by definition, has unity, coherence and integrity, is
complete in itself and thus intelligible. Rather, the
photograph atomizes reality, makes the continuous
discontinuous, fractures the world and makes it
unintelligible. Its ultimate impact is to make life
itself discontinuous, lacking in coherence, integrity and
intelligibility. We seek to become the image, an idea in
fact promoted in advertisements for the 1990 Canon EOS I
camera which advise the reader: "Become the Image," and
ads for the Canon Rebel, which inform us that "Image is
For Sontag, the writer is the exact opposite of the
photographer, and she is especially concerned that no
caption, no control by means of words is ever strong
enough to hold the photograph to a fixed meaning:
It cannot prevent any argument or moral plea which a
photograph (or set of photographs) is intended to
support from being undermined by the plurality of
meanings that every photograph carries, or from
being qualified by the acquisitive mentality
implicit in all picture-taking-and picture
collecting-and by the aesthetic relation to their
subjects which all photographs inevitably propose.
For Sontag, the photograph offers us a pseudo reality, a
fool's gold for our consumption and as a result, it keeps

US unresponsive to the real world. Through its inherent

aestheticism, the photograph blinds us to reality.
Barthes, whose work Sontag heavily depends upon,
takes a somewhat different stance. Rather than seeing
the photograph per se as symbolic of and in part
responsible for the failings of contemporary society, he
holds that the photograph constitutes such a threat to
society that it must be tamed, reduced to the cliches
that we so often encounter whether in commercial,
photojournalistic, amateur or snapshot photography.
Further, the photograph brings with it the terrible truth
of death. Barthes writes in Camera Lucida:
The person or the thing photographed...which I
should like to call the Spectrum of the Photograph,
because this word retains...a relation to
"spectacle" and adds...that rather terrible thing
which is there in every photograph: the return of
the dead, [emphasis added] (9)
The photograph per se raises the most fundamental
question of human existence for Barthes:
I am the reference of every photograph, and this is
what generates my astonishment in addressing myself
to the fundamental question: why is it that I am
alive here and now? (84)
In a statement again similar to that by Dorothea Lange
noted above, namely: "Every image he sees, every
photograph he takes, becomes in a sense a self-portrait"

(71), Barthes observes that: "the Photograph is the

advent of myself as other". (12)
According to Barthes:
Photography offers an immediate presence to the
world - a co-presence; but this presence is not only
of a political is also of a metaphysical
order. It is this kind of guestion that Photography
raises for me: questions which derive from a stupid
or simple metaphysics (it is the answers which are
complicated): probably the true metaphysics. (87)
For Barthes, the metaphysical issue raised is the
meaning of life and death. He asserts that photography:
is nonetheless superior to everything the human mind
can have conceived to assure us of reality-but also
this reality is never anything but a contingency
('so much, no more'). (87)
Viewing the photograph reveals the terrifying
contingency of our existence. The photograph robs us of
our illusions and reveals the reality of our own death.
Barthes writes:
I observe with horror an anterior future of which
death is the stake....I shudder like Winnicott's
psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has
already occurred. Whether or not the subject is
already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.
Therefore, "Society is concerned to tame the
photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening
to explode in the face of whoever looks at it." (48)
Barthes writes that society attempts to tame the

photograph through making it an art "for no art is mad,"

and through its effort:
to generalize, to gregarize, banalize it until it is
no longer confronted by any image in relation to
which it can mark itself, assert its special
character, its scandal, its madness. This is what
is happening in our society, where the Photograph
crushes all other images by its tyranny.... (118)
In fact, Barthes' finds implicit in the photograph a
new kind of death a "flat death" (87) and a new reality
"neither image nor reality, a new being, really: a
reality one can no longer touch." (87) Barthes writes:
All those young photographers who are at work in the
world do not know that they are agents of death.
This is the way in which our time assumes death:
with the denying alibi of the distractedly "alive,"
of which the photographer is in a sense the
professional. (92)

Yet, the photograph is always something set apart, a

framed reality. What Barthes perceives is not ultimately
untamed reality but an already connoted picture which
represents that reality and in that process tames it.
Still, unlike Sontag, Barthes sees the polysemy of the
photograph as inherently freeing from social constraint.
Sontag and Barthes share Gadamer's deep concern
about modern aesthetic consciousness and its separation
from the whole of everyday life. Each finds much in the
contemporary world morally bankrupt. Yet, unlike Sontag,
Gadamer does not focus on the alienation of bourgeois

society per se as the source of this failure to be

humane. For Gadamer, the cause of alienation lay not in
modern bourgeois society per se, but in the fundamental
character of what it means to be human specifically man's
desire to escape the limitations of his finitude, to
transcend and so control the world. This desire to
dominate the world, to stand apart from it, is manifest
especially in the subject/object split characteristic of
the Enlightenment, the ensuing modern age and the
scientific method when extended to the world of human
understanding and dialogue as well.
From a hermeneutic perspective, the photograph does
not and cannot stand between self and world, because the
world is accessible only through media. Our relation to
the world is always indirect. And like all media, the
photograph does stand between the self and some possible
worlds. In bringing one world into being, it necessarily
occludes others. Here, however, as with Barthes, the
photograph's plurivocity and seeming resistance to being
fully reduced to human intention may serve as advantages,
liberating us from the limitation of some social
constraints. Here is what Barthes' refers to as the
"madness" (CL, 117) of the photograph which society
always seeks to tame.

Central to Sontag's perspective is her assertion that

the photograph is a "fragment,” lacking in coherence and
comprehensibility. Photographs are always snatched from
the flow of time and space. They capture not the whole
of an action but a brief moment within it and disconnect
it from what went before and what is to come. The
photograph is discontinuous while life is structured in
ongoing time and space. Yet, the photographer's task is
precisely to bring the one into the other, to transform
the momentary, in which each of us always exists, into
the lasting and to challenge the latter with the reality
of the former. For it is in time and in this place that
we live.
Sontag is troubled as well by the plurivocity of the
photograph, its openness to a range of possible meanings.
The written text, presumably, enjoys a more fixed
meaning. The photograph, rather than accessing the real,
stands in its way and blocks our view. It becomes a
cheap substitute for the world, a mute collection of
aesthetic transformations and distortions, a photographic
hall of mirrors. She writes:
Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of
photography, its main effect is to convert the world
into a department store or museum-without-walls in
which every subject is depreciated into an article
of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic
appreciation. (98)

Sontag thus shares with hermeneutics a fundamental

concern with modern aesthetic consciousness. She writes:
The camera's ability to transform reality into
something beautiful derives from its relative
weakness as a means of conveying truth. (100)
Of W. Eugene Smith's famous Minimata photographs for
example, including "Tomoko in her Bath" (Fig. 9), she
writes that they "distance us because they are superb
photographs of agony, conforming to surrealist standards
of beauty. (94) We feel less the reality of the pain,
then, because of its transformation into the beautiful.
Yet, this is an issue that can be traced back to Plato.
The tension between the beautiful and the true has
occupied artists and their critics throughout the ensuing
history of western art and drama. Ironically, it is
precisely the photograph's inherent inability to so
transform the everyday world that remains the central
criticism of such scholars as Scruton, Walton and
Indeed, the strong tones of darkness and light may
just as easily be read as reminiscent of a battle between
good and evil, where the pure and radiant, unselfish love
of a mother enfolds her broken child and in so doing
triumphs in the midst of a dark and broken world.
Sontag's inelegant metaphors of the carnivorous camera

Figure 9. W. Eugene Smith, "Tomoko in her Bath," 1972.


and the photographer's desire for "copulation with the

material world" (28), may tell us more about Susan Sontag
and her bias toward things literary than about
photography. Photographers, it may be just as fair to
say, can feel that they are not atomizing nor cheapening
the world but revealing its "truth" for the first time.
Sontag appears to live in a world in which the
relation between self and world is potentially non­
problematic - except in so far as the character of
contemporary western society stands between the knowing
self and the "real" world, and writing is a privileged
avenue to understanding the true character of that
Such a view is unacceptable from a hermeneutic
stand-point. The relation between self and world is not
solely problematic because of a particular society, but
is a fundamental problematic in human existence. The
written text, like the image, creates a world. Yet, in
neither case, is this a source for despair. In creating
a world, a text opens new opportunities for the self to
enlarge and grow in understanding. What Sontag sees as a
defect, from a hermeneutic view makes possible a greater
fullness of being, beyond which we cannot go. In the
same way, the plurivocity of the photograph provides an

opportunity for the continuous, dialogical meaning making

that constitutes historical existence.
Also, from a hermeneutic perspective, a text, which
has a voice and constitutes an "other," is anything that
can be the object of hermeneutic reflection and anything
that is exteriorized, fixed and has meaning. Writing is
not uniguely privileged.
A text is a structured work and thus, has a
character which can be the object of our attention and
can be apprehended as meaningful. This structural
characteristic, most fully described by Ricoeur, consists
of three qualities:
First, a text must manifest composition i.e.,
something made or done by human action that is governed
by rules of production. This assures that the text is
the result of human meaning making and can take part in
the essentially dialogical nature of the process of human
Secondly, a text must belong to a genre. Ricoeur
writes, "A text is shaped by its genre....[and] genre
must be understood as a productive as well as a
classificatory category which distances the work from its
author and its original situation and audience."
(Pellauer, 106) In short, in order for a text to function

as a text, it must exist outside of its sitz-im-leben and

have a fixed character, one that is part of or related to
a tradition which, in turn, opens the text to a mode of
historical existence and allows it to stand in a
dialogical relation with its reader. At the same time,
genre provides a basis upon which the author can proceed
even before the work is first conceived. It becomes a
condition of the possibility of the work. Genre opens up
the world and it does so in a particular way. It is only
as a result that a text can be encountered as meaningful,
as something that can be read. This also provides the
basis for the distantiation of the text from both author
and reader and "Distantiation...contributes to a text's
ability to 'redescribe reality.'" (Pellauer, 108)
Third, a text manifests "style" which determines its
individuality. As Pellauer writes: "Style conveys the
author's presence, although not in terms of his or her
intention, but rather as what Wayne Booth has called the
'implied author.'" (106) In The Company We Keep. Booth
observes that "To dwell with a creative task for as long
as is required to perform it well means that one tends to
become the work-at least to some degree" and Booth quotes
Montaigne "I have no more made my book than my book has

made me." (128) Comparing real writers with the implied

authors of works, Booth continues :
Real writers, in contrast to the relatively coherent
authors their works imply, face conflicts of ends
that often drive them to drink or suicide: competing
demands of family country, religion, friendship,
justice, pleasure....We have a great deal of
evidence...that artists often imitate the roles they
create. The writer is moved, in reality, toward the
virtues or vices imagined for the sake of the work
itself. (128)
It is only as a result of this characteristic that the
text is assured of having a quality of meaning that can
be encountered in dialogue where it can be met as an
Finally, according to Ricoeur, a text manifests
"autonomy." The fixed nature of the text, which allows
it to endure outside of its sitz-im-leben, and so,
communicate through distantiation is possible only as a
result of its character as autonomous meaning. (Pellauer,
What kind of texts, then, are pictures and how do
they differ from other forms of texts? According to
a picture is situated halfway between a sign and a
symbol. Its representing is neither a pure
pointing-to-something nor a pure taking-the-place-
of-something. It is this intermediate position that
raises it to a unique ontological status. (TM, 154)

In effect, Gadamer rejects the positions of Scruton

and Walton, that pictures by definition, are or can be a
pointing to something as well as the view that pictures
fully take the place of their referent, become an end in
themselves, by transformation through the genius of the
artist. Pictures are part of our language world as
language consists of creating worlds through pictures.
What is essential to the transformative process is not
the genius of the artist, but the subject matter itself.
It is brought into a new being through the process of
play - a process which, in turn, plays the players.
'Pictures can be understood because their contents
are recognized as being in some sense continuous or more
rarely, discontinuous, with the world of the viewer and
so, are by definition "meaningful." The key to
understanding a picture lies in discerning, in light of
one's language world, the nature of the particular inter­
relationships which constitute the picture as a
meaningful whole. The framing itself is a sign that its
contents are to be understood in this way. Similarly,
genre and style set the stage for interpretation,
generate particular expectations and guide the reader
toward a particular range of textual meanings.


Understanding and coming to an understanding do not

refer primarily or originally to a methodically
trained behavior toward texts; rather they are the
form in which the social life of men is carried out,
a social life which - rendered formally - is a
community in dialogue. Nothing is excepted from this
community, no experience of the world whatever.
Neither the specialization of the modern sciences
and their increasingly esoteric management, not
material labor and its form of organization, nor the
political institutions of rule and administration
which hold the society together, are located outside
of this universal medium of practical reason (and
unreason), [emphasis added]
- Gadamer, "Replik" (Tr. by T.

Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics has generated

criticism from a variety of perspectives. His reduction
of method to play seems to leave little room for the many
claims of modern social science to rigorous objectivity.
In particular as Rotherberg notes (1986), Gadamer appears
to exclude such fundamental concepts as verifiability -
thus reducing man's social landscape to an uncontrollable
and perhaps ultimately unknowable reality. Gadamer's

lack of faith in the radical, transformative power of

critique seems also to share little with the critical
stance toward society and tradition that has
characterized much of western philosophy, political or
social thought since the Enlightenment. His apparent
diminution of the role of the author's intention in
constructing a text and thus, understanding it as well,
generated especially critical responses from Emilio Betti
and E. D. Hirsch (1967). Then, too, Gadamer's dialogical
model of social inter-action has been characterized as
"elitist" and culturally specific.(Crapanzano, 1990,
Page (1991) argues, however, that Betti and Hirsch
"misconstrue" Gadamer's text as a work about methodology
while Gadamer in fact provides not a method of
interpretation but a philosophical reflection on the
nature of interpretation itself. He notes Gadamer's
observation in Truth and Method that his work concerns
"not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens
to us over and above our wanting and doing." (xvi)
According to Page, Gadamer's approach is open to critique
not as method but in a typically neglected area, namely,
as "a metaphysically committed theory of human
understanding" (127) which presents a "dogma of

finitude.” (131) [On this point, however, see also Smith

(1990)]. Still, Page ultimately affirms "the relevance
of philosophical hermeneutics, at least in general, for
philosophy." (131)
Connolly (1986) finds Gadamer's approach to textual
interpretation compatible with Wittgenstein's view of
linguistic meaning and holds that the latter excludes
Hirsch's view. According to Connolly, Gadamer's
hermeneutic perspective "would seem to have considerable
merit, for it can be supported by powerful arguments from
the philosophy of language." (276) As he writes:
It [the text] has the meaning it has because of the
special way it and other such texts are read,
discussed, criticized, etc. within the literary
Most compelling for Connolly, is his observation that:
As readers and critics we recognize from the start
the possibility in principle that there may be other
and better interpretations than our own. The
process of interpretation is endless. Indeed, this
plain description of a fact of practice seems to me
to be the strongest argument against intentionalism
___ (275)
Armstrong (1986), too, defends a heteronomous
conception of the text's "semantic field" and rejects
Hirsch's view as representing an untenably extreme
position - one which stands in a bipolar relation with
Deconstruction - neither of which "does justice to the

paradoxes and complexities of our actual daily practice

as interpreters." (321) He concludes:
À text is a variable entity which may undergo ever-
unexpected transformations, but each text's
multiplicity is uniquely its own. Paradoxical in
its mode of existence, a literary work is both one
and many. (328)
Much critique, as illustrated by Habermas'
reflections below, has focussed on Gadamer's apparent
political conservatism. Yet, Warnke argues that this
conservatism does not follow logically from his
hermeneutics. (137) She notes further, with Grondin
(1989) and others, that his commitment to reason is as
great as any who follow in the tradition of the
Enlightenment. McCarthy notes too the inherent logical
consistency of Gadamer's hermeneutics. (1978, 193)
The most sustained and still influential critique of
philosophical hermeneutics has come from Jurgen Habermas
who held in "A Review of Gadamer's Truth and Method" that
"Gadamer fails to appreciate the power of reflection that
is developed in understanding." (268)^^ According to
Habermas: "Social actions can be comprehended only in an
objective framework that is constituted conjointly by
language, labor and domination." (273)
Holding that "Language itself is ideological," (272)
Habermas argued:

The linguistic infrastructure of a society is part

of a complex that, however, symbolically mediated,
is also constituted by the constraint of reality ~
by the constraint of outer nature that enters into
procedures for technical mastery and by the
constraint of inner nature reflected in the
repressive character of social power relations.
These two categories of constraint are not only the
object of interpretations; behind the back of
language, they also affect the very grammatical
rules according to which we interpret the world.
Habermas' point seems compelling. Language does not so
much create reality as reflect it. It is an instrument,
fashioned to ultimate use. Language is shaped by the
power relations, organization and needs of a culture and
serves its dominant interests.
These observations seem almost self-evident. Most
of us have felt the peculiar cast of language used by
institutions, individuals and even - rarely, no doubt -
ourselves, when we use language to confuse rather than
illuminate, or deceive rather than inform.
Yet, when we seem to "know" that language is being
used in this way, we are already making an interpretation
- one based in traditions of understanding and our own
historical situatedness. The problem, then, is not that
we are necessarily incorrect in making such a judgment.
Rather, when we "know" such a thing we are already
committed to a point of view which, as the horizon of our

understanding, stands outside of our own critical

awareness and evaluation. As McCarthy writes:
Gadamer's universalization of hermeneutics rests on
a logical argument against the possibility of
methodologically transcending the hermeneutic point
of view: any attempt to do so is inconsistent with
the very conditions of possibility of understanding:
the linguisticality and historicity of human
existence. (193)
Habermas' position, on the other hand:
is an attempt to mitigate the radically situational
character of understanding through the introduction
of theoretical elements; the theories of
communication and social evolution are meant to
reduce the context-dependency of the basic
categories and assumptions of critical theory.
(McCarthy, 193)
Above all, then:
What Habermas designates as "real determinants of
social processes" (such as economic and political
factors) and sets against language and culture are
themselves linguistically mediated and accessible to
interpretive understanding....(McCarthy, 188)
They are not, then, neutral ground. Our attitudes
determine what we see and how we see it. Most
importantly, we necessarily fail to distinguish between
this unexamined perspective and reality itself. For
Gadamer, then, it is through radically open dialogue that
a better understanding of our world comes about, not
through the development of any ahistorical, objective
method. Reason is inseparable from and understood within
our experience of the world. It is grounded in it.

Yet, hermeneutics makes no claim to the neutrality

of any tradition. Indeed:
The preconceptions and prejudgments that hermeneutic
reflection brings to light - both the interpreter's
and the author's or agents - include those that are
rooted in economic and political interests. "What
else are the prejudices which hermeneutics strives
to grasp in reflection? From where else are they
supposed to come?" (McCarthy, 188)
Still, there is no Archimedian point for man's
objective understanding of himself. Understanding,
therefore, requires radical openness to dialogue from
every perspective.
Further, as Giurlanda argues in "Habermas' Critique
of Gadamer: Does it Stand Up?," underlying Habermas'
critique lie presuppositions about the nature of ideal
human social life which themselves are open to radical
challenge. As he writes:
Is it really self-evident that the ideal situation
is one in which neither of the partners has any
advantage over the other? A student working with a
trusted teacher on a common project would presumably
never be able to have a real conversation with that
teacher. (38)
Then, too, he notes :
If we re-examine that libidinal urge for freedom, is
it really as benign as it appears at first? (39)
Giurlanda argues that:
it is precisely because we are sensitive to the
issues of domination and freedom that we must argue
that Habermas' solution is a form of that dogmatism
which is at the heart of the very domination he

decries so well, and the liberation from which is

his central theme. (40)
Gadamer summarizes the fundamental character of the
disparity between hermeneutics and the critique of
ideology as follows:
The point of hermeneutics is to find the right
judgments in the human context, where it is not a
question of applying a general rule. These
judgments are clearly able to be critical but not in
the totalizing kind of way that is required by the
project of ideology-critique. (Boyne, 30)
For hermeneutics, then, "understanding" presumes
that no adequate explication of experience is ever
obtained, and - being one with life - understanding is
ultimately art not science. But this is not to make it
arbitrary or to say that methodological inquiry is not
essential to our understanding. It is rather to say that
they, too, are partners in dialogue and interpretations
grounded in history.
Then, too, the value of a text lies not in the
degree to which it stands unchanged and unassailable, an
ahistorical revelation which provides a convincing
response to every challenge. Rather, the text ultimately
exists in the reading and its value lies in its ultimate
fecundity, its dissemination into the language that
constitutes our historical life. As Gadamer observes:
ongoing dialogue permits no final conclusion. It
would be a poor hermeneuticist who thought he could
have, or had to have, the last word. (TM, 579)

The primary question to ask of Gadamer's philosophical

hermeneutics, then, is does it lose its vitality or fall
victim to any critique in such a way that its
contribution to ongoing dialogue is fundamentally
jeopardized? Or has it lost its applicability to our
everyday social life? That this is not yet the case is
demonstrated by the continuing dialogue generated by
Gadamer's hermeneutics.


What can be submitted to reflection is always

limited in comparison to what is determined by
previous formative influences. Blindness to the
fact of human finitude is what leads one to accept
the Enlightenment's abstract motto and to disparage
all authority-and it is a momentous misunderstanding
when the mere recognition of this fact is taken to
express a political position, a defense of the
status guo.
-Gadamer, Truth and Method

Perception of the photograph as something that we

can see through results from and illustrates the active,
transformative power of the perceptual process. We
guickly learn to compensate for impediments to effective
perception of the world which would otherwise constitute
insurmountable obstacles to survival. We learn to ignore
the inherent transformation in the photograph from a
three dimensional reality to a two dimensional
representation and accept the frame - a purely arbitrary
and artificial contrivance, a convention and sign - as
somehow constituting a whole, unified Gestalt and so, a
meaningful unit to be understood in itself. Throughout,

this is a process established without conscious control

or awareness.
Ultimately, this is the source of confusion about
the nature of the photograph. Despite naive appearances,
the photograph does not provide direct access to its
object for no such access exists. The photograph is its
own being. As picture the photograph instantiates a
sense of the whole (a world) as constituted by the
integrated parts of the photographic image, none of which
is understood without relation to each of the others, and
all of which are perceived in relation to the whole.
The photograph, too, calls us into a world. Like
all language, it protects us from the chaos that a world
without order holds. Thus, it comforts us by its
suggestion of completion, the safety of enclosure, the
assurance that each element has a place in relation to a
whole and that the whole is imbued with meaning - even if
that meaning is not readily apparent. The "wildness"
that Barthes' perceives in the photograph, then, is
already tamed in the act of picturing.
The photograph's seeming transparency allows us to
"enter into" the reality presented, and so brought into
being, there. It invites us into its world, to enter
playfully into its flow, to enter into a reality that has

momentarily withdrawn from the flow of time and space and

so participate in a journey of becoming present to
ourselves, enlarging our picture of the world.
The apparent transparency of the photograph is
maintained by the frame, the limits of which define and
so open a new possible world, and signify a horizon in
and through which a world is constituted. The visual
opacity of the frame signifies its constitution of a
world, for what is opaque to us stands as our horizon.
By asserting that the picture is always an
expression of its referent - here understood as inclusive
of the "world" of the picture (Pellauer, 107) - and so
recontextualizing the aesthetic into the world of
everyday experience, hermeneutics denies to subjectivity
the primacy required by aesthetic consciousness. Here,
the picture brings its referent into being as cognizable,
as partner in the ongoing dialectic of meaning making.
Perhaps the most fundamental hermeneutic insight is
that it is precisely in this way - and only in this way -
that the world becomes accessible to us. Dialogical and
dialectical process denies that self-reflective
consciousness is the key to understanding.
While the photographic frame, then, has often been
and still is viewed by many as an obstacle to our full

presence to the world, that full presence is already

denied in self-consciousness itself. The appearance of
the photographic frame, then, holds a liberating
potential from everyday vision which is framed as well
but by a horizon that necessarily remains outside of
conscious awareness. This is the frame which we cannot
"see" and from which we have no distance. It is, then,
precisely because the photograph provides a "frame" that
the frame of our everyday vision is challenged by it and
brought to consciousness.
Photography provides a space for dialogue with the
other as other and so throws our presuppositions, our
world and its limits, into sharp relief. Photographs
establish events as events. They define their character,
and in so doing, place them within human discourse. Yet,
the photograph too, typically insists that its subject is
an individual, specific event in a specific site. In
this way it resists closure by pointing beyond itself to
that which is never exhausted in any presentation of it.
Photographs are not reducible to the canons of
modern aesthetic consciousness. They militate against
any diminution of the world as ground of our being -
inseparable from all that we are and all that we might
become - and defy any attempt to free ourselves from our

broken, finite nature. Photographs confirm the

contingent as essential, even determinative constituent
of meaning in our lives. They reject the illusion that
we are separate, self-creating beings relating to the
world but not really "of" it. Even as they appear before
us in a never ending stream of mediated incarnations,
each designed to assure us of the ongoing newness of our
lives, each attempting to dissuade us from looking past
the now, the photograph testifies simultaneously to our
finitude, a being made possible only by our being in a
world and of it.
So, too, the will to photograph is the will to
meaning, to relate world to being, to make the world our
own. At the same time, it demands that we enter into the
world in order to truly know ourselves.
It is this point that leads to a second critical
hermeneutic insight, that the world of the photograph
must always lead us back to dialogue and so, the ground
of our being. For hermeneutics, a work comes into
meaning only in process of never ending dialogue. The
photograph serves to focus that dialogue and open us to
greater understanding of our world and ourselves. But if
the representation becomes a substitute for the world we
try to own it and so possess the ground of our being.

This is, perhaps, the character of a culture not only

trying to escape its finitude^^, but persuaded that it
can successfully do so - a world gone mad. Here, we
destroy our capacity for human dialogue and the self­
understanding made possible through it. We reduce others
to objects and so become objects to ourselves. We enter
into a lifeless world and so cease to be that which we
most truly are, a mode of being that exists in dialogue.
Yet, human pretensions originated with the species,
not the camera. Plato, whose disdain for the pictorial
arts is well known, felt that even writing itself held a
similar danger. In the Phaedrus, Plato ascribes to King
Thamus the following words when introduced by Theuth to
his new invention of writing:
This invention of yours will create forgetfulness in
the learner's souls, because they will not use their
memories; they will trust to the external written
characters and not remember of themselves. You have
found a specific, not for memory but for
reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the
pretense of wisdom; they will be hearers of many
things and will have learned nothing; they will
appear to be omniscient and will generally know
nothing; they will be tiresome, having the
reputation of knowledge without the reality.
(Holdheim, 256)
Photographs, then, invite us into a kind of play
with finitude itself, a play that reveals - if we enter
into the game - the character of our own being. So, too,
it opens ever new worlds of possibility to us. The

photograph isolates its world from the flow of space-

time, a world of which it is unmistakably a part. It
alters, wittingly or unwittingly, the ever present
symbols of light and dark and their inevitable suggestion
of the known and unknown, of safety and danger, of life
and death. And through the counter-intuitive and
shocking appearance of "time stopped," the photograph
confronts us with the inescapability of our own radical
finitude (for here is a witness, paradoxically, to insist
that time does not stop, that time and existence are
one). And it does so by presenting an opportunity to
play with time, to seem, for a moment, to have power over
it and to understand it by seeming to stand outside of
Ultimately, the photograph testifies to a reality in
which I am "of" the world. Only in the world, do I come
to know myself; only in the world do I exist as a self.
As selves, the world for us is never simply "the" world.
It is always our world, a world that is no neutral object
but ground, the source of life and meaning.
Our stories, and so understanding itself, are drawn
from the world and yet always abide within it. The world
is pregnant with form and meaning that is no aesthetic
creation, but vital to our daily existence corporately

and as individuals. We are within the world and as such

the world is never anything less than our omega and our
nadir. As Merleau-Ponty writes in The Phenomenology of
Perception (1964), "there is no inner man, man is in the
world, and only in the world does he know himself." (10)
We are, then, brought into being by "the world" and
"as a world." Through the photograph, we can recognize
the world as ours, a world pregnant with meaning - not a
world that I understand so much as a world that
understands me, a world in which I encounter myself and
through which I come to understand myself.
In the photograph, the self is present as a world.
While aesthetic traditions emphasize the unique,
transformative power of the individual creative agent,
the photograph by its nature draws attention to the
indivisibility of self and world. There is no line that
separates the two. Each constitutes the other. Through
the photograph, self and world come into being as a
single reality.
While representation is a revelation of being in its
"heightened truth," that truth is never exhausted in any
representation of it. Truth, rather, is always
historically situated and so, a limited truth. It is
also always our truth, for it exists only in relation to

meaning and some apprehending consciousness. The degree

to which the photograph reveals the being of its referent
and constitutes that being by bringing it into existence,
is made possible by the dialogic nature of language, the
process through which truth comes into being.
The nature and quality of this new being, its truth,
is judged in dialogue according to how well it reflects
and challenges the breadth of our experience, the truth
that we know.
From a hermeneutical perspective, the act of
"taking” a picture not only records an event, but
constitutes it as an e v e n t . T h e photographic picture
results from interaction between the ongoing flow of
history, a flow in which no occurrence is isolated from
the fabric of which it is a part, where what we conceive
as beginning and end are inextricably bound within and
arbitrarily abstracted from this larger process.
There remains no formula, no guaranteed avenue to
understanding the photographic text. There is no method
that stands outside of history. At the same time, the
photographic text remains to challenge each
interpretation. In this way, hermeneutics asserts that a
limitless number of dialogic partners are required by the
process of understanding and so, we are all ultimately

interdependent as meaning making beings. While method is

here a mode of play, there remains no more serious
activity than this, for play is the stuff of which
meaning is made, actions are taken and lives are lived.
If we are truly to understand a photographic text i.
e., bring it to life as an "other" addressing us, we must
remain aware that full understanding is not an end state
but a never ending journey which we are always already
embarked upon. In this sense we can understand Gadamer's
assertion that hermeneutics "insists that there is no
higher principle than holding oneself open in a
conversation." (TM, 189) The goal of the insight
provided by philosophical hermeneutics is the realization
A full set of experiences, meetings, instructions,
and disappointments do not conjoin in the end to
mean that one knows everything, but rather that one
is aware and has learned a degree of modesty. (TM,
And the one that is aware stands not outside the
world, observing it, but within the world and is the
world coming into being.

Philosophical hermeneutics, then, draws attention to
the radically historical nature of all understanding and
thus, challenges any presupposition of objectivity in our

interpretation and understanding of photographs or other

texts. We always and necessarily participate in the
construction of the text before us. Thus it challenges
as well the willingness to settle for less than radical
openness to dialogue. It perennially asks us to remain
open to examine the "world" in which our actions and
decisions are understandable, a world made accessible to
us in and through our encounter with others. The thrust
of philosophical hermeneutics is, then, ceaselessly
toward excavating the rationale behind what we do.
Yet, it characterizes this process as art, not science.
It calls for evaluation, not testing. (Madison, 28-29)
From a hermeneutic perspective, the photograph
cannot be transparent to the world for the world is
constituted through our representations of it.
Philosophical hermeneutics argues that art is a creation
whose origin and meaning always exceeds the artist's own
understanding of it and critique is not the application
of universal reason but a reading from a particular
vantage point and is always grounded in a tradition of
its own. We are, indeed, none of us, what we seem.
These implications, then, extend to other media as
well. Hermeneutics opens us to new ways to discuss and
interpret mass mediated images and texts. It presents a

single framework within which to understand contemporary

research efforts which suggest an active, creative role
for the audience of mass media, a way to relate those
studies to a larger framework inclusive of the creation
of the texts themselves, other cultural artifacts and
even the research methods themselves. Indeed, Gadamer's
concept of play seems to have been taken over in some
contexts without alteration although its challenge to the
scientific status of method in social research has so far
received a more limited hearing.
For philosophical hermeneutics, photographs are not
fragments but represent the essential character of
language itself. Every text, every statement and
artifact is dependent on the meaning we bring to it.
Philosophical hermeneutics provides an avenue, then, to
bring visual communication into the larger debate
concerning the nature of language itself, no longer a
field set off and even adrift from the larger language
Philosophical hermeneutics too challenges the media
use of photographic technology with a clear call to
recognize the latter as language with implicit and
explicit truth claims which warrant the same ethical
evaluation and constraints. It calls for the news media

to utilize pictures with the same care and seriousness

given to written and verbal reporting and opinion
writing. It argues that reducing them to fluff for the
front page of a newspaper, for example, is also a
statement about the world, a world perceived as
unbearable without gimmickry and distraction. It calls
for the formal inclusion of photographic and visual
education in schools as part of language instruction -
even as it challenges the very notion of language often
found there. It places the same responsibility on
photographers as writers to portray the world of human
events as truthfully as possible.
Then, too, philosophical hermeneutics shows that the
world which comes into being through picturing, does not
so much belong to us as do we belong to it. It is not so
much a creation of ours, as are we creations of it. This
is no relation between 'the' world and 'the self,' where
the latter acts upon the former, but one in which a world
already embedded as possibility in language, is brought
into existence through a playful unity of both.
Philosophical hermeneutics, then, calls us to struggle
against the desire to dominate, direct and control our
world according to our conscious intent. It presents

instead a call to stewardship and the greatest respect

for the other as keys to our survival.


See esp. Kusch, parts III and IV; Derksen, chps.

4 & 5; Weinsheimer, ch. 3; Gadamer, 1989, pt. III.
For a discussion of this relationship see esp.
Kolers, "Reading Pictures and Reading Text," in David
Perkins and Barbara Leondar's (eds.) The Arts and
Cognition (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University,
1977), pp. 136-164. Other sources include: Bruce and
Green, 1990; Wilding, 1983; Coren and Girgus, 1978; Walk
and Pick, Jr., 1978.
3. "Ideology" has a history of varied use and
meanings. Among 20th century authors, some - notably
Lenin, Lukacs and (in some writings) Mannheim as well as
a range of contemporary writers "from Martin Seliger to
Clifford Geertz," (Thompson, 54) have held to a "neutral"
definition where ideology refers to a set of ideas or
beliefs of a class, society or other group without a
sense of illusion . For Marx and Engels, ideology was an
"upside-down version of reality," a set of ruling ideas
of an epoch which are "'nothing more than the ideal
expression of the dominant material relationships, the
dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.'"
(Williams, 155) For contemporary "critical" conceptions
of ideology however, to study ideology "is to study the
ways in which menaing serves to establish and sustain
relations of domination." (Thompson, 56) It is in this
sense that the term will be used in this text.
4. Gadamer's use of the term "modern aesthetics" is
adopted here and refers to western aesthetic traditions
which adhere to a conception of aesthetics as an
independent field of philosophy whose principal
characteristics were first set forth by Kant (see below
p. 41). It should not be confused with the late
nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century movements
in art associated with the term modernism.

5. While this is accurate as a general view (see e.

g., Grossberg, 184), there are and have been exceptions
to it. Adorno, for example, held a view consistent with
the above for popular music, but saw modernist art as
"projecting utopian possibilities, [and opening] up a
space for social critique." (Grossberg, 396)
6. For an interesting and thorough analysis of the
this topic see Anthony Seville's The Test of Time; An
Essay on Philosophical Aesthetics (Oxford: Clarendon,
7. "Dialogue" is here understood as the form which
the dialectical process of history takes within human
society. It is "dialectical" in that it has the dynamic,
productive character of the dialectic most closely
associated with Hegel. In dialogue, this character
results from the always limited nature of human
utterances. Any statement made in human conversation
tends to produces a second, complementary assertion which
results in an enlarged capacity of human language to
characterize the breadth of human experience.
Ontologically, to be dialogical is to be human. For an
interesting contemporary discussion of these terms see C.
Jan Swearingen's "Dialogue and Dialectic: The Logic of
Conversation and the Interpretation of Logic," in Tulio
Maranhao's (ed.) The Interpretation of Dialogue (Chicago:
Univ. of Chicago, 1990), pp. 47-74.
8. Throughout the text a distinction will be made
between "the" world i.e., reality as it is in itself,
unknowable in its totality, and conceptions or
understandings of "the world," which are always "a"
world. "A" world is always partly thematized, the basis
for practical action in the world. It, too, however, is
never fully cognicized. It's "horizon" lies beyond
human articulation at any one time. It is typically that
which is "known," or we have command over, and that which
exceeds our knowing but still acts as ground of our
actions, that we typically refer to as "the" world. This
is not meant to deny, however, that there is a relation
between the two. However, the extent and nature of that
relation is, ipso facto, unknowable.
9. It is rarely understood that photographic film,
framing, camera optics and mechanical or nor electronic
shutters, require substantial alteration in order to
mimic human vision. Our vision, based upon hundreds of
thousands of years of biological development and

refinement is thoroughly conditioned to maximize the

information value of our everyday vision. We
automatically see selectively according to what the
relative significance of whatever lies before our eyes
seems to be. This is largely an unconscious process over
which we have relatively little control.
Such practices as burning down (darkening) and/or
bleaching (lightening) certain areas of the photograph
are time honored ways of visually mimicking this
selectively of vision. Typically, we do not even notice
that work, as in photojournalistic photographs. However,
what is actually happening is that someone - unknown to
us - is making decisions for us about the relative
significance of what we are seeing is. Similarly, the
use of wide angle and/or telephoto lenses to exaggerate
or lesson relative distances between objects in the scene
photographed suggest relationships between objects or
persons that normal, human vision would not suggest
existed. So, too, the shutter - especially in
combination with the photographic format (frame) -
suggests a completion or a totality and unity which then
has a meaning or tells a story that may well be purely an
artifact of the medium itself or a result of the
intelligent use of those artifactual qualities to tell a
particular story or to cast the information in a certain
way. These are only the barest minimum of everyday
photographic practices that radically challenge
any assertion of photographic objectivity in actual
practice in our everyday life.
10. The formula for the Daguerreotype was published
by Daguerre in Paris in 1839. In this process, a
positive image was formed by holding a polished coating
of silver on copper plate over mercury vapor. (The Focal
Encyclopedia of Photography. 1960.)
11. The calotype (or Talbotype) produced a paper
negative in camera through mechanical means. It quickly
became obsolete when the Collodian process was developed.
(The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography. 1960.)
12. For a critical discussion of modernism, its
varied and yet related characteristics as well as its
relation to earlier nineteenth century traditional art,
see especially Chefdor, Quinones and Wachtel's (eds.)
Modernism: Challenges and Perspectives (1986). H. Wayne
Morgan's Keepers of Culture: The Art-Thought of Kenyon
Cox. Royal Cortissoz and Frank Jewett Mather. Jr. (1989)
mounts a highly charged defense of the traditional, pre-

modernist visual arts and art theory. For a valuable

introduction to modernism in photography as well as an
anthology of modernist photographs see Van Deren Coke
with Diana C. Du Pont, Photography; A Facet of Modernism
(1986) .
13. It must be remembered, however, that only in
this way was Szarkowski able to make a convincing case
for the artistic and aesthetic potential of the
photograph as a medium within the dominant paradigm of
the era.
14. For an account of the history of the Frankfurt
School, see esp. Martin Jay's The Dialectical
Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the
Institute of Social research. 1923-1950. (Boston; Little
Brown, 1973). For a contemporary perspective on Mass
Media research in America from a viewpoint informed by
critical theory see Hanno Hardt's Critical Communication
Studies: Communication. History and Theory in America.
(London: Routledge, 1992.) Also, a brief introduction is
provided by Grossberg (1984) and see Douglas Kellner's
"Critical Theory and Ideology Critique," in Ronald
Robin's (ed.) The Aesthetics of the Critical Theorists:
Studies on Beniamin. Adorno. Marcuse, and Habermas.
(Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), pp. 85-
123. Reflections on the nature of ideology, its current
status especially in post-modernist, academic circles
along with a strong defense of its conceptual value is
presented by Terry Eagleton in Ideology: A n I n t r o d u c t i o n
(1991). See also Ingram's Critical Theory and Philosophy
15. Thompson argues that false consciousness is not
a necessary but a nonetheless actual accompanying feature
of ideology.
16. See for example, Bürgin, 1982; D'Agostino and
Muntadas, 1982; Bolton, 1989.
17. Some similarities exist between Gadamer's notion
of "play" and the mass communication theory of William
Stephenson (see The Plav Theory of Mass Communication.
1985 [1967]). The latter concentrates on the reception
of mass media messages and their function as source for
varied meaning making. For Gadamer, however, play serves
as model of human endeavor in the social sciences per se
and characterizes the methods of the social sciences as
well. Gadamer's fundamental commitment to the radically

historical character of human being presents a

philosophical grounding that lies at the root of this
18. It is necessary to recall here, however, that
Gadamer's conception of dialogue is far more encompassing
than that used in the ethnographic literature which
Crapanzano finds problematic. Gadamer's understanding of
dialogue presupposes his view of language as a universal
medium (Kusch) i.e, it is inclusive of all human
production and meaning making- even armed conflict.
19. But see Ingram (1987), who notes the change in
Habermas' position vis a vis Gadamer (172), his movement
away from critigue of ideology and gradual embrace of "a
more holistic conception of societal rationality along
the lines proposed by Gadamer." (176)
20. Recognizing that photographic images are
pictures if they meet the fundamental reguirements of
coherence and non-contradiction and thus constitute a
text, as set out above in Chapter VI.
21. An illuminating perspective on culture as a
reaction formation which serves to facilitate the denial
of death is provided in Ernst Becker's classic study The
Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973).
22. Note that the use of the verb "to take" implies
a removal from the world, a possibility that reguires a
return to the subject/object dichotomy rejected by
philosopihcal hermeneutics.
23. See e. g., John Fiske's Television Culture
(London: Metheun, 1987), esp. Chapter 12 (pp. 224-239)
where he discusses play and note particularly pp. 230-231
where R. Barthes' comparison of reading a text to a
performance of a musical score is cited (see "From Work
to Text," in his Imaae-Music=Text (London: Fontana, 1977,
pp. 155-164.)


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