Photography Unlimited

Reality has always been interpreted through the reports given by images; and philosophers since Plato have tried to loosen our dependence on images by evoking a standard of an image-free way of apprehending the real. But when, in the mid-nineteenth century, the standard seemed finally attainable, the retreat of the old religious and political illusions before the advance of humanistic and scientific thinking did not—as anticipated—create mass defections to the real. On the contrary, in the new age of unbelief the allegiance to images was strengthened. The credence that could no longer be given to realities understood in the form of images was now being given to realities understood to be images, illusions.

In the preface to the second edition (1844) of The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach observes that “our era” “prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being”—while being aware of these preferences. And his premonitory complaint has been transformed in the twentieth century into a widely agreed on diagnosis: that a society becomes “modern” when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, when images that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality, and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience, become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.

Feuerbach’s words—he is writing a few years after the invention of the camera—seem, more specifically, a presentiment of the impact of photography. For the images that have virtually unlimited authority in a modern society are mainly photographic images; and the scope of that authority stems from the properties peculiar to images taken by cameras.

Such images are indeed able to usurp reality because a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask. While a painting, even one that meets photographic standards of resemblance, never does more than state an interpretation, a photograph never does less than register an emanation’ (light waves reflected by objects)—a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be.

Between the fantasy alternatives that Holbein the Younger had lived long enough to have painted Shakespeare or that a prototype of the camera had been invented early enough to have photographed him, most Bardolators would choose the photograph. This is not just because it would presumably show what Shakespeare really looked like, for even if the hypothetical photograph were faded, barely legible, a brownish shadow, we would probably still prefer it to another glorious Holbein. Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross.

Most contemporary expressions of concern that an image-world is replacing the real one continue to echo, as Feuerbach did, the Platonic depreciation of the image: true in so far as it resembles …

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