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 something real, sham because it is no more than a resemblance. But this venerable naïve realism is somewhat beside the point in the era of photographic images, for its blunt contrast between the image (“copy”) and the thing depicted (the “original”)—which Plato repeatedly illustrates with the example of a painting—does not fit a photograph in so simple a way. Neither does the contrast help in understanding image-making at its origins, when it was a practical, magical activity, a means of appropriating or gaining power over something. The further back we go in history, as E.H. Gombrich has observed, the less sharp is the distinction between images and real things; in primitive societies, the thing and its image were simply two different, that is, physically distinct, manifestations of the same energy or spirit. Hence, the supposed efficacy of images in propitiating and gaining control over powerful presences. Those powers, those presences were present in them.

For defenders of the real from Plato to Feuerbach to equate image with mere “appearance”—that is, to presume that the image is absolutely distinct from the object depicted—is part of the process of desacralization that separates us irrevocably from the world of “sacred” times and places in which an image was taken to participate in the reality of the object depicted. What defines the originality of photography is that, at the very moment in the long, increasingly secular history of painting when secularism was entirely triumphant, it revives—in wholly secular terms—something like the primitive status of images. Our irrepressible feeling that the photographic process is something magical has a genuine basis. No one takes an easel painting to be in any sense co-substantial with its subject; it only represents or refers. But a photograph is not only “like” its subject, an homage to the subject. It is part of, an extension of that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it.


Photography is acquisition in several forms. In its simplest form, we have in a photograph surrogate possession of a cherished person or thing, a possession which gives photographs some of the character of unique objects. Through photographs, we also have a consumer’s relation to events, both to events which are part of our experience and to those which are not—a distinction between types of experience that such habit-forming consumership blurs. A third form of acquisition is that, through image-making and image-duplicating machines, we can acquire something as information (rather than experience). Indeed, the importance of photographic images as the medium through which more and more events enter our experience is, finally, only a by-product of their effectiveness in furnishing knowledge dissociated from and independent of experience.

This is the most inclusive form of photographic acquisition. Through being photographed, something becomes part of a system of information, fitted into schemes of classification and storage which range from the crudely chronological order of snapshot-sequences pasted in family albums to the dogged accumulations and meticulous filing needed for photography’s uses in weather reporting, astronomy, microbiology, geology, police work, medical training and diagnosis, military reconnaissance, and art history. Photographs do more than redefine the stuff of ordinary experience (people, things, events, whatever we see—albeit differently, often inattentively—with natural vision) and add vast amounts of material that we never see at all. Reality as such is redefined—as an item for exhibition, as a record for scrutiny, as a target for surveillance. The photographic exploration and duplication of the world fragments continuities and feeds the pieces into an interminable dossier, thereby providing possibilities of control that could not even be dreamed of under the earlier system of recording information: writing.

That photographic recording is always, potentially, a means of control was already recognized when such powers were in their infancy. In 1850, Delacroix noted in his Journal the success of some “experiments in photography” being made at Cambridge, where astronomers were photographing the sun and the moon and had managed to obtain a pinhead-size impression of the star Alpha. He added the following “curious” observation:

Since the light of the star which was daguerreotyped took twenty years to traverse the space separating it from the earth, the ray which was fixed on the plate had consequently left the celestial sphere a long time before Daguerre discovered the process by means of which we have just gained control of this light.

Leaving behind such puny notions of control as Delacroix’s, photography has made ever more literal the senses in which a photograph gains control over the thing photographed. The technology that has already minimized the extent to which the distance separating photographer from subject affects the precision and magnitude of the image; provided ways to photograph things which are unimaginably small as well as those, like stars, which are unimaginably far; rendered picture-taking independent of light itself (infra-red photography) and freed the picture-object from its confinement to two dimensions (holography); shrunk the interval between sighting the picture and holding it in one’s hands (from the first Kodak, when it took weeks before a developed roll of film was returned to the amateur photographer, to the Polaroid, which ejects the image in a few seconds); made images move (cinema) and achieved their simultaneous recording and transmission (video)—this technology has made photography an incomparable tool for deciphering behavior, predicting it, and interfering with it.

Photography has powers that no other image-system has ever enjoyed because, unlike the earlier ones, it is not dependent on an image-maker. However carefully the photographer intervenes in setting up and guiding the image-making process, the process itself remains an optical-chemical (or electronic) one, the workings of which are automatic. Its machinery will inevitably be improved to provide still more detailed and, therefore, more useful maps of the real. The mechanical genesis of these images, and the literalness of the powers they confer, amounts to a new relationship between image and reality. And if photography could also be said to restore the most primitive relationship—the partial identity of image and object—the potency of the image is now experienced in a very different way. The primitive notion of the efficacy of images presumes that images possess the qualities of real things, but our inclination is to attribute to real things the qualities of an image.

As everyone knows, primitive people fear that the camera will rob them of some part of their being. In the memoir he published in 1900, at the end of a very long life, Nadar reports that Balzac had a similar “vague dread” of being photographed. His explanation, according to Nadar, was that


every body in its natural state was made up of a series of ghostly images superimposed in layers to infinity, wrapped in infinitesimal films…. Man never having been able to create, that is to make something material from an apparition, from something impalpable, or to make from nothing, an object—each Daguerreian operation was therefore going to lay hold of, detach, and use up one of the layers of the body on which it focused.

It seems fitting for Balzac to have had this particular brand of trepidation—“Was Balzac’s fear of the Daguerreo-type real or feigned?” Nadar asks. “It was real…”—since the procedure of photography is a materializing, so to speak, of what is most original in his procedure as a novelist. Balzac’s method was to magnify tiny details, as in a photographic enlargement, to juxtapose incongruous traits or items as in a photographic layout: made expressive in this way, any one thing can be connected with everything else. For Balzac, the spirit of an entire milieu could be disclosed by a single detail, however paltry or arbitrary-seeming. The whole of a life may be summed up in a momentary appearance.1 And a change in appearances is a change in the person, for he refused to posit any “real” person ensconced behind these appearances.

Balzac’s fanciful theory, expressed to Nadar, that a body is composed of an infinite series of “ghostly images,” eerily parallels the supposedly realistic theory expressed in his novels, that a person is an aggregate of appearances, appearances which can be made to yield, by proper focusing, infinite layers of significance. To view reality as an endless set of situations which mirror each other, to extract analogies from the most dissimilar things, is to anticipate the characteristic form of perception stimulated by photographic images. Reality itself has started to be understood as a kind of writing, which has to be decoded—even as photographic images were themselves first compared to writing. (Niépce’s name for the process whereby the image appears on the plate was heliography, sunwriting; Fox Talbot called the camera “the pencil of nature.”)

The problem with Feuerbach’s contrast of “original” with “copy” is its static definitions of reality and image. It assumes that what is real persists, unchanged and intact, while only images change: shored up by the most tenuous claims to credibility, they have somehow become more seductive. But the notions of image and reality are complementary. When the notion of reality changes, so does that of the image, and vice versa. “Our era” does not prefer images to real things out of perversity but partly in response to the ways in which the notion of what is real has been progressively complicated and weakened, one of the early ways being the criticism of reality as façade which arose among the enlightened middle classes in the last century. (This was of course the very opposite of the effect intended.)

To reduce large parts of what has hitherto been regarded as real to mere fantasy, as Feuerbach did when he called religion “the dream of the human mind” and dismissed theological ideas as psychological projections; or to inflate the random and trivial details of everyday life into ciphers of hidden historical and psychological forces, as Balzac did in his encyclopedia of social reality in novel form—these are themselves ways of experiencing reality as a set of appearances, an image.

Few people in this society share the primitive dread of cameras that comes from thinking of the photograph as a material part of themselves. But some trace of the magic remains: for example, in our reluctance to tear up or throw away the photograph of a loved one, especially of someone dead or far away. To do so is a ruthless gesture of rejection. In Jude the Obscure, Jude’s discovery that Arabella has sold the maple frame with the photograph of himself in it which he gave her on their wedding day signifies “the utter death of every sentiment in his wife” and is “the conclusive little stroke to demolish all sentiment in him.”

But the true modern primitivism is not to regard the image as a real thing; photographic images are hardly that real. Instead, reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras. It is common now for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up—a plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombing—that “it seemed like a movie.” This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was. While many people in nonindustrialized countries still feel apprehensive when being photographed, divining it to be some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimated looting of the personality or the culture, people in industrialized countries seek to have their photographs taken—feel that they are images, and are made real by photographs.


A steadily more complex sense of the real creates its own compensatory fervors and simplifications, the most addictive of which is picture-taking. It is as if photographers, responding to an increasingly depleted sense of reality, were looking for a transfusion—traveling to new experiences, refreshing the old ones. Their ubiquitous activities amount to the most radical, and the safest, version of mobility. The urge to have new experiences is translated into the urge to take photographs: experience seeking a crisis-proof form.

As the taking of photographs seems almost obligatory to those who travel about, the passionate collecting of them has special appeal for those confined—either by choice, incapacity, or coercion—to enclosed, indoor space. Photograph collections can be used to make a substitute world, keyed to exalting or consoling or tantalizing images. A photograph can be the starting point of a romance, as Hardy’s Jude had already fallen in love with Sue Bridehead’s photograph before he met her, but it is more common for the erotic relation to be not only created by but understood as limited to the photographs. In Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, the narcissistic brother and sister share their bedroom, their “secret room,” with images of boxers, movie stars, and murderers. Isolating themselves in their lair to live out their private legend, the two adolescents put up these photographs, a private pantheon. On one wall of cell No. 426 in Fresnes Prison in the early 1940s Jean Genet pasted the photographs of twenty criminals he had clipped from newspapers, twenty faces in which he discerned “the sacred sign of the monster,” and in their honor wrote Our Lady of the Flowers; they served as his muses, his models, his erotic talismans. “They watch over my little routines,” writes Genet—conflating reverie, masturbation, and writing—and “are all the family I have and my only friends.” For stay-at-homes, prisoners, and the self-imprisoned, to live among the photographs of glamorous strangers is a sentimental response to isolation and an insolent challenge to it.

J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973) describes a more specialized collecting of photographs in the service of sexual obsession: photographs of car accidents which the character called Vaughan collects while preparing to stage his own death in a car crash. He anticipates the acting out of his erotic vision of car-death, and the fantasy itself is further eroticized by the repeated perusal of these photographs. At one end of the spectrum, photographs are objective data; at the other end, they are items of psychological science fiction. And as in even the most dreadful—or neutral-seeming—reality a sexual imperative can be found, so even the most banal photograph-document can mutate into an emblem of desire. The mug shot is a tool to a detective, an erotic fetish to a fellow thief. To Hofrat Behrens, in The Magic Mountain, the pulmonary X-rays of his patients are diagnostic tools. To Hans Castorp, serving an indefinite sentence in Behrens’s TB sanatorium, and made lovesick by the enigmatic, unattainable Clavdia Chauchat, “Clavdia’s X-ray portrait, showing not her face, but the delicate bony structure of the upper half of her body, and the organs of the thoracic cavity, surrounded by the pale, ghostlike envelope of flesh” is the most precious of trophies. The “transparent portrait” is a far more intimate vestige of his beloved than the Hofrat’s painting of Clavdia, that “exterior portrait” which Hans had once gazed at with such longing.

Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality, understood as recalcitrant, inaccessible; of making it stand still. Or they enlarge a reality that is felt to be shrunk, hollowed out, perishable, remote. One can’t possess reality, one can possess (and be possessed by) images—as, according to Proust, most ambitious of voluntary prisoners, one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past. Nothing could be more unlike the self-sacrificial travail of an artist like Proust than the effortlessness of picture-taking, which must be the sole activity resulting in accredited works of art in which a single movement, a touch of the finger, produces a complete work. While the Proustian labors presuppose that reality is distant, photography implies instant access to the real. But the results of this practice of instant access are another way of creating distance. To possess the world in the form of images is, precisely, to re-experience the unreality and remoteness of the real.

The strategy of Proust’s realism presumes distance from what is normally experienced as real, the present, in order to reanimate what is usually available only in a remote and shadowy form, the past—which is where the present becomes in his sense real, that is, something that can be possessed. In this effort photographs were of no help. Whenever Proust mentions photographs, he does so disparagingly: as a synonym for a shallow, too exclusively visual, merely voluntary relation to the past, whose yield is insignificant compared with the deep discoveries to be made by responding to cues given by all the senses—the technique he called “involuntary memory.”

One can’t imagine the Overture to Swann’s Way ending with the narrator’s coming across a snapshot of the parish church at Combray and the savoring of that visual crumb, instead of the taste of the humble madeleine dipped in tea, making an entire part of his past spring into view. But this is not because a photograph cannot evoke memories (it can, depending on the quality of the viewer rather than of the photograph) but because of what Proust makes clear about his own demands upon imaginative recall, that it be not just extensive and accurate but give the texture and essence of things. And by considering photographs only so far as he could use them, as an instrument of memory, Proust somewhat misconstrues what photographs are: not so much an instrument of memory as an invention of it or a replacement.

It is not reality that photographs make immediately accessible—but images. For example, now all adults can know exactly how they and their parents and grandparents looked as children—a knowledge not available to anyone before the invention of cameras, not even to that tiny minority among whom it was customary to commission paintings of their children. Most of these portraits were less informative than any snapshot. And even the very wealthy usually owned just one portrait of themselves or any of their forebears as children, that is, an image of one moment of childhood, whereas the camera offers the possibility of possessing a complete record, at all ages. The point of the standard portrait in the bourgeois household of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to confirm an ideal of the sitter (proclaiming social standing, embellishing personal appearance); given this purpose, it is clear why their owners did not feel the need to have more than one. What a photographic record confirms is, more modestly, simply that the subject exists; therefore, one can never have too many.

The fear that a subject’s uniqueness was leveled by being photographed was never so frequently expressed as in the 1850s, the years when portrait photography gave the first example of how cameras could create instant fashions and durable industries. In Melville’s Pierre, published at the start of the decade, the hero—another fevered champion of voluntary isolation—

considered with what infinite readiness now, the most faithful portrait of any one could be taken by the Daguerreotype, whereas in former times a faithful portrait was only within the power of the moneyed, or mental aristocrats of the earth. How natural then the inference, that instead of, as in old times, immortalizing a genius, a portrait only dayalized a dunce. Besides, when every body has his portrait, true distinction lies in not having yours published at all.

But if photographs diminish, paintings distort in the opposite way: they make grandiose. Melville’s intuition in Pierre is that all forms of portraiture in the business civilization are compromised; at least, so it appears to his hero, a paragon of alienated sensibility. Just as a photograph is too little in a mass society, a painting is too much. The nature of a painting, Pierre observes, makes it

better entitled to reverence than the man; inasmuch as nothing belittling can be imagined concerning the portrait, whereas many unavoidably belittling things can be fancied as touching the man.

Even if such ironies can be considered to have been dissolved by the completeness of photography’s triumph, the main difference between a painting and a photograph in the matter of portraiture still holds. Paintings invariably sum up; photographs usually do not. Photographic images are pieces of evidence in an ongoing biography or history. And one photograph, unlike one painting, implies that there will be others.

“Ever—the Human Document to keep the present and the future in touch with the past,” the American photographer Lewis Hine said. But what photography supplies is not only a record of the past but a new way of dealing with the present, as the effects of the countless billions of contemporary photograph-documents attest. While old photographs fill out our mental image of the past, the photographs being taken now transform what is present into a mental image, like the past. Cameras establish an inferential relation to the present (reality is known by its traces), provide an instantly retroactive view of experience. Photographs give mock forms of possession: of the past, the present, even the future. In Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading (1935), the prisoner Cincinnatus is shown the “photohoroscope” of a child cast by the sinister M’sieur Pierre: an album of photographs of little Emmie as an infant, then a small child, then prepubescent, as she is now, then—by retouching and using photographs of her mother—of Emmie the adolescent, the bride, the thirty-year-old, concluding with a photograph at age forty, Emmie on her deathbed. A “parody of the work of time” is what Nabokov calls this exemplary artifact; it is also a parody of the work of photography.


Photography, which has so many narcissistic uses, is also a powerful instrument for depersonalizing our relation to the world; and the two uses are complementary. Like a pair of binoculars with no “right” or “wrong” end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much farther away. It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others—allowing us to participate while confirming our alienation.

War and photography now seem inseparable, and plane crashes and other horrific accidents always attract people with cameras. A society which makes it normative to aspire never to experience privation, failure, misery, pain, dread, disease, and in which death itself is regarded not as natural and inevitable but as a cruel, unmerited disaster, creates a tremendous curiosity about these events—a curiosity that is partly satisfied through picture-taking. The feeling of being exempt from calamity stimulates interest in looking at painful pictures, and looking at them suggests and strengthens the feeling that one is exempt. Partly, it is because one is “here,” not “there,” and partly it is the character of inevitability that all events acquire when they are transmuted into images. In the real world, something is happening and no one knows what is going to happen. In the image-world, it has happened, and it will forever happen in that way.

Knowing a great deal about what is in the world (art, catastrophe, the beauties of nature) through photographic images, people are frequently disappointed, surprised, unmoved when they see the real thing. For photographic images tend to subtract feeling from something we experience at first hand and the feelings they do arouse are, largely, not those we have in real life. Often something disturbs us more in photographed form than it does when we actually experience it. In a hospital in Shanghai in 1973, watching a factory worker with advanced ulcers have nine-tenths of his stomach removed under acupuncture anaesthesia, I managed to follow the three-hour procedure (the first operation I’d ever observed) without queasiness, never once feeling the need to look away. In a movie theater in Paris a year later, the less gory operation in Antonioni’s China documentary Chung Kuo made me flinch at the first cut of the scalpel and avert my eyes several times during the sequence.

One is vulnerable to disturbing events in the form of photographic images in a way that one is not to the real thing. That vulnerability is part of the distinctive passivity of someone who is a spectator twice-over, a spectator of events already shaped, first by the participants and second by the image-maker. For the real operation I had to get scrubbed, put on a surgical gown, then stand alongside the busy surgeons and nurses with my roles to play: inhibited adult, well-mannered guest, respectful witness. The movie operation precludes not only this modest participation but whatever is active in spectatorship. In the operating room, I am the one who changes focus, who makes the close-ups and the medium shots. In the theater, Antonioni has already chosen what parts of the operation I can watch; the camera looks for me—and obliges me to look, leaving as my only option not to look. Further, the movie condenses something that takes hours to a few minutes, leaving only interesting parts presented in an interesting way, that is, with the intent to stir or shock. The dramatic is dramatized in the didactics of layout and montage. We turn the page in a photomagazine, a new sequence starts in a movie, making a contrast that is sharper than the contrast between successive events in real time.

Nothing could be more instructive about the meaning of photography for us—as, among other things, a method of hyping up the real—than the attacks on Antonioni’s film in the Chinese press in early 1974. They make a negative catalogue of all the devices of modern photography, still and film.2 While for us photography is intimately connected with discontinuous ways of seeing (the point is precisely to see the whole by means of a part—an arresting detail, a striking way of cropping), in Maoist China it is connected only with continuity. Not only are there proper subjects for the camera, those which are “positive,” inspirational (exemplary activities, smiling people, bright weather), and orderly, but there are proper ways of photographing, which derive from notions about the moral order of space that preclude the very idea of photographic seeing. Thus Antonioni was reproached for photographing things that were old, or old-fashioned—“he sought out and took dilapidated walls and blackboard newspapers discarded long ago”; paying “no attention to big and small tractors working in the fields, [he] chose only a donkey pulling a stone”—and for showing undecorous moments—“he disgustingly filmed people blowing their noses and going to the latrine”—and undisciplined movement—“instead of taking shots of pupils in the classroom in our factory-run primary school, he filmed the children running out of the classroom after class.”

Antonioni was accused of denigrating the right subjects by his way of photographing them. He used “dim and dreary colors” and hid people in “dark shadows”; he treated the same subject with a variety of shots—“there are sometimes long-shots, sometimes close-ups, sometimes from the front, sometimes from the back”—and failed to show things from the point of view of a single, ideally placed observer; he used high and low angles—“the camera was intentionally turned on this magnificent modern bridge from very bad angles in order to make it appear crooked and tottering”; and he did not take enough full shots—“he racked his brain to get such close-ups in an attempt to distort the people’s image and uglify their outlook.”

Besides the mass-produced photographic iconography of revered leaders, revolutionary kitsch, and cultural treasures, one often sees photographs of a private sort in China. Many people possess pictures of their families tacked to the wall or stuck under the glass on top of the dresser or office desk. A large number of these are the sort of snapshots taken here at family gatherings and on trips; but none that I saw was a “candid” photograph, not even of the kind that the most unsophisticated camera-user in this society finds normal—a baby crawling on the floor, someone in mid-gesture. Sports photographs show the team as a group; or only the most stylized balletic moments of play: generally people assemble for the camera, then line up in a row or two. They have no interest in catching a subject in movement.

This is, one supposes, partly because of certain old conventions of decorum in conduct and imagery. And it is the characteristic visual taste of those at the first stage of camera culture, when the image is defined as something that can be stolen from its owner; thus Antonioni was reproached for “forcibly taking shots against people’s wishes,” like “a thief.” Possession of a camera does not license intrusion, as it does in this society whether people like it or not. (The good manners of a camera culture dictate that one is supposed to pretend not to notice when one is being photographed by a stranger in a public place as long as the photographer stays at a discreet distance—that is, one is supposed neither to forbid the picture-taking nor to start posing.) Unlike here, where we pose where we can and yield when we must, in China taking pictures is a ritual; it involves posing and, ipso facto, consent. Someone who “deliberately stalked people who were unaware of his intention to film them” was depriving people and things of their right to pose, in order to look their best.

Antonioni devoted nearly all of the sequence in Chung Kuo about Peking’s Tien An Men Square, the country’s foremost goal of political pilgrimage, to the pilgrims waiting to be photographed. The interest to Antonioni of showing Chinese performing that elementary rite, having a trip documented by the camera, is evident: the photograph and being photographed are favorite contemporary subjects for the camera. To his critics, the desire of visitors to Tien An Men Square for a photograph souvenir

is a reflection of their deep revolutionary feelings. But with bad intentions Antonioni, instead of showing this reality, took shots only of people’s clothing, movement, and expressions; here, someone’s ruffled hair; there, people peering, their eyes dazzled by the sun; one moment, their sleeves; another, their trousers…

The Chinese resist the photographic dismemberment of reality. Close-ups do not seem to be used. Even the postcards of antiquities and works of art sold in museums don’t show part of something; the object is photographed straight on, centered, evenly lit, and in its entirety.

We find the Chinese today naïve for not perceiving the beauty of the cracked peeling door, the picturesqueness of disorder, the force of the odd angle and the significant detail, the poetry of the turned back.3 We have a modern notion of embellishment—beauty is not inherent in anything; it is to be found, by another way of seeing—as well as a wider notion of meaning, which photography’s many uses illustrate and powerfully reinforce. The more numerous the variations of something, the richer its possibilities of meaning: thus, more is “said” with photographs in the West than in China today. Apart from whatever is true about Chung Kuo as an item of ideological merchandise (and the Chinese are not wrong in finding the film condescending), Antonioni’s images simply mean more than any images the Chinese release of themselves. Photographs in China are not intended to convey complex meaning or to be very interesting in themselves, or to show the world from an unusual angle, or to reveal new subjects. Photographs are supposed to display what has already been described. Photography for us is a double-edged instrument for producing clichés (the French word that means both trite expression and photographic negative) and for serving up “fresh” views. For the Chinese authorities, there are only clichés—which they consider not to be clichés but “correct” views.

In China today, only two realities are acknowledged. We see reality as hopelessly and interestingly plural. In China what is defined as an issue for debate is one about which there are “two lines,” a right one and a wrong one. Our society proposes a spectrum of discontinuous choices and perceptions. Theirs is constructed around a single, ideal observer, and photographs contribute their bit to the Great Monologue. For us there are dispersed, interchangeable “points of view”; photography is a polylogue. The current Chinese ideology defines reality as a historical process structured by recurrent dualisms with clearly outlined, morally colored meanings; the past, for the most part, is simply judged as “bad.” For us, there are historical processes with awesomely complex and sometimes contradictory meanings; and arts which draw much of their value from our consciousness of time as history, like photography. (This is why the passing of time adds to the “aesthetic” value of photographs, and the scars of time make objects more rather than less enticing to photographers.) With the idea of history, we certify our interest in knowing the greatest number of things. The only use the Chinese are allowed to make of their history is didactic: the regime’s interest in history is narrow, moralistic, deforming, uncurious. Hence, photography in our sense has no place in their society.

The limits placed on photography in China only reflect the character of their society, a society unified by an ideology of stark, unremitting conflict. Our unlimited use of photographic images not only reflects but gives shape to our own society, one unified by the denial of conflict. Our very notion of the world—the capitalist twentieth century’s “one world”—is like a photographic overview. The world is “one” not because it is united but because a tour of its diverse contents does not reveal conflict but only an even more astounding diversity. This spurious unity of the world is made more coherent when its contents are translated into images. Images are always compatible, or can be made compatible, even when the realities they depict are not.

Photography does not simply reproduce the real, it recycles it—a key procedure of a modern society. In the form of photographic images, things and events are put to new uses, assigned new meanings, which go beyond the distinctions between the beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the useful and the useless, good taste and bad. Photography is one of the chief means for producing that quality ascribed to things and situations which erases these distinctions: “the interesting.” Something becomes interesting when it can be seen to be like, or analogous to, something else. There is an art and there are fashions of seeing things in order to make them interesting; and to supply this art, these fashions, requires a steady recycling of the artifacts and tastes of the past. Clichés, recycled, become metaclichés. The photographic recycling makes clichés out of unique objects, distinctive and vivid artifacts out of clichés. Images of real things are interlayered with images of images. The Chinese circumscribe the uses of photography so that images reinforce and reiterate each other.4 We make of photography a means by which, precisely, anything can be said, any purpose served. What in reality is discrete, images join. In the form of a photograph the explosion of an A-bomb can be used to advertise a safe.


To us, the difference between the photographer as an individual eye and the photographer as an objective recorder seems fundamental, the difference often regarded, mistakenly, as separating photography as art from photography as document. But both are logical extensions of what photography means: note-taking on, potentially, everything in the world, from every possible angle. The same Nadar who took the most authoritative celebrity portraits of his time and did the first photo-interviews was also the first photographer to take aerial views. When he performed “the Daguerreian operation” on Paris from a balloon in 1855 he immediately grasped the future benefit of photography to war-makers.

Two attitudes underlie this presumption that anything in the world is material for the camera. One finds that there is beauty or at least interest in everything, seen with an acute enough eye. (And the aestheticizing of reality that makes everything, anything, available to the camera is what also permits the co-opting of any photograph, even one of an utterly practical sort, as art.) The other treats everything as the object of some present or future use, as matter for estimates, decisions, and predictions. According to one attitude, there is nothing that should not be seen; according to the other, there is nothing that should not be recorded. Cameras implement an aesthetic view of reality by being a machine-toy that extends to everyone the possibility of making disinterested judgments about importance, interest, beauty. (“That would make a good picture.”) Cameras implement the instrumental view of reality by gathering information that enables us to make a more accurate and much quicker response to whatever is going on. The response may, of course, be either repressive or benevolent: military reconnaissance photographs help snuff out lives, X-rays help save them.

These two attitudes, the aesthetic and the instrumental, seem to produce contradictory and even incompatible feelings about people and situations. But that is a characteristic contradiction which members of a society that splits public from private are expected to share in and live with. Few other activities prepare us so well to live with these contradictory attitudes as picture-taking does, which lends itself so brilliantly to both. On the one hand, cameras arm vision in the service of power—of the state, of industry, of science. On the other hand, cameras make vision expressive in that mythical space known as private life. In China, where no space is left over from politics and moralism for expressions of aesthetic sensibility, only some things are to be photographed and only in certain ways. For us, as we become further detached from politics, there is more and more free space to fill up with exercises of sensibility such as cameras afford.

One of the effects of the newer camera technology (video, instant movies) has been to turn even more of what is done with cameras in private to narcissistic uses—that is, to self-surveillance. But the currently popular uses of image-feedback in the bedroom, the therapy session, and the weekend conference seem far less momentous than video’s potential as a tool for surveillance in public places. Presumably, the Chinese will eventually make the same instrumental uses of photography that we do except, perhaps, this one. Our inclination to treat character as equivalent to behavior makes more acceptable a widespread public installation of the mechanized regard from the outside provided by cameras. China’s far more repressive standards of order require not only monitoring behavior but changing hearts; there, surveillance is internalized to a degree without precedent, which suggests a more limited future for the camera as a means of surveillance in their society than in ours.

China offers the model of one kind of dictatorship, whose master idea is “the good,” in which the most unsparing limits are placed on all forms of expression, including images. The future may offer another kind of dictatorship, whose master idea is “the interesting,” in which images of all sorts, stereotyped and eccentric, proliferate. Something like this is suggested in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. Its portrait of a model totalitarian state contains only one, omnipresent art: photography—and the friendly photographer who hovers around the hero’s death cell turns out, at the end of the novel, to be the headsman.

There seems no way (short of undergoing a vast historical amnesia, as in China) of limiting the proliferation of photographic images. The only question is whether the function of the image-world created by cameras could be other than it is. The present function is clear enough, if one considers the contexts in which photographic images are seen, the dependencies they create, the antagonisms they pacify—that is, the institutions they buttress, the interests they really serve.

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself. The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.

The final reason for the need to photograph lies in the very logic of consumption itself. To consume means to burn, to use up—and, therefore, to need to be replenished. As we make images and consume them, we need still more images, and still more. But images are not a treasure for which the world must be ransacked; they are precisely what are at hand wherever the eye falls. The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust. And like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be satisfied: first of all, because the possibilities of photography are infinite; and, second, because the project is finally self-devouring. The attempts by photographers to bolster up a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion. Our oppressive sense of the transience of everything is more acute since cameras gave us the means to “fix” the fleeting moment. We consume images at an ever faster rate and, as Balzac suspected that cameras used up layers of the body, images consume reality. Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete.

The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals. It suited Plato’s derogatory attitude toward images to liken them to shadows—transitory, minimally informative, immaterial, impotent co-presences of the real things which cast them. But the force of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality—for turning it into a shadow. Images are more real than anyone could have supposed. And just because they are an unlimited resource, one that cannot be exhausted by consumerist waste, there is all the more reason to apply the conservationist remedy. If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require a new ecological awareness—not only of real things but of images as well.

(This is the last article in a series on photography.)

This Issue

June 23, 1977