Two Lessons on André Bazin’s “Ontology of the Photographic Image”


Ian here—

I have taught André Bazin’s essay “Ontology of the Photographic Image” in two very different contexts: once in the “Image” portion of the University of Chicago’s Media Aesthetics sequence in their Humanities Core, and once in a writing seminar at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago entitled “Moving Images and Arguments,” on cinematic rhetoric. Surprisingly, both times I taught it, large portions of my lesson remained the same: the main difference was that I spent more time discussing the philosophical groundings of Bazin’s piece in Media Aesthetics, whereas I used the extended course time in “Moving Images and Arguments” to show and discuss a wider variety of things.

Both times I taught this, I used Timothy Barnard’s translation, from the Canadian Caboose edition of What Is Cinema?. When that translation first came out, it got a lot of buzz, although its hallowed status might have had a lot to do with it just being notoriously difficult to get your hands on across the border in the US. I’m not going to take an official stand on the volume’s alleged superiority, although I will say that there’s at least one turn of phrase that Barnard gets right that Gray doesn’t, and that alone is enough to tip the scales in Barnard’s favor.

The Basics

When I taught this essay for U Chicago’s Media Aesthetics, I opened class with a suite of clips: two from Blow-up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) and two from The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955).

My first clip  from Blow-up was moment where the photographer Thomas first makes some exposures of a couple in the park. From there, I jumped to the moment where, making an enlarged print of his negative, Thomas first realizes that the has unwittingly captured evidence of murderous intrigue.

The Trouble with Harry provides two comic mirror images to the Blow-up scenes. First, I showed Sam Marlowe realizing with befuddlement that the shape in the weeds he has been sketching is actually the feet of a corpse. In my second clip, Sam, confronted by the town deputy, casually draws over his pastel sketch of the corpse to make it appear alive, causing the deputy to sputter that he “just destroyed legal evidence.”

Keeping those clips in my back pocket, so to speak, I next turned to the essay itself. This next bit remained consistent across both times I taught the course.

I begin by breaking down Bazin’s arguments over the first four short sections of the essay. It’s not until the fifth section (pp 7–8 in the Caboose edition) that Bazin starts forwarding his most contentious claims. The claims of the opening pages are, for the most part, art-historical: ambitious, to be sure, but still somewhat grounded. The four main movements of his argument I pull out are this:

  1. The visual arts share a psychological motivation with embalming. Both preserve bodies from the ravages of time.
  2. Before photography, all visual arts followed this motivation. This created an uneasy split between, on the one hand, the psychological desire for presentation, and, on the other, aesthetic aims.
  3. The arrival of photography has freed painting from this predicament. Abstract art was able to arrive because photography had taken over the function of realism, of resemblance.
  4. Finally, I just quote from Bazin, as he sums all of this up the best: “photography completely satisfies our appetite for illusion by means of a process of mechanical reproduction in which there is no human agency at work.” [i]

Bazin goes on to expand on this final claim in the fifth section. However, before moving on to it, I do two things. First, I offer a warning to students that the fifth section houses some of the essay’s most contentious claims, so they should be critically alert as we enter it. Secondly, I take a momentary step back from the essay, to actually examine and explain the technology of photography that Bazin discusses.

This second bit is quite useful, as many students have likely never encountered traditional chemical photography. (Undoubtedly, as the years progress, it will become more and more vanishingly rare for a undergraduate-aged student to have heard of, let alone actually used, traditional photographic film.)

I take as my example black-and-white negative film, both because that’s a very easy example, and because I have a few short snippets of a black-and-white motion picture print to pass around.

A snippet of black-and-white motion picture film, looking a bit worse for wear after being used as decoration in 2003 for my 18th birthday party, and subsequently being used as a bookmark in the intervening years

Although film is frequently referred to as “celluloid,” in truth modern photographic film uses an acetate base, not a celluloid one—specifically, a base of cellulose triacetate. This base is endowed with a layer of emulsion, made up of silver halide crystals suspended in gelatin. Silver halide crystals are photosensitive: when they are exposed to light, and then bathed in a chemical mixture known as developer, they chemically transform into metallic silver. Metallic silver is opaque to light, and it is these portions of the emulsion that will remain adhered to the base. The rest will wash away in the fixer bath, rendering certain portions of the film transparent.

What results is a negative image: the areas expose to light are opaque (and therefore show up as dark) whereas the areas not exposed to light are transparent (and therefore show up as light). In order to get a positive image, you’ll need to reverse this negative by making a new exposure of its patterns—either on photographic paper, or, in the case of motion pictures, on another strip of film. Much like an object can be used to make a most to make a plaster cast, typically photography relies on reversing the visible spectrum and then reversing it again in printing.

Traditional photography is therefore both an optical technology, and a chemical one. It is optical because it uses lenses to focus light onto the film strip. It is chemical because it uses chemical reactions to imprint the physical trace of an image on said strip.

Having laid out the basic technology, I return to Bazin. Wading into the thick of Bazin’s most contentious points, I alternate between quotes and questions:

For the first time, the only thing to come between an object and its representation is another object.[ii]

Here, I ask: What does this claim mean? Is it literally true? And do we agree with it? (Getting the parallel phrasing of this quote right is one of the chief advantages of using the Barnard translation over the Gray.)

The photographer’s personality is at work only in the selection, orientation and pedagogical approach to the phenomenon: as evident as this personality may be in the final product, it is not present in the same way as a painter’s.[iii]

Here, I ask: Is this a full enough accounting for the photographer’s work? Why, or why not? (In my “Moving Images and Arguments” course, one of my students proposed that although this might have been true in Bazin’s era, it gets less true with each passing year—and not just because of Photoshop. Photographers today, she argued, have had decades more experience in discovering how to turn photography into an expressive art, through the manipulation of lighting, framing, and developing. Borrowing one of Bazin’s favorite mathematical models, I proposed that perhaps “personality” in photography has an asymptotic relationship to “personality” in painting: it’s constantly getting closer to what painting offers, but it will never quite match it.)

Photography’s objectivity confers upon it a degree of credibility absent from any painting.[iv]

When I taught this in Media Aesthetics, it was here that I finally pulled Blow-up and The Trouble with Harry out of my back pocket. What does the comedic tone of the latter say about our attitudes toward image-manipulation in photography, versus drawing? Do these attitudes align with Bazin’s claim here? Do we “believe [photographs] without reservation”? What do we make of the deputy’s claim that Sam “destroyed legal evidence” by altering his drawing?

I didn’t include Blow-up and The Trouble with Harry when I taught this in “Moving Images and Arguments,” so I instead asked students if they could think of marginal examples that may challenge Bazin’s dictum. Are there forms of painting that can achieve the credibility Bazin credits photography with? I was expecting students to offer examples along the lines of courtroom drawings, but instead they came up with much more interesting examples to press on Bazin. One pointed out that abstract expressionist painting is often appreciated as an objective, indexical record of the artist’s gesture. Another student went will a more far-flung example, one that took us out of “painting,” as traditionally conceived, but was nonetheless fascinating: fingerprints. Certainly, these ink-based images stand as the apotheosis of “credibility,” serving as evidence within our state-sanctioned systems of investigation in a way that the drawing in The Trouble with Harry never can.

And, finally, to the big one:

The image may be out of focus, distorted, devoid of colour and without documentary value; nevertheless, it has been created out of the ontology of the model. It is the model.[v]

Now, this is one of the most famous passages in all of photography theory, so obviously there is a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with vocabulary.

The Media Aesthetics sequence doesn’t shy away from philosophy, so I when I taught this lesson in the context of that class, I did not shy away from larger philosophical questions. First on the docket, as a matter of definition: What is ontology, anyway?

In philosophy, ontology is the study of being. There are disagreements as to how to go about doing this, though, and as such ontology can be broken up into two different sub-studies.

First, there is the study of “essentia.” (The term is a Latin attempt to render a Greek expression. If we want to go a purer Latin route, we could use the term “quidditas,” which is a synonym.) The study of essentia is the study of what-ness. For instance, we could ask, “What is a coffee mug? What are the attributes that manifest a coffee mug in its identity, defining its specific coffee-mug-ness?” That would be one sort of ontological question we could ask, dealing with essentia.

Secondly, there is the study of “existentia.” The study of existentia is the study of that-ness. In this case, we’re not interested in the attributes of the coffee mug. Instead, we’re interested in what it even means to say that there is a coffee mug, to begin with. In short, we would ask: “What is it for a coffee mug to be, at all, as opposed to not be?” This is another sort of ontological question we could ask, this time dealing with existentia.[vi]

Bazin is more concerned with questions of essentia than he is with questions of existentia. When his writings were collected, they were published under the title Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?—that is, What Is Cinema?—making clear his devotion to questions of what-ness right out of the gate. (Bazin’s concerns have had a lasting impact on cinema studies. Almost every time someone in cinema studies raises “ontological” issues, those issues are issues of essentia, of quidditas: of what-ness.) In this particular essay, Bazin attempts to answer the question, “what is photography?”

Bazin’s answer to this question? We could put it this way: Bazin says that a photograph is something that receives its what-ness from the what-ness of what it is of.

And, surprisingly, a photograph receives this “what-ness” no matter how fuzzy or distorted the resulting photo is. That means that, for Bazin, it is not resemblance that establishes this relation, per se. Instead, it seems to be something more about the process of chemical imprinting. (Although, truth be told, the two seem to not be clearly separable in Bazin’s constellation.)

Once all of this is laid out, I invite students to press against it. It is, after all, not every day that one sees the very concept of the singular identity of objects being challenged! One of my students in “Moving Images and Arguments” made the very keen observation that although we can perhaps say that the photograph is identical to the light rays bouncing off the model, this doesn’t mean it is identical to the model. I challenged her on this: Bazin would likely say that these light rays are, in some way, the model. An object is not separable from the ways in which it interacts with light. If we grant that imprinted light in some way “is” that light, then Bazin would say that we need to grant that imprinted light “is” what that light is reflecting off of.

Photographic examples

One of the recommended topics when teaching photography as part of Media Aesthetics is the historical phenomenon of spirit photography. This seemed like it would make a good match with the Bazin, so when I taught this essay at U Chicago, I passed around my big, heavy, and cherished copy of the catalogue for The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult[vii]Some choice images from that volume:


I told the class that I think we can agree that, in some ways, these images exemplify the psychological need for preserving the past, and specifically preserving the dead that Bazin insists lies at the root of the photographic impulse. Nevertheless, do we think that Bazin would hold these up as exemplary of the potential of photography? Why, or why not?

Advanced cinematic examples

Given that it was a three-hour seminar rather than a 90-minute lecture course, I had more time in “Moving Images and Arguments” to delve into some more obscure moving-image examples, thinking about how we could apply Bazin’s ideas across a wide array of practices. As a result, I ditched Blow-up, ditched The Trouble with Harry, and ditched the spirit photography. In their place, I showed one experimental film and one piece of video art, and, in doing so, expanded upon my original lesson plan, pushing it into new directions.

The week I taught this in “Moving Images and Arguments” was devoted to the question, “how do images gain authority?” I wanted to press at what it meant for us to accept images as evidence—either as evidence for a complex argument, as in a feature-length documentary, or evidence for a general report on the state of things in the world, as in some of the examples here.

For the experimental film portion, I showed David Gatten’s What the Water Said, nos. 1-3 (USA, 1997-1998). For a bit of necessary background on the film, here is a snippet from Gatten’s own artist’s statement, where he details some of its production:

These films are the result of a series of camera-less collaborations between the filmmaker, the Atlantic Ocean and its underwater inhabitants. For three days in January and three days in October of 1997, and again, for a day, in August of 1998, lengths of unexposed, undeveloped film were soaked in a crab trap on a South Carolina beach. Both the sound and image in WHAT THE WATER SAID are the result of the ensuing oceanic inscriptions written directly into the emulsion of the film as it was buffeted by the salt water, sand and rocks; as it was chewed and eaten by the crabs, fish and underwater creatures.

You can see below what the resulting film looks like. (Unfortunately, since I don’t have a 16mm projector in my classroom, and have no budget to rent a print even if I did, I had to show a MPEG-4 copy of a VHS reference dub of the original film, which seemed quite perverse, especially for a day on Bazin. Ah, well.)

After I showed the film (in its entirety, not just the clip), I asked: What sort of claims does this film implicitly make about the world? How does it use the footage in front of us as evidence for those claims?

Bazin’s uniqueness claim for photographic representation relies on three main components: photography is automatic (it is mechanically created without human intervention except to set up the apparatus), it is photochemical (its light-sensitive emulsion means that its image is a trace of patterns of light—which, for decades, film theorists have followed Peter Wollen in calling an “index”), and it succeeds at producing resemblance (although the “out of focus, distorted, devoid of colour” bit indicates that Bazin doesn’t think this is absolutely necessary to explain photography’s power). Bazin tends to blur these attributes together, and not acknowledge the extent to which, under controlled circumstances, they can be pulled apart (again, except for the “out of focus, distorted…” passage). Gatten’s film gives us a good opportunity to press Bazin on these issues. The traces we’re seeing in Gatten’s film are, indeed, physical and chemical traces that have been produced without the intervention of the hand of the artist. This includes, quite alarmingly, layers of dye that have been eaten away by the emulsion’s exposure to some sort of chemical presence in the water. Certainly, this is a way of using photographic film as evidence in some way … although probably not any way that Bazin had in mind when he describes our tendency to “believe [photographs] without reservation.”[viii]

In fact, Gatten’s film is perhaps closer to something like a film badge dosimeter than it is to Bazin’s conception of photography. Much like a dosimeter, What the Waters Said uses the physical and chemical properties of photographic film to give us some sort of idea of processes that are occurring in the environment. When a film badge dosimeter one is wearing turns black, one should reasonably be concerned about the radiation that one is exposing oneself to. Looking at the color transformations that have happened to the emulsion of Gatten’s film, the residents of this particular coast of South Carolina should probably be concerned about whatever chemicals are being released upriver.

Now, for the video art. Next on my playlist is the UK art collective Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt)‘s video 20Hz (2011). Here is Jarman and Gerhardt’s artist statement on the piece, followed by the entire video, courtesy of their Vimeo page:

20 Hz observes a geo-magnetic storm occurring in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Working with data collected from the CARISMA radio array and interpreted as audio, we hear tweeting and rumbles caused by incoming solar wind, captured at the frequency of 20 Hertz. Generated directly by the sound, tangible and sculptural forms emerge suggestive of scientific visualisations. As different frequencies interact both visually and aurally, complex patterns emerge to create interference phenomena that probe the limits of our perception.

Here, I turn students’ attention to more passages where Bazin again praises the lack of human intervention in photography’s mode of image-creation. First, this:

All art is founded upon human agency, but in photography alone can we celebrate its absence. Photography has an effect upon us of a natural phenomenon, like a flower or snowflake whose beauty is inseparable from its earthly origin.[ix]

Then, this:

Only the impassive lens, in stripping the object of habits and preconceived notions of all the spiritual detritus that my perception has wrapped it in, can offer it up unsullied to my attention and thus to my love. In the photograph, a natural image of a world we are no longer able to see, nature finally does more than imitate art: it imitates the artist.[x]

We could say here that Bazin is exhibiting a very twenty-first century interest in, and respect for, the nonhuman. Even though photography ultimately serves human agency, it is nevertheless the most non-anthropocentric of the arts. In contrast to painting or drawing, photography doesn’t actually need us all that much. To look at a photograph is, in some way, to look at an image created by nature, or by an object, rather than by a human. (Remember, again: “the only thing to come between an object and its representation is another object.”)

Of course, what Bazin ignores here is that photography has been designed from the ground up to technologically reproduce certain physiological aspects of human eyesight. We’re not really seeing the world anew, like an “object” might see it. Rather, we’re seeing like an object that has been specifically designed to reproduce images of the world recognizable to humans.

But what if we weren’t? What if the traces that Bazin extolls the virtues of weren’t created photochemically, as light passed through lenses to best approximate human vision, but instead captured through other means? What would it mean if we substituted an “impassive lens” for an impassive radio array, and saw an image created by an object not of reflected visible light, but of the electromagnetic patterns of solar wind, invisible to the human eye? When we translate such traces into visible for for our eyes, does Bazin’s “out of focus, distorted…” exception still apply? Can we still say that these images “are” the electromagnetic patterns they represent? Or would Bazin balk here?

Again, here, I ask, backing away from some of the hypotheticals about Bazin’s own response: What sort of claims does this video implicitly make about the world? How does it use the imagery in front of us as evidence for those claims? Do we accept, here, that we are in some way seeing an image of the world … even if that image had to go through multiple processes of translation to be phenomenalized for our eyes?

[i]. Bazin, André. “Ontology of the Photographic Image.” In What Is Cinema? Translated by Timothy Barnard. Montreal: Caboose, 2009. Pg 6.

[ii]. Ibid, pg 7.

[iii]. Ibid, pg 7.

[iv]. Ibid, pp 7–8.

[v]. Ibid, pg 8.

[vi]. On matters of ontology, I am a student of the late John Haugeland, and the explanation offered here owes much to his teachings and writings.

[vii]. Chéroux, Clément, ed. The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

[viii]. Bazin,”Ontology of the Photographic Image,” pg 8.

[ix]. Ibid, pg 7.

[viii]. Ibid, pg 8.


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