Chat with us, powered by LiveChat How would you describe the ontology of photographic - Study Help

How would you describe the ontology of photographic images
according to Andr? Bazin, and how does his theory of
photographic media contribute to your understanding of Dali’s
idea of “concrete irrationality.”

[You can look up “ontology” in the Oxford English Dictionary, or
any dictionary.]

Identify a shot in any of the films for this week that you feel helps
convey his idea. Post to canvas. Explain your choice

The Ontology of the Photographic Image

Andr? Bazin; Hugh Gray

Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4. (Summer, 1960), pp. 4-9.

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Sun Oct 28 20:49:05 2007

The Ontology of the Photographic Image


Before his untimely death i n 1958 AndrQ Bazin began to review
and select for publication his post-World War 11 writings

on the cinema. Of the planned four volumes, one was published i n 1958,
and a second i n 1959; the remainder await some competent selective

hand. T h e first volume centers on the theme of the, ontological basis
of cinema or, as Bazin also puts it, ” i n less

philosophical terms: the cinema as the art of reality.” T h e second
discusses the relations between the cinema and those arts with which

it has things in common-the theater, the novel, and painting.
A third volume was to have discussed the relations of

cinema and society; the fourth would have dealt w i t h neorealism.
W h a t follows

is a translation of the first chapter of volume one. T o those
not yet familiar with the writings of a man who might be desc,ribed

with justice as the Sainte-Beuve of film criticism,
it should serve t o reveal the informed clarity and perceptiveness

of his mind, shining through the inevitable awkwardnesses and
compressions of writing under pressure as a jouranlist.

It is dificult t o estimate fully, as yet, the loss t o the cinema
of a man who was counsellor as well as critic.

I f the plastic arts were put under psycho- depending on the continued existence of the
analysis, the practice of embalming the dead corporeal body. Thus, by providing a defense
might turn out to be a fundamental factor in against the passage of time it satisfied a basic
their creation. The process might reveal that psychological need in man, for death is but the
at the origin of painting and sculpture there victory o f time. To preserve, artificially, his
lies a mummy complex. The religion of ancient bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow
Egypt, aimed against death, saw survival as of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in

the hold of life. It was natural, therefore, to keep
up appearances in the face of the reality of
death by preserving flesh and bone. The first
Egyptian statue, then, was a mummy, tanned
and petrified in sodium. But pyramids and
labyrinthine corridors offered no certain guar-
antee against ultimate pillage.

Other forms of insurance were therefore
sought. So, near the sarcophagus, alongside
the corn that was to feed the dead, the Egyp-
tians placed terra cotta statuettes, as substitute
mummies which might replace the bodies if
these were destroyed. I t is this religous use,
then, that lays bare the primordial function of
statuary, namely, the preservation of life by a
representation of life. Another manifestation of

the same kind of thing is the arrow-pierced clay
bear to be found in prehistoric caves, a magic
identity-substitute for the living animal, that
will ensure a successful hunt. The evolution,
side by side, of art and civilization has relieved
the plastic arts of their magic role. Louis XIV
did not have himself embalmed. He was con-
tent to survive in his portrait by Lebrun. Civili-
zation cannot, however, entirely cast out the
bogy of time. It can only sublimate our con-
cern with it to the level of rational thinking.
No one believes any longer in the ontological
identity of model and image, but all are agreed
that the image helps us to remember the sub-
ject and to preserve him from a second spiritual
death. Today the making of images no longer
shares an anthropocentric, utilitarian purpose.
It is no longer a question of survival after death,
but of a larger concept, the creation of an ideal
world in the likeness of the real, with its own
temporal destiny. “How vain a thing is paint-
ing” if underneath our fond admiration for its
works we do not discern man’s primitive need
to have the last word in the argument with
death by means of the form that endures. If the
history of the plastic arts is less a matter of their
aesthetic than of their psychology then it will
be seen to be essentially the story of re-
semblance, or, if you will, of realism.

Seen in this sociological perspective photog-
raphy and cinema would provide a natural ex-
planation for the great spiritual and technical
crisis that overtook modem painting around the
middle of the last century. Andre Malraux has
described the cinema as the furthermost evolu-
tion to date of plastic realism, the beginnings of
which were first manifest at the Renaissance and
which found a limited expression in baroque

I t is true that painting, the world over, has
struck a varied balance between the symbolic
and realism. However, in the fifteenth century
Western painting began to turn from its age-
old concern with spiritual realities expressed in

the form proper to it, towards an effort to com-
bine this spiritual expression with as complete
an imitation as possible of the outside world.

The decisive moment undoubtedly came with
the discovery of the first scientific and already,
in a sense, mechanical system of reproduction,
namely, perspective: the camera obscura of Da
Vinci foreshadowed the camera of Niepce. The
artist was now in a position to create the
illusion of three-dimensional space within which
things appeared to exist as our eyes in reality
see them.

Thenceforth painting was torn between two
ambitions: one, primarily aesthetic, namely the
expression of spiritual reality wherein the
symbol transcended its model; the other, purely
psychological, namely to duplicate the world
outside. The satisfaction of this appetite for
illusion merely served to increase it till, bit by
bit, it consumed the plastic arts. However,
since perspective had only solved the problem
of form and not of movement, realism was
forced to continue the search for some way of
giving dramatic expression to the moment, a
kind of psychic fourth dimension that could
suggest life in the tortured immobility of ba-
roque art.*

The great artists, of course, have always been
able to combine the two tendencies. They have
alloted to each its proper place in the hierarchy
of things, holding reality at their command
and molding it at will into the fabric of their
art. Nevertheless, the fact remains that we are
faced with two essentially different phenomena
and these any objective critic must view sepa-
rately if he is to understand the evolution of the
pictorial. The need for illusion has not ceased
to trouble the heart of painting since the six-
teenth century. It is a purely mental need, of
itself nonaesthetic, the origins of which must be
sought in the proclivity of the mind towards
magic. However, it is a need the pull of which
has been strong enough to have seriously upset
the equilibrium of the plastic arts.

* It would be interesting, from this point of view, t o study in the illustrated magazines of 1890-1910,
the rivalry between photographic reporting and the use of drawings. The latter, in particular, satisfied
the baroque need for the dramatic. A feeling for the photographic document developed only gradually.

The quarrel over realism in art stems from a
misunderstanding, from a confusion between the
aesthetic and the psychological; between true
realism, the need that is to give significant ex-
pression to the world both concretely and in its
essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception
aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the
mind) ; a pseudorealism content in other words
with illusory appearances.* That is why me-
dieval art never passed through this crisis; si-
multaneously vividly realistic and highly spirit-
ual, it knew nothing of the drama that came to
light as a consequence of technical develop-
ments. Perspective was the original sin of West-
ern painting.

It was redeemed from sin by Niepce and
Lumiere. In achieving the aims of baroque art,
photography has freed the plastic arts from their
obsession with likeness. Painting was forced, as
it turned out, to offer us illusion and this illusion
was reckoned sufficient unto art. Photography
and the cinema on the other hand are discov-
eries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very
essence, our obsession with realism.

No matter how skillful the painter, his work
was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity.
The fact that a human hand intervened cast a
shadow of doubt over the image. Again, the
essential factor in the transition from the ba-
roque to photography is not the perfecting of a
physical process (photography will long remain
the inferior of painting in the reproduction of
color) ; rather does it lie in a psychological fact,
to wit, in completely satisfying our appetite for
illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the
making of which man plays no part. The solu-
tion is not to be found in the result achieved but
in the way of achieving it.+

This is why the conflict between style and
likeness is a relatively modern phenomenon of

which there is no trace before the invention of
the sensitized plate. Clearly the fascinating ob-
jectivity of Chardin is in no sense that of the
photographer. The nineteenth century saw the
real beginnings of the crisis of realism of which
Picasso is now the mythical central figure and
which put to the test at one and the same time
the conditions determining the formal existence
of the plastic arts and their sociological roots.
Freed from the “resemblance complex,” the
modern painter abandons it to the masses who,
henceforth, identify resemblance on the one
hand with photography and on the other with
the kind of painting which is related to pho-

Originality in photography as distinct from
originality in painting lies in the essentially ob-
jective character of photography. [Bazin here
makes a point of the fact that the lens, the basis
of photography, is in French called the “objec-
tif,” a nuance that is lost in English.-TR.] For
the first time, between the originating object
and its reproduction there intervenes only the
instrumentality of a nonliving agent. For the
first time an image of the world is formed auto-
matically, without the creative intervention of
man. The personality of the photographer
enters into the proceedings only in his selection
of the object to be photographed .and by way of
the purpose he has in mind. Although the final
result may reflect something of his personality,
this does not play the same role as is played by
that of the painter. All the arts are based on
the presence of man, only photography derives
an advantage from his absence. Photography
affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a
flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly
origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.

This production by automatic means has radi-
cally affected our psychology of the image. The
objeetive nature of ~ h o t o g r a p h y confers on it a

* Perhaps the Communists, before they attach too much importance to expressionist realism, should stop
talking about it in a way more suitable to the eighteenth century, before there were such things as
photography or cinema. Maybe it does not really matter if Russian painting is second-rate provided she
gives us first-rate cinema. Eisenstein is her Tintoretto.
t There is room, nevertheless, for a study of the psychology of the lesser plastic arts, the molding of death
masks, for example, which likewise involves a certain automatic process. One might consider photog-
raphy, in this sense as a molding, the taking of an impression, by the manipulation of light.

– –

quality of credibility absent from all other pic-
ture-making. In spite of any objections our
critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept
as real the existence of the object reproduced,
actually re-presented, set before us, that is to
say, in time and space. Photography enjoys a
certain advantage in virtue of this transference
of reality from the thing to its reproduction.*

A very faithful drawing may actually tell us
more about the model but despite the prompt-
ings of our critical intelligence it will never have
the irrational power of the photograph to bear
away our faith.

Besides, painting is, after all, an inferior way
of making likenesses, an ersatz of the processes
of reproduction. Only a photographic lens can
give us the kind of image of the object that is
capable of satisfying the deep need man has to
substitute for it something more than a mere
approximation, a kind of decal or transfer. The
photographic image is the object itself, the
object freed from the conditions of time and
space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy,
distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking,
in documentary value the image may be, it
shares, by virtue of the very process of its be-
coming, the being of the model of which it is
the reproduction; it is the model.

Hence the charm of family albums. Those
grey or sepia shadows, phantomlike and almost
undecipherable, are no longer traditional family
portraits but rather the disturbing presence of
lives halted at a set moment in their duration,
freed from their destiny; not, however, by the
prestige of art but by the power of an impassive
mechanical process: for photography does not
create eternity, as art does, it embalms time,
rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.

Viewed in this perspective, the cinema is ob-
jectivity in time. The film is no longer content

to preserve the object, enshrouded as it were in
an instant, as the bodies of insects are preserved
intact, out of the distant past, in amber. The
film delivers baroque art from its convulsive
catalepsy. Now, for the first time, the image of
things is likewise the image of their duration,
change mummified as it were. Those categories
of resemblance which determine the species
photographic image likewise, then, determine
the character of its aesthetic as distinct from
that of painting.f

The aesthetic qualities of ~ h o t o g r a p h y are to
be sought in its power to lay bare the realities.
It is not for me to separate off, in the complex
fabric of the objective world, here a reflexion
on a damp sidewalk, there the gesture of a
child. Only the impassive lens, stripping its
object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-
up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime
with which my eyes have covered it, are able to
present it in all its virginal purity to my atten-
tion and consequently to my love. By the power
of photography, the natural image of a world
that we neither know nor can know, nature at
last does more than imitate art: she imitates the

Photography can even surpass art in creative
power. The aesthetic world of the painter is of
a different kind from that of the world about
him. Its boundaries enclose a substantially and
essentially different microcosm. The ~ h o t o g r a p h
as such and the object in itself share a common
being, after the fashion of a fingerprint. Where-
fore, photography actually contributes some-
thing to the order of natural creation instead
of providing a substitute for it. The surrealists
had an inkling of this when they looked to the
photographic plate to provide them with their
monstrosities and for this reason. The surrealist
does not consider his aesthetic purpose and the

Here one should really examine the psychology of relics and souvenirs which likewise enjoy the ad-
vantages of a transfer of reality stemming from the “mummy-complex.” Let us merely note in passing that
the Holy Shroud of Turin combines the features alike of relic and photograph.
t I use the term category here in the sense attached to it by M. Gouhier in his book on the theater in
which he distinguishes between the dramatic and the aesthetic categories. Just as dramatic tension has no
artistic value, the perfection of a reproduction is not to be identified with beauty. It constitutes rather the
prime matter, so to speak, on which the artistic fact is recorded.

mechanical effect of the image on our imagina-
tions as things apart. For him, the logical dis-
tinction between what is imaginary and what is
real tends to disappear. Every image is to be
seen as an object and every object as an image.
Hence photography ranks high in the order of
surrealist creativity because it produces an
image that is a reality of nature, namely, an
hallucination that is also a fact. The fact that
surrealist painting combines tricks of visual de-
ception with meticulous attention to detail sub-
stantiates this.

So, photography is clearly the most impor-
tant event in the history of the plastic arts.
Simultaneously a liberation and an accomplish-
ment, it has freed Western painting, once and
for all, from its obsession with realism and
allowed it to recover its aesthetic autonomy.
Impressionist realism, offering science as an
alibi, is at the opposite extreme from eye-de-
ceiving trickery. Only when form ceases to
have any imitative value can it be swallowed up
in color. So, when form, in the person of Cb-
zanne, once more regains possession of the
canvas there is no longer any question of the
illusions of the geometry of perspective. The
painting, being confronted in the mechanically
produced image with a competitor able to reach
out beyond baroque resemblance to the very
identity of the model, was compelled into the
category of object. Henceforth Pascal’s con-
demnation of painting is itself rendered vain
since the photograph allows us on the one hand
to admire in reproduction something that our
eyes alone could not have taught us to love, and
on the other, to admire the painting as a thing
in itself whose relation to something in nature
has ceased to be the justification for its exist-

On the other hand, of course, cinema is also
a language.

New Periodicals

Definition: Quarterly Journal of Film Criticism.
33 Electric Avenue, London S.W.9, England.
2s. 6d. A new journal edited by former students
and staff members of the London School of
Film Technique, aiming at a more responsible
“new criticism” of films. The editors note that
since Lindsay Anderson’s famous article, “Stand
Up! Stand Up!” in Sight G Sound three years
ago, “the cry has been repeated, the thesis elab-
orated and the case restated with increasing
showmanship; so that those who began as iso-
lated prophets can now find reward in the satis-
factions of preaching to the converted. But
criticism has not noticeably changed.”

The first issue contains “Towards a Theory,”
by Dai Vaughan, who points out that “any criti-
cism assumes an aesthetic, even though this
aesthetic may not be made conscious or explic-
it,” and suggests certain basic lines for a com-
mitted aesthetic theory. Stuart Hall compares
Look Back in Anger and Room at the T o p in
what is probably the best piece yet done on
these films. Mr. Vaughan also contributes “Com-
placent Rebel” on Robert Flaherty, and the
issue includes as well an interview with Fran-
~ o i sTruffaut by Fernando Lopes, pieces on film
schools by David Naden and Boleslaw Sulik, a
curious pair of notes for and on films by John
Irvin, and “Two Lost Generations?” by Arnold
Wesker. We hope that Definition survives the
economic perils of a new independent magazine.

For Film is the publication of the rejuvenated
American Federation of Film Societies, Box
2607, Grand Central Station, New York 17, N.Y.
Founded in 1955, the AFFS is a nonprofit or-
ganization with the basic aim of assisting exist-
ing film societies and encouraging the formation
of new ones. The first issue of For Film, which
is the successor to the AFFS Newsletter, con-
tains an editorial by Gideon Bachmann, new
AFFS President, notes on films newly available
for film societies, several book reviews, an inter-
view with Rod Steiger, and news notes of vari-
ous kinds. To be published approximately four
times a year; $1.00 a year.

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