Patrick Maynard:  Photography

In Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (2001) 


This document is a summary of P. Maynard. 
My personal comments are in red. 
These comments have been added to help students understand his arguments.

Main issue: Film has received far more philosophical attention than photography. If we are to consider photography as an art, what should we discuss? 

Photography, art, aesthetics 

In the same way that printing presses publish things other than poetry, not all photographs are art. The "art use" is one use to which we put photography. There are interesting philosophical questions about photography that are unrelated to its being art, but here we pursue the artistic uses of photography.

Three such issues immediately arise:

As with other visual arts, is the medium an evolving one? or a static one?

Has the rise of photography made both art and aesthetics irrelevant in visual media?

When looking at photos as art, are we discussing appearances of photos, the processes of making them, or their uses? Do commercial uses disqualify a photo from being art?

The Aesthetic

The aesthetic tradition focuses on our delight in perceiving something, admitting that perception has both sensual and imaginative elements. Many photographers defend the art status of their work by embracing aestheticism (i.e., the value of a work of art lies in its aesthetic rewards)

The modernist strand of this tradition explores the nature of the photographic medium. Emphasizing the materials and processes of photography [as opposed, for instance, to the material and processes involved in creating an oil painting], art photography is valued for its exploration of graduations of light, perspective, and so on.]

A recent backlash against modernism in photography promotes emphasis on the MATERIAL aspects at the expense of the visual result, or by emphasizing contextualism. Different contexts, including different photographic traditions, call for different perceptual experiences activities in the presence of photographs. [Think about the Duck-Rabbit and how its context can change the perceptual experience.] 


Many photographs are used to show us OTHER kinds of visual representation [as when we look at slides of paintings in an art history class or textbook]. These uses often rely on photos that deprive the viewer of features that we want to see. Here, we are invited to consider the central distinction between:

  • what a photograph is a photograph of  (what it shows)
  • what the same photograph is about  (what it depicts)

A photo is of whatever was in front of the camera, causing the image. The photo is about (and depicts) whatever we are prompted to get out of it when looking at it. Sometimes these coincide, but often they do not.  

A photo of someone saying "cheese" is used to depict someone smiling.

Because a photo can both show and depict, different contexts allow different uses.

Consider this photo:


The photo is about a bowl of cereal. It depicts a bowl of cereal, by inviting us to imagine that we are looking at one. However, the photo is of some cereal sitting in white glue.

Undepicted features (e.g., where the photographer was in relation to the physical subject) can be important in deciding what the photo is about. Photographers exploit the visual and causal relationships between what a photo is of and what it depicts, and it can be difficult to keep in mind how the two features differ. [The photo above depicts milk, but one cannot visually detect that it is of glue by looking at it.] 

Bothered by the idea of dual functions for the same thing (thinking that the one function cancels out the other), some thinkers have tried to deny that photos depict. Others have tried to deny that photos show anything.

In general, 

  • Documentary photography aims at little or no gap between the two features: a good documentary photo shows and depicts the same thing.
  • Artistic photography tends to "play" with the difference.

Agency and expression

Photographs are created through a complex process, but the actual process can be impossible to determine by looking at the result. Consequently, the aesthetic dimension is complicated and very different from that of a painting [where a good deal of the process is on display]

Yet the fact of this manipulation, this human agency, is a reason to treat photos as art. 

While human agency is necessary for expression, it is not sufficient. Historically, "spirit" was also required -- today we talk about creative imagination, and sometimes creative expression. [The original German term can be translated either as "soul" or "spirit" -- the idea is that the artist's soul has to be reflected in the art. To read the original source of this proposed requirement, that taste must be supplemented by "soul" or "spirit," click here to read Kant's statement.] On this model, photography is an art because it increases the range of human creativity and expression. 

Philosophers need to do more work to clarify what it is that is produced by an individual in the production of a photograph. Creating a statue does not mean creating the marble that it's made from, and the the mechanical contributions of the camera, etc., should not count against the photographer's originality. But we must refine and sharpen our understanding of what that is.


Not everything of aesthetic value is art (for example, pretty scenes in nature), so the aesthetic value of photographs is not sufficient to establish that a photo is art. But does this show that aesthetic value is irrelevant to art? Not at all. "Not sufficient" is not the same as "no relevance."

Sometime by "an aesthetic" we mean an artistic style or sensibility, and sometimes THIS type of aesthetic is in conflict with the other, standard meaning (of delight in perceiving). Many have claimed that photography is an expression of MODERN sensibility because it can take us away from the older sense of "aesthetic" value. Each generation of photographers has claimed that its approach to photography is expressive of its era. [But how can a style express an era if photographers also claim to teach us to see?] Making this claim, photographers claim that their art is different from traditional arts, but currently more relevant than older arts. But his is doubtful. Different arts are created and then co-exist with older arts, producing complex, interactive layering within culture.

                        Last updated April 28, 2004