The Gesture of Photography

Flusser, Vilem. ‘The Gesture of Photography’ Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2000) 33-40


The acts of resistance on the part of culture, the cultural conditionality of things, can be seem in the act of photography, and this can, in theory, be read off from photographs themselves.

In theory, cultural conditions seem, to a certain extent, to emerge ‘in negative’ in the photograph, as acts of resistance that have been avoided.


Criticism of photography should be able to reconstruct these cultural conditions from the photographs – not just in the case of documentary pictures and photojournalism, where the cultural condition is the prey to be snapped – because the structure of the cultural condition is captured in the act of photography rather than the object being photographed.


Such a decoding of the cultural conditions of photography is, however, almost impossible since what appears in the photograph are the categories of the camera which ensnare the cultural conditions like a net with a limited view through its net.

Individual cultural conditions thus disappear from view: The result is a mass culture of cameras adjusted to the norm; in the West, in Japan, in underdeveloped countries – all over the world, everything is photographed through the same categories.


On the hunt, photographers change from one form of space and time to another, a process which adjusts the combinations of time-and-space categories. Their stalking is a game of making combinations with the various categories of their camera, and it is the structure of this game – not directly the structure of the cultural condition itself – that we can read off from the photograph.

In the act of photography the camera does the will of the photographer but the photographer has to will what the camera can do.

The same symmetry between the function of the photographer and that of the camera can be perceived in the choice of the ‘object’ to be photographed.

[Photographers] can only photograph what can be photographed, i.e. everything located within the program.


And the only things that can be photographed are states of things. Whatever objects photographers wish to photograph, they have to translate them into states of things. Consequently it is true that the choice of the ‘object’ to be photographed is free, but it also has to be a function of the program of the camera.


In order to be able to set the camera for artistic, scientific and political images, photographers have to have some concepts of art, science and politics: How else are they supposed to be able to translate them into an image?

There is no such thing as a naive, non-conceptual photography. A photograph is an image of concepts.

The possibilities contained within the camera’s program are practically inexhaustible. One cannot actually photograph everything that can be photographed. The imagination of the camera is greater than that of every single photographer and that of all photographers put together: This is precisely the challenge to the photographer.


As stated elsewhere, redundant photographs are not of interest in this study; photographers in the sense intended here are in pursuit of possibilities that are still unexplored in the camera’s program, in pursuit of informative, improbable images that have not been seen before.

Basically, therefore, photographers wish to produce states of things that have never existed before; they pursue these states, not out there in the world, since for them the world is only a pretext for the states of things that are to be produced, but amongst the possibilities of contained within the camera’s program.

To this extent, the traditional distinction between realism and idealism is overturned in the case of photography: It is not the world out there that is real, nor the concept within the camera’s program – only the photograph is real.

We are dealing here with a reversal of the vector of significance: It is not the significance that is real but the signifier, the information, the symbol, and this reversal of the vector of significance is characteristic of everything to do with apparatus and characteristic of the post-industrial world in general.


Each time photographers are confronted by a hurdle, they discover that the viewpoint they have adopted is is concentrated on the ‘object’ and that the camera offers any number of different viewpoints. They discover the multiplicity and the equality of viewpoints in relation to their ‘object’. They discover that it is not a matter of adopting a perfect viewpoint but realizing as many viewpoints as possible. Their choice is therefore not of a qualitative, but of a quantitative kind.

The act of photography is that of ‘phenomenological doubt’, to the extent that it attempts to approach phenomena from any number of viewpoints.

Two aspects are decisive for this doubt. First: Photographers’ practice is hostile to ideology. Ideology is the insistence on a single viewpoint thought to be perfect.

Second: Photographer’s practice is fixed to a program. Photographers can only act within the program of the camera, even when they think they are acting in opposition.


The act of photography is like going on a hunt in which the photographer and camera merge into one indivisible function.


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