Towards a philosophy instigated by photography

Henri van Lier, ‘Towards a philosophy instigated by photography’, pp.9-10, in:

Van Lier, H., 2007. Philosophy of photography, New ed. ed, Lieven Gevaert series. Univ. Press, Leuven.


A philosophy of photography could be taken to mean the act of philosophizing on the subject of photography.

One could enquire into its links with perception, imagination, nature, substance, essence, freedom and consciousness. The danger of such an approach is the projection onto photography of concepts created long before photography’s emergence, concepts which might prove to be ill-suited to it.

But the philosophy of the photograph could also designate the philosophy of the photograph itself, the kind of philosophy the photo suggests and diffuses by virtue of its characteristics.

All materials, tools and processes employ, through their texture and structure, a specific mode of constructing the space and time around them. They engage – to a lesser or greater degree – specific parts of our nervous system. They induce certain gestures or operations, while excluding others. As such, they endow those whose them with a certain lifestyle.

There is no reason why film, cameras, or photographic paper should be deprived of such action. Undoubtedly, they suggest an unforeseen space and time, a distinct manner of capturing reality and the real, action and act, event and potentiality, object and process, presence and absence, in brief, a specific philosophy.

This undertaking will therefore be anything but easy. Because not simply our philosophies, but more importantly our languages were originally forged to speak about painting, architecture and literature. On different occasions, God was a painter, a sculptor, an architect or a poet, only because man had been. We therefore do not have the words to describe a photograph adequately.

But specialised terminology would be even more fallacious, as only common language has the power – through its bricolage – to re-encode itself so as to touch on new objects.

This is why one should forget all jargon here, and particularly that of linguistics.