Fotograf Magazine

The New Philosophy of Photography

The New Philosophy of Photography, Friday 13th – Saturday 14th February 2015, Senate House, London (A Collaboration between the London Aesthetics Forum and the Centre for Research in Philosophy, Literature and the Arts at the University of Warwick).


The lecture room in the basement of the Senate House in London which hosted the two-day conference gave the appearance that everyone present was perfectly familiar with the concept of a “new philosophy of photography.” Those who encountered it for the first time, might thus be best served by the text excerpted from the annotation of the conference: “Over the last few years, philosophers have belatedly begun to consider the challenge that artists’ use of photography may present for standard philosophical conceptions of photography as a ‘purely causal‘ proces […]. These challenges can no longer be acommodated by ad hoc extensions to existing theories, or by treating artistic uses of photography as special case. Moreover, it is not only philosophy that is implicated by taking photographic art seriously: such core art theoretical notions as ‘indexicality‘ are similarly put into question. This workshop considers philosophers’ attempts to address such problems to date, and asks whether a fundamental re-conception of the field is now required.” The figure behind the organization of the conference was Diarmuid Costello (among other things, co-author of Photography After Conceptual Art together with Margaret Iversen), whose contribution opened the program. His lecture was an answer to the question posed in its title: “What’s So New about the ‘New‘ Philosophy of Photography?”. According to Costello, the new theory does not define photography as a record of reality, but rather as a “belief-independent recording mechanism”, which nonetheless changes nothing about the fact that photographs represent “traces of what they depict.” The devices of photography, according to this new theory, are not simply the circumstances preceding and immediately related to pressing the shutter, but all photographic means employed in the process of its production – including post-production. “Photographic devices” nevertheless continue to denote such devices which operate with the “control of the incidence of the light onto a photographic material.” In other words, photography is a multi-stage process, the result of at least two photographic events, taking place at the instant of pressing the shutter and also subsequently in the darkroom. A practical example (practical in the sense of putting theory into practice) of the new theory of photography was demonstrated by Dawn M. Wilson, whose contribution pointed out possible parallels between photography and music, or an analogy between the creative processes in photography and music composition. In her introduction, she cited the photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, who in fact voiced such parallels – Adams explicitly said: “Photographers are in a sense composers and the negatives are their scores.” Like Diarmuid Costello, Dawn M. Wilson distanced herself from an older understanding of photography in which the definition corresponds with the idiom of “taking a photo” – aiming a camera at the world and pressing the shutter. In contrast to this, the new theory is concerned with a far wider spectrum of events, starting with the process of creating the “light image”, and continuing through the emergence of a “photographic event” – which itself consists in the “registration of light”, and only then is a static and visible image created. In printing photographs from negatives, or via the post-production of data with digital technology, there occurs the second photographic event, when a new light image is created, and subsequently registered once more. As Dominic McIver Lopes pointed out, the new theory of photography therefore also shows that the chasm between analog and digital photography is by no means as vast as William J. Mitchell (among others) described it in the early 1990s in heralding the dawn of the post-photographic era when digital technologies first emerged. The parallel between photographic registration and musical notation shows that if we wish to pursue photography, we must consider the photographic process in its entirety. This is one of the conclusions of the conference that may seem obvious, and yet in the field of the theory of photography they represent an important step forward.

Hana Buddeus