Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 17, 2018
Diarmuid Costello On Photography: A Philosophical Inquiry New York: Routledge, 2018. 166 pp.; 12 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9780415684491)

Diarmuid Costello’s book brings together an abundance of historical and analytical debates to make clear that the philosophy of photography is a delineated field in its own right. Although the title On Photography: A Philosophical Inquiry reflects Susan Sontag’s seminal book and may bring to mind Vilém Flusser’s attempt to single-handedly philosophize photography, it is in no sense similar to those approaches. Costello has gathered a rich corpus of philosophical thoughts on two questions: What is a photograph and what is photography? (7). Instead of resorting to a “cultural criticism” approach (embraced by thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Sontag, Roland Barthes, and more recently, Jacques Rancière), Costello aspires to truly “treat photography philosophically,” an approach that is neither sociological nor psychological (1). His aim, however, is not to establish his own philosophy of photography, but to make clear the limitations and inconsistencies of what other philosophers have argued on behalf of photography since the very beginning of the medium to the present day. Thus, Costello’s book is not only a philosophical inquiry, it’s a historical one, written in an engaging way for anyone with an interest in the topic.

Since its advent, Costello proposes, photography has been conceived in two ways: either “as a means of delivering photographs,” which focuses on the relationship between the photograph and what it is a photograph of; or, “as the product of a process called photography,” which aims to understand what is distinctive about the entire photographic process (8). For Costello, the thinkers who have embraced the former gave birth to what he calls the Orthodoxy Theory, and those who supported the latter have established what has come to be known as the New Theory. Hence, he dedicates his entire book to a close examination of the debates that either support or criticize these two historically opposing categories, while his own view, to a large extent, is aligned with the latter. Excluding the introduction and the conclusion, the book contains three main chapters: chapter 1 traces the conceptual roots of the Orthodoxy Theory and chapters 2 and 3 explore how the New Theory of photography has come into being through a close examination of the works of Roger Scruton and Kendal Walton.

In chapter 1, Costello goes back to the early days of photography to trace the origin of the Orthodoxy Theory. He notes that it was born out of the division between “pictorial photography,” which would allow and motivate artistic intervention, and “straight photography,” which aimed to preclude that subjective involvement as much as possible (18–21). Later in the twentieth century, however, photographers such as Edward Weston advanced the notion of “pre-visualization,” suggesting that the photographic process begins “prior to exposure,” thus undermining the Orthodoxy Theory for the first time (26–27). As Costello puts it: “Weston can be claimed as an unexpected harbinger of the New Theory. For rather than focusing on the photograph, or what is special about the photograph’s relationship to what it is of, he focused instead on what is special about the activity of taking photographs” (31).

However, Costello notes, the insights given by photographers such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams (i.e., that photography is an activity) were later ignored by critics such as André Bazin and Stanley Cavell. By laying too much emphasis on the agency of the camera, the aforesaid critics ignored the fact that “automatism” requires human labor and imagination as well (41). This was because, Costello reminds us, in photography many things happen “off the support—(for instance) the choice of lens, distance, lighting, moment of exposure, point of view, etc. This is why any adequate aesthetics of photography needs to pay as much attention to what happens off the support as on it” (45). Seeing photography as a multilayered process is precisely what Costello does in chapters 2 and 3 of his book. In these two chapters, by creating imaginative scenarios, he asks the reader to think of the activities that may or may not have happened “off the support” or after the print, thereby inviting us to see photography as a conflation of subjective and objective choices.

In chapter 2, Costello attempts to refute the philosophical foundations of the Orthodoxy Theory by focusing on Scruton’s skeptical claims about the possibility of photographic art (52). To do this, he takes issue with Scruton on several grounds by developing shrewd counterarguments that address each of his claims. Firstly, he argues that Scruton falsely assumes that “painting and photography have distinct (non-overlapping) natures,” or, more crucially, assumes that painting and photography have essential natures (57–58). Secondly, although Scruton distinguishes photography from painting by a “strictly causal relation to its object,” Costello argues that he “neglects to mention what is surely the defining causal characteristic of photography if anything is” (59). And finally, Costello puts forward that photographs are not necessarily either “causal” or “intentional” (59). Instead, like paintings that are made of both a causation (of the brush on a white surface) and an intention (of the painter creating a figure), photographs reflect that causation and intention are not “mutually exclusive” (60). For Costello, the intention of a photographer is not simply something that is visible in the photographic frame, but it can also refer to all the “decision-making” and “thought-processes” that took place before the photograph was taken (62). To understand a photographer’s intention, Costello suggests, requires that we look elsewhere, “just as an art historian will use X-ray, infrared, and ultraviolet to uncover and analyze the stages through which a paining has passed” (63). Focusing on the “off the support” of a photographic process is what lays the foundation of what Costello calls the New Theory. In other words, by focusing on the photographic process rather than the photograph, the New Theory sees photography in multilayered stages: before the exposure and after the print (75). That is why, for Costello, the challenging question of the philosophy of photography is “what makes an imaging technology photographic?” (87).

In chapter 3, Costello mainly focuses on Kendall Walton’s understanding of photography, which unlike Scruton’s, not only endorses the “aesthetic significance” of photography, but also confers “epistemic advantages” to it over other art forms (102). As Costello summarizes: “For Walton what is distinctive about photography is that it is both: like painting, drawing, or etching it is a way of making pictures; like telescopes, microscopes, and mirrors it is a way of seeing the world” (104). Further, he suggests that for Walton the transparency of photographs, in that we “see through photographs,” does not imply the invisibility of the photographic surface (as if it were a window), but “requires that we see the surface” (105). The prevalent belief that photographs cannot be transparent mediums, Costello contends, is rooted in their inability to convey their spatiotemporal information when we see them: the fact that, when we see a photo, our position in time and space differs from the photographer who sees the photographed subject in the world. But following Walton, Costello argues: “mere seeing, as opposed to cognitively more demanding activity of forming beliefs about what one sees, need not entail knowing the location of what one sees relative to where one sees it from” (107). In other words, Costello asks the reader to revaluate the possibility of seeing through photographs without situating ourselves in relation to the time and the location at which they were taken. Whether we are looking at photographs (which is an indirect seeing) or looking through cameras (which is a direct seeing), we need to consciously focus on surfaces in order to see through them. Otherwise, Costello succinctly remarks: “media that are literally transparent are invisible in use” (114).

Having masterfully surveyed a wide range of philosophical discussions on photography, Costello ends his book by suggesting that, while for the advocates of the New Theory “the epistemic value of photography is not an intrinsic feature,” for the Orthodox Theorists the mere “possession of aesthetics value is not what makes some photography art” (141). Given the new challenges posed by digital photography, Costello however agrees that the New Theory is better equipped for answering the philosophical questions of our days (142). Besides proposing the Orthodoxy and the New theories as two useful philosophical frameworks, Costello’s book is a rich resource for those who want to familiarize themselves with the philosophical debates around photography. It is an attempt to understand photography not only through photographs and their subjects, but also by seeing photography as a process, activity, and multilayered stage that starts before the exposure and continues after the print. Thanks to its engrossing analytical depth and critical examination, On Photography: A Philosophical Inquiry is an essential asset for students, teachers, and enthusiasts of philosophy of photography. 

S. A. (Ali) Shobeiri
Assistant Professor of Photography, Centre for Arts in Society, Leiden University