‘The Lens, the Shutter and the Light Sensitive Surface’

Photography Theory (James Elkins, ed.), Routledge, 2011

The Lens, the Shutter and the Light Sensitive Surface

What gives rise to the wish or the need to define something? It usually happens when we are attracted to it, or when we find it threatening, or when it is new to us, or when it is disappearing from us. Photography attracts definition, or definitions, because it fits all of these criteria, often all at once. It has done so for quite a while now. Photography eludes definition but the more elusive it is the greater the wish to pursue it. In what follows I make a response to this state of affairs by looking at different approaches to the problem. For the sake of brevity I will try to confine myself to thinking in the first instance about the camera.

Looking back at the many discussions of photography and its apparatus I have noticed that the character of the argument tends to change depending upon which part is being thought about. The camera, which is just one part of the photographic apparatus, is itself made up of what we might think of as three distinct parts: the lens, the shutter and the light-sensitive surface. When the lens is the centre of attention it is usually in relation to the depiction of space and the conventions of realism determined by theories of perspective and the laws of optics. Here we are in the realm of resemblance and iconicity. When the shutter is invoked it is in relation to time and duration. When the light sensitive surface is invoked it is usually in relation to the question of indexicality, contiguity and touch. To me this seems as perfectly reasonable as it is complex.

At different historical points and in different contexts we can see that the emphasis on each component part of the photographic apparatus has varied. For example think of how, between the mid-1920s and the mid-1970s the shutter seemed to play a very active part in popular and more serious thinking about what photography is. The celebrated ‘Decisive Moment’, in which the lens cuts out a bit of space and the shutter cuts out a bit of time, was thought be as close to the essence of the medium as you could get.  It loomed very large in popular and artistic accounts of what photography was or could be. Looking back however, we can see that that era (a long one at half a century) was in part prompted as much by other media as by photography’s autonomous search for its own essence. Cinema, a fully mass medium by the 1920s, invented the moving image but it also invented a new relation to still images. Photography began to pursue this stillness as ‘arrestedness’. It mastered and monopolised arrestedness roughly until video intruded as a mass form to become widespread by the 1970s, with its portability, dispersal and capacity to be readily fragmented. At that point the Decisive Moment – with its active and dertermining shutter – began to wane in the understanding of the medium. Photo reportage of ‘events’, in its applied and artistic guises, receded. These days few people speak of the moment, decisive or otherwise, being unique to photography or definitive of it. But they certainly used to. The moment still haunts photography of course, which is partly why so much staged photography in art since the mid-1970s renounced the decisive moment the better to explore what such a moment was or is. The early work of Cindy Sherman and much of the work of Jeff Wall comes to mind in this regard. Both of them began in earnest in the late 1970s. Today contemporary photographic artists seem to prefer the stoicism of the lens to the ecstasy or trauma of the shutter. That seems to be what this now relatively slow medium is for them.[i]

So photography has always had a shutter in one form or another but its significance has experienced a rise and fall. Likewise we could think of the various points at which the light sensitive surface – the component that makes photography at least in part an index – has peaked within the understanding of the medium. These would include the crises of historical memory felt in the wake of the two world wars. Think also, in a different way, about  how the becoming electronic of the apparatus (“digital cameras”) focuses discussion on the light-sensitive surface. Debates about digital cameras have made a fetish of their difference rather than their continuity with older equipment. (Digital cameras still have lenses, which makes them still analogical, but little is said of this.[ii] We might also think of the indexical turn in art’s conception of photography in the 1970s that was so well described by Rosalind Krauss. Advanced art of that time stressed the photograph’s status as physical record, either by making use of it in practices such as performance and Land Art documentation, or by digging up the foundations of its status as neutral evidence.

Conceptions of the role played by the lens have also risen and fallen, but with fewer extremes. Think of the preoccupation with the ‘faults’ of the lens and the artistic aversion to clear detail typical of pictorialist photography – shallow focus, vignetting, imperfect glass; or the return in recent art of the ‘straight photograph’ – frontal, rectilinear, uninflected  – which clearly marks a certain kind of ascendance of the perfectible lens and its descriptive capacity.

Since the beginnings of photography lenses have basically stayed the same, or at least they have inched steadily towards a kind of perfection. About shutters  – control of duration and exposure – we can say much the same. That’s the front of the camera (I am simplifying, obviously). At the back, the light sensitive surface has changed a great deal, especially in the move from paper, metal and celluloid coated with chemicals to the electronic. It will no doubt continue to change. Putting all these things together, which cameras do, we can say that photography stays the same and changes too.

Is that all there is to the apparatus and to photographic change? Yes and no. We should also add in the question of subject matter, because although ordinarily it may not count as being part of the apparatus it is indispensable to photography. Subject matter, without which photography would not be photography, has changed the most. There has been about one hundred and seventy years of global change under modernity since its invention. I’ll return to this.

We tend to think of photography telling us something about subject matter, or at least about what subject matter can look like when photographed. But it also works the other way around. It is barely possible to understand photography outside of what and how it photographs. Subject matter affects what we think photography ‘is’. For example industrial subject matter (say, a steel and glass building) makes photography seem industrial. Nature (a forest or a cloud) makes it seem natural. The fleeting (a man jumping over a puddle) makes it a medium of the shutter. The immobile (say, a water tower) makes it a medium of the lens. And the desirable or the past (in the end they are much the same thing) make it an existential medium of connection and contact. The actual technical procedure of the photo might be exactly the same in each case (lens, shutter, film and so on) but the subject matter seems to dictate how the photography is ‘felt’. Here is a bizarre scenario. Imagine a formal photograph of a building. There is nobody in front of the building. The camera would seem here to be emphasising its lens to us, with its powers of optical description of the thing and space before it. Imagine the next image on the roll is shot just the same but it happens to ‘freeze’ a figure now running past. Suddenly the shutter seems to be more active. Imagine the building has since been destroyed or that the running figure is your since deceased lover in the flush of youth. Suddenly the physical contact of light, the indexicality of the optically produced image, the trace, becomes more central. Perhaps it even becomes overwhelming, as it did for Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida. The sense of a person or building ‘having been there’ overcame him and flooded his conception of photography. Our grasp of lens, shutter and light sensitive surface are never really this separate but abstracting the idea may allow us to see how subject matter conceptualises photography for us in different ways.

It can sometimes seem as if photography awaits definition from the world. Let’s recall John Szarkowski’s first major attempt to define the medium when he was at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In The Photographer’s Eye (1966) he came up with a set of categories. If a photo – any photo – ‘excelled’ in one or more categories it would be worthy of serious attention (his and presumably ours). They were: The Frame, The Detail, Time, Vantage Point and The Thing Itself. It is a flawed if fascinating attempt, as many critics soon pointed out. Nevertheless his inclusion of The Thing Itself is instructive. The other four categories seem to pertain directly to the procedures of the camera. The Thing Itself, i.e. subject matter, is resolutely not ‘of’ the apparatus yet it is necessary for the making of a photograph. Could we go the whole way and say that subject matter is part of the photographic apparatus? It is a drastic redefinition but in granting all the things necessary for photography a place in our thinking it might get us closer to grasping the problem.

“The magic of photography” suggested the philosopher and photographer Jean Baudrillard “is that it is the object which does all the work.”[iii] It is a suggestive idea (especially coming from the man who heralded “the precession of simulacra”). Might it suggest that beyond the art and craft of the image-maker it is the thing in the picture that is the real source of photographic meaning? Or is this itself an effect of photographic “magic”? In appearing to merely present us with the world as a sign of itself (as what Barthes called a “message without a code”) photography hides its own powers of radical transformation. Its transparency is more than it seems. It allows the photographer to camouflage the preparations that make the image of the object what it is. The photographer need not even be aware of the process, and it leads Baudrillard to conclude that: “the joy of photography is an objective delight”. It brings to mind the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch’s famous essay ‘Joy Before the Object’ (1928). “There must be an increase in the joy one takes in an object” he declared “and the photographer should become fully conscious of the splendid fidelity of reproduction made possible by his technique.”[iv] He argued for a photography of servitude, homage and worship of the world’s things. More than that, taking pleasure in photography for its own sake risked competition with the object (leading to the “error” of pictorialism). For him the task of the photographer was to imagine and then master an art of selflessness.  The joy taken in photography would then be inseparable from joy taken in the world. The more selfless the photography, the more the delight would appear to stem from the object and the more enjoyable the making of the image. In this regard it is interesting that Renger-Patzsch didn’t like the title of his best known book Die Welt ist Schön (The World is Beautiful, 1928), which his publisher insisted upon. He preferred the more disarming Die Dinge. Things.

This transference of pleasure is always present in photography, but it can best be understood if we think of perhaps the most selfless and authorless uses of the medium: the copying of paintings for reproduction. The photographer Edwin Smith described it thus: “Making an accurate colour transparency of a painting is perhaps one of the least creative of a photographer’s tasks. If he is sensitive to the painting, there will be, if the work is admired, the consolation of having it to himself and of paying it the ritual homage of his own craft; though this pleasure may turn to torture when the work is despised – a condition not infrequent enough to be ignored!”[v]



Does photography ‘point’ at what is photographed? It may be dumb of me but this line of thought always calls to my mind the utopian concept of the ‘picture dictionary’ as much as the thinking of C.S. Peirce.  The best selling pocket book Point it is subtitled Traveller’s Language Kit. You can buy it in dozens of countries now. It comprises photos of 1200 objects with a family resemblance to the straight  ‘pack shot’, as it is called in professional circles. Everything is there from Apple, Bicycle and Caravan to X-ray, Yacht and Zebra. The principle is simple. Photographs are taken of various objects. The resulting images are assembled in the book. When words fail the tourist abroad they can point at the right object in the photo. The book thus overcomes language barriers, providing of course we wish to communicate only with nouns. Photography’s ostension, its capacity to point, works best when it points at discrete and familiar things such as named objects. (This is why conceptual art, in its disarming exploration of the camera as ‘dumb’ recording device tended to point the camera at banal objects: Edward Ruscha’s photo-books such as Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963), Joseph Kosuth’s ‘proto-investigations’ such as One and Three Chairs (1965) and Victor Burgin’s Photopath (1967-69). Point it makes no attempt to represent adjectives, prepositions, verbs and so on, although this might be possible within limits:  we could imagine a page of seascapes from ‘calm’ to ‘stormy’, faces from ‘sad’ to ‘happy’, or little tableaux enacting scenarios such as ‘missed flight’ or ‘lost luggage’. The further photography moves from known objects, the less reliable its description of the world. If, as we are often told, the photograph is a universal form of communication it is only at the level of the obvious and the already understood. It is clichés and only clichés that bind us in this increasingly fragmentary world, argued Gilles Deleuze. Indeed, what there is of a ‘global language of photography’ is made up of images of hamburgers, carbonated drinks, cars, celebrities (people-objects) and sunsets. ‘Viewzak’.

Reality, argued Freud, is essentially that which gets in the way of our fantasies. In this sense the photographic real is never just a matter of formal technique or ‘objective style’. In photography it is often the ugly that seems more real than the beautiful; the flawed seems more real than the perfect (that’s why “cleaning up ” an image with Photoshop makes it look less real); plain buildings seem more real than named architecture; cheap commodities seem more real that luxury goods; work seems more real than leisure; TV dinners more real than posh food; the passport photo more real than the glamour portrait. As a result the photographic real is always marked at a social and political level. This may account, at least in part, for why it is that documentary photography – which has invoked realism the most  – has generally taken as its subject matter the various obstacles to fantasy and the various states of unfreedom that exist in the world (in recent decades documentary photography has looked to consumption and commodities as subject matter, but the aim has still been to show them as obstacles – false, distracting things that in the end come between us and our happiness).

No doubt this is in part a consequence of the “reality effect” of photography, derived from its blind inability to distinguish between what might be desirable in the picture and what might not.  As the photographer Lee Friedlander put it: “I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry, and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.”[vi] Uncle Vern and the Hudson were what Friedlander desired but he got a lot more besides. But the point is that the photographic reality of Uncle Vern and the Hudson are guaranteed, so to speak, by their co-oexistence with the undesired stuff. (Interestingly Roland Barthes illustrates the same point with a startlingly similar example to Friedlander’s in his Camera Lucida (1980). Talking of André Kertész’s image The Violinist’s Tune (1921) he asks “How could Kertész have separated the dirt road from violinist walking on it?” Of course if we are not interested in Uncle Vern or his Hudson everything in the picture flattens to a banal equivalence with everything else. This is a phenomenon – seen as both attractive and dangerous – that runs through many of the different conceptions and definitions of photography. It is there in accounts of the medium in the 1840s and in different guises in Benjamin, Bazin, Barthes, Baudrillard, Batchen and Burgin.

Is there a tension between the lens and the light sensitive surface? As I have remarked already the light sensitive surface brings to mind matters of touch and contact while the lens implies separation. This is what makes photography ‘scientific’, distant and cool yet also intimate, close and tactile. It is also what leads Joel Snyder to suggest that what is indexed in photography is strictly speaking photons of light, not the object (how could it be the object when a lens comes between the object and the sensitive surface?) Light bouncing off the object passes through the lens, to be focused or not on the surface. Thus the photograph obtained is an index of that light, which may or may not be arranged by the lens in an iconically recognisable way. However because of the mediating presence of the lens (or pinhole even, we don’t need glass) the photograph is an index in another sense too: it is an indication of the presence of a vantage point. That is to say it indicates a spatial relation between object and the light sensitive surface. When we make sense of photographs we make sense of both things at once – the viewed and the view. Again, a co-definition is in play between photography and the photographed.

I rather like this idea that photography and its subject matter define each other in both directions and that our conceptions of photography emerge from this. It allows for both a technical and a cultural reading of the medium. i.e. as something that “is what it is” and something that is “is what we do with it”. It also tells us something about why discussions that only admit to one direction  – photography telling us about the world, or the world telling us about photography – tend to go around in circles producing fixed but frustrating accounts.

Even so, accepting this two-way co-definition does not solve things once and for all. If we wish to discover why photography remains so elusive the answers are to be found less within the medium per se, regardless of the technical changes, than in its status as recorder. Photography is inherently of the world. It cannot help but document things however abstract, theatrical, artificial or contentious that documentation may be. So the meaning of photography is intimately bound up with the meaning of the world it records. Moreover, photography is a product of modernity. Modernity has meant change, in photography and in the social world. So the identity of photography as recorder is condemned to remain restless, mobile, volatile even.[vii]


NOTE: This is an expanded version of an essay written for James Elkins’ book Photography Theory (which contains a long-winded roundtable discussion about definitions of the medium with some invited responses).


[i] Thierry de Duve’s suggestive essay ‘Time Exposure and Snapshot: the Photograph as Paradox’ makes a distinction between the snapshot and the time exposure along the same lines as my thinking here, although his conclusions are somewhat different. What de Duve calls the traumatic effect of the ‘snapshot’  – earlier I referred to it as ecstatic – comes about through photography’s arresting of things: a stilled image of a moving world. The ‘time exposure’ (it is quite a misleading term since they don’t actually demand different lengths of exposure) is a still image of a still world, and is aligned not with trauma but with mourning or melancholy. (I referred to it as ‘stoic’). See Thierry de Duve ‘Time Exposure and Snapshot: the Photograph as Paradox’ in October no. 5, Summer 1978, reprinted in Campany ed., The Cinematic, MIT / Whitechapel Gallery, 2007.

[ii] A good exception to this is Bernard Steigler’s discussion of digital cameras in Bernard Steigler and Jacques Derrida, Echographies of Television.

[iii] Jean Baudrillard,  ‘For illusion is not the opposite of reality…’ Jean Baudrillard, Photographies 1985-1998 Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 1999. Reprinted in David Campany, Art and Photography (Phaidon, 2003).

[iv] Albert Renger-Patzsch ‘Joy Before the Object’ / ‘Die Freude am Gegenstand’ (1928). The year before he had also spoken of magic: “We still don’t sufficiently appreciate the opportunity to capture the magic of material things” (‘Aims’/ ‘Ziele’ 1927). Both statements appear in English in Christopher Phillips, ed., Photography in the Modern Era. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940 Aperture / The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1989.

[v] Edwin Smith, ‘The Photography of Paintings, Drawings and Print’ in John Lewis and Edwin Smith The Graphic Reproduction and Photography of Works of Art, Cowell and Faber 1969.

[vi] Lee Friedlander in Peter Galassi, ed, Lee Friedlander, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2005.

[vii] I am restating a point I made in a little essay titled ‘Still Standing, Still’ Contemporary magazine no. 67, 2004.