Towards a Philosophy of Photography

Vilém Flusser

Before moving on to a discussion of photography in relation to the theory of the index in the next blog post, I would like to introduce you to some ideas by the excellent Czech-born philosopher and writer Vilém Flusser.

Flusser’s book ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ was first published in 1983 and brought Flusser instant fame as a media-theorist in the German speaking nations.

Vilém Flusser placed the subject of photography within a larger history of human existence, specifically pointing towards the change in human thought which has been taking place since the digital revolution.

According to Flusser, two fundamental turning points can be observed in human culture; firstly the invention of linear writing, secondly the invention of technical images.

Before the invention of linear writing was ‘the age of the image’ which was not linear or historical, but almost timeless – based on a magical, circular repetition. With writing began linear thought, and the notion that there is a past and a future – something before now, which will never return, and something which follows.

According to Flusser: “Images are significant surfaces. Images signify – mainly something ‘out there’ in space and time that they have to make comprehensible to us as abstractions”. In other words, images are abstractions of reality. The ability to abstract surfaces out of space and time and to project them back into space and time is what we call imagination and is an essential human quality, according to Flusser.

On one level, images make the world comprehensible, by acting as mediation’s between the world and human beings, as Flusser saw it. But on the other hand: if we forget that we created images for better orientation in the world, if we lose our ability to decode the images, our lives will instead become a function of images, and our imagination in stead turns into a form of hallucination. This is what Flusser calls ‘idolatry’.

The invention of linear writing happened as a result of this, an attempt to tear down the screen of the image, which seemed to separate us from the world. According to Flusser, writing pulled images apart and rearranged their substance in a linear order.

While it is the intention of writing to mediate between human beings and their images, writing can also obscure images, rather than represent them: “If this happens, human being become unable to decode their texts and reconstruct the images signified in them. If texts, however, become incomprehensible as images, human beings lives become a function of their texts.” This to Flusser is the stage of ‘textolatry’, which is as hallucinatory as the stage of idolatry.

Images are supposed to signify something out there, in space and time, making it comprehensible to us as abstractions. We need imagination to be able to abstract surfaces out of space and time and turn them into pictures, and we need imagination to read them and learn from them.

Writing and pictures are supposed to inform and explain each other, making sure that neither takes over, creating a hallucinatory world.

Just like writing was invented as a struggle against idolatry, technical images were invented to fight textolatry, according to Flusser. But instead of beautiful, true and good technical images, what we got was mass culture, circulating, reproducing, absorbing all things and turning everything into magic ritual.

“This apparently non-symbolic, objective character of technical images leads whoever looks at them to see them not as images but as windows. (…) This lack of criticism of technical images is potentially dangerous at a time when technical images are in the process of displacing texts – dangerous for the reason that the ‘objectivity’ of technical images in an illusion. For they are – like all images – not only symbolic but represent even more abstract complexes of symbols than traditional images. They are metacodes of texts, as is yet to be shown, signify texts, not the world out there.”

Technical images are in fact the result of an apparatus, a program, and they are not windows, but “surfaces that translate everything into states of things”.

Technical images are produced by apparatuses, like the camera. Apparatuses are black boxes that simulate thinking, mechanizing it, rendering the human increasingly incompetent, according to Flusser.

Flusser saw the camera program as intoxicating, overwhelming, and more inventive than human beings. According to Flusser imaging, language and technology posed different problems in respect to our experience of reality:

“Our thoughts, feelings, desires and actions are being robotized; ‘life’ is coming to mean feeding apparatuses and being fed by them. In short: Everything is becoming absurd. So where is there room for human freedom?”

According to Flusser, the people who might answer these questions were neither philosophers nor academics, but those photographers who play against the apparatus “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.”

Photographers’ intentions, according to Flusser, is to encode their concepts of the world into images through the camera, and to share the images they produce with others so they can serve as permanent models for their experience, knowledge, judgement and actions.

As Flusser saw it, there was a constant battle going on between photographer and camera program, human intentions vs. camera functions. The photographer was supposed to push the boundaries of the camera programme and reach a new kind of understanding. This off course can only be done, if the photographer is aware of what the camera does, and battles it somehow. Thus there is a big difference between the amateur snap shooter, and the more philosophically inclined art photographer.

According to Flusser, the difference between a photographer, and a regular person taking snaps, is the snap shooter’s wish for automation. Snap shooters are intoxicated by the camera as plaything, and they become dependent on shooting new pictures “consumed by the greed of their camera”.

Snaps are automatic products of the apparatus, rather than acquired human knowledge, and according to Flusser this is the victory of the camera over the human being: “People taking snaps are unable to decode photographs: They think photographs are an automatic reflection of the world.”

Clearly Flusser did not see the photograph as a reflection of the word, but rather as a kind of coded message. According to Flusser, the problem of photography and reality can be solved by combining word and technical image, playing against the apparatus, using our imagination to regain access to the world around us.

Flusser also had some interesting thoughts on the question of photography’s relationship with reality: “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 is it the concept within the camera’s program – only the photograph is real.”

Rather than use Peirce’s concept of the index, Flusser refers to Saussure’s concept of the sign as composed of signifier and signified, calling the photograph a symbol made real. It is not a question of universals (ideas) vs specifics (reality), rather the photograph becomes real in itself.


I believe that the problem of the relationship between photography and reality can be answered by taking a fresh look at the concept of mimesis, and by rejecting the idea of the index in favor of an examination of how photographs are actually created as a combination of apparatus and human imagination, and how our understanding of reality is based in our embodied visuality.

So far, we have looked at some classic literary approaches to photography and the real, as a question of science, truth, mimesis and art, as well as in relation to Flusser’s thoughts on photography in relation to the current human condition. Because of photography’s automatic machine-nature, most of the before-mentioned writers take photographs to be superficial reflections of reality, capturing a very banal, sentimental version of truth, while somehow also representing our desires and wishes about reality.

The general idea is that photographs trick us into thinking we know something we do not know. Few academics seem to wonder how this is possible, leaving the theory of the index as the most concrete attempt at explaining how photography is connected to the world.

To me it seems that photographs are first and foremost mimetic in the aristotelian sense (I wrote more about this in the post Mimesis and Photography) – a human representation of an experience or idea, which, ideally, helps us gain a better understanding of things. Off course photographs differ from more traditional types of representation by being created in part by a camera-apparatus, which we have yet to take a closer look at.

In the next blogpost I will return to James Elkins: Photography theory (2007) and the discussion of the index…

One thought on “Towards a Philosophy of Photography

  1. Pingback: The Paradox of Photography (Introduction) | Eyes Wide Shut

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