Photography, Vision and Representation

This is the title to a journal article of the same name by Snyder and Allen. Since photography was invented there has been continuous enquiry in to what it is all about. I have my own view that this enquiry will never end. The key question that is posed is what is the relationship between photography, a photograph and reality? As reality is something we experience but has never been satisfactorily explained it is difficult to know if there can be any meaningful relationship with it. Philosophers gave up trying to explain reality, scientists have barely scratched the surface and for all it is now a language and ontological game that will never end. As such the discipline of Photography is a castle built on sand.

There needs to be a base from which we can all discuss our discipline. So exploring the question is valuable. At the start in 1889 Peter Henry Emerson ‘set down his prescriptions for photographers in a pamphlet entitled Naturalistic Photography for Students of Art.’ ‘Emerson assumes that photographs are first and foremost pictures, and that like other pictures they may serve to provide information”scientific division”) or to provide aesthetic pleasure (the “art division”). The aim of the artistic photographer is not different from the aim of the artist in other media such as oil painting or charcoal; for Emerson, this aim is “naturalistic” representation. By naturalism, Emerson meant the
artist in other media such as oil painting or charcoal; for Emerson, this aim is “naturalistic” representation. By naturalism, Emerson meant the
representation of a scene in such a way as to be, as much as possible, identical with the visual impression an observer would get at the actual
representation of a scene in such a way as to be, as much as possible, identical with the visual impression an observer would get at the actual
spot from which the photograph was made. Thus, much of his argument
identical with the visual impression an observer would get at the actual
spot from which the photograph was made.’ (Snyder/Allen, 144).

I am interested in the difficulty we as human beings have coping with ‘the whole’. This idea is too complex for us to grasp as is the idea of there being no beginning or no end. To simplify it we break it down in to manageable chunks and then get deeply stressed when the chunks do not fit together to represent the whole. So with Emerson science and art helps him understand the important distinctions in 1889.

Rudolf Arnhein in 1932 based his argument squarely on the “mechanical” origin of photographic images. “All I have said derives ultimately from the fundamental peculiarity of the photographic medium: the physical objects themselves print their image by means of the optical and chemical action of light” (p. 155). He goes on to say that the causal creation of the photographic image performed upon physical reality gives them ‘an authenticity from which painting is barred by birth.”

Snyder and Allen discuss the photofinish for a horse race as being ‘an accurate characterisation of the order in which the horses finish…but the way the picture is made has little to do with the way we normally interpret it…….what the photograph actually manifests is far from what we take ‘physical reality’ to be.’

Photography is continuously struggling to justify its place by reference to its difference to art. Snyder and Allen put it ‘negative definitions in order to establish what is peculiarly photographic about photography by contrast with what is truly artistic about art.’

As I read further I am interested in taking the starting hypothesis that photography is the process by which we have the best chance of capturing some form of what we think of as reality. Let’s get rid of art as a reference as it clearly is an interpretation of reality….iconic and symbolic but certainly not indexical. Then let us ask the question is there a better mechanism than photography. I think not.


Snyder, J./Allen, N. Photography, Vision and Representation.

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I am a Photographer. As well as taking many photographs I am currently studying for an MA in Photography at Falmouth University. I will direct my attention through the lens of my camera for the next couple of years and see what shows up. I see a photograph as a little bit of magic capturing a moment in time. If successful it surprises and engages your emotions. It tells a story about the wonders of being alive or tells us what we need to change to make it a better world to live in. That is enough for me to get going and then like walking a 1000 miles, which I did across the UK in 2010, or walking 200 miles across Cyprus, which I did in November last year, it is one step at a time.

I was a writer. The title of my unpublished book was ‘You Would Have Done The Same.' It is about a successful guy in love with his wife who lets her die when he discovers her in the process of committing suicide. The title gives a clue as to what I think you would have done. The book is 200 pages long. I found it cathartic to write it but after two years of work and reviewing with agents decided it probably needed another 2000 hours to get the whole book up to the standard of some of the pages. Writing is great but it is a lot of sitting down so I decided to get out and walk, play tennis, play bridge, go birding, watch football at Nottingham Forest, Arsenal and Valencia and anywhere else if I can, meditate, cook and eat. I was a writer who has so far failed to become an author.
I was a young man who loved Mathematics and thoroughly enjoyed getting a BSc at Liverpool University. While there I went often to Anfield and the Philharmonic Hall. I was all set on doing a PhD until I went for interview practice at BP and got seduced by the excitement of an International business career. BP was a great adventure building trading teams and businesses in London, Antwerp, Cleveland Ohio and Singapore. Fabulous people and some great challenges and also very hard work, constant jet lag and lots of fun along the way. I married Karen, my stunning wife, and had the most amazing time with her and our three boys Alex, Tom and Dan. She has multiple sclerosis and we have taken on many challenges together but somehow keep creating a new normal against the horrors thrown our way. She is the love of my life.

After BP I decided to coach senior executives and quickly realized I had a lot to learn
about what makes people tick. I had a fantastic 18 months on the International Programme of the Cleveland Gestalt Institute. A great faculty and a
wonderful group of people on the programme. We studied and worked in Dingle, Singapore, Holland, Cape Town and
Lisbon. This also got me interested in the way we think and make decisions so I studied for an MSc in Psychology atUniversity College London in 2010. The
Masters was in Cognitive and Decision Sciences and I found it fascinating what
we do know but also how much we don’t know about how we think and make

I loved coaching and making a difference. I got a number of people to hear themselves, remove some of their own chains and free up the way they thought about the world. I remain fascinated by how people react to and engage with the world. My Masters thesis was why do two people given the same information make different decisions? Put simply, it is because each of us are unique in the way we are constructed.

Since returning from Singapore I found English winters tough so moved to Spain where I now live. The people are lovely, the scenery amazing, food delicious and the sun shines all the time. Almost.

All of these experiences will feed in to my time now as a Photographer. Three motivations I am lucky to have are enthusiasm, curiosity and a continuous interest in learning. All the time I look forward to meeting old friends and making new friends and experiencing this wonderful life together.