recent work entitled Photography Theory attempts to take
stock of the changes that have occurred in how this medium is
conceived (1). The main editor, James Elkins, has solicited texts
from all the authors who count in visual studies. And yet, despite
its list of forty contributors, the essential feature of this
work remains the confrontation between Rosalind Krauss and Joel
What could be
more normal? Examining photographic theory boils down today to
discussing the central concept of indexicality, which was first
proposed by Krauss in 1977. In a still-famous article where she
sought to characterize the new artistic practices of the 1970s,
this art critic proposed the following definition, “Every
photograph is the result of a physical imprint transferred by
light reflections onto a sensitive surface. The photograph is
thus a type of icon, or visual likeness, which bears an indexical
relationship to its object.” (2)
to counter the pictorial hegemony of formalist discourse by importing
the model of photography onto the terrain of art, Krauss remained
faithful to the modernist strategy of characterizing a medium
through a look at its specific means. By sealing this presentation
with the notion of index, which was borrowed from Peirce, she
affixed to the formalist base--the crucible of American art history--the
label of semiotic theory, doing so at a time when that theory
was the height of fashion. Never had photography had at its disposal
so sophisticated and seductive a concept, one that would continue
to be discussed and extended in numerous works for two decades
Among all the
intellectuals whose have specialized in this medium, but a single
one has reaffirmed his constant disagreement with photography’s
reductio ad indicem. He is the art historian Joel Snyder.
In Photography Theory, Krauss herself designates him
as her favorite opponent, and their dialogue starts up again in
several places in this book. For Snyder, the ontological approach
on which the indexical argument rests can at the very most provide
an idealized point of reference for a belief in photographic objectivity,
but it is irrelevant for the description of images. This art historian
insists, to the contrary, on the conventional character of photographic
representation, which is to be likened to the working out of perspective.
According to him, there exists no direct relation between the
object and the photographic image; on the contrary, there exists
a complex relationship made up of mutually entangled mediations.
with a quotation drawn from Roland Barthes’s Camera
This argument is futile: nothing can prevent the Photograph from
being analogical; but at the same time, Photography's noeme has
nothing to do with analogy (a feature it shares with all kinds
of representations). The realists, of whom I am one and of whom
I was already one when I asserted that the Photograph was an image
without code . . . the realists do not take the photograph for
a “copy” of reality, but for an emanation of past
reality: a magic, not an art (4).
Despite the examples
he provides, Snyder fails to win over others. And yet it is he
who is right. Why, over the thirty years this debate has lasted,
has his position remained so isolated? The quality of his arguments
is not at issue. The conventional character of photography, which
goes against our common intuition, is one of the most difficult
characteristics to highlight.
know quite well that, by changing lenses or films, they have at
their disposal, at the moment the shot is taken, a substantial
margin of maneuver that allows them to change the appearance,
the geometry, or the colors of a scene. But the general public,
which has little grasp of such adjustments, is left in the dark
about those alternatives. We do not like to think that the image
depends on a series of filters whose parameters, which can be
modified, have quietly been imposed upon us by engineers or by
marketers. Photography’s objectivity is a powerful credo;
we prefer to grant, without discussion, this medium’s
And yet, there
exists simple characteristic, one well known to all, that strikingly
demonstrates the conventional character of visual recording. We
catch a glimpse of it quite often when, for example, on television
we watch an old film--such as Gérard Oury’s Don't
Look Now--We’re Being Shot At (1966) or Alfred
Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959). This is but
a fleeting awareness, quickly forgotten as we get caught up in
the drama, but one which can usually be discerned during the first
few minutes or seconds of the film. What we inadvertently perceive
during this brief space of time is the difference in chromatic
atmospheres between the film and our ordinary visual environment.
this experience is nonetheless perfectly familiar to us. For,
it is the one that helps us to identify a film’s genre and
to situate in time images we catch a glimpse of while searching
for something entertaining to watch as we surf from one channel
in atmospheres can be highlighted, for example, with the use of
DVD recordings of the James Bond series, which were recently released
by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in an entirely remastered boxed set. Within
this homogeneous and relatively stereotypical whole stretching
over forty-five years, it is easy to identify and to compare similar
situations. Sean Connery’s first appearance as James Bond,
in Terrence Young’s Doctor No (1962), takes place in a casino,
at the baccarat table. Comparison with a corresponding scene in
Martin Campbell’s Goldeneye (1995) allows one to
show clearly the differences in color of the respective props,
costumes, and flesh tones.
as one knows, is a phenomenon that is in large part subjective
and cultural. But differences in film’s chromatic atmospheres
form a relative scale whose objective character is easily demonstrable.
When, for OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, Michel Hazanavicius
wished to give his 2006 film the look of a Sixties remake as a
kind of a nod to the first OSS 117 films directed by
André Hunebelle starting in 1963, he deliberately played
on the treatment of chromatic effects and artificially created
a clearly perceptible air of quaintness.
How is this phenomenon
to be analyzed? Doctor No was filmed in Technicolor,
an already old technology at the moment of shooting that had assured
Hollywood’s supremacy in the world of cinema since the 1930s,
whereas Goldeneye was shot in Rankcolor, a variant of
Kodak’s Eastmancolor, which began to enjoy widespread use
in the 1950s. Because this video collection has been rebalanced,
the perceptible difference in chromatic atmospheres does not stem
from an aging of the media themselves but is, rather, the manifestation
of the provisional character of a consensus about the conditions
for the restitution of reality within a cinematographic context.
In other words, it manifests the conventional character of visual
This same effect
is also present in the world of photography. As consultation of
any extended album of family photos will show, we perceive and
identify differences in appearance as information about the temporal
situation of the image. This well-known characteristic--which,
for example, allows experts to date an old photograph (5) --is
never analyzed in terms of what it actually shows. It nevertheless
testifies, in the clearest way possible, to the fact that a recording
operation, which is always perceived as transparent at the moment
it is performed, will become more and more opaque as it recedes
in time and as a new consensus, which makes the previous one appear
dated, is established.
This process may be noted in the latest progress made in digital
photography: such changes are endless, for there is no objective
limit to the redefinition of sensitometric balance, which itself
is a compromise between a given set of technological conditions
and passing tastes. Even though our perception of the phenomenon
is clearer the further back in time one goes, this perception
does indeed adapt and become more refined in pace with developments
in technologies for the restitution of visual reality. Moreover,
there will come a moment when a similar veil will fall upon photographs
from today’s digital reflex cameras; those photos will then
appear to us as just as fleeting and easily situated in time as
an Ektacolor print from the 1970s.
of the medium is the simplest and most apparent manifestation
of the technological character of recording operations. Everyone
has had this experience. One need but draw the lesson therefrom.
In this way, we can reformulate Krauss’s first sentence
as follows: Every photograph is the result of a physical imprint
transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface and
of a historical consensus about the conditions for its restitution.
Photography is therefore the type of visual representation that
has a perpetually revamped relationship with its object, thereby
guaranteeing the features of immediacy and transparency that are
in keeping with its cultural legacy.
James Elkins, ed., Photography Theory (New York and London:
2. Rosalind Krauss, “Notes on the Index:
Seventies Art in America (1),” in October, 3 (1977):
75. Translated into French by J.-P. Criqui as “Notes sur
l’index,” in L’Originalité de l’avant-garde
et autres mythes modernistes (Paris: Macula, 1993), p. 69.
3. See, in particular, Katia Schneller, “Sur
les traces de Rosalind Krauss. La réception française
de la notion d’index, 1977-1990,” in Études
photographiques, 21 (December 2007): 123-43. [Translator:
In the French, “likeness” is translated as représentation.]
4. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections
on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1981), p. 88 (cited in Rosalind Krauss, “Introductory
Note,” Photography Theory, p. 126).
5. See now Henry Wilhelm and Carol Brower, The
Permanence and Care of Color Photographs (Grinnell, Iowa:
Preservation Publishing Company, 1993)..
Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
(1980). Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
Elkins, James. Ed. Photography Theory.
New York and London: Routledge, 2007.
Krauss, Rosalind. “Notes on the Index:
Seventies Art in America (1),” October, 3 (1977). Translated
into French by J.-P. Criqui as “Notes sur l’index,”
in L’Originalité de l’avant-garde et autres
mythes modernistes. Paris: Macula, 1993.
Schneller, Katia. “Sur les traces de Rosalind
Krauss. La réception française de la notion d’index,
1977-1990.” Études photographiques, 21 (December
1 and 2. Comparison of chromatic atmospheres. Top: Doctor
No (Terence Young, 1962); Above: Goldeneye
(Martin Campbell, 1995), video stills from the 2007 MGM