‘Photography, Vision and Representation’ – Snyder and Allen

Snyder and Allen begin their 1975 essay, Photography, Vision and Representation by acknowledging a division in thinking about photography between those “who think that photographs are inferior to paintings” and those who believe the photograph to be “superior” in some way (Snyder and Allen, p143).

This argument is one that has continued throughout the history of photography, even though both means of image-making have different processes of production in mechanical terms. In the 19th Century, Peter Henry Emerson is said to have distinguished between two “divisions” of photography, the “scientific division” and the “art division” (Emerson in Snyder and Allen, p144), according to whether the intention of the image was to “provide information” or “provide aesthetic pleasure” (Snyder and Allen, p144).  Emerson’s theory of the aesthetics of photography as art, known as “naturalistic” photography, suggested an approach in which the artistic photograph should reflect un-posed and unconstructed ‘natural’ scenes.  Just a few years later Emerson had seemingly changed his view with the publication of a booklet in  entitled The Death of Naturalistic Photography (1891) “in which he recanted his opinion that the accurate reproduction of nature was synonymous with art”. (Britannica.com)

Emerson, P. H. (1888) Pond in Winter

In the 1970s philosopher Stanley Cavell identified the human element of photography as being something much deeper than expressing experience, instead reflecting a “human wish … to escape subjectivity and metaphysical isolation” (Cavell in Snyder and Allen). This inner drive to share a view, or an experience of a view, with other people, Cavell claims photography achieved, that it “overcame subjectivity in a way undreamed of by painting, one which does not so much defeat the act of painting as escape it altogether: by automatism, by removing the human agent from the act of reproduction.” (Cavell in Snyder and Allen). There may be deeper human processes involved in photography from a philosophical perspective, and it could be argued that the mechanical creation still relies upon a subjective process, but the difficulty any “new” invention has, is that it will always be compared to its forerunner or nearest supposed equivalent. Today, it is perhaps a little like comparing the car with the horse; early cars were indeed known as horseless carriages, then automobiles, but we continue to use both to move and transport as appropriate.  Rudolph Arnheim suggested that photography offers “a different  kind of art, unrelated to traditional types but closely related to perception.” In the 1974 article Arnheim’s view is that the mechanical aspects of photography give it unique qualities as a standalone means of creating images, and as a credible art form, claiming that the necessary combination of elements, of light and chemistry, photographs are endowed with “an authenticity from which painting is barred by birth”.  Arnheim acknowledges not only the camera’s ‘authenticity’ in reflecting reality but the “surrealistic effects” also possible.  Arnheim, rather than reducing the status of photography below art, aligns it with painting as being equally deficient, as neither painting or photography can reveal the “private visions” of the creator.  Instead, he suggests that the photograph is a “compromise” or “coproduction” between man and world. (Arnheim in Snyder and Allen).

Snyder and Allen also discuss authenticity in terms of the documentary value of photographs and the iconic nature of the image, that photographs are direct representations of something having been present in reality. This argument has changed somewhat since the invention of digital image manipulation, even though image manipulation has existed throughout photography’s history. Snyder and Allen present two models of photography: the “visual” model, the ability to view a scene as it was scene in actuality by the photographer present; and the “mechanical” which places emphasis upon the contents of a photograph to the mechanical elements of its creation “as a reliable index of what was”. (Snyder and Allen, p149). To differentiate highlights what Snyder and Allen describe as “the challenge of extracting pictorial meaning from the operation of natural laws” (p149). They proceed to remind us that the concept of the camera has been in existence for many centuries prior to the fixed image, that the relationship between man and photograph has been building for a very long time. We have long held fascination with the “magically lifelike” image perhaps even longer than is credited in the essay as a 16th century fascination, if we consider the most basic of opportunities to see an image of something, for example a reflection in a river.

Snyder and Allen remind us, too, that the camera position is just one key “characterization” of the resulting photograph, with many other variables; combinations of which can make up “an infinite number of images” of the same scene (p151). They sum up this position by flipping the original ‘visual model’ of the photograph showing things how we saw them, to us seeing things how the camera saw them. One example given is that of Muybridge’s galloping horse.

Muybridge, E. (1878) The horse in motion [Illustration]

“His results were met with dismay by artists, photographers, and the general public alike as being “unnatural” and “untrue” … a perception that the results lay outside of a common visual experience.” (Snyder and Allen, p156).  Photography’s quality of freezing objects in motion is beyond of the function of the human eye and therefore a “peculiarity”; we simply do not see every movement of the horse’s leg when we watch a horse run, but, in line with the ‘mechanical model’ we trust the mechanical nature of the image made, and “we are assuming that if we could see a horse in full detail in a thousandth of a second, he would look like this.” (Snyder and Allen, p157). In another galloping horse example, a photo finish image from a horserace is presented. The nature of production of the image is such that it is not an image of the scene itself, but a capture of the time at which a number of horses crossed a line, a scene in which “the mechanical relations which guarantee the validity of the photograph as an index of a certain kind of truth have been almost completely severed from the creation of visual likeness.” (Snyder and Allen, p159).

We are perhaps moving gradually away from the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the photographic image, especially with the recent worldwide coverage of what has become known as ‘fake news’ imagery, and current mobile phones endowed with a broad range of personalised image manipulation applications.  These are ‘wake up calls’ on a grand scale to the fickleness of the photograph, but the context and culture in which an image is viewed remain important considerations.  In some cases we are presented with total fantasy.  The V&A in London recently curated an exhibition entitled ‘Chance and Control: Art in the Age of Computers’. The collection represented works created from 1960s, since which time “artists and programmers have used computers to create prints, drawings, paintings, photographs and digital artworks. This display celebrated 50 years and more of computer-generated art, exploring aspects of chance and control.” (vam.ac.uk).  In science, too, there remains an expectation of authenticity in photographic images, but, as Snyder and Allen point out, photographic techniques continue to be used in a variety of scientific ways that are not directly representational, for example; “To the uninstructed viewer, red and purple potato plants look … bizarre” (p162).  Science today allows us to instigate photographic-type imagery which forms with artificial intelligence, too; as this image shows, even when we would expect to be viewing an indexical photographic image representing nature as it is, this can be misleading.

University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2009

“Although they look as if they tumbled straight from the clouds, these “snowfakes” are actually the product of an elaborate computer model designed to replicate the wildly complex growth of snow crystals.”
(University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2009)

It seems that photography, unlike painting, seems to stimulate something else within us, too; a desire to receive photographs as a reflection of the ‘real’.  Perhaps we want there to be unicorns in the world, just as readers of fantasy novels or those who watch science fiction movies become absorbed in their worlds.  Perhaps Cavell’s expression of a “human wish … to escape subjectivity and metaphysical isolation” (Cavell in Snyder and Allen) explains our relationship with photography in all its forms.  Those with an interest in moving image often use the term the ‘suspension of disbelief’ as reference to a process in which we sacrifice our expectation of realism and logical understanding for the sake of enjoying the media we consume, but this could also apply to photography in some contexts – that believing in it offers us a kind of pleasure.  As Hirsch writes, “the suspension of disbelief is a constant lure. One need only think of Man Ray’s Dust Breeding (1920) resembling an extraterrestrial landscape. Even when the image is explained as a close up of dust gathering on Duchamp’s Large Glass, it retains its inscrutability.” (Hirsh in Hammond, p19).

Man Ray, Dust Breeding (1920)

Snyder and Allen also bring photography in line with other “documents”, suggesting that, like other documents, “we can also ask what it means, who made it, for whom it was made, and why it was made in the way it was made”. (p169).


I endeavour to keep an open mind when viewing photographs, and feel that questions asked lead to better understanding at different levels. My own work is open to interpretation, as I find myself questioning my own processes of involvement during production, and as a result tend to use photography in slightly less conventional ways, sometimes with defects included or using image manipulation, but with what could be deemed as ‘traces of the real’ within all of the work. Even images which possess ‘otherworldy’ scenes contain traces of the scene before the camera, and would not have occurred without those objects being present. There is, however, much to cover in semiotic theory and some time since I have thought along these lines.  My re-introduction to C S Peirce will take up another post soon.

We are also asked to consider the peculiarities of the photograph, and my own thoughts following reading Snyder and Allen’s essay are that photography today has peculiarity in terms of its frequently instantaneous nature and in the way it has captivated,and continues to captivate, the human population on such a massive scale.   I also feel that it shares its root with other mediums, in that our basic ‘needs’ to share, create, reflect, remember, express etc. stem from deeper human drives.



Arnheim, R. in Snyder, J. and Allen, N.W. (1975) Photography, Vision and Representation in Critical Inquiry, Autumn 1975 [Handout]

Britannica.com, Peter Henry Emerson, available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Peter-Henry-Emerson#ref158076 %5BAccessed 5th February 2019]

Burgin, V. in Wells, L. (ed) (2003) The photography reader
Abingdon: Routledge

Cavell, S. in Snyder, J. and Allen, N.W. (1975) Photography, Vision and Representation in Critical Inquiry, Autumn 1975 [Handout]

Emerson, P.H. in Snyder, J. and Allen, N.W. (1975) Photography, Vision and Representation, Critical Inquiry, Autumn 1975 [Handout]

Emerson, P. H. (1888) Pond in Winter [Photograph] George Eastman House Collection, Rochester, New York. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Peter-Henry-Emerson#ref158076 [Accessed 4th February 2019]

Hammond, J. (2015) Casper [Work on Paper] Available at: https://galeriasenda.com/en/artista/jane-hammond/
[Accessed 5th February 2019]

Hirsch, F. in Hammond, J.(2007) Paper Works
Pennsylvania: State University Press

Man Ray (1920) Dust Breeding [Photograph]
Available at : https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/69.521/
[Accessed 5th February 2019]

Muybridge, E. (1878) The horse in motion [Illustration]
Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/eadweard-muybridge/exhibition-guide/horse-motion  [Accessed 5th February 2019]

Snyder, J. and Allen, N.W. (1975) Photography, Vision and Representation in Critical Inquiry, Autumn 1975 [Handout]

University of Wisconsin-Madison. Mathematical ‘Snowfakes’ Mimic Nature, Advance Science. ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090224163643.htm [Accessed 5th February 2019].

Vam.ac.uk (2018) Past Display, Chance and Control: Art in the Age of Computers, available at https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/chance-and-control-art-in-the-age-of-computers [Accessed 5th February 2019]