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Two Philosophers of Art on Photography

March 7, 2012

Although one of these philosophers wrote thousands of years before the advent of photography, and the second addressed his remarks to painting, it is possible and, I think, instructive to apply their remarks to the practice of photography as art.

Aristotle (384-322 BC)

The main topic of Aristotle’s Poetics is the nature of tragedy. I’ll extract two remarks which are pertinent to the practice of photography as art.

“Plot,” Aristotle claims, “is the soul of tragedy.” And the (good) tragic plot must exhibit “unity.”

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. … As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

A good plot is not a recitation of all the facts; the poet must pick and choose so as to make an “organic whole” – that is, an artwork in which all the parts exhibit a structural relation to one another, and nothing is present which is unnecessary.

Here is a lesson for photographers. It is tempting when viewing something to take it all in when snapping the shutter. While this may make for a photo of some interest, it may not make for a unified photograph. Therefore, frame and if necessary crop with a view, not to showing “everything,” but to making an organic whole.

Unrelated to unity, but a comment that bears on photography:

Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.

Some things give “pain” when viewed in real life – “eyesores” we might call them. But an eyesore might make for a good photograph “when reproduced with minute fidelity.”

The contrary of this seems also true. Some objects might when viewed in reality give pleasure, but are hard if not impossible to turn into art photographs. Mountain ranges, for example, are magnificent to view, but do not always make for a photograph of equivalent impact.

Clive Bell (1881-1964)

Bell’s short book Art (1915) presents a theory of  “visual art,” by which Bell intends to include painting, drawing, sculpture, and architecture. By the time of the publication of Bell’s book, photography had been practiced for about 60 years. For whatever reason, though, Bell does not include photography as one of the “visual arts.” Indeed, the only mention made of photography is to commend it for hastening the abolition of realism in painting: “But photography has made impossible any such transmutation of modern rubbish” (Bell is sneering at Frith, a prominent realistic Victorian painter). The thought is that if photography is naturally realistic, painting is therefore forced to seek another venue to exploit.

The principal motivation for Bell’s book is the advent of modern painting – Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, etc. – and the concurrent attention to so-called “primitive” pieces (pre-Columbian art, archaic Greek art, etc.). All of these works eschew exact realistic depiction. So what makes them art?

There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist; possessing which, in the least degree, no work is altogether worthless. What is this quality? What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? What quality is common to Sta. Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne?

Only one answer seems possible—significant form. In each, lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colors, these aesthetically moving forms, I call “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common to all works of visual art.

So (visual) art is significant form; and significant form is the relation among lines and forms in a work, a relation that moves us.

If the essence of visual art is significant form and not realistic depiction, then an abstract or “primitive” work might have more claim to being art that the realistic paintings of William Frith (assuming, as Bell thinks, Frith’s works lack significant form).

What lessons for photography can we draw from a theorist who, by intent or neglect, excludes photography from the visual arts, and whose theory explicitly eschews realistic depiction as necessary for art – given that photography is a naturally realistic medium?

First, the photographer must consider all the elements in the frame. Second, he must consider the relations of these elements to one another. Here considerations of balance, complementarity, and contrast come into play. Third, a judge of a photograph must rely on his or her feelings – Bell terms these our “aesthetic emotions”. In this sense, a judgment of the quality of a photograph is subjective; but the judge’s feelings are to be directed towards the “form” of the photograph (what is more commonly called “composition”).

Summary and a Question

Both Aristotle and Bell are “formalists” in the sense that the most important quality of art is not what is depicted but how it is depicted. Aristotle tells us that the elements in a work must form a unity (each element making some contribution to the whole; the work containing all that is needed and nothing that is not needed). Bell tells us the artist must arrange the elements of his work so as to produce “significance” in the design alone (with significance or its lack being determined by an observer’s aesthetic feelings). To take one example, I think it is the relation among its elements, and not its subject matter, that makes Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Blast Furnaces (1927) significant:


Small comment: In real life, these furnaces would probably have been “viewed with pain” to use Aristotle’s words; yet in the right photograph they make for great art.

Assume blast furnaces are not in themselves art. How can a photograph – a kind of copy of these furnaces – be a work of art? In Aristotle and Bell we get one answer: the photographer imposes form, and it is this form that makes a work of art.

Now, artists have been unkind to theories of art. Tragedy, Aristotle said, must have a “noble hero.” Not so said Arthur Miller, who produced a tragedy, Death of a Salesman, with a distinctly ordinary hero. Art must have significant form, Bell said. Not so said Andy Warhol, whose soup cans and Brillo boxes have decidedly insignificant forms.

But: street photography often captures the randomness of ordinary life, thereby eschewing significant form and unity, as in the work of one of the great practitioners of street photography, Gary Winogrand. Here’s an example (American Legion Convention,1964):


I would say that by the considerations of unified composition, this photograph fails to make the grade. And yet, it is, I think, a photograph with great impact nonetheless.

Question: Is unity of form or significance of form to be prized and used to judge all photographs? If not, when is it relevant and when not? I think camera clubs tend to judge on Aristotle-Bell lines – at the cost of devaluing street photography.

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