In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Analytic Philosophy of Photography

  • Introduction
  • Some Nonphilosophical Antecedents
  • General Overviews of the Philosophical Literature
  • Anthologies
  • Art and Photography
  • Photography and Knowledge
  • Photography and Ethics

Philosophy Analytic Philosophy of Photography
Scott Walden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0405


The literature on the analytic philosophy of photography is related to, but distinct from, the literatures on film theory and photography theory. All three revolve around the question of whether images can be importantly divided into the categories of photographic and manugraphic on the basis of their differing etiologies. The first, however, tends to focus on how this question intersects with core areas of philosophical research, while the second and third tend, instead, to look for intersections with larger cultural issues. As well, the first is burdened with methodological considerations, a self-awareness that reflects larger methodological contests that have roiled analytic philosophy over the past century. This article focuses on the first. Arguably the photographic formative process excludes the mentation of photographers in ways that the manugraphic formative process does not exclude the mentation of painters or sketchers. The alleged implications of such photographic objectivity include skepticism about the possibility of photographs functioning as artworks, assertions regarding various epistemic advantages associated with the medium, claims regarding a special phenomenology associated with viewing photographs, concerns that photographic images cannot function as representations, and, finally, special ethical considerations that emerge with photographic subjects that are persons. Methodological considerations divide contributors on the basis of whether they proceed in a traditional philosophical fashion by taking as their starting point ordinary linguistic usage of key terms, such as “art,” “photography,” and “representation,” and then exploring inconsistencies between these, one the one hand, or whether, on the other, they proceed in a naturalistic fashion by taking as their starting point various phenomena associated with viewing photographs and then postulating whatever natural kinds are required in order to explain them.

Some Nonphilosophical Antecedents

If philosophers have tended to focus on themes in which they have a special interest it is nonetheless true that many of their writings on the subject have been triggered by a dialectic in the nonphilosophical literature. Thus a brief summary of the relevant nonphilosophical literature is in order. When photographic technology first arrived all assumed that its objectivity made the images it produces fundamentally different from manugraphic images. During the 19th century this difference was regarded by critics as a problem that had to be overcome for photographs to be considered artworks, as Eastlake 1857 and Baudelaire 1982 demonstrate. Accordingly, various means were invoked by “pictorialist” photographers with artistic ambitions to make their images look more like manugraphs. They included kicking the tripod during a long exposure, smearing the lens with Vasoline, or cutting and pasting many photographs to create a tableau vivant. But with the early stirrings of modernism and its celebration of the qualities unique to the various media, critical opinion reversed course. Works by figures such as P. H. Emerson (see Emerson 1889) argued that the objectivity of the photographic process and the naturalistic qualities it subtends are not characteristics to be worked around using the techniques of the pictorialists; rather, they are characteristics to be embraced. In the 20th century figures such as Berenice Abbott likewise argued against pictorialist interventions and instead celebrated the realism associated with photography and its consequent potential to imaginatively document all aspects of life (see Abbott 1980). Such modernists accordingly developed new sets of critical tools for photography, ones distinct from those that historically had been applied to manugraphs. But with the 1970s came yet another turn, with critics such as Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen arguing in Snyder and Allen 1975 that photographs are simply images that should be evaluated in the same way as any other images, paying little heed to their objective etiology. It was at this point, in the early 1980s, that analytic philosophers joined the discussion.

  • Abbott, Berenice. “Photography at the Crossroads.” In Classic Essays on Photography. Edited by Alan Trachtenberg, 179–184. New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1980.

    Like the author of Emerson 1889, Abbott rejects pictorialist interventions and instead embraces qualities unique to the photographic process. But rather than following Emerson in urging photographers to use the medium to mimic subjective vision, she finds artistic virtue in using photography to document the real, especially all aspects of life, both good and bad, in the fast-growing United States of her time. Originally published in 1951.

  • Baudelaire, Charles. “The Salon of 1859: The Modern Public and Photography.” In Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Edited by Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, 19–22. London: Harper & Row, 1982.

    A highly polemical investigation into the role of objectivity in rendering the class of photographs a substantially different kind of image from the class of manugraphs. In spirit similar to Eastlake 1857, Baudelaire concludes on the basis of this difference that photographs have a significant role to play in science but that they have no place in the toolkit of the artist. Originally published in 1859.

  • Eastlake, Elizabeth. “Photography.” London Quarterly Review 101 (1857): 442–468.

    A review of the history of photographic technology up to the time the essay was written, followed by a summary of the advantages and limitations of photographic images. Eastlake concludes that photography will aid in the advancement of knowledge, but that it has no place in art, although its existence will free manugraphs from the burden of information conveyance so that they can be used solely for subjective, artistic expression.

  • Emerson, P. H. Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art. London: Gilbert and Rivington, 1889.

    Reacting to the pictorialist practices of his time, Emerson argues that the similarities between the photographic process and the process of human vision can be viewed as artistic virtues rather than vices. Rather than working around the limitations of the photographic process imposed by its objectivity, photographers with artistic ambitions should embrace characteristics such as shallow depth of field and thus create new kinds of artworks that are naturalistic insofar as they mimic the experiences arising from perception.

  • Snyder, Joel, and Neil Walsh Allen. “Photography, Vision, and Representation.” Critical Inquiry 2.1 (1975): 143–169.

    DOI: 10.1086/447832

    A summary of the attempts that had been made up to the time of writing to explain the differences between photographs and manugraphs, including, especially, that found in Emerson 1889. Finding these inadequate, Snyder and Allen conclude that the critical resources in place for manugraphs suffice for critical analysis of photographs.

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