Cinema and Media Studies Photography and Cinema
Temenuga Trifonova
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0329


A number of studies have explored the notions of “medium specificity” and “intermediality,” while others have analyzed the different ways in which photographs and films signify or the different phenomenological experiences they make possible. The notions of “photographic truth,” “indexicality,” “stillness,” and “movement,” and the relationship of photography and cinema to life, death, history, memory, and the unconscious, are recurring themes. The scholarship on photography and that on cinema trace two parallel tendencies in the history of the two media: on the one hand, the photograph as “trace” versus the tradition of staged photography; on the other hand, the “realist” versus “formalist” tendency in cinema. For most of its history, photography has been said to enjoy a privileged relationship to reality: the photograph has been described as “an imprint,” “a mold,” or “a trace” of reality. Parallel to the idea of the photographic index and the photography of spontaneous witness it gave rise to, however, is another tradition of photography, one that runs from early staged photography and pictorialist photography, through surrealist photography, to “cinematic photography”—this tradition foregrounds the discursive character of the photographic image, its origins in other images. While the history of photography has been defined by the tension between these two parallel traditions, the balance of power shifting from one to the other and back again, the digital turn is generally believed to have put an end to the idea of photography as “witness,” even as a number of early-21st-century photographers claim to pursue “new documentary” or “new realism” within a highly stylized, staged photography. The digital has provoked similar anxieties among film historians and theorists, who continue to debate whether the digital has brought about the disappearance of “cinema” or just the disappearance of “film.” The tension between these two parallel traditions in scholarship on photography and cinema has been complicated by a third criterion, according to which the two media have been theorized: stillness/movement. If indexicality and stillness have been the two key concepts in photography scholarship, movement has played a similar structuring role in the case of cinema. And just as the two dichotomies undergirding photography and cinema scholarship—the indexical versus discursive nature of the photographic image, and the realist versus formative tendency in cinema—are increasingly losing their credibility and usefulness, the still/moving distinction has also been challenged by the proliferation of hybrid artistic practices. This article is organized around four categories: (1) photography and cinema in their relation to modernity, (2) debates on medium specificity and the challenge of the digital both to photography and cinema, (3) cinematic photography, and (4) photography and cinema as “spectral” media.


One of the principal ways in which cinema and photography have been theorized is in terms of their relationship to modernity. Considered as new technologies of reproduction, new media, or new art forms, photography and cinema occupy a privileged place in critical theories of modernity aimed at promoting noncognitive and irrationalist forms of expression as a resistance to instrumental reason. Arguably, much of critical theory, as well as a considerable part of the scholarship on the visual culture of modernity more generally, is informed by an underlying tension between the critique of what are perceived as modernity’s negative aspects—for example, alienation, distraction, fragmentation, or appearance—and the rethinking of these very aspects as not only constitutive of modern art—including cinema and photography—but also central to modern art’s emancipatory potential. Charney and Schwartz 1997 provides a general survey of the historical place of cinema and photography in the late-19th- and early-20th-century culture of modernity, while Doane 2002 considers the two arts’ ideological significance as manifestations of an unresolvable tension between modernity’s two defining features of “rationalization” and “contingency,” and Hansen 2011 assesses their place in the Frankfurt School’s critique of modernity. Kracauer 1995 and Hornby 2017 discuss photography and cinema as emblematic of the tension between stillness and motion in modernist culture, while the two arts’ role in the deconstruction of traditional notions of space and time, their effect on voluntary and involuntary memory, the challenge they pose to the very idea of “art,” and their contribution to the “decline of aura” are covered in Benjamin 2015a, Benjamin 2015b, and Belden-Adams 2019. Crary 1992 addresses photography and cinema’s role in the historical construction of vision and of the observer, while their role in the (re)structuring of attention is the focus of Charney 1998. Contrary to Aumont 1997, which emphasizes the role of cinema in modernity’s mobilization of the gaze, Lastra 1997 locates cinema’s modernity in the secondariness of the subject/spectator (both in image production and reception) to the object depicted.

  • Aumont, Jacques. “The Variable Eye, or the Mobilization of the Gaze.” In The Image in Dispute: Art and Cinema in the Age of Photography. Edited by Dudley Andrew, 231–259. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

    Departing from prevalent histories of “pre-cinema,” this study proposes a “materialist history” of cinema, in which the railroad, the panorama, and painting have played a central role, contributing to the major shift at the fin de siècle from the object/scene represented to the gaze and the bearer of the gaze (the spectator). Aumont argues that the shift from the ébauche to the étude prefigured the cinematic mobility of the gaze and the emergence of a new mode of vision devoted to capturing the fleeting moment.

  • Belden-Adams, Kris. Photography, Temporality, and Modernity: Time Warped. New York: Routledge, 2019.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781138544321

    This study challenges the assumption that photography is limited to the depiction of the instantaneous, by demonstrating photography’s power to represent the fluidity of time. Drawing on a range of examples, from racing photo finishes and panoramas to long-exposure photography and cosmic photography, Belden-Adams foregrounds photography’s potential as a medium through which to explore changing conceptions of time.

  • Benjamin, Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” In Illuminations. By Walter Benjamin, 155–201. London: Bodley Head, 2015a.

    Drawing on Henri Bergson, Marcel Proust, and Sigmund Freud, Benjamin examines photography and cinema as emblematic of the experience of modernity, which he conceives in terms of “shock,” “distraction,” the difference between Erfahrung and Erlebnis and between voluntary and involuntary memory, Charles Baudelaire’s “correspondances,” storytelling versus information, drill versus craftsmanship, and “the man of the crowd” versus “the flâneur.” Failing to be integrated in experience, the “shocks of modernity” are rendered uncanny, prompting the subject to seek to “repossess” lost time through photography and cinema. Originally published in 1939.

  • Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations. By Walter Benjamin, 217–253. London: Bodley Head, 2015b.

    Benjamin argues that photography and film have challenged the idea of “art” and contributed to the decline of “aura” by destabilizing tradition, ritual, time, memory, and authenticity. The essay discusses the role of the “new media” of photography and cinema in the substitution of art’s “cult value” by its “exhibition value” and the political implications of this shift, while also underscoring photography’s power to reveal the “optical unconscious.” Originally published in 1935.

  • Charney, Leo. Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity and Drift. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822379119

    Arguing that modernity is best theorized in terms of absence, waste, drift, and the empty moment, Charney draws a series of connections between cinema, Taylorism, the circus, the amusement park, and organized sports, all of which played a central role in the structuring of attention in “peaks and valleys” at the fin de siècle. The book examines particular film techniques designed to “structure the attention” of the distracted spectator.

  • Charney, Leo, and Vanessa Schwartz, eds. Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

    In order to demonstrate modernity’s inherently cinematic nature, contributions to this edited volume situate cinema and photography in the context of late-19th- and early-20th-century cultural of modernity, linking cinema’s growing popularity to the emergence of a mass culture of consumption (department stores, window shopping, mail-order catalogues, wax museums, the popular press, poster art, etc.).

  • Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: Vision, Modernity, Photography and Cinema. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

    Crary discusses the role that photography and cinema played in the historical construction of vision and of the observer, a process far from being politically or socially neutral. Analyzing the significance of optical apparatuses, including precinematic devices, both as products and sources of new physiological knowledge, the study underscores the tension between the autonomy of the new subjective vision these apparatuses made possible and the new discourses of power within which they inscribed the observer.

  • Doane, Mary Ann. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

    Doane approaches the historical period as well as the concept of “modernity” in terms of an unresolvable tension between two tendencies: rationalization and contingency. If the rationalization of time is linked to changes in industrial organization, “contingency” figures both as a lure (the promise of representation without loss) and a threat (the threat of illegibility). Even as photography and cinema’s indexicality promised the rematerialization of time, the structuring of contingency through these new technologies played the ideological role of making rationalization tolerable.

  • Hansen, Miriam. Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

    This study situates Kracauer, Benjamin, and Adorno’s writings on photography and cinema from the Weimar period to the 1960s within the context of their critique of modernity. Doane suggests that, particularly in Benjamin’s work, the appearance of new technologies of reproduction (photography and film) as a historical development converges with self-critical tendencies within art itself. That might be one reason for Benjamin’s ambivalent treatment of the “auratic image,” which he denigrates (in favor of reproduction) in his artwork essay, but which in his later writings he seeks to redeem.

  • Hornby, Louise. Still Modernism: Photography, Literature, Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190661229.001.0001

    Drawing on film history, literary studies, and art history, this book locates the tension between stillness and motion at the center of modernist culture, challenging the familiar association of modernity with movement and speed. By exploring the notion of time and movement in film and photography, the relationship between the instantaneous and the serial, the production of subjectivity in the close-up, and the notion of the independence of reality from the observer made possible by photography, Hornby shows how photographic stillness emerged in response or resistance to cinema’s dynamism and ephemerality.

  • Kracauer, Siegfried. The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Translated by Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

    In these essays, written in the 1920s and early 1930s, Kracauer reveals the philosophical significance of popular culture by examining various aspects of Weimar modernity, including cinema, photography, shopping arcades, dance halls, hotel lobbies, Paris street maps, bullfights, detective novels, Franz Kafka’s prose, the Bible, boredom, etc. Levin challenges the common misconception of Kracauer’s film theory, arguing that for Kracauer the realism of photography and film was a function of their demythologizing (rather than their indexical) potential.

  • Lastra, James. “From the Captured Moment to the Cinematic Image: A Transformation in Pictorial Order.” In The Image in Dispute: Art and Cinema in the Age of Photography. Edited by Dudley Andrew, 263–291. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

    Lastra discusses cinema as defined by the secondariness of the subject/spectator (both in image production and reception) to the object depicted, tracing “secondariness” back to the inherent illegibility of photographs, whose excessive detail and lack of pictorial hierarchy were eventually reinterpreted not as evidence of a loss of mastery over the image but as the appearance of “the world as seen.” Of special importance is the discussion of the emergence of narrative cinema as a result of the refiguring of film’s material discontinuity (contingency) as diegetic discontinuity.

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