Transparent Pictures

Notes on Kendall L. Walton ‘Transparent Pictures’

Walton puts forward and argues against several factors that have been identified as making photographs more ‘real’ than painting. One factor he does not consider (at least not in the first three sections) is time; a photograph is a point in time and as such allows us to go back in time. A painting provides no such facility as it is always outside of time. Considerations of the exact time the painting was executed do not provide the same fixture as by necessity a painting is produced over several days, weeks, even months. A photograph is generally of an instant (with exceptions such as Hiroshi Sugimoto), meaning we can identify with it in terms of the flow of time.

Walton suggests viewing photographs involves two kinds of seeing; one where we see the photograph itself with our eyes and another where we see the subject with a kind of empathic understanding. We could regard these as both being types of ‘sense-data’ (as he describes the way we interpret external stimuli) as it is perhaps only our own faith in our senses that means we regard direct sight as being more ‘true’ than any indirect understanding. This doesn’t make the effect any less real to us; we still ’see’ the subject in a manner that is distinct from seeing the photograph itself.

In ‘Camera Lucida’ Roland Barthes describes how he looked through a collection of photographs of his recently deceased mother to find one that perfectly encapsulated how he knew her as a person. This takes Walton’s argument further in that Barthes discards several photographs before settling on the Winter Garden picture as having the true essence of his mother. But this photograph was taken before Barthes’ birth so his reaction to this image cannot be truly real in the same way as Walton cannot truly ‘see’ his great-grandfather through a photograph. In both cases they are assigning their own thoughts and feelings to the photograph. Barthes’ search for the true essence demonstrates a point that Walton does not make clear, that there is a difference between the ‘real’ aspect of a photograph and the truth that it conveys.   

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