André Bazin and Allan Sekula

André Bazin (1945)Translated by Hugh Gray “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”  In: Wells, L. (ed.) (2018) The Photography Reader: History and Theory. (2 edition) (s.l.): Routledge. pp 71-76
Sekula, A. (1975) On the Invention of Photographic meaning. At:

André Bazin’s position is driven from the position that the inherent automation involved in taking a photograph alters the viewer’s response to the resulting image. We accept that with a painting the artist has used his/her technical ability to produce a result that reproduces the intended political, psychological or emotional point. However this very interpretation applied by the artist negates any sense of objectivity in the resulting work. In contrast he says “the objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture making”(Bazin,1945:74).

Sekula’s position is that any reading of a photograph has to be informed by the cultural background of the viewer. The photographer may have a particular intention in mind for the way in which an image is understood, but there is often nothing in the image itself that will supply this meaning.  He says that the assumption of an objective nature to a photograph comes from “the quasi-formalist notion that the photograph derives its semantic properties from conditions that reside within the image itself” (Sekula,1975:454).

If, as Bazin says, a photographic image is more credible than a painting, does it follow that his position is fundamentally in opposition to that of Sekula? Greater credibility does not necessarily imply absolute truth, and Bazin is more concerned that the greater objectivity frees up painting for any need to be objective. Sekula understands Barthes’ idea of photography being a message without a code, but that message only applies at the surface. We cannot understand a photograph without some context, either culturally innate or externally supplied. At the time Bazin wrote his essay nearly all photography was in black and white; in which case how could we treat a photograph as objective without at least the understanding that the original was in colour and we are only seeing an interpretation anyway?

A further consideration is that since both essays were written long before digital technology and photo-editing software became ubiquitous, it is arguable that any belief in the objective nature and photography is significantly reduced. In this post-truth age we have become much less prepared to believe any photographic evidence without something else to back it up.

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