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How do Photographs Represent Things?

Of puppets, philosophy and pictorial representation

Heres a photograph of a young man performing a puppet show in the square before Notre
Dame Cathedral in Paris. He calls himself Bululu heatre. On!screen, this is "ust a small, glassy
loo#ing, two!dimensional collection of independently resol$ed, $ariously toned pi%els. &f you ha$e
printed this off, it is "ust a small, flat, flimsy piece of paper mar#ed by a rectangular smattering of
in#"et 'or similar( dots. & ha$e a nice, larger $ersion, pic#ed out by a scattering of sil$er!halide
particles on rag content paper, framed on my wall.
&n sharp contrast, the real puppeteer that & ran across in Paris was nothing li#e this. He was fleshy
and animated, robustly three!dimensional and full of colour. By wal#ing around & could $iew him
from different sides, angles and distances. 'he bac# of him wasn)t flat and white with diagonally
printed lines of *+oda#),( -s & shifted, the bac#ground shifted. .hen & loo#ed at the puppeteer, the
buildings became fu//y. .hen & loo#ed at the buildings, he became fu//y.
0i$en that seeing the real puppeteer in Paris is so little li#e seeing the puppeteer in a photograph,
how e%actly do we #now the photograph shows a puppeteer1 his is the philosophical approach
2 to as# the *little #id) questions and try to e%plain what appears ob$ious to e$eryone else.
.hat follows are thumbnail s#etches of the fi$e most popular philosophical responses to the
conundrum of pictorial representation 2 how a bunch of lifeless dots on paper 'or paint stro#es on
can$as, or pencil mar#s on s#etch pad( can show us things in the real 'or e$en fictional( world.
One theory suggests that the pattern of dots resemble the puppeteer. -nother states that they
create a sort of illusion of the puppeteer. he 3emiotic theory holds that the patterns of dots act
li#e a symbol, which we read and interpret as a puppeteer. he 4a#e!Belie$e theory, not
surprisingly, states that we make believe we see a puppeteer in the photograph. he 3eeing!&n
theory suggests that something much more fundamental is going on and that we see a puppeteer
in the dots.
5et)s ta#e each of these theories in turn. 4y opinions should be ta#en with a grain of salt. Not
e$eryone will be happy to apply all aspects of these theories to photographs 2 they are
traditionally applied to paintings and other hand!made pictures unmediated by the optical!
mechanical!digital actions of a camera. & hope the article will get the mental machinery rumbling
and let you "udge for yourself which theory might best capture our e$eryday e%perience of things
through photographs.
Resemblance Theory
- relati$ely simple $ersion of the resemblance theory is based on the
objective similarity between a picture and its sub"ect matter out there in
the real world 2 puppeteers, footballers, landscapes, mo$ie stars,
buildings, pet cats and so on. his $iew holds that the person loo#ing at
a picture compares something which is in front of them 'the picture in
their hand, say( with something that is absent 'the real thing 2 which
may be on the other side of town, at the bottom of the sea, or long
dead(. How this comparison is made, though, is not clearly specified in
the theory. 3ome might say that it is a *mental picture) to which a
photograph is compared. But this seems to simply pass the buc# to a
middleman, for now we are faced with e%plaining how a *mental picture)
resembles 'is ob"ecti$ely similar to( the sub"ect matter 'the real thing(.
-nd, unfortunately, mental items seem e$en more obscure than photographs. 6$en if you could
resol$e this, you would still need to say a lot more about how you compare something mental with
something in your hand.

Bus in blurred motion
bus stop, South Bank,
London, England
here is also a difference in logic between something resembling something else and it
representing something else. &f A resembles B, then B resembles A. &f A represents B, it doesn)t
follow that B represents A. he silhouette of children on a school crossing sign and real school
children may resemble each other, and the silhouette may represent real children, but the real
school children don)t represent the silhouette on the sign.
-nother problem concerns the wide $ariety of non!figurati$e, artistic, highly distorted and fictional
pictures we create. &t)s difficult to see how a photograph of a blurred bus or a painting of a unicorn
$isually resemble or are ob"ecti$ely similar to anything. 7or we cannot see things this way without
cameras, or see them period.
&llusion heory
&n the illusion theory a picture represents its sub"ect matter by deli$ering to us an illusion of that
sub"ect matter. he art historian and aesthetic theorist 6H 0ombrich e%plains it in this way8 a
$iewer)s attention rapidly flic#ers bac# and forth between seeing the picture and seeing a
perceptual illusion of its sub"ect matter. he theory is a psychological one9 to a lesser or greater
degree we are inclined to belie$e that the thing in the picture is the real thing, while at the same
time we 'somehow( #now it to be a picture. he role of human imagination ob$iously plays a
central role. &n 0ombrich)s $iew these illusions arise not through resemblance, but essentially
through a process of con$ention based on the e$ol$ing historical practice of people ma#ing
pictures and our e%perience of those con$entions. -s the historical aspects of the theory could
easily form the basis for another article, & won:t go into it here.
& li#e to thin# human psychology and imagination play a role in
understanding what pictures represent. Perhaps it is scalable,
for e%ample we use less imagination in understanding realistic
photographs than impressionistic paintings. &magination
certainly seems to be present when we loo# at things li#e
;orschach in#!blots and illusions li#e <astrow:s duc#!rabbit 2
which can be seen as a duc# or a rabbit. But in#!blots and
illusions are intended to be ambiguous and to be interpreted in
multiple ways. Ordinary pictures, li#e photographs and paintings and billboards, usually con$ey
their sub"ect matter pretty straight!forwardly.

Joseph Jastrow's visually ambiguous
duckrabbit !igure
& thin# what bothers me about the notion of illusion is that it is tied up with deception9 illusions gi$e
us a false or mista#en belief about something present to our senses. &f, when loo#ing at a
photograph, & increasingly found myself in the grip of a pictorial illusion 'belie$ing it to be the thing
itself(, surely & would also increasingly lose my grip on the fact that it was a photograph. But
common e%perience suggests that we are simply not decie$ed in this way. Does 0ombrich)s rapid
flic#ering of our $isual senses between photograph and illusion e%plain this1 Possibly, but it)s
difficult to say.
&t seems that to run with the illusion theory you would need to ha$e a good story 2 probably
deeply rooted in human psychology and cogniti$e processing 2 as to how pictorial illusion can be
so different from ordinary illusion.
3emiotic heory
3trict semiotic $iews, such as that ad$anced by Nelson
0oodman, hold that pictures, li#e all signs, are
con$entional 2 they represent their sub"ect matter by
belonging to a symbol system similar to how natural
languages represent their sub"ect matter. -s a
consequence, understanding what a picture represents
is not grounded in $isual e%perience but in
understanding the symbol system. 7or 0oodman, the
difference between how pictures represent sub"ect matter and how sentences 'and maps, graphs
and wiring diagrams( represent sub"ect matter is that pictures are symbolically *dense) 'they ha$e
no parts, such as words and sentences( and *replete) 'they ha$e more $isual features which are
*rele$ant) to how they represent sub"ect matter(.
he theory is comple%, and although there are some nice, broad parallels between how we
e%perience pictures and language, there are some serious disanalogies. a#e a landscape
photograph. he photo deli$ers a $isual e%perience of a $iew, a sentence describing a landscape
does not. his difference in the e%perience seems 'to me( to be not "ust a difference in degree 2
of symbolic *denseness) and $isual *repleteness) 2 but one of kind. &t is a different #ind of
e%perience. -lso, the way in which we learn to *read) a picture is radically different from how we
learn to read a language. Children can identify sub"ects in pictures from a $ery early age without
*learning) the *symbol system). .e can wor# out unfamiliar sub"ect matter from unfamiliar

Signpost showing popular destinations
in "reen #ark, London, England
representations of them. None of this is possible with e$en the simplest written language or
symbol set without a good deal of wor# and practice. o spea# of a *$isual language) in anything
more than $ery general terms 'such as in discussing art and artistic practice( seems misplaced.
&n the semiotic $iew, any ob"ect 'including any picture(
2 "ust li#e any surface mar#ing 'including letters,
numbers, sentences, pictograms and symbols( 2 can
represent anything we wish to denote, by con$ention.
.e simply baptise things and supply a #ey to inform
others. & thin# it is in this respect that the counterintuiti$e
nature of the $iew can be seen most sharply. 7or
e%ample, surely no con$ention could get us to see the
$ona Lisa as $isually representing anything other than a portrait of a woman. &t is difficult to
imagine a con$ention in which we understand the $ona Lisa as $isually representing three
3iberian garage mechanics.
he philosopher +endall .alton de$eloped the ma#e!belie$e theory of pictorial representation,
which holds that when we loo# at a picture we are participating in a fiction. he successful picture
is a prop which allows the $iewer to enter into a *game of ma#e!belie$e). Pictures represent their
sub"ect matter by our 'correctly( ma#ing belie$e what is represented is actually there before us.
;esemblance plays no part and, li#e the illusion $iew, it seems to capture well the role imagination
plays in understanding pictures.
- seemingly fatal problem arises, though, in identifying e%actly what is to be ma#e!belie$edly seen
when we loo# at a picture. 7or to get this right we need to #now what the picture represents 2
and this is precisely what the theory is meant to be e%plaining. -lso, li#e the semiotic $iew abo$e,
ma#e!belie$e has difficulties in e%plaining how, for e%ample, young children can learn to recognise
ob"ects by first seeing them in picture boo#s.
3eeing!in is a psychologically based theory, de$eloped by ;ichard .ollheim, which places $isual
e%perience at the centre of pictorial representation and e%ploits the human mind)s innate capacity
to generate $isual e%periences out of itself. hin# of the last time you lay on your bac# on a

%raditional narrowboat under stormy morning
sky on the &iver %hames, Apple!ord, England

summer day and mused on the passing clouds o$erhead. 3eeing a face in the clouds, li#e seeing
a man in the moon or a battle scene in the stains on a wall, are all e%amples of seeing!in. he
difference between seeing a man in the moon and a man in a picture, though, is that there is a
correct way to understand the picture, which is set by the intentions of the person who made it, in
con"unction with our obser$ation of the mar#s on the surface of the picture 'in# "et dots, paint
blobs, pencil lines, and so on(.
Our natural capacity for seeing!in 2 seeing things in pictures which may be absent from $iew
'such as the puppeteer who is in Paris, or, => years after the photograph was ta#en, is probably
no longer standing there( or fictional things 'such as a unicorn( 2 is based on what .ollheim calls
*twofoldness). wofoldness is our ability to see simultaneously the surface mar#s of a picture and
the effects of these mar#s 'the sub"ect matter( as two elements of one and the same perceptual
e%perience. Note that there is no :flic#ering: here.
.ollheim contrasts this psychological account with the semiotic theory. He says that we don)t
*read) a picture to percei$e what is $isually represented, seeing!in is more basic and logically prior
to this. 7or e%ample, in a painting we may *read) the lamb at the foot of a cross as a symbol for
Christ, but that *reading) cannot build into the e%perience of representational seeing because we
must first see the lamb in the picture before we can recognise it as a symbol.
he wea#ness of the seeing!in $iew lies in whether you are willing to accept the *twofoldness) of
$isual e%perience. &t is difficult to see how you can say much more about this at present. .ollheim
himself is openly sceptical of any deeper e%plication of twofoldness through either psychology or
he strength of the seeing!in thesis is its bedroc# grounding in $isual e%perience. .e do ha$e an
innate ability to generate $isual e%periences8 dreams are the most dramatic e%amples9 seeing
faces in clouds seem good wa#ing e%amples. here is no need to deal with the seemingly slippery
concepts of resemblance, illusion and ma#e!belie$e, and it a$oids the unintuiti$e aspects of the
semiotic $iew.
he seeing!in $iew also pac#s a bonus. 3ome pictures are difficult to understand. &n art,
conceptual, abstract, cubist and nai$e pictures, for e%ample, can ta#e time and wor# to
understand and see what is represented. 3imilarly, what is represented in some *unusual)
photographs can also be difficult to understand 2 such as photographs produced using long!
e%posures, multiple e%posures, strobe lighting, microscopes, unusual light sorces or digital
manipulation 'which don)t really loo# li#e their sub"ects under *normal $iewing conditions)(. he
resemblance and illusion $iews often find it difficult or impossible to e%plain how we see what is
represented in these difficult types of pictures 2 some of which simply stand marooned outside of
the theories.
Because the seeing!in theory states that the picture ma#er sets an *intentional standard of
correctness) 'either consciouly or unconsciously(, this gi$es us a firm position from which to begin
in trying to understand difficult or obscure pictures. he measure of success for a photographer or
other picture ma#er is the e%tent to which we 'the ordinary $iewer( can understand what their
picture represents.
And so ...
& find the seeing!in thesis a persuasi$e and natural account of how photographs and other pictures
represent things in the world and outside it. & thin# it captures in a natural manner how we
e%perience ordinary, realistic photographs, and it ma#es sense of how we come to understand
more unusual and difficult non!record ones. he twofoldness of perceptual e%perience is still an
un#nown quantity, but one & am willing to ta#e on board until it is dispro$ed or superceded by
further refinement.
&s this your e%perience of photographs1
Jim Batty
jimbatty'com image library
e%t and photographs copyright ? @AA> by <im Batty. -ll rights reser$ed.
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