The difficulty of talking about photography

What is photography? Definitions are difficult things, and as photography has a complex and varied history, definition seems unattainable…

What is photography?

One of my favourite books is Mishka Henner’s Photography Is. Not a single image and 3,000 disparate statements torn from writing that attempt to define the field.

Of course, definitions are difficult things. Nietzsche had it right when he said, “all concepts in which an entire process is semiotically concentrated defy definition; only something which has no history can be defined.” As photography has a complex and varied history, definition seems unattainable.

I’m coming to doubt the usefulness of both the question ‘what is photography’, and writing that presumes the unity of a field as it investigates its problems. Indeed, in recent times – especially after speaking at Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, an academic conference in Toronto, and running the first World Press Photo multimedia seminar in Amsterdam – I’ve been personally struck by the difficulty of even talking about photography generally. To use the term as an all-encompassing concept seems pretty much impossible.

After all, what, if anything, connects stock photography, fashion photography, art photography, news photography, conceptual photography, documentary photography, amateur photography, forensic photography, vernacular photography, travel photography, or whatever sort of photography?

That’s not to suggest there isn’t a lot of good writing about this thing variously called photography. As I catch up with material filed away while travelling, I’ve benefited greatly from Michael Shaw’s three part analysis of the state of the news photo, and John Edwin Mason’s critique of claims about the “tsunami of vernacular photographs.”

What connects such analysis is that they don’t focus on the alleged essence of photography, what it is. They deal with its function and its effects.

To do that we will all have to make clear our own assumptions about the particular functions or effects we want to investigate. As Mason observes, “photography is one of the most complex phenomena of the modern world.” That may be the only simple, singular statement we can make about it.

So rather than ask what photography is, perhaps we should probe what it does, how it does it, and who does or does not want it to work in particular ways.


1. Friedrich Nietzsce, On the Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 53. Thanks to Ian Douglas and others for reminding me of the source.

2. Shaw’s analysis might be seen as an important extension and update of Stuart Hall’s important essay “The determinations of news photographs,” in The Manufacture of News, edited by Stanley Cohen and Jock Young (Sage Publications, revised edition, 1981).

18 replies on “The difficulty of talking about photography”

A provocative read and I’m looking forward to enjoying the linked articles too – many thanks. In my mind, photography is a means to an end and so – as you say in your reply to Neil – we’d be better off “Shifting the concern away from what it is to what it does”. I don’t think the issue is unique to photography – there are so many aspects of life where we find ourselves hung up with inputs and process rather than outputs and, ideally, outcomes. Maybe it’s because inputs and process are less challenging.

Thanks again.

hey david, hope all is well…i actually think question of monetisation and celebrity status are closely connected…the problem is (imho) that in case of photography the celebrity status is wrongly identified with integrity…

Good to hear from you Ziyah. Not sure how you reach the celebrity conclusion from questions at the end of the post – probing what it does, how it does it, and who does or does not want it to work in particular ways is directly related to subjects and effects, and very different from questions of monetisation.

perhaps this urge to define things – photography is something inherit to our western culture and our difficulty to let things be as they are for whatever they are. maybe definitions help us monetize what we do or we simply can’t leave things unnamed and out of the box. Am afraid answers to your last sentence in the article may lead us to conclusion that photography makes photographers celebrities, changing our own world (for better) rather than changing the world of our subjects. It is natural process it but it brings us back to definition and monetizing what we do. I have a feeling defining photography is all about establishing property, monetizing what we do.
Maybe photography is just a distraction, or it is weapon of mass intimidation or it is ultimate self indulging tool…

Sorry Jos, but I couldn’t disagree more…at least about all that you relegated to ‘politics’…nothing matters as much as context, and if photography, however we understand it, doesn’t understand its context and relation to other contexts, then it has little purpose.

‘Photography’ does what it always has done: taking optically generated pictures of somebody or/and something with a ‘picture taking machine’, by a ‘photographer’. Why? The ‘photographer’ knows. Does it matter? I guess, at least I hope so (for the photographer’s sake and inward peace). All the rest about ‘photography’ is a question of ‘politics’ – including contemporary art business – and, at a social and cultural level, mostly does not matter at all, I think.

Hi David, I know I’m being very literal in my answer, but maybe it’ll serve to conjure up better or more precise questions. Thanks for introducing me to Mishka Henner’s work, I like it a lot.
Regards. Neil

Commendably blunt Neil, though your comment underscores my point. I’m not interested in getting a definition. I’m interested in why many people – including yourself in this comment – want or assume a definition to unite a disparate field. Shifting the concern away from what it is to what it does is the key I think.

Photography is the fixing of images onto light sensitive media. What more do you need to know? What is Painting? The application of pigments to surfaces. Everything else is utilisation, convention and intention.
What is photography for? Is much more complex. What ethical tenets govern the practice of photography? More complex still. Let’s not get too hung up on the bloody obvious.

Asking “what is photography?” is like asking “what is bread ?”, so far as we can think of the invention of bread as the masterpiece of human artistry. You can describe both of them, their external appearance, their form, their content, the ingredients used in their construction, the art craft used in their making. But to ask “what is photography?” as well as to ask “what is bread?” is an essentialist question that so to say concedes a supplement of independent life to things that are after all no more than human artifacts, wholly dependent on a sociocultural context, with its lot of awaited and non-awaited limits concerning skill, taste, technology… Who are the users of photography (actors and consumers along)? What are these (wo)men do or pretend to do with photography? These seem to me another possible way of turning the question about photography?

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