Andre Bazin's famous "The Ontology of the Photographic Image" argues that the origin of painting and sculpture lies in what he calls "the mummy complex." The Egyptians armed themselves against the passage of time, thus satisfying a psychological need of man, by preserving bodily appearance, and these by way of preserving the body itself. Later, bodily appearance was preserved through statues which then become "substitute mummies" - and here life is preserved "by a representation of life." Once civilization deletes the magical aspect of this we have the portrait painter sublimating our concern for death on a rational level: "No one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image, but all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death." But of course Bazin himself does not take this position of rejecting ontological identity. What "no one believes" will be thrown into question. What we have now is "a larger concept [than survival after death] the creation of an ideal work in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny."
It should be remarked that this ideal world is almost the opposite of Plato's ideal world. We might even gain some further insight into Plato's rejection of the imitative arts here. There seems to be a conflict between two ideals. The imitation provides us with one atemporal ideal, Plato provides another one, one which is more like mathematics. Plato kind of hides this: he never complains that this is what imitative art gives us, or pretends to give us. Yet he wants to substitute his own ideals for these ideals.
For Bazin, painting would be vain if they did not satisfy a "primitive need the have the last word in the argument with death." Painting does this by producing "a form that endures." Plato has Socrates defeat death by proving that his soul is eternal and that this lies in seeking the eternal unchanging forms which, precisely, are not imitations. Imitations as Forms: what a sacrilege, a contradiction in terms!
There would be no disagreement between Plato and Bazin however that that the history of plastic art is a story of resemblance "or, if you will, of realism." But again, isn't it funny that "real" is a word that Platonists would apply to the world of the Forms, whereas realism can also apply to this need to produce something that defeats time and yet at the same time copies something in the physical realm. Bazin understands this point, for he suggests that in the Renaissance we have a move away from Platonist realism to instead combine spiritual expression "with as complete an imitation as possible of the outside world," all facilitated by the development of perspective and the camera obscura by which a three-d space is reproduced on a two dimensional surface.
So, on Bazin's view, painting "is torn between two ambitions" one aesthetic "the expression of spiritual reality wherein the symbol transcended the model," and the other "purely psychological, namely the duplication of the world outside." It would seem at first that Bazin is saying that photography uniquely does the second: but it is more complicated than that. First, as he observes, the history of art becomes a history of being consumed by this need for duplication, i.e. to satisfy the "appetite for illusion," and second realism is compelled to express movement dramatically, hence the need for Baroque art (e.g. Tintoretto and perhaps Caravaggio). And yet the figures in baroque art never actually move: so Bazin speaks of its "tortured immobility." And then he says that great artists (can we include the Baroque painters here?) combine the two tendencies (which would seem to be impossible, as how can the symbol both transcend the model and be one with it?) Bazin insists that, despite these exceptions, the "need for illusion has not ceased to trouble the heart of painting," and that this need as a "purely mental need, of itself nonaesthetic" - which is related to our proclivity "towards magic." I think that this term "magic" is essential to our understanding of Bazin.
Bazin at this point in the essay does something strange. He says "the quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological, between true realism, the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and its essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye ....a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearance." The first part of the sentence is easy enough to understand, but are we to think that the aesthetic is now to be identified with true realism whereas just a few paragraphs back it was identified with the transcendence of the symbol from the model? Clearly we have a new dialectic or a new phase in the dialectic. The new conception of the aesthetic is tied now with giving expression of the world "both concretely and its essence." That is, the new conception of the aesthetic is anti-Platonic but also retains the notion of "essence" as well as "realism": and it is also in opposition to simple duplication of the world, as before, although this time identified with illusory appearance (the kind of complaint Plato would make).
Thus Bazin seeks to situate himself on another plane than that of Platonists vs. imitative artists, one that retains the mummy and the magical (in whatever modern sublimated manifestations they might take). In a footnote, here, he associates this new true realism with Eisenstein but not with Russian Socialist Realism. He calls Eisenstein the Russian Tintoretto, which is to say that Eisenstein is solving the problem the Baroque failed to solve, the problem of being static and silent. Medieval art naturally synthesized the realistic and the "highly spiritual," and without crisis, but with the rise of perspective, the synthesis dissolves, only to be brought back together by the origins of photography. Photography frees the plastic arts "from their obsession with likeness" since photography satisfies "our obsession with realism." Painting can never escape subjectivity, since the "human hand" will always be present, but our appetite for illusion is completely satisfied by mechanical reproduction in which the human is mainly not involved.
Now it is fairly obvious that Bazin is just wrong the the human is completely absent from photography. Wrong on one level. But wrong on all levels? It is deceptive to focus on Bazin's telling of the tired old story of painters like Picasso being freed from the "resemblance complex" by the existence of photography, and how the painter then abandoned this "to the masses" who then identified resemblance with photography and photograph-like painting. More interesting, although equally problematic, is the claim that "originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting lies in the essentially objective character of photography." How can the objective (which is also purely mechanical) be original? How can we take seriously the idea that "between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent" and that the image is formed "without the creative intervention of man." It is hard to given that Bazin admits the photographer does intervene in his selection of the subject, that he has intentions, and that the photograph reflects his personality...all exceptions pretty much undercutting the point. Still, the point is that only photography gains an advantage from the absence of man. Bazin goes do far as to see photography as like nature and photographs like flowers whose beauty comes in part form not coming from man. We could I suppose say that we treat photographs as if their production were automatic. Maybe the whole point is phenomenological.
But this is all set-up for the interesting and controversial close of the essay. The very claim that photography is like nature leads in the next paragraph past the idea that photography has the "quality of credibility" not present in other pictures, to how we are forced to accept "as real the existence of the object reproduced....set before us, that is to say, in time and space." It is this sentence that leads up to the controversial one: "Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction." And this sentence, which most philosophers would not accept, is footnoted with reference to the psychology of relics which also involve transfer of reality, as also the Shroud of Turin which also has some features of a photograph.
So, in what sense can the photo give the thing itself: in what sense is reality transferred form one to the other? This is nothing Plato could have imagined, but it could be imagined by those who believe in relics or magic, that is the vast bulk of humanity for the vast bulk of our history as a species. But what is this for us science-minded people? Well, there are different senses of reality. Perhaps the point can be rewritten a bit: that the oneness of the subject and its photo is phenomenological, that it is "in experience," or psychological? I am not sure this will capture whatever insight Bazin had here. I think the key must lie in the notion that the photograph takes its subject out of space and time. I will discuss this more below.
If we are talking about "likeness" Bazin says, painting does not do the job well, whereas photography "can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation, as kind of decal or transfer." This is followed by the radical but partially explanatory sentence: "The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it." The Forms exist outside of space and time, and the photograph does too, and yet what has happened here, much like what happened to Warhol's Brillo Box in Arthur Danto's account of it as taken into the artworld, the photograph takes the object out of its own world into another atemporal world, and yet it is still, paradoxically, a physical thing (just as Warhol's Brillo Box is). My point: if Danto does weird ontology with a Warhol, why can't Bazin with a photograph?
Even the photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg, which shows shows a man in a crowd...one isn't even sure which one is Lincoln, the "image shares, by virtue of the very process of becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model." So the photograph of Lincoln is Lincoln. We see Lincoln in seeing the photograph, but Lincoln transformed. Well, we do say, when looking the photograph: "that is Lincoln." Again, is this in some way like Danto's "is" of artistic identification?
Bazin thinks this all related to the charm of old family photographs and it is true that unlike paintings we have here "disturbing presence of lives halted at a set moment in their duration, freed from their destiny." He also observes that whereas art creates eternity, photography "embalms time" because it stops physical corruption. The photograph of my grandmother shows her always young.
Bazin applies this to cinema in an interesting way since cinema does have its own time: but in this case cinema takes us away from the frozen-in-time effect we found in both Baroque painting and in photography, and the image of things is now "the image of their duration" so that change itself is mummified.
It is not that Bazin denies aesthetic quality to photography and cinema. It has its own aesthetic quality which is to "lay bare the realities." It is the camera and not the human that is able to bare the reality of the things of everyday life. (If you are a reader who not only has gotten this far but is actually aware of my work on everyday aesthetics, you will not be surprised by this move.) It is the camera that "separates off the complex fabric of the objective world." For example, he suggests, in one photograph we have "a reflection on a damp sidewalk" and in another "the gesture of a child." (One thinks of Bicycle Thieves by de Sica, a favorite of Bazin's.)
There is something perverse, unbelievable and also interesting in the next sentence: "Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love." How naive, we say. And yet what he captures is the feeling of innocence and love that might attach itself to such belief. It might capture something of the love of life so closely associated with attentive perception. It is cool that he mentions love here. It is sort of a move in a direction of kitsch. But love is so important to us, not only of our streets in the rain but also of children and their very gestures. He concludes this paragraph with the idea that nature "imitates the artist" i.e. in its creativity by way of the medium of the camera.
This leads into the idea that photography can surpass art in creative power. Again, the difference between photography and art is that the "photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being" as does also a fingerprint on a finger and on a slip of paper. This leads Bazin to go so far as to say that photography adds something to "natural creation" and does not just provide a substitute. Surrealist photography realizes this thematically where, for the surrealist, the mechanical effect of the image is not apart form the aesthetic purpose, and the imagination/real distinction dissolves. For the surrealist, "every image is to be seen as an object and every object as an image."
The essay closes with more talk about freeing Western painting from its obsession with realism, giving it aesthetic autonomy, allowing form to be "swallowed up in color" as in Cezanne, and "there is no longer a question of the illusions of the geometry of perspective." By contrast, the photograph goes beyond baroque resemblance "to the very identity of the model" and we come to admire "in reproduction something that our eyes alone could not have taught us to love" whereas painting can be admired as "a thing in itself."
In response to this Katherine Thomson-Jones says "What could Bazin mean here given that we usually have no difficulty distinguishing between a photograph and the thing photographed? ....Taking the claim literally, after all, would seem to commit us to a doubtful metaphysics - one that allows for the identity of things which are clearly not one and the same; namely, a photograph of something and the thing itself." (Aesthetics and Film, Continuum, 2008, 20). I am not sure Bazin actually claims identity given that the object freed from space and time is not going to retain all of its attributes.