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Photographs tend to suggest infinity

Siegfried Kracauer

The Photographic Approach (1951)

in: The Past's Threshold. Essays on Photography, p. 63 – 78

Instantaneous photography grew out of a desire older than ­pho­tography itself – the wish to picture things in motion. This was a ­challenge to photographers and inventors. As early as the late 1850’s, stereoscopic photographs appeared which evoked the illusion of capturing crowds and action. With these stereographs, instantaneous photography virtually entered the scene.

In nineteenth-century France, the arrival of photography coincided with the rise of positivist philosophy and the concurrent emphasis on science. Hence the marked concern, in the childhood days of photography, with truth to reality in a scientific sense – a concern which not only benefited the realistic trend in art and literature but facilitated the acceptance of the camera as both a recording and exploring instrument.

As a recording device, the camera was bound to fascinate minds in quest of scientific objectivity. Many held that photographs faithfully copy nature; and, eager for similar achievements, realistic and impressionist painters assumed the guise of self-effacing copyists. But it need scarcely be stressed that in actuality photographs do not copy nature but metamorphose it, by transferring three-dimensional objects to the plane and arbitrarily severing their ties with their surroundings – not to mention the fact that they usually substitute black, gray and white for the given color schemes.

In its exploration of the visible world, the camera produces images that differ from painting in two respects. Photographic records evoke not only esthetic contemplation but also an observant attitude, challenging us to discern minutiae that we tend to overlook in everyday life.

In addition, photographs permit the spectator to apprehend visual shapes in a fraction of the time he would require for a similarly acute apprehension of the actual objects. There are three reasons for this: photographs, by isolating what they present, facilitate visual perception; they transform depth to one plane; and they usually also reduce the angle of vision, thus enabling the eye to comprehend with relative ease whatever is represented.

To the nineteenth century, the unsuspected revelations of photographs were something to marvel at.1 Talbot, one of the founding fathers of photography, remarked as early as 1844 that, more often than not, “the operator himself discovers on examination, perhaps long afterwards, that he had depicted many things he had no notion of at the time”. With the rise of instantaneous photography it became obvious that the camera is not only extremely inquisitive, but actually transcends human vision. Snapshots (in the technical sense of the word, rather than in the popular meaning of amateur photography) may isolate transitory gestures and configurations which our eye cannot possibly register. In the preface to his book, Instantaneous Photography (1895), the English photochemist Abney dwelt on the “grotesqueness” of the numerous snapshots which make you believe “that figures are posed in attitudes in which they are never seen”.

But there is a difference between acknowledging the characteristics of a medium and actually taking advantage of them. Nineteenth-century photographers tended to submit to the visual habits and esthetic preferences of society at large. They shrank from exploring the world photographically lest the grotesqueness of their images might be incompatible with the prevailing artistic traditions. And were they not artists, after all? Instead of defying pre-photographic fashions of seeing, therefore, these artist-photographers deliberately fell back into accepted art styles and time-honored stereotypes. Conspicuous was the case of Adam-Salomon: a sculptor become photographer, he excelled in portraits which, because of their “Rembrandt lighting” and velvet drapery, persuaded the poet Lamartine to recant his initial opinion that photographs were nothing but a “plagiarism of nature.” Lamartine now felt sure that they were art. It was the eternal conspiracy of conventional beauty against unwonted truth. That the conventional sold better was all the more in its favor.

The desire for genuinely photographic ventures could not be stilled, however, by any amount of conservatism. Once instantaneous photography was firmly established, an increasing number of devotees of art-photography renounced their prejudices and scruples. This is illustrated by the dramatic conversion of P. H. Emerson, who, having for a long time emulated painting, in 1891 openly condemned as a fallacy his confusion of photography with art in the traditional sense. In spite of all temptations to the contrary, the urge to capitalize on the camera’s ability to record and explore was irrepressible.

What did the photographic approach, sensitive to the potentialities and limitations of the medium, imply for the photographer, his products and the effects of the latter upon the spectator? Proust has drawn an image of the photographer which still vibrates with the nineteenth-century controversy about photography versus art. It is in that passage of The Guermantes’ Way where the narrator enters the drawing room of his grandmother without having been announced, and finds her seated there reading:

I was in the room, or rather I was not yet in the room since she was not aware of my presence… Of myself … there was present only the witness, the observer with a hat and traveling coat, the stranger who does not belong to the house, the photographer who has called to take a photograph of places which one will never see again. The process that mechanically occurred in my eyes when I caught sight of my grandmother was indeed a photograph. We never see the people who are dear to us save in the animated system, the perpetual motion of our incessant love for them, which before allowing the images that their faces present to reach us catches them in its vortex, flings them back upon the idea that we have always had of them, makes them adhere to it, coincide with it. How, since into the forehead, the cheeks of my grandmother I had been accustomed to read all the most delicate, the most permanent qualities of her mind; how, since every casual glance is an act of necromancy, each face that we love a mirror of the past, how could I have failed to overlook what in her had become dulled and changed, seeing that in the most trivial spectacles of our daily life our eye, charged with thought, neglects, as would a classical tragedy, every image that does not assist the action of the play and retains only those that may help to make its purpose intelligible. But if, in place of our eye, it should he a purely material object, a photographic plate, that has watched the action, then what we shall see, in the courtyard of the Institute, for example, will be, instead of the dignified emergence of an Academician who is going to hail a cab, his staggering gait, his precautions to avoid tumbling upon his back, the parabola of his fall, as though he were drunk, or the ground frozen over… . And, as a sick man who for long has not looked at his own reflection … recoils on catching sight in the glass, in the midst of an arid waste of cheek, of the sloping red structure of a nose as huge as one of the pyramids … I, for whom my grandmother was still myself, I who had never seen her save in my own soul, always at the same place in the past, through the transparent sheets of contiguous, overlapping memories, suddenly in our drawing room which formed part of a new world, that of time, saw, sitting on the sofa, beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and common, sick, lost in thought, following the lines of a book with eyes that seemed hardly sane, a dejected old woman whom I did not know.2

Proust starts from the premise that love blinds us to the changes in appearance which the beloved undergoes in the course of time. It is logical, therefore, that he should emphasize emotional detachment as the photographer’s foremost virtue. He drives home this point by identifying the photographer with the witness, the observer, the stranger – three types characterized by their common unfamiliarity with the places at which they happen to be. They may perceive anything, because nothing they see is pregnant with memories that would captivate them and thus limit their vision. The ideal photographer, then, is the opposite of the unseeing lover; his eye, instead of being “charged with thought”, resembles the indiscriminating mirror or camera lens.

The one-sidedness of Proust’s point of view is evident. But the whole context indicates that he was primarily concerned with depicting a state of mind in which we are so completely overwhelmed by involuntary memories that we can no longer register our present surroundings to the full. And his desire to contrast, for the purpose of increased clarity, this particular state of mind with the photographic attitude, may have induced him to adopt the credo of the naive realists – that what the photographer does is to hold a mirror up to nature.

Actually there is no mirror at all. Any photograph is the outcome of selective activities which go far beyond those involved in the unconscious structuring of the visual raw material. The photographer selects deliberately both his subject and the manner of presenting it. He may prefer inanimate objects to portraits, outdoor scenes to interiors; and he is relatively free to vary and combine the different factors upon which the final appearance of his product depends. Lighting, camera angle, lens, filter, emulsion and frame – all these are determined by his estimates, his esthetic judgment. Discussing the pictures Charles Marville took of doomed old Paris streets and houses under Napoleon III, Beaumont Newhall traces their “melancholy beauty” to Marville’s personality, which no doubt was responsible for the knowing choice of stance, time and detail. “Documentary photography is a personal matter”, he concludes. Contrary to Proust’s assertion, the photographer’s eye is also “charged with thought”.

And yet Proust is basically right in relating the photographic approach to the psychological state of alienation. For even though the photographer rarely shows the emotional detachment Proust ascribes to him, neither does he externalize his personality, but draws on it mainly for the purpose of making his account of the visible world all the more inclusive. His selectivity is empathic rather than spontaneous; he resembles not so much the expressive artist who wants to project his visions, as the imaginative reader who tries to discover the hidden significance of a given text.

There are, however, cases which at first glance do not fit into this scheme. During the last decades, many a noted photographer specialized in subjects that reflected the pictorial archetypes he found within himself. For instance, the late Moholy-Nagy and Edward Weston concentrated on abstract patterns, featuring form rather than incident. The photographers in this vein seem to have overwhelmed their material instead of yielding to the impact of existence. Accordingly, their prints are often reminiscent of contemporary paintings or drawings. In this respect they somehow resemble those nineteenth-century artist-photographers who fell into line with the Pre-Raphaelites and other schools of art of their day. And like their predecessors, these modern photographers may be not only influenced by current art but so deeply imbued with its underlying concepts that they cannot help reading them into every context. Or do they rather discover them in the text? The Zeitgeist conditions perception, making the different media of communication approach each other.

Many photographs of this sort are ambiguous. They aim, on the one hand, at effects which might as well be obtained by the painter’s brush – in fact, some of them look exactly like reproductions of works of art; on the other hand, they seem primarily concerned with certain aspects of unadulterated nature. Fascinating border cases, these photographs result from two conflicting tendencies – the desire to project inner images and the desire to record outer shapes. Obviously they are genuine photographs to the extent to which they follow the latter inclination. Their specifically photographic value lies in their realistic quality. It is noteworthy that Edward Weston, who wavered between those two tendencies, increasingly rejected the idea of photography as a means of self-projection. “The camera must be used for recording life”, he remarked in his Daybook, “for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself … I shall let no chance pass to record interesting abstractions, but I feel definite in my belief that the approach to photography is through realism”. His statement would seem all the more conclusive since he himself had emphasized abstraction.

The photographic approach – that is, the effort to utilize the inherent abilities of the camera – is responsible for the particular nature of photographs. In the days of Zola and the Impressionists, the properties of photographs were commonly held to be the hallmarks of art in general; but no sooner did painting and literature break away from realism than these properties assumed an exclusive character. Since they depend upon techniques peculiar to the medium, they have remained stable throughout its evolution. These properties may be defined as follows:

First, photography has an outspoken affinity for unstaged reality. Pictures which impress us as intrinsically photographic seem intended to capture nature in the raw, nature unmanipulated and as it exists independently of us. Sir John Robison, a contemporary of Daguerre, praised the first photographs for rendering “a withered leaf lying on a projecting cornice, or an accumulation of dust in a hollow moulding … when they exist in the original.” And Talbot, in an attempt to condition public taste to the new photographic themes, invoked the precedent of many a painting immortalizing such ephemeral subjects as a “casual glance of sunshine, … a time-withered oak, or a moss-covered stone”. It is true that in the field of portraiture. photographers frequently interfere with the given conditions to bring out what they consider the typical feature of a human face. But the boundaries between staged and unstaged reality are fluid in this field; and a portraitist who provides an adequate setting or asks his model to lower the head a bit, may well be helping nature to manifest itself forcibly. What counts is his desire to do precisely this – to catch nature in the act of living without impinging on its integrity. If the “expressive artist” in him gets the better of the “imaginative reader”, he will inevitably transgress the limit that separates a photograph from a painting.

Second, through this concern with unstaged reality, ­photography – especially instantaneous photography – tends to stress the fortuitous. Random events are the very meat of snapshots; hence the attractiveness of street crowds. By 1859, New York stereographs took a fancy to the kaleidoscopic mingling of vehicles and pedestrians, and somewhat later Victorian snapshots reveled in the same inchoate patterns. Dreams nurtured by the big cities thus materialized as pictorial records of chance meetings, strange overlappings and fabulous coincidences. Even the most typical instantaneous portrait retains an accidental character. It is plucked in passing and still quivers with crude existence.

Third, photographs tend to suggest infinity. This follows from their emphasis on fortuitous combinations which represent fragments rather than wholes. A photograph, whether portrait or action picture, is true to character only if it precludes the notion of completeness. Its frame marks a provisional limit; its content refers to other contents outside that frame, and its structure denotes something that cannot be encompassed – physical existence. Nineteenth-century writers called this something nature, or life; and they were convinced that photography would have to impress upon us its endlessness. Leaves, which they considered the favorite motive of the camera, are not only not susceptible to being staged, but they also occur in infinite quantities. There is an analogy between the photographic approach and scientific investigation in this respect: both probe into an ­inexhaustible universe, whose whole forever eludes them.

Finally, photographs tend to be indeterminate in a sense of which Proust was keenly aware. In the passage quoted above, he contends that the photograph of an Academician about to hail a cab but hampered in his movements, staggering in his gait, will not convey the idea of his dignity so much as it will highlight his awkward efforts to avoid slipping. Obviously Proust has snapshots in mind. The snapshot of the Academician does not necessarily imply that its original must be thought of as being undignified; it simply fails to tell us anything specific about his general behavior or his typical attitudes. It so radically isolates his momentary pose that the function of this within the total structure of his personality remains anybody’s guess. The pose relates to a context which itself is not given. The photograph thus differs from the work of art in transmitting material without defining it. No doubt Proust exaggerates the indeterminacy of photographs just as grossly as he does their depersonalizing quality. In effect, the photographer endows his pictures with structure and meaning to the extent to which he makes significant choices. His pictures record nature and at the same time reflect his attempts to decipher it. Yet, as in depicting the photographer’s alienation, Proust is again essentially right, for however selective true photographs are, they cannot deny the tendency towards the unorganized and diffuse which marks them as records. If this tendency were defeated by the artist-photographer’s nostalgia for meaningful design, they would cease to be photographs.

Since the days of Daguerre, people have felt that photographs are products of an approach which should not be confused with that of the artist but should be founded upon the camera’s unique ability to record nature. This explains the most common reaction to photographs: they are valued as documents of unquestionable authenticity. It was their documentary quality which struck the nineteenth-century imagination. Baudelaire, who scorned both art’s decline into photography and photography’s pretense to art, at least admitted that photographs had the merit of rendering, and thus preserving, all those transient things which were entitled to a place in the “archives of our memory”. Their early popularity as souvenirs cannot be overestimated. There is practically no family which does not boast an album crowded with generations of dear ones before varying backgrounds. With the passing of time, these souvenirs undergo a significant change in meaning. As the recollections they embody fade away, they assume increasingly documentary functions; their value as photographic records definitely overshadows their original appeal as memory aids. Leafing through the family album, the grandmother will re-experience her honeymoon, while the children will curiously study bizarre gondolas, obsolete fashions and old young faces they never saw.

And most certainly they will rejoice in discoveries, pointing to odd bagatelles which the grandmother failed to notice in her day. This too is a typical reaction to photographs. People instinctively look at them in the hope of detecting something new or unexpected – a confidence which pays tribute to the camera’s exploring faculty. The American writer and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes was among the first to capitalize on this faculty in the interests of science. In the early 1880s he found that the movements of people walking, as disclosed by instantaneous photography, differed greatly from what artists had imagined them to be like, and on the grounds of his observations criticized an artificial leg then popular with amputated Civil War soldiers. Other scientists followed suit, using the camera as a means of detection. In selecting illustrations for The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin preferred photographs to works of art, and snapshots to time exposures. Photography was thus recognized as a tool of science.

And, of course, it was always recognized as a source of beauty. Yet beauty may be experienced in different ways. Under the impact of deep-rooted esthetic conventions many people, who undoubtedly acknowledged the documentary quality of photographs, nevertheless expected them to afford the kind of satisfaction ordinarily derived from paintings or poems – a blending of photography with the established arts. Because of the affinity between photography and the other arts, there is in fact an unending procession of artist-photographers.

But this confusion was never shared by the more sensitive – those really susceptible to the photographic approach. All of these rejected the esthetic ideal as the main issue of photography. In their opinion, the medium does not primarily aspire to artistic effects; rather, it challenges us to extend our vision, and this precisely is its beauty. According to Talbot, one of the charms of photographs consists in the discoveries to which they invariably lend themselves. “In a perfect photograph”, said Holmes, “there will be many beauties lurking, unobserved, as there are flowers that blush unseen in forests and meadows”. Like Talbot, he considered the esthetic value of photographs a function of their explorative powers; photographs, his statement implies, are beautiful to the extent to which they reveal things that we normally overlook. Similarly, Louis Delluc, one of the greatest figures of the French cinema after World War I, took delight – esthetic delight – in the surprising revelations of Kodak pictures. 

This is what enchants me: you will admit that it is unusual suddenly to notice, on a film or a plate, that some passerby, picked up inadvertently by the camera lens, has a singular expression; that Mme. X … preserves the unconscious secret of classic postures in scattered fragments; and that the trees, the water, the fabrics, the beasts achieve the familiar rhythm which we know is peculiar to them, only by means of decomposed movements whose disclosure proves upsetting to us.3

What enchanted Delluc in a photograph was the presence of the unforeseeable – that which is in flagrant contradiction to artistic premeditation.

These statements indicate the close relationship that exists between our esthetic experience of photographs and our interest in them as observers, if not scientists. Photographs evoke a response in which our sense of beauty and our desire for knowledge interpenetrate; and often they seem esthetically attractive because they satisfy that desire.


1 The historical references throughout have largely been drawn from Beaumont Newhall’s article, “Photography and the Development of Kinetic Visualization” (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, London, 1944, vol. VII, p. 40–45) and his History of Photography (New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1949). 

2 Marcel Proust, The Guermantes’ Way, Part I, New York. Modern Library, 1925, p. 186–188.

3 Louis Delluc, Photogénie, Paris, M. De Brunoff, 1920, p. 5. [Reprint in ­Simpson, P., Utterson, A. & Shepherdson, K. J. (eds.) Film Theory: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies (London, Routledge, 2004) pp. 49–51.]

  • Siegfried Kracauer
  • photography
  • media theory
  • film
  • History of photography

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Siegfried Kracauer

Siegfried Kracauer

(born 8 February 1889 in Frankfurt am Main, died 26 November 1966 in New York) was an architect, philosopher, sociologist, journalist, cultural critic and film theorist. From 1922 to 1933 he worked as feuilleton editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung, first in Frankfurt and from 1930 in Berlin. With the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Kracauer emigrated to Paris, and then in 1941 to the United States where he eventually became an American citizen in 1946. Following his arrival in New York he began to write in English and the books he wrote in these decades are among his best known:From Caligari to Hitler. A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), Theory of Film. The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960) and History. The Last Things before the Last (1969, ed. Oskar Kristeller).

Other texts by Siegfried Kracauer for DIAPHANES
Philippe Despoix (ed.), Siegfried Kracauer, ...: The Past's Threshold

Siegfried Kracauer was a leading intellectual figure of the Weimar Republic and one of the foremost representatives of critical theory. Best known for a wealth of writings on sociology and film theory, his influence is felt in the work of many of the period’s preeminent thinkers, including his friends, the critic Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno, who once claimed he owed more to Kracauer than any other contemporary.

The volume brings together for the first time all of Kracauer’s essays on photography that he wrote between 1927 and 1933 as a journalist for the Frankfurter Zeitung, as well as an essay that appeared in the Magazine of Art after his exile in America, where he would spend the last twenty-five years of his life. The texts show Kracauer as a pioneering thinker of the photographic medium in addition to the important historian, and theorist, of film that he is acknowledged to have been. His writings here build a cohesive theory on the affinities between photography, memory and history.

With a foreword by Philippe Despoix offering insights into Kracauer’s theories and the historical context, and a Curriculum vitae in pictures, photographs from the Kracauer estate annotated by Maria Zinfert.