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  • Writer's pictureJamie Melville Ormston

The Ontology of Photography

ontology (noun)

  1. the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being.

  2. a set of concepts and categories in a subject area or domain that shows their properties and the relations between them.

Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies concepts such as existence, being, becoming, and reality. It includes the questions of how entities are grouped into basic categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level.

The visual arts share a psychological motivation with the act of embalming. Both preserve bodies from the ravages of time …None moreso than the photographic image.

In ‘Ontology of The Photographic Image‘ (an essay published in Classic essays on photography – Alan Trachtenberg), Andre Bazin writes “Civilization cannot, however, entirely cast out the bogy of time. It can only sublimate our concern with it to the level of rational thinking. 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. Today the making of images no longer shares an anthropocentric, utilitarian purpose. It is no longer a question of survival after death, but of a larger concept, the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny . . . If the history of the plastic arts is less a matter of their aesthetic than of their psychology then it will be seen to be essentially the story of resemblance, or, if you will, of realism.” (Bazin in Trachtenberg (ed) 1980: 238).

On the potential for illusion in photography:

“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 (or for that matter the mind): a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances.” (Bazin in Trachtenberg (ed) 1980: 239-40).

We make pictures of people with the intention that the pictures last longer than the physical body does.

“…truly is re-presented, made present in time and space. Photography transfers reality from the object depicted to its reproduction.” There is little visual difference between the light reflecting into the eye from an object and the light reflecting from an object in a photograph and received by the eye.

“The most faithful drawing can give us more information about the model, but it will never, no matter what our critical faculties tell us, possess the irrational power of photography, in which we believe without reservation.” A painting may have more resemblance but a photograph has more ontology.


C. S. Pierce’s Three Categories of Signs:

  1. Iconicity – physical resemblance to the thing being represented

  2. Symbolic – has no resemblance between the signifier and the signified. The connection between them must be culturally learned.

  3. Indexical – shows evidence for the existence of what it refers to. eg. footprint, bullet hole, weathervane


References: Trachtenberg, A. and Meyers, A., 2005. Classic essays on photography. 5th ed. New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, pp.237-244.


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