Much has been said about the concept of representation in the visual arts. I myself, in previous blog posts (see here and here), have attempted to dissociate photography from the concept of representation having being propelled to do so due to the grossly mistaken view that shadowed my thoughts about representation for a very long time and that, very summarily, treated a representation as a copy of some original.
I now have to recant all my previous beliefs about the concept of representation in the visual arts.
When we look at the etymology of the verb ‘represent’ we find that this word has no associations with the act of making a copy. The etymology of the word ‘represent’ is as follows:
late 14c., “to bring to mind by description,” also “to symbolize, serve as a sign or symbol of; serve as the type or embodiment of;” from Old French representer “present, show, portray” (12c.), from Latin repraesentare “make present, set in view, show, exhibit, display,” from re-, intensive prefix (see re-), + praesentare “to present,” literally “to place before,” from praesens) “present, at hand, in sight; immediate; prompt, instant; contemporary,” from present participle of præesse “be before (someone or something), be at hand,” from prae- “before” (see pre-) + esse “to be” (from PIE root *es- “to be”). Legislative sense is attested from 1650s. Related: Represented; representing” (HARPER 2001-2019).
Neither does the noun ‘representation’ have any associations with something being a copy of. The etymology of the noun ‘representation’ is:
c. 1400, “image, likeness,” from Old French representacion (14c.) and directly from Latin representationem (nominative representatio), noun of action from past participle stem of repraesentare (see represent). Meaning “statement made in regard to some matter” is from 1670s. Legislative sense first attested 1769” (HARPER 2001-2019).
If we take what is essential from the above etymological definitions, we can see that the statue of the goddess, for example, is not merely an artefact made in the likeness of the goddess, and hence just a copy of an original, which in this case would be the goddess herself. No, the statue made in the likeness of the goddess is the goddess who is being placed before you – in front of the statue made in the likeness of the goddess, you find yourself in front of the goddess…
(Let’s leave that argumentative bravado to those mighty lost in their delirious quest for élan…)
I believe that the mistake with my now recanted view of the concept of representation in the visual arts stems from the mysterious and erroneous belief that we see the world directly, that is as if our retinas were sponges waiting to be impregnated with the perception-enabling juice oozing from beings out there.
I would now attempt to describe the perceptive act quite differently: what we see is a representation. And why would this be so? We receive the world as a representation in order that we may come to know it.
(At this point instead of asking ourselves the very interesting question of how representations come to be, we could ask ourselves, dully, what representations are in themselves, but I find that toing and froing with the essential Being of concepts (???) mightily boring. But I will concede defeat here, and will allow myself to give an answer to that dull question. But be hereby warned that as always happens in such cases this too will end in a big anti-climax! So here it goes: a representation is… an IMAGE. And here we have come full circle, back to the original etymological definition of the word ‘representation’.)
Photographs, being representations, (quotable-meme-moment on its way), make the invisible visible: that old lady has never seen the Eiffel tower and there you go to her with a photograph of that monument. The photographic representation of that monument gives the said lady an image of that monument. I am not saying that the photograph can replace the lived moment, but it does indeed grant one an aspect of reality. The photograph of the Eiffel tower may not be the Eiffel tower but it can induce feelings (partially?) similar to being in front of the Eiffel tower.
So whether “we see, quite literally, our dead relatives themselves when we look at photographs of them” (WALTON 1984: 252) is indeed irrelevant. What is of importance is that a photograph done with craft capably induces that belief in its beholder.
HARPER, Douglas. 2001-2019. Online Etymology Dictionary [online]. Available at: http://www.etymonline.com [accessed 16 September 2019].
WALTON, Kendall L. 1984. ‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’. Critical Inquiry, 11(2), 246-277.