What is a photograph?

The photograph cannot be a record of light, the imprint left by “the chemical response to radiant energy” (ROMER 2005: 1). The photograph is the information we define as light. Romer reminds us that the word ‘photography’ means “writing with light” (Ibid. 1). I would suggest a redefinition of the word ‘photography’, one seemingly asymmetrically aligned with the popular, etymologically anchored, understanding of the word ‘photography’ as “writing with light” 1. The photograph comes after light. Hence, it is light which writes the photograph. The photograph is light writing itself. The photograph is the object of light.

That would make light the subject of the photograph – the subject from which emanates infinite plenitude onto the light-sensitive film. Light as subject, proceeding forth simultaneously from itself and within itself, to then leave itself behind as the object of itself that cannot maintain itself as such unless that which is left behind as object retains within and through itself itself as subject… Light as the subject of the photograph and the object represented in the photograph?

To use Flusser’s discursive framework, the (more-easily identifiable) subject, the viewer of the photograph, must solve the problem “hurled against [him]” (1986: 329) by the object of light, the photograph. “The subject tries to change those shapes so that they become as they ought to be by ‘informing’ the data” (FLUSSER 1986: 329). In the case of photography, the subject cannot further ‘inform’ the object (the ‘data’, to use Flusser’s term): the photograph. He cannot work on the object – it is just a photograph (maybe he could tear it to pieces). Seemingly, the photograph has been given to the subject as a readymade cultural object, with no further work needed or asked for. But why this line of reasoning? Isn’t the photograph after all a cultural object, just like a painting or a piece of sculpture is a cultural object? We are not expected to further ‘inform’ the countless exhibits littering our museum walls and floors. Therefore, why this insistence that the photograph, understood as uncontestably cultural object, should in some way or another be (further?) ‘informed’ by the viewer? Surely, the viewer can reflect upon the photograph, which brings the experience of the photograph closer to a theoretical rambling than to pure praxis; and it is the practical dimension, the manipulation photographs enable, that makes us curious and makes us enjoy looking at photographs repeatedly.

In full awareness that I might be perceived as causing a schism within Flusser’s discourse, I suggest that object and data within the realm of photography be kept linguistically apart. The photograph must be understood as data – “to work is to process data and change them into facta” (FLUSSER 1986: 329). It is this data that is hurled against the subject, the viewer, and that demands work “to process data and change them into facta” (Ibid. 329). Why this demand to secure a well-guarded niche for the term ‘object’ within the realm of photography? Why all this shying away from the word ‘object’ when speaking about the photograph? Are we erroneously assuming that the photograph, being produced by automated means, is raw data coming from the world out there and hence not (yet) an object (in Flusser’s understanding of the word ‘object’)? Flusser was speaking about the technologization of the image and the ensuing revolution such a technology would have on culture at large; we are interested in something else, something other. The ‘informing’ process on the part of the viewer exercised on the data is really of no interest to us. It is the word ‘object’ that we (not Flusser) must be careful in employing. Why?

Previously we stated that the photograph is the object of light. But light itself cannot be seen (unless dreamingly, maybe, through what are called God rays, or, indirectly and iteratively, through the sharp contrast between a dark shadow and radiant patch of light). Through and within the photograph, light manifests itself without disclosing itself – manifests itself without disclosing itself, the trace undoubtable; objectifies itself without succumbing to the object, the veracity obtained through that objectification being credible enough; retains subjectivity without being Subject or subjected. The photograph is a trace of alterity.

But is the photograph an object? Well, it could be printed on a piece of paper and described as that object made of a piece of paper with a photographic image printed on it.

P.S. The arguments presented in this post are pertinent to analogue photography and analogue printing processes. In a future post, I will attempt to delineate the schism that exists between the analogue and the digital. I will then be able to show why the above argument is not pertinent to the digital domain. (This postscript was added on the 28th of March 2020).

1 Recently, I discovered that the word photography (“photographie” [BRIZUELA 2020]) was originally coined by a Frenchman, Hercule Florence, years before Fox Talbot used the same word to describe his invention. Florence was looking for a mode of printing “to print and distribute a transcription method he had developed to organize and systematize the sounds of nature found in the Amazon region” (BRIZUELA 2020) – essentially an early photocopying method; hence “light writing” (BRIZUELA 2020), understood, in this case, as quite literally writing with light. (This footnote was added on the 28th of March 2020).


BRIZUELA, Natalia. 2020. ‘Light Writing in the Tropics: The Story of Hercule Florence’. Aperture Foundation [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/light-writing-tropics/ [accessed 28 March 2020].

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1986. ‘The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs’. Leonardo, Vol. 19, No. 4, 329-332.

ROMER, Grant. 2005. ‘What is a Photograph?’ Topics in Photographic Preservation, Volume 11, 1-2.

Featured Image:

Kazimir Malevich [Public domain]