Defining ‘the photographic’

Vermeer was a painter. He painted photographs.

This is to say that ‘the photographic’ has been with us for a very long time, at least since the happy discovery of daubing paint on walls and stuff. 

Paintings evince ‘the photographic’; but ‘the photographic’ could have only become known and identified as such with the invention of photography.

Let us discuss the Veil of Veronica. Or rather Veronica’s name. The name Veronica is derived from the words “Vera Icon” which mean “true image”. Veronica got her name after she supposedly wiped Christ’s face on his way to Golgotha with a cloth which thereafter bore an imprint of Christ’s bloodied face. This imprint formed on the cloth through direct contact with Christ’s face was then a “true image” of Christ’s face. Being an imprint, and therefore being an image not done by hand, no handmade image of Christ’s visage could ever compete with this imprinted veil’s truthfulness in its depiction of the Master’s resemblance. The Veil of Veronica was not just a “true image” of the face of Christ. It was necessarily the truest image of the face of Christ one could obtain with the then-extant technology.

Now, the image on the Veil of Veronica, being imprinted on the cloth through direct contact with Christ’s face, is a mirror image of His face – the image is what one would essentially see if one were to sneak up behind Christ while He would be brushing his teeth in front of the bathroom mirror. Had He to happen to walk down your street, you would not see Him in the manner portrayed on the Veil of Veronica. Thus, this “true image” holds an impossible truth…

…impossible, had Christ some manner of facial deformity… or a beauty spot somewhere on His face. Neigh! An impossible truth impossible to conceive!

Okay, so we don’t have much of an argument here. But if we adopt in our argument concepts tailored by the lot who are always capable of finding and making a distinction, namely philosophers, we might just manage to continue developing and finishing this blog post.

Let’s invoke ‘the Other’ and start by stating flatly that the Self cannot other itself. If the Self were capable of such a thing, the Self presumably would have to retain some sort of selfhood in the other of itself that it would engender, otherwise that Other would not be an Other of itself, of the Self, that is. This presumably is what happens when you look into a mirror, for example, or when you have your sweaty and bloodied face wiped with a cloth by some gentle woman named Berenike. But, philosophically at least, this would not be a true Other. The reflected Self in the mirror or the imprinted face on a clean veil are not other to the Self – the Self’s Other. No! They are the Self’s double.  

Elsewhere, we formulated the following schematic:

The first three levels, namely perception, semantics and memory, belong in what is known in certain philosophies as the domain of the Same. The last level, the Other, evidently belongs in the domain of Alterity. ‘The photographic’ lies lodged, limen-like, between these two clusters.

If we look at the below painting by Vermeer, we can clearly see that what makes this painting work photographically is the white wall behind the female figure pouring milk, with its chips, dents, stains and nails hammered into it. Reality is full of imperfections, and the realist painters quickly caught on. Putting aside all arguments on the use of deception and trickery in the visual arts, these elements, chips, dents, nails, etc., in the painted wall are evidently not real chips, dents, nails, etc., in a real wall. They’re just paint fashioned in such a manner as to make one believe s/he is looking at real chips, dents, nails, etc., in a real wall. Now, you wouldn’t think of hanging anything real on that painted nail seemingly hammered into that painted wall… no! You are simply meant to look at the bloody thing and enjoy perceiving it real… even though you clearly know it is not a real nail!

Vermeer circa 1660. The Milkmaid. [painting]

Hence: ‘the photographic’ is the simulacrum; the simulacrum has no original. And also: ‘the photographic’ is the simulacrum of itself; the simulacrum is ‘the photographic’.

Clearly, there are strong parallels between ‘the photographic’ and the Self’s double spoken of previously.

Earlier we said that paintings evince ‘the photographic’, but that ‘the photographic’ could have only become known and identified as such with the invention of photography. Why is that so? Remember a painting, evincing ‘the photographic’, is still heropoiito, that is something done by human hands. Photographs, just like the Veil of Veronica, are acheiropoieta, that is things not done by human hands. Photographs, being of divine origin, assume for themselves and their close painted kin the right, as images, to index themselves. No wonder, then, that the art of painting preceded the art of photography.


Johannes Vermeer / Public domain

Featured Image:

Raphaelle Peale / Public domain