Genealogy of ‘the photographic’

Prior to the modern movement in the visual arts, painting was an exercise in incomplete realism. Painters had already disavowed that which would interest Heidegger and that which Heidegger would go on to question. Their painterly exercises in incomplete realism, though, attest to the fact that painters, seemingly not interested in philosophy, had through the very action of their exercises inevitably adopted a fundamental philosophical stance. “What makes it real?” – this was of no interest to the painters. What was of interest to the painters from the very first day that painting came to be was the question: “How does it come to look real?” The era prior to the advent of modern art was characterised by paintings that contained painted elements – as such, no complete painting was committed to history in that era. Think of Vermeer, for example. He assiduously painted his elements (his painterly actions in painting these elements guided by the spirit of the question: “how does it come to look real?”) and in these elements was to be found the entire painting. The actual entire physical painting that was executed by Vermeer was, though, full of “stuffing”. The fundamental characteristic of this era we speak about was that the macro was to be found in the micro.

We skip the modern movement in the visual arts and move on to that post era characterised by a renewed interest in realism, now guised as hyperrealism. Think of one of the best and earliest exponents of that movement: Edward Hopper. The elements, now, are all “stuffing”; it is the actual entire physical painting that is now in its craft guided by the question: “how does it come to look real?” It is now all about the macro.

As we shall discuss later on, these pre and post eras to the modern movement in the visual arts that we have here delineated hint at ‘the photographic’. 

If we now look at the movement sandwiched between these two eras, the modern movement in the visual arts itself, we see that this movement was nothing but an implicit and/or tacit, intentional and/or unintentional, attempt to overthrow ‘the photographic’ in the visual arts. Maybe or maybe not foresightedly perceived and desired by the painters of that movement, ‘the photographic’ would only make a comeback and haunt the images produced during the lifespan of that movement more forcefully than before (think here of Picasso’s cubist portraits, for example).

The painted jug is not a jug; the painted jug is merely paint. There is nothing in the elements, whether at the macro or micro level.

In the beginning was the Image, and the Image was with the One Who Sees, and the Image was the One Who Sees. The same was in the beginning with the One Who Sees. […] And the Image was made into the One Who Sees.

One sees irrespective of. Apophatically, ‘the photographic’ is the impossibility of not seeing seeing: one seeing is per force seeing seeing. ‘The photographic’ is deployed  as a noun or in its adjectival or adverbial forms. Seeing enacts the entirety of Being. When one attempts defining ‘the photographic’ one invariably enacts it. ‘The photographic’ is necessarily simultaneously illusion and reality. Thus, the question to be questioned here is: can one conceive of a photography that is truly other to the iniquity and vicissitudes of ‘the photographic’? And even further: can one conceive of ‘a photographic’ that does not signify – simply: “the photograph is photographic”? 

‘The photographic’ always ends up looking like itself. One here could argue that a photograph never really captures the way we see the world with our eyes. It is an uncontested fact, though, that when we look at a photograph we see it. 

You open your eyes and you see a world. That world happens to be the world.

At each and every instant one faces the world. Thus, ontology could be defined as a formal tool employed to prove language functional. 

In photography jargon we have a very bad expression; we say: “look through the viewfinder.” It is the eye of the photography apparatus that looks within us. The photography apparatus peers inside us and on finding what it is it seeks to find it temporarily shuts us out (think of the pressing of the shutter-release button) to process that which it found. The processing consists of allowing the world and all its nouns to enter in and conflate with the landscape extracted out of the photographer’s eye. Photographs, being non-phenomenal phenomena, just like Memory, are memories. The photograph reminds us and yet it is a memory. Photographs substantiate memories. What is Memory? Memory is a convention employed to make it impossible to refute that that which was seen was seen. ‘The photographic’ is this seeing.

The be within the embrace of the Word, and in front of the Word, illiterate. To seek to read the Word, and the Word making itself illegible. One looks. One photographs. When one sees, the Word reads itself out.

MEMLING c. late 1460s. The Last Judgement [painting]

Being able to question means being able to wait, even for a lifetime.

HEIDEGGER (2000: 221)

The gift is poison; poison is the gift.

Featured GIF:

21:52. April 2021 at Sliema, Malta. Animated GIF by the author.


Hans MEMLING. c. late 1460s. The Last Judgement. Tutt’ Art [online]. Available at: [accessed 15 June 2021; edit by the author].


HEIDEGGER, Martin. 2000. Introduction to Metaphysics. Translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. USA: Yale University Press.