''The ontology of the photographic image'' – Andre Bazin (1945)

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The ontology of the photographic image – Andre Bazin (1945)

In the Ontology of the Photographic Image, Bazin argues that photography is the most important event in the history of the plastic arts because it has freed Western painting from its obsession with realism and allowed it to recover its aesthetic autonomy. (Bazin, 1945).

In Ancient Egypt, where the dead were embalmed to make sure they could take their bodies to the afterlife. To ensure this afterlife, terra cotta statuettes were used as substitutes for the body just in case something would happen to the original body. According to Bazin “This lays bare the primordial function of statuary, namely, the preservation of life by a representation of life.” (p.09). So they believed by representing the body through a statue (giving it a magical function) people could outsmart death.

Eventually this magical function was relieved from the arts. As civilization and art progressed “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” (p.10).

In the fifteenth century onwards, symbolic realism was not the most important aspect anymore. Western painting tried to recreate the outside world as realistic as possible. This was caused by the invention of the first mechanical system of reproduction: perspective. With the invention of the Camera Obscura, artists were now able to create the illusion of a three-dimensional space. “Thenceforth Painting was torn between two ambitions: one, primarily aesthetic, namely the expression of spiritual reality wherein the symbol transcended its model[spiritual real]; the other purely psychological , namely the duplication of the world outside.”[psychological real](p.11). So artists not only wanted to show the spiritual real of the world anymore as in the Middle Ages but also depict the world as realistic as possible.

A painting can not truly represent the world in an objective way, it’s always created by the hand of the artist. So a chair painted by the artist is referring to what the painter sees as a chair, the chair is not referring to an actual chair but to a chair that the artist believes a chair looks like. Painting can’t get rid of this untrustworthy image.

In the nineteenth century photography finally freed the plastic arts from their “resemblance complex”. For the first time an image was created automatically. A direct vingerprint of the world was left on the light sensitive plate. “This production of automatic means has radically affected our psychology of the image. The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picturemaking. In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space. Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction.” (p. 13/14).

For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The final result may reflect something of the photographers personality, this does not play the same role as is played by that of the painter.

This production of automatic means has radically affected our psychologoy of the image. The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making. Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of the transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction. (representation).
Painting is an ersatz of the processes of reproduction. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. It shares by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model.

Photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption. Bazin argues photography can surpass art in creative power. Surrealists didn’t consider his aesthetic purpose and the mechanical effect of the image on our imaginations as things apart. For him, the logical distinction between what is imaginary and what is real tends to disappear. Every image is to bes een as an object and every object as an image. Hence photography ranks high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, an hallucination that is also a fact.