Appearance and Reality

The Ontology of Photography: From Analogue To Digital

Peter Benson on why digital photos aren’t reliable records of anything.

André Bazin (1918-58) was the greatest film critic of his generation. As Editor of the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma he encouraged young writers such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer, who would later become film-makers themselves, creating the French New Wave of the 1960s. In 1945 Bazin wrote an essay entitled ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ (English translation available in What is Cinema?, Vol 1, 1967). ‘Ontology’ is that branch of philosophy concerned with the study of being, and of the different kinds of being that entities might have, so to discuss the ontological status of photography is to consider what particular kind of thing a photograph is.

Bazin declared that the invention of photography was “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” (p.

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