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Andr Bazin's Ontology of Photographic and Film Imagery Author(s): Jonathan Friday Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 339350 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics Stable URL: . Accessed: 12/05/2011 03:28Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . . Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

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Andr6Bazin's Ontology of Photographicand Film Imagery

First and foremosta film critic and championof cinematic realism, Andr6 Bazin is generally recognizedas one of the most important figures in the history of film aestheticsand his writings on film are universally acknowledged to have influenced a generation of filmmakers, critics, and theorists.Indeed,Bazin is just one of a small numberof important theoristsfrom the past who, althoughtheir influence has not entirely waned, have already been sufficiently superseded by new methods and approaches that they have come to be referredto as "classical"film theorists. Yet his statusas a theoristof the still photographis vastly different.The short article upon which this reputation is based continues to inspire some of the most influentialwork in the aesthetics of photography,and constitutes the starting point for much modem photographic theory. Stanley Cavell, Rudolf Arnheim, Susan Sontag, Kendall Walton, Patrick Maynard, Roland Barthes,Ted Cohen, and Roger Scruton arejust a few who, in theirwritingson photography, have echoed to a greateror lesser degree themes more or less explicitly Bazinianin sympathy and outlook.' Each of these writersreach quite different conclusions about photography and each, togetherwith the entire Bazinianconhave been broughtunder ceptionof photography, extensive critical scrutiny.What has rarelybeen given the attentionit deserves is Bazin's actual in argument his seminal 1945 essay entitled"The Ontology of the Photographic Image"(hereafter OPI).2GregoryCurrieand Noel Carrollare two notable exceptions, but both misinterpret Bazin on the way to dismissinghis position.3

of I will returnshortly to the interpretations Bazin's thought presentedby these two critics, but it will be helpful if we begin by considering the intellectual and methodological context in which the argument of OPI is framed. The source of much misunderstandingof Bazin's argumentis the failureto take notice of both the explicitly stated perspective from which he approaches his explanation of the distinctive nature of photographicrepresentation,and the implicit methodological assumptions of his argument. Throughout OPI, Bazin repeatedly indicates that he is considering photography from a psychological perspective. As we will see, this means two things:first, he is concerned with the impact that the particularprocess by which photographsare made has on beliefs and attitudesregardingphotographicrepresentation. This is a first-orderpsychological account of the significance of photography in terms of human responsiveness to the kind of material sign a photographis. Second, his perspectiveon photography is psychological in the secondorder sense of positing an underlying human need thatis in partresponsiblefor the first-order psychological responsivenessto photography. Failureto take notice of the implicitmethodological assumptions of Bazin's argument has been the source of critical misunderstanding. When Bazin announcesin his title that his concern is with the ontology of the photographic image, we rightly take him to mean that he is concerned with the nature,or being, or distinctive identity of the photograph.Bazin's intellectual orientationwith regardto ontology is not, however, that of a philosopher in the analytic tradition who might, for example, appeal to

63:4 Fall 2005 TheJournal AestheticsandArtCriticism of

340 identity conditions as the basis of determinations of an object's nature.For Bazin, ontology is a topic addressedphenomenologically,and it is a reasonableassumptionthat his phenomenoto logical methodbearssome relation thatdetailed in It by JeanPaulSartre BeingandNothingness. is known, for example, that Bazin very carefully readSartre's earlier Psychologyof theImagination and was deeply influenced by the connection indicated there, and later developed in Being and Nothingness, between art and ontology.4 We do not need to suppose that Bazin accepted and employed Sartre'sphenomenologicalontology in all of its detail and dimensions, but the announced concern of OPI with ontology and the thrustof his argumentindicate the influence of an at least broadlySartrean phenomenological method. The simplest characterization phenomenoof logical ontology sees this method as the attempt to grasp and understand the contents of the world throughan investigation of the way they presentthemselvesto consciousness.To discover what a thing is, to grasp its being, is to give a lucid description of its appearance to consciousness. These appearancesof things to consciousness reveal both what is and the intentional natureof what is. To explore the ontology of the photographic image is therefore to explore how photographspresentthemselves to consciousness, and to reveal their nature by careful description of what they are for us in experience.It is temptingto say thatthe implicit assumptionof this method of ontological investigation adds a thirdpsychological dimension to Bazin's investigationof photography.Consider, for example, the following gloss on Sartre's ontology by Hazel Barnes, distinguishing it from the ontological assumptionsof Berkeleian idealism and Cartesianrealism: "Consciousness does not create materialbeing, and it is not-as consciousness--determinedby it. But in revealing being, consciousness introducesdifferentiation, and signification. Consciousness bestows meaning on being."'5Differentiation, significance, and meaning-the phenomenological nature and identity of a material object-is bestowed or projectedonto materialbeing, and this is a psychological explanationin the broadest sense of the term. Failure to take notice of the broadlypsychological orientationof Bazin's theory of photographic representation leads

The Journalof Aesthetics and Art Criticism some of his interpretersinto misunderstanding what he is in fact defending. This will become apparent when we turn to the interpretations offeredby CurrieandCarrollof Bazin's position.

Bazin devotes the first half of the essay to an account of the evolution of the plastic arts through the invention of photography.It is in this part of his argumentthat Bazin introduces and explores the second-order psychological need that plays such an importantrole in his account of photographicrepresentationin the second half of OPI. In Bazin's account of the evolution of the plastic arts, this need is identified as the driving force behind their genesis and development. This is signaled at the outset of OPI when he writes: If theplasticartswereputunder the psychoanalysis, of the out practice embalming deadmightturn to be a in factor theirgenesis... Thereligion of fundamental ancient death,saw suragainst Egypt,aimedentirely existence the of on vival as depending the continued a material body. By providing defenceagainstthe psychopassageof time it satisfieda fundamental a time,for logicalneedin mankind: defenceagainst deathis but the victoryof time. To artificially preit is servebodilyappearance to snatch fromtheflow of time... The first Egyptianstatute,then, was a mummy.6 The fundamentalneed that gives birth to the plastic arts is that of cheating death and securing a continued spiritual existence, and it' is originally answered by the embalming of the corpse to preserveit againstthe effects of time. Soon, however, the Egyptians realized that all their preservationtechniques provided insufficient securityagainstthe eventualdestructionof the body. However, the continued need to defeat time led them to place statues of the deceased in the tomb to serve as substitute bodies for those souls whose embalmedbody is destroyed.Bazin comments on this story of the birth of the plastic arts in a struggle against death:"Thusis revealed, in the origins of sculpture its primordialfunction: to preserve being by means of its representation.' Many of the elements of this account of the origin of the

Friday AndrdBazin's Ontologyof Photographicand Film Imagery are plastic arts in "magic identity-substitutes" not original to Bazin. We need not trace their origin to all the influences on Bazin's thought, but the extent to which he is echoing ideas he found in Andrd Malraux's anthropological theory of arthistory is worthnoting. Bazin was a