On photography’s double nature

Two Roland Barthes working on a photo lab

I was in my early twenties when I first learned about Roland Barthes’ critical work on photography. Back then I was doing a bachelor’s in aesthetics, a branch of philosophy often confused by neophytes as a subset of beauty treatments including botox and facelifts. One of my teachers, a documentary photographer turned into a scholar, was a big fan of Heidegger, and thus his fascination for digging into the essence of things. He used to give a photography course, and I will never forget how much he emphasized what Roland Barthes would call the “dual nature of photography”, being both an icon and an index of our visible reality.

Drawing on Charles Sanders Pierce’s semiotic theory, Barthes argues that photography has a unique ability to create images that closely resemble the world as seen by the human eye, what Pierce defines as an icon. This outcome is a direct result of the mechanical process carried by any photo camera, where light is captured through a lens for a fragment of a second and imprinted (or indexed) on a flat photo-sensitive surface which, depending on the kind of camera, may consist of celluloid, nitrate or a digital sensor.

To put it simply, a photograph is both an icon and an index of reality. It is an icon because it closely resembles the real world and can be seen as a representation of it. At the same time, it is an index of that world, as it is literally made from the imprints of its subject’s traces, namely its lights and shadows.

While skilled painters can create highly photorealistic images, these images will always be interpretations of reality, never a physical index. That is, in the frame of semiotic theories, photography’s unique feature.

This double nature of photography makes me wonder about post-photography, a trend in generative art to simulate video and photography to a point that is indistinguishable from photographic reality. Does post-photography share its origins with photography? and if it is an index, what would be its subject?

Share this thought