Back to Bazin Part 1: The Ontology of the Photographic Image

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Andre Bazin’s writings but, having included them on a syllabus this semester, I’ve had to return to them. Bazin is rather unfashionable, his ideas on cinema’s “special relationship” to realism dismissed as naive or simplistic, his Catholicised rhetoric seen as rather quaint, and if he has been taught at all, he’s been set up as a straw man to give film students their first chance to take down a major figure in film criticism. It isn’t difficult to counter Bazin’s teleological approach to film technology, but this is not to say his work is not useful or interesting. I want to write down a few thoughts to summarise two or three (that’s not a figure of speech – it really will depend on how much time I have to prepare this in the next couple of weeks!) of his short essays and invite comment on their continued relevance or obsolescence. It’s worth noting that Bazin’s film criticism was as important a part of his work as the theoretical writing, and it wouldn’t be accurate to posit any over-arching interpretation of what he “stood for”. I would refer you to Brian Henderson’s excellent overview of “The Structure of Bazin’s Thought” (see links section below), which suggests that Bazin’s work cannot be thought of as a continual reiteration of the same concept of an objective, realistic cinema, but instead should be divided up into the historical and the ontological writings; there is little crossover between them, and the theoretical positions on the ontology of the photographic image are not simply applied to critiques of particular films.

This post should be a starting point, and there are links at the bottom if you’d like to explore more about Bazin from those who see his work as still valid to the study and appreciation of cinema.

The Ontology of the Photographic Image

Bazin begins his essay with the now well-known mummification analogy:

If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex. The religion of ancient Egypt, aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. Thus, by providing a defense against the passage of time it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time. To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life. It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bone.

If I was a film-maker, I’d feel flattered by Bazin’s suggestion that I was the inheritor of a tradition that could be traced back to the Pharaohs. This totalising idea of film as the achievement of a long-cherished human desire to reproduce itself in images in defiance of time and mortality can never get to the heart of how technologies develop, and nor can it explain how individual instances of filmic practice come into being (I’m assuming there are not many directors who go onset because they cannot resist the pre-programmed instinct to cheat death): it’s like evolutionary theories of sexual selection that might tell us what kind of person we’re biologically predisposed to mate with, but can’t stop us falling for someone with a dirty laugh or a shared passion for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

In Bazin’s extended analogy of mummification, representational art becomes the repository of these death-defying instincts, since mummification could offer “no certain guarantee against ultimate pillage”: making images of people, we are to presume, became a substitute for the preservation of actual bodies. In turn, preservational representation gave way to “a larger concept, the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny.” Is this Bazin’s poetic articulation of film’s unique capacity to embalm time, with photographic registration grasping a fragment of the world and preserving it indefinitely (consider this in contrast to painting’s attempts to reconstruct, with all attendant subjective inflections, a picture of that world) as both a living (i.e. moving) and a deadened (i.e. not actually present) thing? Or is he actually saying that a hard-wired human need to counter-act bodily ephemerality drove and inspired the development of technologies of representation? It is difficult to know, but the argument which is built upon it seems tendentious from being founded on such ambiguous, historically vague groundwork.

One of the most enticing and least contentious claims Bazin makes for the importance of the photographic image is that it uncoupled other art forms from a slavish debt to resemblance:

In achieving the aims of baroque art, photography has freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness. Painting was forced, as it turned out, to offer us illusion and this illusion was reckoned sufficient unto art. Photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism. No matter how skillful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image. Again, the essential factor in the transition from the baroque to photography is not the perfecting of a physical process (photography will long remain the inferior of painting in the reproduction of colour); rather does it lie in a psychological fact, to wit, in completely satisfying our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part. The solution is not to be found in the result achieved but in the way of achieving it.

So, rather than supplanting painting and sculpture by doing their jobs more effectively, photography took on those aspects which plastic arts could perform less efficiently. There is a teleological argument here – it implies that painting was incomplete, that its own codes and conventions were malformed precursors of something that required more advanced technologies for its realisation. This always precipitates the most common criticisms of Bazin, that he posits film as an objective medium of record, whose truth claims hinge upon a privileged link to reality. It forms this link by having a direct, indexical relationship between image and referent. That is to say that, because the film camera operates as a photochemical process independent of human intervention (except the interventions needed to prepare and commence the running of the equipment), it can be seen as less subjective, less prone to the manipulations of the human hand that always divert, even minutely the passage of an object’s image into its painted or sculpted representation. When the shutter on a camera opens to let light in, the light reflected from the object in front of the lens causes a chemical change in the light-sensitive material of the film itself. Hey, I’m not a scientist: if you want to know a bit more about how the process of photography actually works, you could do worse than follow this link. The point for Bazin is that photography and film are distinct as art forms because of their very basis in mechanical processes which take away the element of human activity. Whatever is done with those images afterwards, their origins always confer a particularly authentic status that provides a heightened sense of presence, along with a concomitant sense of absence – you know that what you’re looking at in a photograph was really present in front of the camera, even as the image’s relocation to a 2-dimensional space in front of your eyes marks it as simultaneously absent, only an image.

On this issue, Bazin has been superseded by decades of critical theory and criticism that have demolished notions of an objective reality that can be represented truthfully. The path from phenomenological reality to spectator is always one which will branch, fork, twist and undulate according to the specific capabilities, experiences, knowledge or desires of the apparatus, the artist and the spectator. Regardless of the photochemical relationship between the image and the represented object, the image is always selected. It does not give the viewer a window into an extant, continuous reality, but instead offers a limited perspective, around which meanings and inferences will be generated by viewers with varying frames of reference and intertextual knowledge bases. Bazin’s ontological claims, it is argued, are irrelevant in light of the image’s subjection to ideological, technical and heuristic influences. In short, the camera cannot operate objectively, because its images are always constructs that are open to interpretation.

I may be defeating my own purpose here. If I wanted to concur with those critics who assert the continued relevance of Bazin (you’ll find plenty in the links below), I probably shouldn’t have started with his most obviously flawed article. I first became interested in Bazin when I began my PhD thesis on special effects, and I was looking for some theories that would help me to examine the instability or otherwise of the film image’s claims to authenticity. One of the ideas that was sparked by reading Bazin’s ontology essays was that the spectator is often measuring the onscreen images against a perceived notion of reality, even if that notion might be a subjective one. When watching a fantasy or science fiction film that involves a lot of special or visual effects trickery, that same kind of measuring takes place, with the spectator trying to discern the illusion by sorting the profilmic from the fabricated. That residual belief in an inherent difference between, for instance, live action footage and computer-generated characters might be a holdover from Bazinian ideas of the fundamentally objective ontology of the photographic image. His faith in the ability of long takes and deep focus to preserve that objectivity is mirrored in a set of devices of authentication which are still deployed in cinema today, whether it is in the extended takes inside the taxi of Abbas Kiarostami’s 10, where a dashboard mounted digital camera fixes on the faces of the passengers or the driver for many minutes at a time, or in the virtualised camera that circles the moving car in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, for which a seemingly impossible long take through heavy traffic has been seamlessly stitched together from multiple takes and augmented with digital objects.

In each case, a sense of engrossing access to a continuous space is generated by the impression that the camera is present to capture, rather than construct, a moment in its entirety. But neither film depends upon an indexical relationship between image and object. The long take can be made to perform the effect of a filmic reality, either by using small, intimate digital cameras (where no chemical reaction between light and film takes place), or visual effects (where the continuity, and the spatial fluidity, of the shot is an illusion).

I hope to find time to develop these thoughts in relation to some of Bazin’s other writing, but I welcome comment on what I’ve written so far.


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16 thoughts on “Back to Bazin Part 1: The Ontology of the Photographic Image

  1. I have been pondering the same issues over the last year because my original work during my MA and PHD studies was about Documentary film and although flawed I still love Bazin. I think that the indexicality and meaning of the image are still important as far as spectatorship is concerned. We believe in what seem to be photographic images – even when we know that images can be tampered with, altered, or completely created without the idexical (chemical) process. I am interested in anyone discussing these topics if there is a group out there doing so.

    Dr. Heather MacGibbon (NYU)

  2. Thanks, Heather. I don’t know about another group, but I wouldn’t mind if a discussion started here, especially once this site gathers some momentum (hoping that it will). I’m planning a couple more Bazin posts when I have time.

    I’m quite old-fashioned in that I want to have some ‘trust’ in the image – I feel fairly capable of distinguishing between a manipulated image and one which is a direct recording of something. We don’t need to be suspicious of everything we see just because it’s possible to deceive and fabricate. There’s still something special going on when you know for sure that a long take is giving you a moment of continuous performance.

  3. I should add a disclaimer that I didn’t mean to use the same image on this post as the one on Girish’s blog entry about Bazin. We must’ve just both copied the same image, which is the one where Bazin looks most like a hip French intellectual…

  4. Pingback: Back to Bazin Part II: The Myth of Total Cinema « Spectacular Attractions

  5. Pingback: Back to Bazin Part III: De la Politique des Auteurs « Spectacular Attractions

  6. Bazin’s realism has it’s roots in Stoic philosophy, and differs from what Platonists meant by the Real. In a platonic world it is Forms (formulas, ideas, classifications, structures, blueprints) that are real whereas specific objects are just instances (copies, reproductions, images, impressions) of the real. But for the Stoics there is a functional relationship between an image (impression) and reality, irregardless of whether we are aware of that relationship or not. A process shot, for example, may appear to an observer to be an impression of a giant ape astride a skyscraper but, in reality, it is no such thing. It is an impression of what the artists thought that such a thing would look like. There is no functional relationship between Platos Forms and the Stoics Impressions.

  7. Much of contemporary media theory has forgotten how realism (and surrealism) was not about the real as some inaccessible other beyond the grasp of the image/effect, to which all images must therefore be inadequate, but that the real (for want of a better word) was something that, on the contrary, could emerge in an image, that there wasn’t just a nothing there in an otherwise mindless (mechanical) process. For the surrealists this something (rather than nothing) was an example of what they otherwise understood as the unconscious. The machine (automaton) became important in such. Machines are not capable of consciousness, or rather, the consciousness they are otherwise given (eg. a urinal behaving as a urinal) can be disrupted, and rather than a void resulting, an unconscious aspect can come to light (a urinal behaving as an art object), the automatonomy of which (the machinic process of the urinal’s becoming), was the beautiful thing (in addition to the disrupture). Realism and surrealism are very closely related. The gun in the bushes of Blow Up, represents the unconsciousness of an otherwise conscious fashion photograph. Where surrealism might disrupt the fashion attributes of the photo it would not disrupt the gun – on the contrary it would (if it saw it) amplify such because the gun is there when it’s not supposed to be there. Realism does the same thing (would keep the gun) but otherwise maintains the fashion codes that are in operation.

  8. While Bazin is probably not someone up on quantum physics, it is nevertheless quantum physics which demonstrates an important disjuncture between the comprehension of a real as prior to an image and the image itself as a reality. A comprehension takes place in relation to a given image and one may (or may not) project that comprehension as the cause of the image. Bazin certainly leverages that formula and it is a common understanding (or misunderstanding), that the photographic image is an image of that which is understood to have caused the image. But of course that is impossible. A photograph can not be the result of one’s own comprehension of it. What Bazin is tapping into is what an incredibly weird thing photography is, or does. Trying to characterise this weirdness is very difficult. Not even quantum physicists have worked out how to explain the existence of a photographic image. They’ve been trying for close to 100 years now. Literally. Sure they’ll pretend it’s explicable, but they really don’t know. Nobody does. Not yet anyway. So what chance does Bazin have of explaining it. But he knows there is something there. He gets the difference between photographic images and other types of images. He is that great advocate of the photographic image. The true believer. And when I look at films through Bazin’s eyes I see an extremely beautiful world.

  9. The criticism of Bazinian realism, as totalising doesn’t hold. While he does invoke some melodramatic flourishes of a destiny in the birth of photography, the various works with which he identifies are not about the construction of self enclosed totalities. On the contrary Bazin’s reality extends as for so long as a shot survives, at which point a new reality takes it’s place. The universe starting from scratch again. Where we might comprehend continuity across the cut Bazin doesn’t see it that way. When the mother in Mallick’s The Tree of life, demands God give her child back, God recipricates, restarting the universe from scratch again. But what occurs the second time around is not the Lord who taketh away but the mother who giveth. She gives her child to God. In that act she becomes the equal of God. Not that I’m religious but I get it.

    • That’s a very interesting take, Carl. I suppose what I was getting it, in exploring the objections to Bazin, is that he was, in his ontology essays, looking for a “general theory” of the photographic image, one that might explain the effect of all photographic content. When these theories are put into practice, as you suggest, they have to flex to take account of all the variations and modes to which filmmakers can apply the apparatus.

      • Yes, he’s attempting to genralise something that is extraordinarily difficult to generalise.

        The ontology begins in terms of the image as an image of “reality” which is where I disagree with Bazin. But where Bazin is heading, as distinct from where he’s coming, is really quite open ended, remarkable and next to unthinakble in conventional theory – the image as a reality in itself, more so than an image as of some pre-existing reality.

        Bazin, like the Stoic philosophers, does not see any disconnect between an impression (eg. death mask, fingerprint, photograph) and the objects to which such can be said to correspond.

        For Bazin there is a “relationship” between object and photographic image. But it’s not the one we might otherwise assume. The relationship is one of equivalence. Literally, not just figuratively – in the same way that there is a relationship of equivalence (an equation) between mass and energy in Einstein’s famous equation.

        Plato, on the other hand, differentiates between an object and it’s image – that they are not the same thing. Plato goes further. What is real is the Form (the formula). What is an image, on the other hand is the Imaginary. An instance.

        In Platos version of the world it is the relationship between things that is real whereas the things themselves are not.

        For example, a square / square root function is real because it embodys the relationship between, for instance, 9 and 3, or (another instance), between 25 and 5. The instances themselves are not real. It is the Form which is real (because eternal, universal, infinite, etc)

        Now Bazin is not interested in the relationship between shots but in the shots themselves. The shot is real whereas the relationships between them is what the Stoics would have contemptuously called a Universal – which they describes as a “figment of the imagination”.

        The difficulty we might have with Bazin is treating the equivalence he sees between objects and images as a figure of speech, and the ontological frame of reference as not so. But in Bazin it’s the other way around. Or at least that is what I’d argue.

        What is at stake in both camps is not necessarily which is preferable: the Real or the Imaginary. Both prefer the Real. It’s just that they disagree on what the word “Real” means.

        Is it formulas or things?

  10. Here is my attempt to separate out the two dominate uses of the word “reality” and why, if not separated, the word can have us going around in circles.

    A general understanding of the word “reality” is that the word refers to what is (or is at) the origin or source of something. Let us leave this as the same idea in all uses of the word “reality”.

    For example, we might say that in reality a mirage is not of water on the horizon, but something that looks like water, due to the refraction of light in very hot air. The phrase “looks like” is important. It refers to the image as of something. So when we are talking about “reality” in relation to a mirage we are wanting to distinguish between the signifieds: water or hot air, and which corresponds to “reality”. Now interestingly enough, what is signified by a mirage, is actually water. We call it a “mirage” in order to treat the signified: water, as misleading. If what we saw was not misleading we would not call it a mirage.

    So a mirage is simply a misleading image. Once we comprehend the mirage as signifying ‘not water’, it is no longer a mirage, because the image is no longer misleading.

    Now a mirage/image, irregardless of whether it leads or misleads, is an image. And in most debates the image, in itself, is not an issue. Rather, it is in what the image signifies that is at issue: for example, water or hot air? Or indeed, whether this should be an issue.

    But how do we know a mirage is a mirage? It is, of course, knowledge and context. We acquire knowledge that if we are in a desert (context) looking for water and see something shimmering on the horizon, it is more than likely we’ll discover it was a misleading image of water, rather than a leading image of water. Those who have discovered this out before us, have investigated why it looks like (signifies) water, and come to the conclusion that it’s due to the refraction of light in hot air. We learn this from them, or we learn it ourselves, through investigation.

    So “reality” in this sense, is something we come to comprehend or understand rather than necessarily experience as such. The experience is the image. Reality is not given in the image but through a conception. A theoretical position. An idea. Now importantly, in this interpretation of the word “reality” we can not then say an image is of reality, but rather that our concept of reality is of the image, or rather, is a function of all sorts of images that we have tested. From tests we create an idea of reality to which the signified conforms or does not conform. The image itself is not really at issue.

    Now the other important use of the word “reality”, is in reference to the image. This is not in dominant usage but it has historical currency and it is the sense in which Bazin uses the word. For example, if we see a shimmering on the horizon then this shimmering is an image. This image, whether it signifies water (a mirage) or hot air (a “reality”) can be regarded as a reality. We do not need to know (yet) what it signifies. We can recognise it as an image, but not yet what it signifies. It can be understood as a reality in it’s own right. What follows on from this type of reality, is then our comprehension of it, which eventually contributes to the other use of the word “reality” – as an interpretation of the image in the context of all interpretations and tests we’ve done over the years.


  11. Bazin, I think, taps into something Deleuze identifies.

    In the Logic of Sense, Deleuze elaborates a fourth aspect of the proposition (which the Stoics first discovered), and that others have rediscovered at different times and epochs.

    The first three components of the proposition, which are in relation to a proposition, are:

    1. Denotation. When one indicates something. There is a tree. There is a dog peeing on the tree.
    2. Manifestation. The speaker. The “I”. Descartes cogito. I see (and say) that “there is a dog peeing on the tree”.
    3. Signification. Universals. The Platonic ideal. God. The dog peeing on the tree represents the idea of such. The mind of God.

    Deleuze notes there is a circularity in the above. One can take any of these as grounding any of the others. For example, Descartes formula is:

    I think therefore I am

    I (manifest) think (denotation) therefore (signification) I (manifest) am (denotation)

    One could just as easily propose:

    I am therefore I think

    Or more perversely:

    I think I am, therefore I am, I think

    So Deleuze (following the Stoics) adds a fourth relation (or expression): to break the circularity

    4. Sense. The effect.

    Sense is incorporeal (not existing). An effect. But in a reversal of Platonism, Deleuze, following the Stoics, moves Ideas (relation 3) out of the domain of causes (fundamentals), and into this domain of effects (relation 4). Ideas become effects. And Sense (or nonsense) will be where ideas will now *become* such, rather than exist as such. The idea no longer exists. It becomes.

    Sense becomes the domain of logic and dialectics, but now as an effect. As superficial. But we are to take ownership of this word “superficial”. It has no depth but it has breadth. It’s also impersonal. It’s not a cause. It is not the world. It is not the I that speaks. It is not God. Its an effect. Not a cause.

    Now it is this effect (of impersonal Sense) that Bazin is aiming at when he otherwise uses the words objective, real, etc.

    I think :)


  12. I should add that Deleuze doesn’t read Bazin in quite the same way I am. In Deleuze, Bazin is is definitely on the side of Deleuzean Sense, but he is positioned as involved in more of an embryonic sense (the seeds of sense). Deleuze uese the term “organic” in relation to Bazin’s sense.


  13. Very interesting. I’m revising for an exam in a few days, and during the unit Bazin’s mummy theory was handed to us as gospel. I didn’t buy it, it just doesn’t match the facts as I understand them. If I get a chance in the exam your article will come in handy. And worth coming back to later when I have time.

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