I’ve just been to the exhibition ‘The painting of modern life’ at the Hayward: paintings based on photography and it put me in mind of a recent discussion at the Kendal photography group asa64 of Roger Scruton’s 1981 article ‘Photography and representation’ (Critical Inquiry, 7: 577-603).
Scruton’s key idea is that painting, unlike photography, is ‘intentional’ and thus it is possible to have an aesthetic interest in the way it is representational.
Paintings are intentional in two senses:
1: Although painting can be about things, those things need not exist. (This is the philosophical use of the word ‘intentional’ which applies in the philosophy of thought and language meaning ‘aboutness’.)
2: What is depicted is the result of the painter’s intention, it is deliberate.
By contrast, though a photograph is of something, the relation is causal not intentional in either sense.
1: The object of the photograph must exist / have existed.
2: Its appearance does not realise an agent’s intention but how the object looked.
Thus, of any feature of a painting, we can ask what purpose the painter had in including it. This gives rise to an aesthetic interest in representation. By contrast, in photography, the details are there because they were there in the original scene. Thus, just as those with eyes to see can see human intentions expressed in human behaviour, so, with the right background, we can see a painter’s intentions in the painting. Understanding a painting is a matter of understanding thoughts (hence again the connection to intentionality) and seeing, in features of a painting, the vision of its subject that its painter intends to communicate.
In photography our interest, according to Scruton, is in the subject matter or object seen ‘through’ the photograph, not the representational qualities of the photograph itself. He asks, expecting the answers 'no':
Can I have an aesthetic interest in the photograph of a dying soldier which is not also an aesthetic interest in the soldier’s death? Or, rather, can I maintain that separation of interests and still be interested in the “representational” aspect of the photograph?
Hence if there is an aesthetic in photography it concerns the scene picked out in the way one might, equally, charge people to look at a particular view without being in the business of representation (of the view).
The asa64 group, perhaps predictably, were not sympathetic to the line of argument which seems to reduce the seriousness of photography. But I’ve found it a useful idea to have in mind when taking photographs. As a first step it seems worth asking: is the scene itself of aesthetic interest?
The exhibition ‘The painting of modern life’ nicely raises some of the issues in Scruton’s account. Some of the paintings are almost exact reproductions of photographs, produced by projecting the original image onto a canvas and then copying it in paint. So, because it is a painting, we can ask, with Scruton, of any detail why it is there. But, unlike the cases Scruton considers, we already know the answer: because that detail was there in the photo (including blurring, or the stray reflection in a window glass) and the artist has chosen to be so guided. In turn, the detail is there in the source photograph because it was there in the real scene. Still, there is choice and intention in the final painting, unlike the photography.
In fact, choices about the framing of the image (in the sense of selecting the boundaries) seemed the most interesting aspect of the choice / lack of choice involved. As Lois, my partner pointed out, insofar as the images looked like photographs they looked like not very good ones, and that rather undermined the final aesthetic outcome.