When I first read it, Andre Bazin’s classic 1945 essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” was a complete mystery. I could not make out what the author meant when he famously claimed, “The photographic image is the object itself.”
—What does that even mean?
This statement is generally held up as a major statement in on photographic realism for which Bazin is most often panned by contemporary theorists. But was Bazin a simple realist?? I’m pretty sure his was not a mimetic claim re: the resemblance or identity between the object and image
Bazin’s essay on realist photographic ontology builds upon the ideality of the photographic image.
The complete statement is that, “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.”
This would mean that same coupling of realism and idealism-spiritualism (the creation of “an ideal world in the likeness of the real,”) that Bazin sees in painting is recapitulated in the photographic image.
—How does that happen? By Surrealism (not “realism)
This is the trick. “Transfer” is the keyword without which I don’t think you can understand the essay. The ontology of the photographic image means that reality or being is “transferred” from [the world of] things to its reproduction [i.e. into the Image]. That is how the image is (or becomes) the object itself, no matter how distorted or physically degraded the image actually is. That is how “the logical distinction between what is imaginary and what is real comes to disappear. Every image is now to be seen as an object, and every object as an image. Just like in Surrealism, the image is a reality of nature, a hallucination that is also a fact, in which are combined ”tricks of visual deception with meticulous attention to detail.”
In other words, once you understand that Bazin is a surrealist, then you cannot make the mistake to think he was a realist, or at least not a naïve one in his essay on photographic ontology.
Is this too a theory of religion? Of course, it is to be remembered that this essay, seminal in the field of film and photo-theory, starts of with the religious embalming rites of ancient Egypt, and then a closing reference to the Shroud of Turin, which Bazin says combines the “features of relic and photograph.” As does Barthes, Bazin was obsessed with time and with death.
But stepping back from the psychology for a moment, I think, that’s how the religious imagination works, photographically, as it were. The sensed “reality” of God, or of a people with God is transferred over and compressed into an image or rite, in such a way that it is no longer possible or, at least easy, to distinguish between hallucinations and facts because those lines of separation are no longer distinct.
On Bazin, Catholicism, and leftwing Catholicism in France at midcentury, with a mention of Merleau-Ponty, see http://www.adherents.com/people/pb/Andre_Bazin.html
As for the more fundamental question re: the more loose and non-mimetic nature of “realism” in Bazin’s work, see Daniel Morgan, “Rethinking Bazin: Ontology and Realist Aesthetics” in Critical Inquiry 32 (Spring 2006). Morgan mentions surrealism once, without running with it; he also mentions idealism and “spiritual grace” to make sense of Bazin’s work.