Ontology of the Photographic Image (Photography Surrealism Religion) (Andre Bazin)


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.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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5 Responses to Ontology of the Photographic Image (Photography Surrealism Religion) (Andre Bazin)

  1. efmooney says:

    Zak –
    I think you’re right. If the world of art objects has a supposed mirroring relationship with non-art objects, then the question of realism can mean “is the art object (the photograph) a ‘real’ or ‘true’ copy of the non-art object. But realism can also mean that art objects are real, non-hallucinations, non-dependent on mirroring anything else, self-sufficient: they are ‘real things’ (not second rate) and our access to them can be as ‘real’ or ‘true’ as out access to any non-art object. So the photo of the bus is another (new) object in the world, not a pale copy or improvisation on the bus I take to work. Before going to religion, think of Hamlet. He is a new person (‘object’) in the world just as real as any Prince of Denmark buried there. In fact if (as Harold Bloom says) he invents the human, then he is (as art-object) more powerful, more real, than any buried prince. Ditto the ghosts and gods sustained by religion (just as Hamlet is sustained by the stage). They are as real to participants as Hamlet is to Shakespeare readers-viewers. What gets challenged here is a monochrome one-dimensional register of ‘real objects’ as material-only space-time-locatable things. A photo is material, but not material-only, and mostly (in its significance) dependent on our grasping its non-material register. The horror of Boston (and of Hamlet) is not material-only: and how many registers of reality must we posit to even begin to capture those?

  2. Gail says:

    If his is surrealism, it’s not your ordinary surrealism, just like Ranciere’s Mallarmean ‘mystery’ is not your ordinary mystery.

    • zjb says:

      yes yes and also, with Bazin, it’s not an ordinary realism, because with Bazin and criticism about him, it’s the realism that gets the lion’s share of attention. it’s complicated though because Bazin wrote so much about neo-realist film. but my sense is that the whole conception is suffused by the surrealism, which makes it all “strange.”

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