Some Photographic Images Are Transparent

Won-Leep Moon, Dongguk University

In his well-known article The Ontology of the Photographic ImageAndré Bazin asserted: «The photographic image is the object itself» (Bazin [1971]: 14). In a similar vein, Kendall Walton famously declared that photographs are transparent. What he meant is that «we see, quite literally, our dead relatives themselves when we look at photographs of them» (Walton [1984]: 252). For Walton, photo-graphs are on a par with mirrors and other prosthetic devices like telescopes and microscopes in their ability to help us see things. This claim was a rather bold one and provoked many objections. Among them one line of arguments has been prominent. It focuses on the fact that when we see an object in ordinary situations we also perceive its approximate location (direction and distance) with respect to us, whereas in typical photographs we do not. Gregory Currie ([1995]: 48–78) and also Noël Carroll ([1996]: 55–63) have argued that for this reason we cannot say we literally see things through photographs. Knowing the egocentric location of the objects is a necessary condition of seeing, they say.

Walton (1997) gave a counterexample to this argument, which I think is a legitimate one. If you see a (reflected) flower in a room full of mirrors, you would not know where it actually is. But isn’t it still true that you see, literally, the flower? I can offer a variation of this. Think of a boy who sees a fish in a creek. If he does not know that the fish appears shallower than it actually is, Currie and Carroll would have to say that he does not see it, which seems counterintuitive. They may reply that he knows its location at least roughly. Perhaps he does, but the misperception in this case is not due to the inevitable imprecision of perception which we must tolerate. Instead, it is due to a consistent natural phenomenon, which the boy can and should learn.Jonathan Cohen and Aaron Meskin (2004) avoid Walton’s counter by proposing a nondoxastic solution.

They retain Currie’s and Carroll’s original insight that spatial information is the key, but instead of the viewer’s subjective belief about the egocentric location of the object, the image’s objectively carrying the information was taken as the criterion of seeing. Bence Nanay (2010) has also proposed a related theory. In this paper, how-ever, I try to show that spatial relation between viewer and object is irrelevant for seeing1. My argument will be primarily directed to Cohen and Meskin and to Nanay. After that, I argue for alter-native necessary conditions. One is that the perception be real-time; another is that the image be «empty». Finally I show that some photographic images meet these conditions.One thing needs clarification. Walton (2008) said that his aim is not conceptual analysis, but that is what I will do here. Insofar as he uses an existing word («see»), it cannot be immune to conceptual analysis. True, he said that he does not worry about whether what he proposes is «a new sense of the word», and does not mind using a new word like schmee instead of see ([2008]: 111), but I doubt he can be so indifferent. If it is a new sense or word, as Berys Gaut says, «the claim that we see through photographs would then lose most of its interest» ([2010]: 90). Just think of the sentence «We literally schmee our dead relatives through photographs», where schmee is similar to, but not the same as, see. I will take the trans-parency claim as involving the ordinary sense of see, as most disputants did. With his transparency claim, Walton wanted to explain photographic realism — the sense of transparency — and to that extent his indifference to the ordinary sense might be justified in a way. But the subjective realism is irrelevant in this paper. I am interested in the (objective) transparency claim itself, and will try to resolve the controversy surrounding it.


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University of Florence

University of Florence

The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy