The Relationship Between Photography and Reality

© Paul Strand (1916) - Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut

Howells introduces the relationship between photography and reality. He does so in an easy to comprehend manner which I found conducive for understanding the essay. Firstly he describes the invention of photography and its formative years. This was information I’d largely heard about before but it does inform the rest of the essay going forwards. However, for me where the essay gets really interesting is Howells mentioning the arguments of Roger Scruton with his assertions that photography could not be considered an art form like painting could. His arguments are based upon the indexical relationship of a photograph with the thing that was captured. For example: ‘If it only reproduces what is already out there, it follows that a photograph cannot transcend its subject-matter; it can only be beautiful if it is of a beautiful thing.’ (Howells, 2011:191).

Howells counteracts this argument of Scruton’s by introducing the idea of subjectivity into the relationship between photography and reality. According to Howells: ‘Selective choices are creative choices’ (Howells, 2011:192). Not only is there the choice of what to frame but how to frame it and when. Development and processing choices are subjective too, with cropping and finish prevalent in analogue photography as well as digital.

© Paul Strand (1916) - Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut
Fig. 1 © Paul Strand – ‘Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut’ (1916)

By saying: ‘A photograph, after all, has formal properties that transcend its subject-matter.’, Howells (2011:194) argues that we observe form over content when regarding photographs. That is not too say subject-matter isn’t important; rather ‘subject-matter may be more or less important depending on the individual text or artist.’ (Howells, 2011:194). Howells uses abstraction with the example of Paul Strand’s Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut (1916) where form took over importance from subject-matter. In this way the photograph becomes the commodity, rather than the subject-matter the commodity as Roger Scruton asserted.

© Dorothea Lange (1936) - Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California
Fig. 2 © Dorothea Lange – ‘Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California’ (1936)

Even with documentary, photography can be subjective; Howells using the example of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936) among other examples. However, throughout photography ‘there is nevertheless an inevitable and special relationship between photography and reality.’ (Howells, 2011:199). Howells (2011:199) goes on to talk about an ”umbilical’ connection between the object and the image’ which I believe in semiotics would be termed the indexical relationship the photograph possesses with the scene it photographed. As an aside, I am not too certain whether analogue photography has a stronger indexical connection than digital to the real world. However, I am mentioning this because it seems to me something of the tangibility of the medium has been lost with digital photography. It could equally be because of the sheer number of photographs that are taken nowadays and how we tend to view them.

Because the photograph exists in a different space-time to when it was taken but yet retains the indexicality of that place, a paradox is formed. Photography ‘is: a meeting of the actual and the imaginary, where each adds to, rather than detracts from, the power of the other.’ (Howells, 2011:200). Howells (2011:200) asserts: ‘That explains the deep and articulate richness of the photographic image.’. I would agree with this assertion from Howells and I concur with: ‘In order to benefit from its [photography’s] value, we must also learn to interpret its complexities.’ (Howells, 2011:202). Here, Howells touches on semiotics and the work of Barthes where the connotation and denotation coexist in a single photograph. Therefore a photograph can say one thing but mean another. I infer from Howells because of this it is a good idea for us to become collectively image literate.

The fact that a photograph is indexical to its subject was the main factor of Scruton’s argument as to why he was opposed to photography being capable of being an art form. This was a theory supported in part by Nigel Warburton but only while concerning the analysis of actual photography. Here, photography can be subjective according to Scruton because it takes cues from ‘other visual media, including from painting.’ – (Howells, 2011:204). When confined to the realms of ideal photography however, Warburton is of the opinion that the ‘aesthetically significant decisions’ (Howells, 2011:204), purported by Scruton to inform individual style are extremely limited. This would mean within single images, according to Warburton, photography cannot be art. It is only when photographs are looked at in series that a photographer’s individual style is observable.

I am not sure I agree with Warburton’s viewpoint that a single photograph can’t be considered art. Especially with digital manipulations like composites, it becomes possible for an artist to stamp their subjective style choices therefore on an individual image. I do agree that these choices are limited however, which means the opportunity to be subjective with ideal photography on a single image is limited. In addition I agree that the photographic essay with multiple photographs offers a more expansive way of seeing. Also, nowadays artists use various media at their disposal in combination with photography like videography and sound installations to stamp their individual style.


Fig. 1 Strand, P. (1916) Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut. [Photograph] Retrieved from:–TWIN-LAKES–CONNECTICUT–1916-/298FEF44897CA879 (Accessed 23/03/2019).

Fig. 2 Lange, D. (1936) Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. [Photograph] Retrieved from: (Accessed 23/03/2019).

Howells, R. (2011) Visual Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 183-205.


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