Mendacious Images


In this essay, I will argue for the assumption that photographs and film belong to an order: the order of the image. An image has to be read, just like a text, a sentence or a word.


In order to understand a photographic image or a film, it has to be deciphered first. And to be able to decipher a photographic image (film) you have to understand the 'grammar' of photography or film. However, the need to decipher photographs or films is not self-evident; most people can make them and they believe photographs or films are automatically produced and therefore objective and non-symbolic. This is merely a delusion, as is clearly explained in the following quotations from Vilém Flusser in ‘Towards a philosophy of photography’.


'Nearly everyone owns a camera now, and he or she uses it. Just as nearly everyone has learned to write, and thus produces texts of one form or another. He who knows how to write, obviously, also knows how to read. However, he who knows how to shoot photographs does not necessarily know how to decipher them. (...) Snapshooters and documentarists are unaware of what is involved in information. What they produce are camera memories, not information, and the more efficiently they do so, the better do they document the victory of the apparatus over man.’ (1)


This is a key issue concerning any theory of photography or film. I think Flusser is making a very strong point in this excerpt, one that is mostly overlooked in theories on photography. As he explains, consequently, 'He who writes must master the rules of grammar. He who shoots photographs needs only to follow the instructions as given by the camera. These instructions grow more and more simple as more and more technology is applied to the apparatus. This is the essence of democracy in a post-industrial age. And this is why the snapshooter is unable to decipher his photographs: he takes them to be images of the world which have been produced automatically. This leads to the paradox that the more people shoot photographs, the less they are capable of deciphering them. No one believes that it is necessary to decipher photographs because everyone believes that he knows how to make them.' (1)


In my opinion, this is one of the major reasons why photography and film remain such opaque media: it seems as though everyone who works with these media is able to understand what is happening; apparently, what exactly a photograph or a film is, is all too clear, and therefore it is difficult to have a critical attitude towards these media. It is because of this that these media often are regarded as superficial. Yet, again I agree with Vilém Flusser, it is important to decipher photographs or films because, as Flusser puts it: 'one task of a critical attitude towards culture is to analyse the restructuring of experience, knowledge, evaluation and action in order to see how it has become composed of a mosaic of clear and distinct elements, as well as to seek and find these elements in every phenomenon of our culture. Such a critique of culture will show that the invention of photography is the point in history at which all cultural phenomena begin to substitute their linear structure of gliding along for the staccato structure of programmed combining.(...) Such a critique of culture will show that the camera is the ancestor of all apparatus which now lay claim to making our existence automatic, everything from our external gestures to our internal thoughts, sentiments and desires.'  (2)


And to add to this, the role that photographs and films play in our society can be described as being of major importance. Not only are they easily available to everyone, but they also play an important role in every part of society. A critical analysis of photography and film is therefore anything but superfluous.


To quote Flusser again: 'It is difficult to decipher technical images, because they are apparently in no need of being deciphered. Their meaning seems to impress itself automatically on their surfaces, as in fingerprints where the meaning (the finger) is the cause and the image (the print) is the effect. It seems as if the world signified in technical images is their cause, and as if they themselves were the last link in a causal chain connecting them without interruption to their meaning: the world reflects sunlight and other forms of light which are then captured on sensitive surfaces - thanks to optical, chemical and mechanical processes - and the result is a technical image. It thus seems as if they exist on the same level of reality as their meaning. It seems that what one is seeing while looking at technical images are not symbols in need of deciphering, but symptoms of the world they mean, and that we can see this meaning through them however indirectly. This apparent non-symbolic, 'objective' character of technical images has the observer looking at them as if they were not really images, but a kind of window on the world. He trusts them as he trusts his own eyes. If he criticizes them at all, he does so not as a critique of image, but as a critique of vision; his critique is not concerned with their production, but with the world 'as seen through' them. Such a lack of critical attitude towards technical images is dangerous in a situation where these images are about to displace texts. The uncritical attitude is dangerous because the 'objectivity' of the technical image is a delusion. They are in truth, images, and as such they are symbolical.' (3)


This is a point that can be illustrated in many different ways. First, I would like to reiterate Flusser's ideas (in the above-mentioned excerpt), this time in the words of a filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovski. In The Sealed Source he states, 'A 'paradoxical experience' is caused in the perceiver of a photographic image. Let us compare this with painting. There always exists a certain distance between the painting and the perceiver, a conditioned distance that presupposes a certain respect for the depicted and that makes him realize that the painting is an - understandable or not understandable - image of reality. No one will think of identifying the painting with life itself, even though one can say there is a 'resemblance' between the representation and reality as such. Only with film (- and photography - M.K.) the perceiver never loses the feeling that everything that is seen on the screen (- photograph - M.K.), has really happened.'  (4)


To show the difference between the attitude of the perceiver of a film or a photograph with the attitude of the perceiver of a painting, I want to quote Nelson Goodman from his book Languages of Art. Here he writes, 'Seeing a picture as a picture precludes mistaking it for anything else. In looking at the most realistic picture, I seldom suppose that I can literally reach into the distance, slice the tomato or beat the drum. Rather, I recognize the images as signs that work instantly and unequivocally without being confused with what they denote.'  (5)


Now this is valid for painting as well as for film and photography, and yet there is undoubtedly something paradoxical in the experience of these images because, in a strange way, the fact is that while you cannot literally reach into the film or photograph, still the experience you have is very authentic. According to Tarkovski, this is so because the perceiver 'Often judges a film or a photograph according to the laws of 'real life' and with it he replaces, unknowingly, the laws that the author used while making the film, by the laws that have shaped his everyday life-experience. And this is what causes the 'paradoxical experience' in the perceiver.'

What Tarkovski describes as 'the laws that the author used while making the film' can be called 'the pictorial mode ', and this is present also within photography. So to consider that film or photography are merely an automatic, passive registration of 'the world out there' is, in my opinion, a misconception.


This idea is affirmed by Svetlana Alpers in The Art of Describing, in which she writes, ‘ The ultimate origins of photography do not lie in the fifteenth-century invention of perspective, but rather in the alternative mode of the north. Seen this way, one might say that the photographic image, the Dutch art of describing and Impressionist painting are alle examples of a constant artistic option in the art of the West. It is an option or a pictorial mode that has been taken up at different times for different reasons.’ (6)


Even so, the question remains as to why, with photography and film, it is so hard to see that they are symbolic images. What Goodman has to say about 'realism' is interesting in this context. He writes, 'Practice has rendered the symbols so transparent that we are not aware of any effort, of any alternatives or of making any interpretation at all. Just here lies the touchstone of realism: not in quantity of information but in how easily it issues. And this depends upon how stereotyped the mode of representation is, upon how commonplace the labels and their uses have become. Realism is relative, determined by the system of representation standard for a given culture or person at a given time. Newer or older or alien systems are accounted artificial or unskilled. This relativity is obscured by our tendency to omit specifying a frame of reference when it is our own.' (7)


In Languages of Art, Goodman quotes Melville J. Herskovits  description of the attitude of a culture ignorant of photography, towards a photograph; he writes, 'More than one ethnographer has reported the experience of showing a clear photograph of a house, a person, a familiar landscape to people living in a culture innocent of any knowledge of photography, and to have the picture held at all possible angles, or turned over for an inspection of its blank back, as the native tried to interpret this meaningless arrangement of varying shades of grey on a piece of paper. For even the clearest photograph is only an interpretation of what the camera sees.'


Still, for some people this is not sufficient evidence for considering that photography (and also film) is of a symbolic nature. They claim that a photograph (or film) is different from other images because it is always attached to its referent. Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida (8) , is especially convinced of this. He states, ‘A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent ( from what it represents ), or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent ( as is the case for every other image, encumbered - from the start, and because of its status - by the way in which the object is simulated )(..) By nature, the photograph (..) has something tautological about it: a pipe, here, is always and intractably a pipe. It is as if the photograph always carries its referent with itself. (..) The photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both (..)

I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph. Painting can feign reality without having seen it. Discourse combines signs which have referents, of course, but these referents can be and are most often ‘chimeras’.

Contrary to these imitations, in photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.


In short, Barthes claims that, whatever the photograph shows and in whatever way it was taken, it is always invisible: it is not the photograph that one sees, but rather the referent. This again shows the problematic relation between the photographic medium and reality. In this respect I do not agree with Barthes because, to my opinion, he does not focus on what is specific to the photographic medium (or film), but rather he compares the photographic image to the traditional image. He thus works with the conditions that are valid for traditional images, but those are not necessarily exactly the same for technical images. When comparing the photographic image to the traditional image, it may seem at a glance that the referent is more directly linked to the photograph/ film. However, in a photograph or film this link to the referent can be very indirect (similar to the traditional image), because perceiving a photograph or a film requires an ‘attitude of perceiving’ that is based on the conditions of a technical image. Flusser writes: ‘photographs are complexes of symbols which signify abstract concepts, they are discourses which have been transcoded into symbolic situations.’ So in a way what Barthes says about the referents of discourse (chimeras) seems to be similar to the referents of the photograph or the film. To explain this further, I would like to quote Flusser again: 'Early photographs were black/white, unmistakably attesting to their origins as being abstracted from some theory of optics. With the progress of another theory, chemistry, color photographs became feasible. It appears as if early photographs had extracted color from the world, and that subsequent photographs were able to re-introduce color to the world. In fact, however, color photographs are at least as theoretical as black/white photographs. For example, the 'green' of a photographed lawn is an image of the concept 'green' as it occurs in some theory of chemistry (say, additive as opposed to subtractive color). The camera (or the film fed into it) is programmed to translate the concept 'green' into an indirect and roundabout connection between the photographic 'green' and the green of the lawn 'out there', because the chemical concept of green is based on some image of the world 'out there'. There is, however, a very complex series of successive coding processes between the photographic 'green' and the green 'out there', a series which is more complex than the one linking the photographic grey of a black/white photograph with the green of the real lawn. The lawn photographed in color is a more abstract image than the lawn photographed in black/white. Color photographs are on a higher level of abstraction than black/white photographs. Black/white photographs are more concrete, and in this sense are 'truer' than color photographs. Or the other way around: the 'truer' the colors of a photograph become the more mendacious they become. They hide their origins as theory more effectively. What obtains for the colors of a photograph also obtains for every other element in the image. They are, without exception, transcoded concepts pretending to have impressed themselves automatically on surfaces, concepts pretending to come from the world 'out there'. It is precisely this pretence we must decipher if we are to discover the true meaning of photographs, that they are programmed concepts, or if we are to show that photographs are complexes of symbols which signify abstract concepts, that they are discourses which have been transcoded into symbolic situations.'  (9)


Based on my own experience as a maker of technical images, I would agree with Flusser's arguments. This is precisely what I experience while working with these media - that I am dealing with mendacious media that pretend to come from the world 'out there' and yet they consist of very complex series of successive coding processes. As Flusser continues, 'In order to be able to select the camera categories as they are inscribed in the camera itself, the photographer must 'regulate' the camera. (...) There can be no such thing as a naive, unconceived act of photographing. A photograph is an image of concepts. (...)

To 'make photographs' in the sense that is meant here, is to search for undiscovered possibilities within the camera program - in other words, to search for images as yet unseen, for informative, improbable images. Basically, the photographer - meant here in the strictest sense - tries to establish situations such as have never existed before. He does not look for these situations in the world 'out there': that world is nothing but a pretext for the establishment of such 'improbable situations'. The photographer looks for them not 'out there', but within the virtualities contained in the camera program. In this sense, the traditional distinction between realism and idealism is overcome by photography: it is not the world 'out there' which is 'real', nor is it the concepts 'in here' within the apparatus program; what is 'real' is the image as it comes about. The world and the apparatus program are but premises for the realization of photographs, they are virtualities to be realized in the photograph.'


To go back to Barthes' argument that the photograph cannot be detached from its referent: on the basis of the above-mentioned arguments of Flusser the referent turns out to be merely a premise. And therefore the connection to the referent is indirect, not direct, although it might seem so. According to this, photography (and also film) is a coded process and a pictorial mode: the photographer searches, for the undiscovered possibilities in order to arrive at unseen images. From this point of view the act of photographing or filmmaking is closely related to other pictorial modes or ways of expressing.


On this basis, I consider what Lévi-Strauss wrote about painting to be also valid for photography and film: (..)’ The painter is always mid-way between design and anecdote, and his genius consists in uniting internal and external knowledge, a ‘being’ with a ‘becoming’. (..) The process of artistic creation therefore consists in trying to communicate ( within the immutable framework of a mutual confrontation of structure and accident ) either with the model or with the materials or with the future user as the case may be, according to which of these the artist particularly looks to for his directions while he is at work. (..) On a different plane we therefore find once more this dialogue with the materials and means of execution by which we defined ‘bricolage’. The essential problem for the philosophy of art is to know whether the artist regards them as interlocutors or not. (..) No form of art is,


however, worthy of the name if it allows itself to come entirely under the sway of extraneous contingencies, whether of occasion or purpose. If it did so it would rate as an icon ( supplementary to the model ) or as an implement ( complementary with the material worked ). Even the most professional art succeeds in moving us only if it arrests in time this dissipation of the contingent in favour of the pretext and incorporates it in the work, thereby investing it with the dignity of being an object in its own right.’(10)


In my opinion, this clearly shows how the traditional media are in fact closely related to the technical, in the sense that they both have to look for undiscovered possibilities in order to arrive at unseen images which succeed in intensifying reality without making conceptual simplifications or deductive generalizations. As Ernst Cassirer wrote in An Essay on Man:

'Language and science are abbreviations of reality; art is an intensification of reality. Language and science depend upon one and the same process of abstraction; art may be described as a continuous process of concretion. In our scientific description of a given object we begin with a great number of observations which at first sight are only a loose conglomerate of detached facts. But the further we proceed the more these individual phenomena tend to assume a definite shape and become a systematic whole. What science is searching for is some central features of a given object from which all its particular qualities may be derived. If a chemist knows the atomic number of a certain element he possesses a clue to a full insight into its structure and constitution. From this number he may deduce all the characteristic properties of the element. But art does not admit of this sort of conceptual simplification and deductive generalization. It does not inquire into the qualities or causes of things; it gives us the intuition of the form of things. But this is too by no means a mere repetition of something we had before. It is a true and genuine discovery. (...) We may have met with an object of our ordinary sense experience a thousand times without having ever 'seen' its form. We are still at a loss if  asked to describe not its physical qualities or effects but its pure visual shape and structure. It is art that fills this gap. (...) The form of things as they are described in scientific concepts tend more and more to become formulae. These formulae are of a surprising simplicity. A single formula seems to comprise and explain the whole structure of our material universe. It would seem as though reality were not only accessible to our scientific abstractions but exhaustible by them. But as soon as we approach the field of art this proves to be an illusion. For the aspects of things are innumerable, and they vary from one moment to another. Any attempt to comprehend them within a simple formula would be in vain. (...) The artist does not portray or copy a certain empirical object, what he gives us is the individual and momentary physiognomy of the object. He wishes to express the atmosphere of things. Our aesthetic perception exhibits a much greater variety and belongs to a much more complex order than our ordinary sense perception. In sense perception we are content with apprehending the common and constant features of the objects of our surroundings. Aesthetic experience is incomparably richer. It is pregnant with infinite possibilities which remain unrealized in ordinary sense experience. In the work of the artist these possibilities become actualities.'  (11)


In conclusion, to say that the photograph (or the film) is equal to its referent and therefore it is the referent that one sees and not the photograph (or the film), is a common mistake concerning notions of photography (and film). Through practice the symbols have become so transparent that we are hardly aware of any effort, of alternatives, or of making any interpretation at all. Still, although it seems with photography and film that there is a direct link to reality/ the referent as such, as in cause and effect, in truth these media consist of very complex series of successive coding processes. According to this there can be no such thing as a naive, unconceived act of photographing or filming. The uncritical attitude towards technical images is dangerous in a society where they play such a major and important role; dangerous because the 'objectivity' of the technical image is a delusion. They are in truth images, and as such they are symbolic. Anyone who is unaware of the coding processes within photography or film and is therefore unable to decipher them, is in a way an illiterate, and as such is only reproducing commonplace camera memories.       


text and photographs:  Marie-Thérèse van de Kamp ©




1.       Vilém Flusser: 'Towards a Philosophy of Photography', 'European

 Photography', 1984; pp. 41, 42,43

2.       id. p. 51.

3.       id. p. 10.

4.       Andrei Tarkovski: The Sealed Source (Dutch transl. 'de Verzegelde Bron'), Historische Uitgeverij Groningen 1984; p. 173.

5.       Nelson Goodman: Languages of Art; Hackett Publishing Company, inc, Indianapolis/Cambridge 1976, pp. 34, 35.

6.       Svetlana Alpers: The Art of Describing. London: Murray, 1983, pp.244

7.       Nelson Goodman:  id. pp. 35, 36.

8.       Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida, Vintage edition, 1993, pp. 5, 76..

9.       Vilém Flusser: id. p. 30.

10.    Claude Levi Strauss: The Savage Mind . Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd., London 1966, pp. 25, 27.

11.    Ernst Cassirer: An Essay on Man; Yale University Press 1977; pp. 148, 149, 150.