Editor: Scott Walden

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell

Review by Conrad J. Obregon

I’m a photographer who will do anything to try to improve the quality of the images I capture. That includes looking at all kinds of books that at first might appear to have little to do with photography. However, a book entitled Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature (New Directions in Aesthetics)
seemed like it might have something to offer me.

The book is a collection of essays from a series of modern philosophers who are concerned about photography. It emphasizes two sub-fields of philosophy: epistemology, the study of how we know; and aesthetics, which deals with the nature of beauty and art. The book covers a range from the questions of whether photography is an art and what the truth value of a photograph is to how it is that photographs have value to us and what is ethical behavior for a photographer. There is even a discussion of how the persona of a movie star effects the interpretation of the movie in which the star appears.

The writing varies from interesting to entertaining to boring. Some of this is related, at least, to the density of the material presented and how far it is removed from our everyday considerations. For me, the most interesting essay was written by Arthur C. Danto, an aesthetician who also wrote generally on art for the magazine “The Nation”. After a circuitous approach Danto explores the ethics of photographic intrusion upon the lives of individuals.

Luckily, the introduction by Scott Walden, the editor, provides a summary of each of the essays that I found useful to consult before reading each essay and occasionally after.

Typically, one of the essays contends that photography can not be an art because the photographer through mechanical means captures only what is in front of his lens. Most photographers will point out that even though this is true, photographers can control what is in front of the lens to convey some vision as to the nature of the subject. More importantly, the value of photographic images may not depend on whether photography is an art. I was reminded of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who argued that philosophy required that one must first define terms and that it was impossible to define the terms. He then quit the profession of philosophy. (I’m certain that I have simplified the story to make my point.)

Undoubtedly, philosophy has great value for those who are concerned with the larger questions of life, and perhaps all questioning people who hope to lead an intellectual life must consider it. And yet, as I might have expected, my final conclusion is that there is little to be learned from the speculations of the philosophers when it comes to improving photographic skills or learning how to read a photograph.

If you are concerned with those larger questions, I suppose this book may be of interest. For the average photographer, I expect that this book will help them find a vision and turn it into a communicative image not one wit.

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