Unblinking Eye
                 Subjective and Objective (in Photography)


[Symbolism, Life as Art, Art and Science, Self]

InsightSituation: Photography is a fundamentally objective medium in the hands of wholly subjective beings; hence it’s symbolic nature.  Photography has become a locus about which are created both works of art and scientific theories.

Various photographic luminaries have championed photography’s “objectivity” in contradistinction to the supposed subjectivity of less direct media. Others have held that subjectivity cannot be avoided, and indeed is essential for photography to be art. How we “feel” about a photograph is the measure of its artistic affect.  If the photograph possesses the elusive “quality without a name” or “significant form,” it may be regarded as a work of art.


  • “Photography, which is the first and only important contribution thus far of science to the arts, finds its raison d’etre, like all media, in a complete uniqueness of means. This is an absolute unqualified objectivity.”  (Paul Strand, “Photography,” in Jonathan Green, Camera Work, A Critical Anthology, p. 326.)
  • “…in the photographic camera we have the most reliable aid to a beginning of objective vision.  Everyone will be compelled to see that which is optically true, is explicable in its own terms, is objective, before he can arrive at any possible subjective position.”  (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 1925, reprinted 1969, quoted in Charles Traub, The New Vision, p. 28.)


  • “In photography you can never express yourself directly, only through optics, the physical and chemical processes. It is this sort of submission to the object and abnegation of yourself that is exactly what pleases me about photography.  What is extraordinary is that, despite this submission and abnegation, the personality of the photographer shines through all the obstacles. In the end, images convey personality just as strongly as in a drawing.” (Brassai, quoted in Paul Hill and Thomas Cooper, Dialogue with Photography, New York: Aperture, 1982, pp. 40-41.)
  • “The difference between Photography and Artistic-Photography is that…in the first, man tries to represent something that is outside of himself; in the second he tries to represent something that is in himself.” (Marius De Zayas, in Jonathan Green, Camera Work, A Critical Anthology, New York: Aperture, 1973, p. 267.)
  • “…there is not a particle of art in the most beautiful scene of nature.  The art is man’s alone, it is subjective and not objective.”  (Robert Demachy, “On the Straight Print,” in Jonathan Green, Camera Work, A Critical Anthology, New York: Aperture, 1973, p. 119.)
  • “…apart from the experiences of subjects, there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”  (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, New York: The Free Press, 1978, p. 167.)

Solution:  Awareness is its own reward. The photograph, or any visual communication, presents various forms, perspectives, and relationships in space, but these have no meaning apart from the interpretation and appreciation, memories and imaginings, feelings and thoughts of subjects.

  • “The limits of the “subjective” and “objective” worlds become for the first time really clear. One of the essential tasks performed by the general critique of knowledge is to ascertain the laws governing this delimitation in the purely theoretical sphere, where it is effected by the methods of scientific thought.  This critique shows that the “subjective” and “objective” were not from the very beginning strictly separate spheres, fully defined in content, but that both became defined only in the process of cognition and in accordance with its methods and conditions. The categorical distinction between “I” and “not-I” proves to be an essential and constant function of theoretical thinking, whereas the manner in which this function is fulfilled, the boundary between the “subjective” and “objective” contents varies with the level of cognition. For theoretical science, the enduring and necessary elements in experience are “objective”—but which contents are said to be enduring and necessary depends on the general methodological standard applied to the experience and on the level of cognition at that time, that is, on the totality of its empirically and theoretically assured insights.  Seen in this context, the way in which we apply the conceptual opposition of “subjective” and “objective” in giving form to the world of experience, in constructing nature, appears to be not so much the solution to the problem of cognition, as its perfect expression.” (Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Form, pp. 90-91.)
  • “But this opposition is manifested in all its richness and diversity only when we follow it beyond the limits of theoretical thinking and its specific concepts.  Not only science, but language, myth, art and religion as well, provide the building stones from which the world of “reality” is constructed…”  (Ibid., p. 91.)
  • “In its earliest formation, speech can equally well be interpreted as a pure expression of the inward or the outward, as an expression of mere subjectivity or mere objectivity. In the first case the spoken sound seems to be nothing other than an expression of excitement and emotion, in the second case it seems to be mere onomatopoeic imitation.  The various speculations on the “origin of language” do indeed move between these two extremes, neither of which reach the core and essence of language itself.  For what language designates and expresses is neither exclusively subjective nor exclusively objective; it effects a new mediation, a particular reciprocal relation between the two factors.  Neither the mere discharge of emotion, nor the repetition of objective sound stimuli yields the characteristic meaning and form of language: language arises where the two ends are joined, so creating a new synthesis of “I” and “world.”  An analogous relation is created in every truly independent and original function and consciousness. Art can no more be defined as the mere expression of inward life than as a reflection of the forms of outward reality; in it, too, the crucial and characteristic factor is to be sought in how, through it, the “subjective” and “objective,” pure emotion and pure form, merge with one another and so gain a new permanence and a new content.” (Ibid., pp. 92-93.)


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