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Thursday, February 17, 2022

Photography is Not a Language

One of the more common dopey aphorisms trotted out by "serious" photographers is that photography is a language. This is wrong, at so many levels.

First, in any sort of technical way, photography is not a language. While the definition of "language" is somewhat contested, absolutely nobody thinks that a pile of signs, in the semiotics sense, is a language. It just isn't. Vocabulary is not language, as anyone who has tried to learn a language from a dictionary knows. At best photography has a kind of vocabulary.

This is in fact what people mean: they mean you can print it dark, you can stick a crucifix in the frame, you can tell your model to grimace. These are all signifiers which point to something other than themselves, they are signs in the semiotic sense. I am at a loss for a better word than "language" to describe this, and so, apparently, is everyone else. You could argue that, imprecise as it is, "language" is the best word to describe this. More on this in a moment.

There is another possible meaning here, which is that a picture of a tree is not the tree. It signifies the tree, and is therefore a sign for the tree. This feels potentially interesting in a very technical way, but even Barthes couldn't actually make any hay here, so it's more likely a dead end. This is a technical curiosity, and in the end sort of dumb and uninteresting. We acknowledge that the tree (or frog, or model, or cloud) is not the photo of itself, but other than to note the obvious distinction there doesn't seem to be much there.

Ok, back to "language" as sloppy but maybe appropriate.

The trouble with accepting this as-is, is that it emphasizes the wrong thing. Yes, there are signs that can be added to, or managed, in a photograph, but this is a relatively bush-league operation. The main thing a photograph does is copy reality, preserve it in a limited kind of way, and allow us access to that pickled reality. The main thing you as a photographer do is select which bits of reality to do that to.

The idea of promoting photography as a "language" is part of a larger program to enlarge the photographer's role in the making of the photograph. It goes with the mealy-mouthed "photos are made, not taken," and it rubs up against ideas like "gaze." This set of ideas is very attractive to photographers, who generally want to see themselves as kind of like painters, imagining that Leonardo got laid a lot. It's also attractive to theoreticians who constantly seek grounds to expand the scope of their favorite activity, which is scolding people.

The conceit is that the photographer is visible in the frame, is speaking through the language of photography.

A photographer takes a picture of a cat, and I don't like the photographer. I can see in the photo the essential badness of the photographer. You can just tell, by signs, because photography is a language, that the photographer is a bad person who hates cats.

The idea that photography is a language is part of a larger system of thought which argues that we can and should see things in the photos which we know to be true outside the photos. It allows theoreticians to project things into the photograph which simply are not there. The idea that photography is a language is thus quite harmful to actual understanding of how photographs function.

Most of what we "read" in a photograph comes not from the photograph, not from some notional "language" or system of signs, but from ourselves, from the things we know, from the things we see around the photo, processed through ourselves and projected onto the picture.


  1. The "lack of a better word" point is a really good one -- if some theorist who didn't write like a wanker could coin a decent-sounding term for "a general framework of signs and traces of stuff" wrt visual stuff, it'd be pretty cash, but at the moment the only way I can think to phrase that kind of thing without referencing "language" is to start talking like a semiotician, which makes everyone want to leave the room

  2. Brooks Jensen, who you mention a couple posts up, talks a fair amount about some images being used as metaphors and at least "suggesting" other things. I like the idea that images suggest. Some do kind of shout it, though.

  3. It occurs to me that photos - the ones other people have taken -- are always seen on some display, like a screen or a book or a magazine (back in the old days), and that context determines much of the communication that happens. I know the philosopher would like a general principle or two, but I have doubts we can say much of interest about the ways a fashion shot in Elle is like a landscape shot by some British YouTuber. Uh, as I write that I realize I'm probably wrong. I was forgetting about money.

  4. I wrote software for a living for many years and I didn't like calling FORTRAN, C, APL, etc. languages. Don't they use "vocabulary" and "language" in architecture too? Maybe what the word "language" means is context dependent. I can't see this situation improving anytime soon.

  5. Funny, I remember taking "basic" computer programming as a "language" in my liberal arts college, and not doing well (barely got a C). But the University of Montana in the 1980's counted it as a language credit. A few years later, when I was near graduating with an English degree at a different college, I had to argue to some skeptical professors that indeed it met the language requirements. They finally took pity and let it go, but the philosophy professor in the group was angry and stomped off. Don't remember a thing from that class except we tried to make simple airline reservation programs.

  6. Photography is a technology, full stop. In a nutshell. So to speak.

  7. Programming languages have a lot more resemblance, in many ways, to "language" than photography's system of tropes and signs. There is structure, you assemble symbols into organized collections of symbols ("sentences" say) which accrue meaning as a function of the combination.

    Architecture also, arguably (although it's much thinner to my eye) has this kind of structure.

    Just as you can assemble words, or a collection of FORTRAN symbols, into sentences that mean nothing, so you can make a room with no doors, or an unsupported roof. On the other hand, you can bash any collection of signs into a photo, and it'll mean something.

    I think photos more closely resemble the simpler animal communications. Some animals have large collections of specific calls that indicate different things, but there is no grammar, no method of synthesis for producing new meaningful structures. It's just 'AWRK!' means 'Bear! Run!' and that is the end of it.

    A few moments of research failed to turn up a word for communication systems that are symbolic, but not strictly speaking languages, which seems to be a remarkable lacuna.

  8. A room with no doors is a statement by an artist-architect who wishes to challenge the unthinking convention that a room should have doors. Inside is an elephant, that may or not be alive, but is definitely in the room.

    Also, what about "sign system"?