Tag Archives: Heidegger and Photography

Photography and the Limits of Language

“Silence is the hidden content of the words that count.” A.G Sertillanges

I’m suspicious of critics who write about photography as an art form. I don’t think I’ve ever read a critical essay about a specific photograph or body of photographs that has in any sense added to, or explained, the experience given by the photograph itself. This is not to say that there isn’t good writing about photography. There is. Sontag and Barthes come to mind, but what they are doing is writing about photography as a practice and not attempting to explain or supplement the truth of specific photos. Reason, as expressed in language, can not articulate visual truths. Reason’s last step, according to Blaise Pascal, is to recognize its limitations.

For that matter, photographers who attempt to explain their work via written captions or accompanying essays seem to me to be missing the very point of visual art itself: visual art expresses that which can’t be expressed with words. To use a metaphor of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, words are a net we strain reality through. A lot gets through the net. What the visual arts offer us is a portion of that reality that gets through the net of language.

This, I think, is the power of photography and why many of us are drawn to it in a very profound way. It’s a means of expressing things that can’t be expressed verbally. The photograph above is an example. I found it on a roll of film I recently developed. I don’t now remember its specifics – why the took it, what I saw in it, if anything at the time – but now, as a finished product standing by itself, it denotes something to me. It presents something visible to me, something that resonates with me. Whatever it is, it’s not capable of being put into words. It represents that portion of reality Kant would say has slipped through the net of language.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked on the human urge to “run up against the limits of language.” We instinctively understand that words somehow deaden the fullness of our experiences. According to Isaiah Berlin, this is the paradox of language when faced with profundity: “the more I say the more remains to be said … as soon as I speak it becomes quite clear that, no matter how long I speak, new chasms open. No matter what I say I always have to leave three dots at the end. Whatever description I give always opens the doors to something further, something even darker, perhaps, but certainly something which is in principle incapable of being reduced to precise, clear, verifiable, objective prose.”

German philosopher Martin Heidegger agrees with Wittgenstein and Berlin…up to a point. Much of Heidegger’s philosophy is about limits, of knowledge, of words, of expression. For Heidegger, logical thought -i.e. that which can be expressed – is not sufficient when we’re trying to talk about certain things. “The very idea of “logic” disintegrates in the vortex of a more original questioning,” wrote Heidegger. Wittgenstein, Berlin and Heidegger all agree there is more of life than can be articulated. Heidegger, however, makes the further claim that what happens in the interstices between words is what’s really important. This is where we find the most profound truths. For Heidegger, this is a qualitative advance on what Kant was saying. Kant (and Wittgenstein and Berlin) was saying that some reality slips past the net of language. Heidegger is claiming that the most important part of reality slips through the net.

So, how do we communicate this most important portion of the real? Heidegger attempted to do so via language. This is the paradox of Heidegger and the reason he’s so hard to understand. He is attempting, with words, to express the truth that words miss the larger truth. This is purposeful. Heidegger holds that we should try to say something about the interstices – that the fact that we recognize an interstice means that there’s something to be said about it, however vague and preliminary that might be. Not directly, perhaps, and not even particularly clearly, but we shouldn’t abandon all efforts to use words to speak about things that lie beyond language. Unfortunately, Heidegger never took the next logical step of analyzing the visual arts and what role they might play in the process of expressing what’s true. I believe he might have found a way out of his expressive paradox had he done so.

Analog Activity/Digital Passivity

Exposed film I’m developing 8 rolls at a time. Ah, the good old days, when photography meant working at it.

“Certainly it would seem that TV could become a kind of unnatural surrogate for contemplation: a completely inert subjection to vulgar images, a descent to a sub-natural passivity rather than an ascent to a supremely active passivity in understanding and love.”- Thomas Merton, 1948.

At about the same time as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was complaining about the “inert subjection to vulgar images” produced by the then-new technology of television, German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger was making a similar point about the typewriter. Heidegger did so by harkening back to another philosopher, Plato, and his critique of technology and its effect on how humans create their worlds. Plato claimed that the ‘technology’ of writing degraded the primacy of the spoken to the detriment of our sense of reality; 2400 years later, Merton and Heidegger would be doing the same for the typewriter and television. Each in some sense represents a degradation of the human ability to experience the real by abstracting it a degree from reality. By removing the speaker from the spoken, Plato saw writing as a first step to the dehumanization of communication; by veiling the essence of writing and script, Heidegger claimed that the typewriter “withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without man experiencing the withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of Being to his essence.” In other words, the typewriter, like writing for Plato and television for Merton, removes us a certain degree from experiencing the thing itself by doing it and in so doing makes us passive observers in what were heretofore active experiences.

I couldn’t help but think of Plato (and Heidegger and Merton) while bulk developing a ridiculous amount of film that I’ve accumulated over the last few years. The COVID quarantine has given me the perfect opportunity to finally do what I’ve been putting off for years. I’ve been shooting film and then throwing the canister into a bag full of other exposed films with the understanding that I’d get around to developing it all someday. That day has finally come. I’m bulk developing and fully scanning 8 rolls a day until the backlog is resolved…after which I intend to be a dedicated film photographer again, keeping to my promise to immediately develop and scan what I shoot. It’s a great plan that makes me happy, because I really do love the hands-on experience of shooting film, the deliberateness and intentionality of the practice and the end result of a physical thing that I can file away. Granted it’s a PITA, but the doing of it brings me back to a place where photography is both a creative pursuit and a craft, and it has the added benefit of connecting you back to your photographic tools in a way that’s missing with the quick and easy experience of digital.

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I Found This Among What I’ve just Developed – Lexi, Who We Just Put Down After 14 Years, As a Younger Pup, Ever Hopeful of Snagging a Bit of Pizza. An Unexpected Gift From a Roll Exposed Long Ago. Makes Me Smile Even Today.

Aristotle spoke of entelecheia, where the end and actuality of a thing are internal to its own activity. He thought the most rewarding experiences are those things we do solely for the pleasure the doing itself generates and not those things that are done as means to an end, and he thought that entelecheia was most often a result of solitary pursuits. This has always been my experience of photography: I do it for the pleasure of doing it, nothing more. And I do it to be in my own head and no one else’s. The end results – boxes of prints and innumerable binders of sleeved negatives and hard drives filled with DNGs – are secondary results of the process itself and the rewards those processes afford us. I think that’s why the transition from analog to digital has been unsatisfying for many of us. It lessens the creative involvement inherent in physically instantiating activity and replaces it with the passivity of pressing buttons and being given a result with little physical or psychical work involved.

Doing film photography is to reorient yourself to our own embodiment. You are creating something instead of entrusting the decision to a computer and an algorithm mindlessly running in the background. It is also to be disengaged from the virtual environment, which is always fundamentally social in nature. Our use of technology militates against solitude if we define such as the absence of input from other minds. Doing photography digitally is always, at base, a collective creative pursuit even when no others are physically present. Whether via the use of apps that presuppose other’s connection to our pursuits, or simply the use of necessary technologies that are the results of input from other minds and their implicit creative biases, your creative digital decisions will always be, to some extent, circumscribed by the decisions of the people who’ve programmed the digital tools you employ or are on the receiving end of your digital solicitations.

Sometimes….

….I just don’t feel it.

I am currently completely and utterly bereft of ideas. I’m experiencing the flipside of creative inspiration. I literally have nothing to say. I’m assuming it’s something that every creative person experiences – creative stagnation. I’ve currently got it bad. So, what more appropriate thing to do than write about it.

I’ve been sitting on the following thought for some time now, having had written it out and, like how I usually write, expected the rest to then write itself:


“The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” Rene Magritte

19th Century French Poet Stéphane Mallarmé (aka Étienne Mallarmé), said there were two kinds of languages: parol brute, which named things, and parole essentielle, which was language in the abstract, language that distanced us from things. Brute language aided in representing things; essential language created the fictive, self-referential realities of consciousness. For Mallarmé, parole essentielle was the language of all Art, for all Art was ultimately self-recognition, self-recovery, self-remembering, processes which were as mysterious as Being itself. It’s a distinction we as photographers intuitively understand, the distinction in photography between reportage and Art.


Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything to add to flesh out what I consider to be an essential point about creativity made by Mallarmé. Ironically, maybe the fact that I have nothing to say proves his point – creativity is ultimately self-referential i.e. it’s about what’s going on in your consciousness, not what’s going on around you. Thus, I agree with the poet Charles Simic: when the world or the people in it make no sense, the best you can do is keep quiet and listen to the silence of the night. Or, as Paul Ricoeur said, “Something must be for something to be said.”

But Art is also about experiences language can’t get at. Martin Heidegger would say that the truth of Being cannot be uttered – language can only hint at it. Writing is, at best, a rough translation of the wordless truth into words. Can visual representations like photography better get at the essential nature of things? Heidegger would say no, visual art can’t translate Being either, but it can get us closer than the written or spoken word. The gap between Seeing and Being is less than that of Saying and Being. In this, Heidegger is a Wittgensteinian….to a point. The labor of the visual artist – you, the photographer – is to point to what can’t be put into words. Notice, however, the act of pointing isn’t the truth itself.

With that in mind, below (and the one above) are a few photos I took while out on a bike ride the other day. They are images made during a fleeting moment when something I saw sparked a self-recognition, a self-remembering. Articulating it further wouldn’t be of much use even if I could, which I can’t without sliding into untruth. Truth matters. That’s the cool thing about photography: you get to point to truths you can’t put into words. But, as Mallarmé understands, there’s the truth with eyes open and then there’s the truth with eyes closed, and they’re often two distinct things.