Looking Again through Photographs: A Response to Edwin Martin

Critical Inquiry 12 (4):801-808 (1986)

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Abstract
My great-grandfather died before I was born. He never saw me. But I see him occasionally—when I look at photographs of him. They are not great photographs, by any means, but like most photographs they are transparent. We see things through them.Edwin Martin objects. His response consists largely of citing examples of things which, he thinks, are obviously not transparent, and declaring that he finds no relevant difference between them and photographs: once we slide down the slippery slope as far as photographs there will be not stopping short of absurdity. The examples fail in their purpose, but they will help to clarify the reasons for the transparency of photographs. Several of them can be disposed of by noting that they jeopardize the transparency of photographs only if they jeopardize the very possibility of perception. The others appear to reflect a misconception of the issue before us and the nature of my claim.To perceive something is, in part, to have perceptual experiences caused by the object in question. This is scarcely controversial. It is also uncontroversial that additional restrictions are needed—not all causes of one’s visual experiences are objects of sight—although exactly what the required restrictions are is a notoriously tricky question. One important restriction is that the causation must be appropriately independent of human action , in a sense which I explained . This, I argued, is what distinguishes photographs from “handmade” pictures, which are not transparent. Seismographs and footprints are caused just as “mechanically” as ordinary photographs are. So are photographs that are so badly exposed or focused that they fail to present images of the objects before the camera. So, also, are the visual experiences of those who look at seismograms, footprints, and such badly focused or exposed photographs. Yet we obviously do not see the causes of these things through them, Martin claims. How is it, then, that we see through ordinary photographs? Kendall L. Walton is professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan and author of a book on representation in the arts . His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism,” appeared in the December 1984 issue
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DOI 10.1086/448368
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