“The Ontology of the Photographic Image” examines how the plastic arts preserve humans and reality through representation. Photography presents itself as objective and real. This objectivity and realism, however, are only constructions of the mechanical processes of photography.
In ancient Egypt the plastic arts, like statuary, were substitutes for dead bodies. “It is this religious use, then, that lays bare the primordial function of statuary, namely, the preservation of life by a representation of life” (5). The evolution of art and civilization “has relieved the plastic arts of their magical role” (6). According to Bazin, today no one recognizes the ontological link between the body and a representation: “No one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image, but all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death” (6). The arts no longer care about survival after death. Instead, the focus on “the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal identify.” The plastic arts today create a virtual world that has nothing to do with life and afterlife. This explains why photography and cinema caused “the great spiritual and technological crisis that overtook modern painting” in the 1850s. Photography and cinema are plastic realisms. They freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness. Painting could not escape the subjectivity of the artists because true likeness could not be achieved through the human hand. Photography did not perfect the physical process (color, etc.), but it did solve our psychological desire for realism; it satisfied “our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part” (7). Photography is seen as objective because “between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent” (7). The artist and his genius are not present in photography like in painting.
This objective production affected our psychology of the image. We accept the object before us in photography as credible, really existing, and actually re-presented. Reality is transferred from the thing to the reproduction. “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it” (8). This objectivity and reality are a product of impassive mechanical reproduction. “Photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it from its proper corruption” (8). Film takes photography to another level. Film, or the cinema “is objectivity in time.” For the first time with film “the image of things is the likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were” (8).Thus, the “photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being, after the fashion of a finger print” (8). Surrealists embraced photography because it “produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, a hallucination that is also a fact” (9). Photography tricks us because its mechanical nature seems objective and reproduces the model. Photography creates a realism that is not of this world. Photography is “clearly the most important even in the history of the plastic arts” (9).
This is what Walter Benjamin argued about photography and film. They construct objectivity and realism through mechanical reproduction. Photography and film are hallucinations and un-real worlds. They don’t show truth because they are constructed through mechanical reproduction. Benjamin refers to Dadaism as an attack on reason, logic, materialism, and nationalism through the arts. It was meant to awaken people from a false reality and a false consciousness. Similarly, Bazin refers to surrealism photography as a means of awakening people from the false reality and false consciousness of photography.
Benjamin, however, went further in his argument that photography and film are harmful. They lose their aura (originality, subjectivity, production history) and trick the masses into believing that a constructed reality is reality. For Bazin, the tricks of photography and film have no moral affects. The opposite is true for Benjamin.
Given the ability of all plastic arts to present and re-represent, I’m not convinced that Egyptian statuary and photography are all that different. They both create realities in their re-presentations. Photography does provide more realism. But in the 1850s, photographs of dead bodies were used like Egyptian statues as substitutes for dead bodies. For many people, the plastic arts do retain their magical role. In fact, this is what Bazin seems to argue when he suggests that they are hallucinations. Photography and film can make us believe things that may or may not be not real. They are still magical because they still create worlds. Maybe photography renewed this sense of magic experienced in ancient Egypt.