We generally think we have good reason to believe what we see in photographs. Why is that? We tend to think that photographs are especially reliable sources of knowledge, evidence or information in virtue of the automatic way in which they come into being. Photographs are causally dependent on their sources in a peculiarly direct way—at least compared to many hand-made pictures. What’s crucial is that they come into being independently of the beliefs of the photographer. Of course the photographer has to know how to operate the camera, must point it in the right direction, set all manner of variables (etc) and presumably does so because she has various beliefs about what she is photographing. But suppose she is having a particularly vivid acid trip: she’s at the zoo and is convinced she’s photographing pink elephants with tusks the size of their trunks. In fact they’re just the common grey variety. When she later looks at her images that’s what she sees. This is because, unlike painting and drawing, the camera records what is there irrespective of what the photographer believes (rightly or wrongly) is there. Call this the orthodox view.
It is a powerful and intuitive picture, but has come under increasing pressure from a number of more recent theorists who recognize the problems this way of thinking poses for taking photography seriously as art. We have no problem appreciating different photographer’s styles, oeuvres, and outlooks. Just as we look to one artists work but not another’s because different painters and sculptors depict the world differently, stressing some features while down-playing others. But these are just the aspects of depiction that depend on the beliefs and intentions of the artist that photography’s automatic nature is supposed to braket. So, it seems photography’s epistemic and aesthetic capacities are in conflict. It this really the case? We’ll trace the debate back to its 19th Century origins, but focus on philosophical thinkers from the last 30-40 years, particularly the last decade.