Viewing the World of Paintings and the World in Photographs or Movies

 What is film? What makes a movie a work of art? How can film be interpreted? To give one answer to these questions I’ll take a look on Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed.


 Whereas we understand saying “thats a trumpet” when listening to a record, we seem not to understand saying “this is grandma” by upholding a photo of her. Thus, Cavell, in his chapters “Sights and Sounds” (pp. 16-23) and “Photograph and Screen” (pp. 23-25) of his The World Viewed, tries to make clear what we are saying in this situation.

 He comes to the conclusion that a past world is present to us when looking at a photograph. This is a world devoid of us. Hence “photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it” (p. 23). Its quite the contrary with paintings. They want a conviction of our presence to the world. So “to maintain conviction in our connection with reality, to maintain our presentness, painting accepts the recession of the world” (p. 23).

 Thats why we cant ask with regard to paintings whats behind an object or beyond the frame, whereas those questions make sense in reference to photographs, because a painting is a world and its frame being the worlds borders, whereas photographs are of the world.

 In the following Im going to unfold these ideas in more detail.


 The foundation of film is photography. The photograph is of reality or nature, and the medium is a photographed picture projected and gathered on the screen. So the question rises what happens with reality, when being projected and gathered on the screen.


 First, lets focus the attention on reality in photography. Whereas film communicates what is real, painting visually renounces the representation of reality (as, for instance, will later be seen when talk is about the frame). However, what does it mean that photography is not painting?

 The answer is, that photography presents us with things. But how to describe the connection between the photograph and that of which the photograph is? A comparison between visual and auditive transcription should clear things up.

 We are completely accustomed to hear things that are invisible. That’s why sounds can be perfectly copied, which is to say that a recording reproduces sound. That, for instance, serves our interest to learn language; which wouldn’t be possible if sounds couldn’t be copied.

 On the contrary we are not accustomed to see things that are not present. Moreover, apart from dreams, we are not accustomed to the fact, that we already see absent things, which is the case when looking at photographs. However, photographs do not reproduce sights, views, or appearances, because sights are objects. That means, it’s the object one sees, not the sight, if one sights something. In other words, objects neither have nor produce sights. Hence, to reproduce sights one has to produce moulds.

 But what is it that photographs are doing? Photographs are no moulds, because moulds get rid off their originals, whereas in photographs the originals are still present. Not either are photographs handmade, rather they are mechanically, automatically manufactured.

 Now, what does that mean? In comparing photography and painting, Cavell gives an concluding answer to this question as well as to question about what’s happening to reality in a photograph.

 To understand his answer, call into mind the scepticism about the external world given i.e. in the Matrix-Trilogy. Our relation to reality is not harmonious, because we are captured by the dualism of what comes from reality and what we do carry into reality. (As if it would be possible to distil reality from concepts or conventions.)

 Well, photography didn’t set free painting from similarity or the idea that a picture should be a picture (of or about something else) – as André Bazin says.

 The reason is that painting and photography are not in competition about satisfying the human desire for reaching reality (which is the desire  for escaping subjectivity and metaphysical isolation). Therefore it could rather be said that painting set photography free to be invented – by drawing back from similarity.

 Furthermore, painting wants to create meaningful objects in colour, not essentially pictures. So Cavell concludes that painting and reality no longer ensure each other. What painting really wanted is the sense for presentness. Painting doesn’t want “a conviction of the world’s presence to us, but of our presence to it” (p. 22).

At some point the unhinging of our consciousness from the world interposed our subjectivity between us and our presentness to the world. Then our subjectivity became what is present to us, individuality became isolation. The route to conviction in reality was through the acknowledgement of the endless presence of self. What is called expressionism is one possibility of representing this acknowledgement. But it would, I think, be truer to think of expressionism as a representation of our response to this new fact of our condition—our terror of ourselves in isolation—rather than as a representation of the world from within the condition of isolation itself” (p. 22).

 That way photography overcame subjectivity in a manner of which painting didn’t ever dreamed of. Through the automatism of taking a picture the agent was removed from the task of reproduction. In this our absence from the world is expressed. Whereas the reality of the photograph is present to me, I am not present to the reality of the photograph. So, this reality is a past world.


 Second, now let’s take a look at the question about what’s happening when reality is projected and gathered on the screen.

 With regard to a photograph one can ask what is behind an object or beyond the frame of it. The reason we can ask this question is, that the objects on a photograph have an answer in reality. Reality is just cut off by the limited camera itself. For this, confining the world, photography should be praised, because by that means it allows us to think.

 On the contrary those questions cannot be raised with regard to a painting, since the world of a painting stands in continuity to the world of the frame. In other words, a painting is a world whose limits are the frame.

 The notion of the painting’s frame differs from the notion of the film’s frame. The frame of a movie is the whole of the screen. That frame is indefinitely extensible and contractible depending on the standards of technology and the range of the world. To draw the camera back or panning it are just two ways of enlarging the frame. The effect of changing the frame, i.e. through a close-up or a ling shot, raises attention. But changing the frame is not its only possibility. There is another one, namely to let the world happen. That means, to let the world self call attention to according to it’s natural weight. (Cavell names Carl-Theodor Dreyer and Michelangelo Antonioni, among others, as two masters of this phenomenon.)

7 responses to “Viewing the World of Paintings and the World in Photographs or Movies

  1. hello, SP,

    wow, my nose bled and i think my ears, too. but this is very insightful and thought-provoking. am going to read it again, maybe two more times. after that, i suppose i could make half of the sense it’s trying to convey, haha. ^^

    seriously though, i think am getting some of what it’s trying to say, it’s very Frenchy, don’t you think? suspending time, the self and the reality, reality stopped or in a continuum. yes, very philosophical. rather… am gonna read it again. Cheers! 🙂

    • hmm, yes, maybe you’re right in describing those ideas as very philosophical. however, the Matrix-Trilogy poses the question about what is real. I’m not sure, but we are faced with similar questions in, a more or less sophisticated, everyday life, too. do I know what another person feels when he or she is happy or sad? do colours exist? does perception resemble the camera obscura? does a tree make noise when it falls down in the woods without anyone being around there? and so on… (and those questions entered the arts as well. and pupils asking themselves those questions, too.) I don’t think that those questions make really sense, yet they can be understood in some ways, since there are more down to earth problems: sometimes we do not recognize the sadness of others, sometimes we err about what we see or hear, and our memory is very suggestible.
      whether Cavell’s thoughts are French, let’s put it that way: Cavell refers mainly to Wittgenstein, Austin, Emerson, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Heidegger. Nietzsche and Heidegger are of course sources for French philosophy, Wittgenstein and Austin not that much (but for Derrida with whom Cavell discussed in private and about whom he wrote in several books). hence, there are connections, but also differences.
      last but not least, I don’t claim to fully understand him or agree with him in every aspect, too. but I absolutely like his creativity and surprising thoughts.

      • oh, i enjoy reading articles like this. i used to read philosophical stuffs years, years back. I haven’t in maybe three years? so, i might need some getting used to again, haha.

        btw, this guy from Norway, a photographer, sometimes discuss similar themes in his posts. he does it bit by bit though. you might drop by his site sometime –

        hope things are going well. cheers! 😉

      • thanks for the hint. 🙂 I go for Cavell because he is down to earth, not that intellectualized, and he formulates some great insights. and he is very precise although his style of writing is really ambitious. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Why Movies Are So (much more) Important (than the other arts) « sinister pink·

  3. oh, i’ve read similar articles before comparing paintings and photography. am just not sure if i still got the handles, haha. 😉 but i can understand that part in the discussion about photographs being still shots of reality at one time, in one space, so to speak. they are realities captured without the presence of the one who will look at them. or, regardless of who would look at them later on, those pics are the same.

    whereas paintings, somehow endeavor to bring in the onlookers’ realities, perceptions and meanings into the picture or the art creation. that is, the realities created by the paintings aren’t just what are contained in the paintings but also the experiences and views by the onlookers. haha, i hope i am getting this right… ^^

    thus, photography and paintings are different. I think Cavell contends that photography allows for a more detached (also less subjective) viewing of reality (as represented in the picture) compared to paintings. is he saying that paintings are more subjective in the sense that the onlooker has to bring in his own set of realities to understand, appreciate and make sense of the works and the realities they want to get across to the audience/onlooker? 😉

    • “is he saying that paintings are more subjective in the sense that the onlooker has to bring in his own set of realities to understand, appreciate and make sense of the works and the realities they want to get across to the audience/onlooker?”
      hmm, two points I’d like to mention. first, I haven’t yet worked out for me an overall view of his thoughts on film. and there are some of his ideas about viewing movies I didn’t understand. second, the chapters I was referring to respond to the question, whether we can comprehend the world or not. Putnam, his colleague, puts it that way: he criticizes the relativistic, skeptic view, that we do not understand the world as it is, because we merely bring in our notions. (right to the point that it is dubious whether a falling tree in the woods makes any noise when there is no one to listen, or whether the world exists after I’m dying, or existed before I was born… 😉 ) then he also criticizes the position, that attempts to distill our notions (i.e. colours, beauty) and the world as it is (i.e. mathematical, logical). his idea is, that we test our notions in action, in applying them to the world. if they work, fine, but it doesn’t follow that the world is like that. this notion “in itself” we should abandon. I totally agree with this. and I think that’s it what Cavell wants to work out. there is a world independent from us, but there is nothing like an “in itsef”. this is what we experience in viewing paintings and photographs.

Well, I'd like to know: What do you think?

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