Concerning Uniqueness Claims for Photographic Representation

With the article ‘Concerning Uniqueness Claims for Photographic and Cinematographic Representation’, Noel Carroll wants to attack the theories of the representationalists. He does this because he does not find the approach they use suitable. It does not fit the way we deal with photographic images. First he discusses the re-presentation theory, which is mainly essentialist. There is an identity relationship between the photographic image and the referent, because the photographic image is caused by the referent.

Light patterns

Carroll then outlines a number of problems that arise when applying this theory in society. For example, the representation theory does take light patterns into account, while no attention is paid to the different angles from which a photographic image can be taken. The theory also does not take into account forms of trickery within the photographic image. It has been shown that the light patterns alone are not sufficient to substantiate the theory, as many objects can contain the same light patterns. A photographic image can therefore be identical to other images in terms of light pattern. But the use of different lenses is also ignored by the theory.

Because of all the problems with the re-presentation theory, it may be wisest, according to Carroll, to drop the suggestion of an identity relationship between the original and the photographic image and to say that the projection process represents the exact light impressions made by objects or people. have been reflected in the past. The problem with this is that every type of shot becomes representative, no matter how unrecognizable that shot is. That is why Carroll would prefer to see the theory disappear, because it will lead to contradictions; the theory is essentially meaningless.


André Bazin is also quoted by Carroll. According to Bazin, the (in his view) objective nature of photographic images should be used for realistic projects. But Carroll is also critical of this. The medium cannot guarantee total objectivity and recognizable results, as the photographer must manipulate (by optimizing lighting, among other things) to obtain the desired results. Only then does the automatic photographing process start. This does not mean that objectivity is not possible. Carroll merely indicates that objectivity or subjectivity cannot be achieved through the automatic nature of the photographic process.


A photographic image represents his model. This image is now ingrained in our current society. The representationalists therefore wonder what happens off screen. According to Carroll, one should be concerned with the purpose of the image, and he finally discusses an alternative approach to the representation of the photographic image. Carroll’s main point here is that the theory does not apply when the medium is used to create fiction. This is striking, since fiction is one of the most important purposes of the medium. According to the theory there is one form of cinematographic representation, but according to Carroll there are different forms:

  1. The level of the Physical Portrayal: Anthony Perkins (PSYCHO) is more important than Norman Bates.
  2. The level of generalization: Anthony Perkins represents all psychopathic murderers.
  3. The level of the Nominal Portrayal: Norman Bates is more important as an image than Anthony Perkins.

With these three forms, Carroll indicates that a unique form of representation does not exist. It is therefore clear that the function of the photographic image must be looked at, because this allows us to know which level of representation is being applied. So what Carroll is proposing is that we need to look more closely at the purpose of the photographic image.

In conclusion

It is clear with this article that Carroll is critical of the way people view photographic images. He believes that we should get rid of endless theories about the medium and focus our attention on the various ways in which the medium can shape our view of the world.

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