Photography and Its Shadow
Hagi Kenaan




In the heated debates over the significance and value of photography that swirled around the medium in the first few decades after its invention, it was already clear to both enthusiasts and detractors that the new image-making process was poised to radically alter human experience. Today, a hundred and eighty years after its inception, photography has established itself as the regulating standard for seeing and picturing, remembering and imagining, and, significantly, for mediating relations between ourselves and others. It is now so intimately intertwined within our ordinary routines that we cannot begin to imagine our everyday lives without it. Photography has become an intrinsic condition of the human, a condition that—with Heidegger in mind—may be termed “an Existential.” And yet, photography’s rootedness in the ordinary is so deep that its existential dimension also typically hides from us, challenging us to find a vantage point as well as a philosophical language for describing its pervasive presence.

This challenge is further complicated by the fact that photography itself is constantly changing. In recent years photography’s dominance as a visual form has been inseparable from the medium’s rapid and ceaseless technological transformations. These transformations are often taken to indicate that photography’s ontological grounds have shifted, that a new ontology of images has emerged, which, for lack of a better term, has been called “post-photography.” The literature on post-photography tends to identify the new condition of the image with the latest technological forms it has taken after the digital turn, but these innovations cannot in themselves explain the photographic condition. The question concerning technology, to refer to Heidegger again, is not a technological question but is, rather, one rooted in who we are—and who we have become—as human beings. At the same time, however, the fact that photographic theory doesn’t offer a satisfying account of post-photography does not necessarily mean that the term, or the intuition behind it, is empty.

In 1839 William Henry Fox Talbot described the invention of photography as the new art of “photogenic drawing.” His description of photography came at a time when the medium was still so undetermined—much like post-photography today—that every description of it remained conceptually dependent on the traditional category of visual representation that photography claimed to supersede. It took time for photographers and interpreters of photography to recognize the conceptual autonomy of the photograph and to articulate the nuances of its specificity (as sui generis) vis-à-vis the traditional visual arts. This process of retroactively determining the identity of the photographic image constitutes a consequential chapter in the history of photography, which has received a variety of interesting treatments;1 but, its philosophical significance lies in how it illustrates a general dialectic that is essential to the life of the image: a dialectic between the possibilities opened up by new depiction technologies and the determination of these possibilities in and through a new pictorial medium with distinctive modalities of meaning.

Understanding the emergence of photography in these terms is fundamental to the project that I propose here, one that lays the groundwork for a philosophical interpretation of the changing condition of photography in the twenty-first century. In this respect, this book should be understood as a prolegomenon—not the kind of wide-ranging Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics we know from Kant and the history of philosophy, but one that is more narrowly construed, concentrating on a specific metaphysical problem: an introduction to a future metaphysics of the image or to a future ontology of the visual. The term “future” applies here, as it does in Kant, to invite further elaborations of a preliminary ontological framework; but, in contrast to Kant, it also serves to acknowledge and address the ever-changing character of the phenomenon under investigation and, specifically, the fact that as the visual changes, it generates new possibilities for the future of the image. Photography, as Hans Belting reminds us, constitutes only “a short episode in the old history of representation.”2 The hegemony of the photographic is a short, and likely, a passing chapter in our relationship with images. Yet, as it is caught between “today and tomorrow,” photography also provides an opportune framework for rethinking the condition of the visual image in its movement toward the future, a future for which we are responsible, since its trajectory is determined by our present age.


To explain the retroactive dynamics at play in determining the identity of the photographic, we need to recognize the presence of a certain duality—one that was not only operative in the emergence of photography but that reveals itself in the twofold character of photography’s present condition. Photography has become a pervasive dimension of the human. It is rooted in ordinary experience, but despite its efficacy and immense impact, it is itself a changing historical condition that might already be passing.

To say that photography is both omnipresent and dead requires further elaboration. And, to explain this tension, I turn to Nietzsche, a philosopher who was born the very same year—1844—that Talbot published The Pencil of Nature, the first photographically illustrated book. Nietzsche, I argue, is the father of photophilosophy. His thinking not only developed in a world that had just turned photographic, but it also possessed the radical potential to articulate photography’s new logic of appearance, which, for a long time, photography itself could not accept. This logic of the developing history of photography interestingly coincides with the impending transformation of the human that Nietzsche describes in his philosophy of the future.

The aforementioned duality, the concurrence of omnipresence and death, preoccupies Nietzsche in the context of his thinking on the death of God—a theme that will eventually also become relevant for the discussion of the photographic. For Nietzsche, the death of God—the collapse of an overarching principle on which the possibility of meaning and value relies—is a “tremendous event” that cannot be immediately recognized. This condition “is still on its way, wandering” or, in other words, its actuality is dependent on a structure of a belatedness (or afterward-ness). As Nietzsche’s madman runs through the marketplace proclaiming the death of God, his words are senseless to an audience not yet ready to understand him. But, their inability to understand is not a result of their commitment as believers. On the contrary, it is their self-regard as advanced non-believers that bars them from recognizing the extent to which their lives are held under the sway of a god whose death has not yet become part of the network of the real. It is in this sense that the madman arrived too early or, as he puts it: “My time is not yet. . . . This tremendous event . . . has still not reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard.” The death of God needs time to resonate and become part of the network of the real. “The greatest events and thoughts . . . are the last to be comprehended: the generations that are contemporaneous with them do not experience such events. . . . Something happens here that is similar to the realm of the stars.”3 Distant stars need time to appear in our human sky. Their appearance seems immediate, but it is, in fact, a belated one. In our human sky, presence is often retrospective. Yet, this star logic has another side to it: The bright presence of a star is often the appearance of light that has traveled from what, in the present, is a dead star. Events and constellations that no longer exist may impact our lives, appearing to take place in the present.

In Gay Science #108, Nietzsche articulates this second aspect of the event’s belatedness by using a different kind of figure, a shadow—in this case, the shadow of the Buddha:

After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave—a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.—And we—we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.4

Making the point that the presence of (an absent) god continues to dominate us long after his death, Nietzsche adverts here to the proverbial Buddhist tale of the shadow cave. In evoking the shadow that the Buddha left in the dragon’s cave, Nietzsche is uninterested in the complex resonances of this tale in the development of Chinese theories of the image.5 For him, the picture of a cave in which a “tremendous, gruesome shadow” is displayed is productive since it offers a succinct way for presenting the dispositif by which a dead god continues to exercise his rule. This mechanism is one that creates a spectacle of simulation, and it does so by determining not only what is seen but also the conditions of spectatorship that allow the seen to be seen in a certain determinate way.

The spectacle shown in the enclosed, dark space of the cave is an anomaly: Unlike ordinary shadows, the shadow on display is not a transient phenomenon. Furthermore, it lacks the projective essence of regular shadows whose appearance, as such, is always part of a relationship with the objects that they project. The shadow in the cave is a transmuted shadow, one that is uprooted from the natural matrix of the visible. If shadows belong to the condition of the appearance of whatever is under the sun, then, for Nietzsche, Buddha’s shadow in the cave is an allegory of the dramatic transmutation of the condition of the visual that allows the shadow to endure as an independent entity.

With the death of God, the realm of the sensible is no longer upheld by the supersensible. The visible is no longer anchored in the divine. And interestingly, this separation is also what opens up the possibility of a visual manipulation by which the presence of the divine can be simulated (for Nietzsche, simulated rather than venerated). The ability to fix and control a shadow is, for Nietzsche, a sign of an emerging technology of appearances, which was beginning to develop over and against the kind of human anchorage in the visible that embraces the invisible (the super-sensible) as its horizons and inner lining. In this context, it is remarkable that in evoking the shadow cave, Nietzsche is, in fact, describing a large camera.


Indeed, the idea of a dark chamber used for practicing the “art of fixing shadows” was central to the imagination and language of early photography. “A shadow,” Talbot proudly declares in his 1839 announcement of the invention, “the most transitory of things . . . the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary . . . may be fettered . . . [and] fixed forever . . . so firmly as to be no more capable of change.” But, can the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting ever take on a fixed form? Can the shadow remain a shadow when robbed of its constitutive temporal trademark? In photography, as in Nietzsche, the idea of a fixed shadow resonates with a crucial contradiction. The fixed shadow denotes photography’s original sensitivity toward the momentary and ephemeral, but also its strong instrumental determination to transform and control natural appearances by subjugating the fleeting instant.

What’s unique here about photography’s manner of superseding the shadow is not, however, the durable materiality it lends to the image that it captures. It is, rather, the way in which the “killing” of the shadow radically and irreversibly transforms the relationship between human vision and the image—between the visible and the visual—and consequently brings about a new visual order severed from the claims of nature. What is the significance of this twofold gesture, which both welcomes nature and confiscates nature’s self-projection?

Given that shadows belong to the condition of “natural” appearances, does this transmutation of the shadow reflect an epochal change not only in the human relation to the nature of phenomena but also to the phenomenality of nature? How is the emergence of photography tied, beyond its irreversible transformation of the visual, to a transformation in the subject’s relation to what appears in the present, to the appearance of a present? What kind of modality or machine, to use Deleuzian terms, did photography create for welcoming and bidding farewell to the unfolding of phenomena—to that which shows itself and disappears—or, more generally, for negotiating the dimensions of transience and finitude? These questions, which are central for this study, were not, however, subjects that photography could grapple with as long as it was struggling to form and guard its own identity. And, it thus continued to understand, present, and market itself into the twentieth century as the offering—not to mention the offspring—of nature, as a natural process that, like the figure of the shadow, projects itself into the inner drama of human life.

This self-understanding, mixed with self-denial, can be gleaned from different facets of photography’s rhetoric in the nineteenth century. A ubiquitous 1840s advertisement for daguerreotypes offers a case in point. The ad reads: “Secure the shadow, ere the substance fade! Let Nature imitate what nature made.” Foreshadowing the logic of advertisements in late capitalism, the ad addresses the potential consumer by offering what, in essence, is not a commodity and cannot be bought. Like current ads that present intimacy, friendship, or family values as the achievement of mobile phones, the daguerreotype ad knows how to tap into poignant psychological structures. Its modus operandi makes use of sentiments and needs we all have as we face the unavoidable losses that await us in life, presenting the daguerreotype as an answer, a solution, to the human yearning to hold onto the evanescent presence of our departed loved ones.

The ad reminds its reader of what would surely strike a chord. It is important to capture the moment before it is lost forever, before it is too late. And, concomitantly, it offers the daguerreotype as an optimal way to respond to that urgent need. The shadow not only lends itself to “fixing,” but it “requires” that it be secured. The securing of the shadow is the prompt and responsible response to the inevitable fading of substance, an answer to the semi-ethical imperative implied by the ad. Substance and shadow both belong to nature, and they remain nature’s creations regardless of the human intervention in securing the shadow.6 The need is deeply human, but it is nature itself that “oversees” this accommodating process. Making a daguerreotype is not, primarily, a technological production, but only a modest human gesture toward allowing nature to fulfill its own potential. Nature is both productive and imitative, and, as such, the photographic is only a continuation and expansion of nature’s inner propensities. Photography “let[s] nature imitate what nature made.”

At the same time, however, the ad’s call to “secure the shadow” has yet another underpinning, replicating an age-old understanding of what images are: Images are a mode of memorialization that originates in the human need to negotiate the presence of death, to mitigate the imminent experience of loss and protect against the complete breakdown of our forms of attachment to the people, places, and things we love and care about.

Photography, as I show, was attracted to this traditional understanding of the image’s essence in which the figure of the shadow had an emblematic standing. The shadow, in this context, was not only a stock figure for evoking human transience, but it furthermore functioned as a metonym for a famous ancient tale on the image’s origin that enjoyed great popularity in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century culture. This is Pliny’s influential myth of the Corinthian maid who creates the first visual image (the first drawing) by tracing, on a wall, the shadow of her departing lover. In assimilating Pliny’s tale, early photography could root itself in the long tradition of the visual arts and, specifically, take on drawing’s intimate rapport with the realm of the visible—from the vicissitudes of nature to the vicissitudes of love and the vulnerability of the human condition. Furthermore, what Pliny’s tale provided was a conceptual-figurative scheme—that continued to be consistently popular in both art and theory at least until Roland Barthes and Victor Burgin—by which photography could ground its mechanical, uprooted images and uphold their meaningfulness as (if they were) continuous evolvements, emanations, traces of an original, if lost, presence.


My interest in photography’s changing relation with its self-image is ultimately ontological rather than historical. I use the term “ontology” in its philosophical sense, that is as a logos of being, which is different from its prevalent use in contemporary photographic theory. Ontology is not, as it is often understood, “an all-inclusive definition of photography or a list of medium-specific characteristics that would set photography apart from other media.”7 In fact, if photographic theory is a conceptual systematization of the multifaceted aspects of the photographic phenomenon, then ontology is the opposite, or the outside, of theory. Ontology’s task is not to systematize but to open up photography to the sense in which its presence can be seen as a “branch of being.”8 Or, as I have previously stated, ontology teaches us to see the photographic as an Existential.

And, yet, the ontological approach I take here is inseparable from a historical understanding of photography. We need history in order to properly articulate the question of photography’s ontology. It is only through its historical transformations that the being of the photographic can reveal itself as that which is not one with itself. Before I say more about this dynamic ontology, notice that it is structurally different from most ontological renderings of photography. These accounts, regardless of their differing findings and conclusions, typically address “What Photography Is,” to cite the title of a book by James Elkins. Photography is what it is—self-same and constant in meaning—and, as such, its essence can and should be articulated in positive terms: “Photography is ABC” or “Photography is XYZ.” Here are a few examples of this common tendency, starting with Barthes’s canonical Camera Lucida.

Barthes opens this influential text by declaring his desire “to learn at all costs what Photography [is] ‘in itself,’” “to give a name to Photography’s essence,”9 which he pursues in terms of the photograph’s unique ability to allow the past—allow the dead—to become a real part of the present. This is, for him “the very essence, the noeme of Photography.” And, since this understanding is based on what he takes to be an undeniable fact about photographs—namely, that they show what was actually in the camera’s field of vision—“the name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That-has-been,’ or again, the Intractable.”10

Expanding on Barthesian themes, Eduardo Cadava explains the essence of photography by reproducing this common logic of sameness: “Photography is a mode of bereavement. It speaks to us of mortification. . . . This bereavement acknowledges what takes place in any photograph—the return of the departed.”11 For him, “this music of love and death . . . can be called photography.”12

This inner logic appears again in Elkins’s What Photography Is, although it takes it in a completely different direction. Elkins provides a straightforward critique of Barthes that deals not only with the key claims in Camera Lucida but also with the pathos and mood—“the wounded imagination”—of Barthes’s writing that Elkins regards as “an impediment to his project of finding the ‘nature’ of photography.” Elkins “agree[s] with Barthes that at one of its limits, ordinary photography of people has something to do with the viewer’s unfocused ideas about her own death.” But, he explicitly objects to the fetishization of this blurred idea, which brings reprisals. In locating photography between love and death, Barthes “hides photography’s non-humanist, emotionless side,” which is precisely where Elkins seeks to uncover the core of the photographic. “Photography is about something harder . . . a duller, less personal kind of pain.” For him, what photographs confront us with is the world’s own deadness, its inert resistance to whatever it is we may hope or want.13 Again, despite Elkins’s pluralistic approach to what images do, he takes the gist of the photographic image to lie in its ability to “fill our eyes with all the dead and deadening stuff of the world, material we don’t want to see or to name.” To understand photography is to recognize that it is constantly “at war with our attention.”14

At first glance, Kaja Silverman’s The Miracle of Analogy seems to share Elkins’s central motivation. Like him, she offers an account of photography that deliberately turns away from the personal and explains the essence of the photograph in terms of its relation to the world’s “authorless and untranscendable” self-disclosure. But, unlike Elkins who emphasizes photography’s “inert resistance” to sense, harmony, and hope, Silverman’s account of what photography uncovers is optimistic, and she embraces the meaningfulness of photography’s visuality. For her, photography is “the world’s primary way of revealing itself to us—of demonstrating that it exists and that it will forever exceed us.”15 In photography, an important dimension of the world’s ontological structure becomes manifest. This is what Silverman terms “the analogical structure of Being” whose revelation by photography helps us in assuming our place in the world. Photography” helps us to see that each of us is a node in a vast constellation of analogies.” It is the vehicle through which the world discloses itself to us as analogical in essence, “and through which we learn to think analogically” and “assume our place within it because it, too, is analogical.”16

Silverman’s understanding of photography qua analogy deserves a separate discussion, but what specifically concerns me here is the frame and inner structure of her theoretical discourse. Despite the unique content of her proposal, Silverman’s approach exemplifies again a monolithic understanding of the parameters of the ontological question. Like the aforementioned examples, her response to the question of photography’s being also takes the common form of “Photography is XYZ.”

What makes the direction I’m taking here methodologically different from those above is—first—its dialectical twist. As suggested, my account begins with the recognition that photography has never been one with itself. The history of photography is not a chronology of a given, essentially self-same, pictorial medium; instead, it is an account of a dialectical process that allowed photography to negotiate and sustain an identity. The starting point for the story I tell is the presence of an inner duality that has been both constitutive of and concealed by the process of becoming photography. The photographic image was never one thing or another, but a relational phenomenon that materialized through a constant tension between those parts of its being that it needed to suppress and other, external, foreign aspects of “being an image in general” that it needed to assimilate in order to come into its own and guard its acquired identity as a distinctive pictorial medium.

To complicate the story, I argue that, from its very beginning, photography needed to hide its mechanical birthmark, whose presence created a contradiction that it could not contain. This contradiction was precisely what opened up photography’s new visuality, but, at the same time, it seemed to preclude the photographic image from the community of meaningful images. Beyond the general structure of contradictions, “‘A is B’ and ‘A is not-B,’” the contradictory structure of the photograph had a deeper, more troubling, specificity. Its being was torn by an inner opposition: “‘The photographic image is some-thing’ and ‘The photographic image is no-thing.’

Haunted by a void, photography used different strategies to assert itself as meaningful. I thus argue that its different ways of sense-making should be interpreted in terms of the consistent preoccupation with this inner sense of groundlessness. The need to live with nothing at its core makes the condition of the photographic analogous to the condition of modern subjectivity, which in the nineteenth century finds itself facing the consequences of what Nietzsche called the death of God. This shift away from the optimism of the Enlightenment gives rise to a new mode of attunement, a mood that would become essential to the life of an emerging subjectivity and its new image paradigm. Photographs may appear melancholic, as Susan Sontag described them, but, melancholy is a reactive mood that hides photography’s encounter with the primary effect of the nothing. “What effect does nothing have?” Søren Kierkegaard asks. “It begets anxiety,” he replies. Anxiety is the primary mood of photography, a mood that photography learned to camouflage and ultimately modify. For Kierkegaard, who published The Concept of Anxiety the same year that Talbot published The Pencil of Nature, “Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. . . . [A]nxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility.”17 Indeed, photography has taken hold of its own possibility and has become the ruling image of the human. Today, we are reluctant—we do not know how—to experience what is not intrinsically photographic. Photography provides the most ubiquitous standard for our life with images.

At the same time, however, photography has reached a stage at which its fundamental complex is waning. The intrinsic tensions that constituted its identity have dissolved, and in this sense its dialectical evolvement is coming to a pause. In other words, photography has managed to overcome the historic anxiety regarding the hole that has played a crucial role in the historical process of its self-determination. Photography’s mood is no longer anxiety, but dementia. Hence, if there is a sense in which it has moved on to a post-human or post-photographic stage, this is because its mechanisms of negation and inner concealment have gradually ceased to function. Having exhausted its dialectical potential, photography today is merely what it is.

So, where does photography go from here?


1. Joel Snyder, “Inventing Photography,” in On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Photography, eds. Sarah Greenough et al. (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1989); Rosalind Krauss, “Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View,” Art Journal 42, no. 4 (1982), 311–19; Allan Sekula, “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982); Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999); Kaja Silverman, The Miracle of Analogy or the History of Photography, Part 1 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015); Robin Kelsey, Photography and the Art of Chance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

2. Hans Belting, An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 147.

3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil/On the Genealogy of Morality; The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. 8, trans. Adrian Del Caro (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), 190.

4. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, ed. Bernard Williams, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 108.

5. Unlike Nietzsche’s reading, the shadow in these theories is typically not understood as a figure of the concealment of an absent god, but rather an indication—a trace—of the Buddha’s unique, albeit changing, presence. As such, these theories also provide, as Eugene Wang shows, a model for the visualization of the Buddha that embraces the shadow as an Ur-image—a medium or a source that grounds the possibility of a true representation of the divine. Eugene Wang, “The Shadow Image in the Cave: Discourse on Icons,” in Early Medieval China Sourcebook, ed. Wendy Swartz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

6. They are interestingly presented through a reversal of their more typical roles in language: Substance (which underlies appearances) is that which fades here, and the shadow (the prototype of evanescence) marks an endurance in time.

7. See, for example, Hilde van Gelder and Helen Westgeest, Photography Theory in Historical Perspective (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 12.

8. “Branches of Being”—this is Merleau-Ponty’s terminology for the facets of painting: “depth, color, form, line, movement, contour, physiognomy.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” trans. Carleton Dallery, in “The Primacy of Perception” and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 188.

9. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 3, 20.

10. Ibid., 76–77.

11. Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 11.

12. Eduardo Cadava and Paola Cortés-Rocca, “Notes on Love and Photography,” October 166 (2006), 34.

13. James Elkins, What Photography Is (New York, London: Routledge, 2011), xi–xii.

14. Ibid. See also, page 174: “I think that the answer is that photography gives us all kinds of things that we don’t want it to give us. Things we prefer not to dwell on, things that are magnetically attractive but at the same time repulsive to our eyes. . . . Photography is at war with our attention.”

15. Silverman, The Miracle of Analogy, 10–11.

16. Ibid., 11.

17. Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Reidar Thomte (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 61.