What is a photograph?

Edward Weston, 1937. Hot Coffee, Mojave Desert

Edward Weston, 1937. Hot Coffee, Mojave Desert

The ubiquity of photographs the fact that we all claim to be taking/making/sharing one are all excellent reasons to ask the question, “What is a photograph?” What are we referring to when we say photograph? Moreover, why is it interchangeable with photography?

Since the invention of ‘photography’, people have argued about its definition, boundaries, materiality, and limits. Did it begin with the first photographic device? The first light-sensitive material? The first camara obscura? Was the first photographer Johann Heinrich Schulze? Thomas Wedgwood? Joseph Nicéphore Niépce? Or the first person to use a camera obscura some thousands of years ago? (LensCulture 2014). Does it even matter?

Photography’s history shows us multiple photographies as each practitioner experiments with the medium to produce sometimes vastly different types of object—daguerreotype, talbotype, to name two. However, the essential unifying nature of these objects was that they were the product of chemical response to radiant energy, no matter how varied they were in material, structure or how much they might resemble other forms of graphic imagery (Romer 2010). In this sense, a photograph does not have to be on paper, flat, made with a camera, fixed or permanent, iconic, or even an object: it just has to be generated by light (Elkins 2007: 410).

However, if this original, unifying definition stands, then the question becomes, how do we deal with the subsequent changes in technology? By this definition, all negatives are photographs, as are all positives made by the action of light passing through those negatives onto a light-sensitive surface. How do we account for the types of Polaroid prints created through a chemical contact between the negative and the object we call a photograph? In the case of digital photography, a light-sensitive array of photocells translates light waves into an electronic output rather than a visible trace. This translation of light into binary information is then recoded back into visible tones and colours and outputted on screens, inkjet, or laser-printed images. Are these outputs photographs? (Elkins 2007: 413)

If we accept the paper print produced from a digital camera as a photograph, we then must expand the definition of photographs to include any visible objects in which light was involved at some stage in the generative process. Hence, what we now call photomechanically printed images would be considered photographs. The halftone prints, Woodburytypes, collotypes, photo silkscreens, photogravures would be no different from Type-C prints or cyanotypes where light is projected onto paper to create the image. This change in the definition of a photograph has nothing to do with hand- or human-generated, keystroke-instructed manipulation or interference in some pristine “matrix” but calls into question the importance of the idea of “unmediated light” in the formulation of our definition. We may choose to accept the displacement of the “light writing” to any position within the chain of steps in making an image that we define as “photographic.” In that sense, we need to be aware of the ramifications of so doing (Elkins 2007: 414).

As laid out so far, a photograph is defined based on the processes involved in its creation. Technological changes affect this definition, and the need for redefining a photograph persists as new technologies appear. Hence John Szarkowski, in his 1964 exhibition, The Photographer’s Eye (Szarkowski 2007), proposed that the nature of photographs should not be a process based on synthesis but selection. Photographs are and look the way they look based on five key features. Each of these five characteristics represents choices imposed on the photographer: The Thing Itself, The Frame, Time and The Vantage Point.


Szarkowski notes that photography deals with the actual (reality). He states that the photographer must accept this fact and treasure it. However, the subject and the picture are not the same thing. Therefore part of the photographic practice involves seeing this reality while still making choices that will result in a reality represented in the photograph. In a sense, Szarkowski suggests that the photograph represents a reality indicated by the photographer. As in my practices, this reality is not always physical. Instead, it pushes the actual (referred by Szarkowski) to construct a reality based on scientific research, evidence, and findings. The resulting photographs represent this reality through manipulation.


However, the reality documented by photographs (with compelling clarity) are simply isolated fragments—recorded not as a story but as scattered and suggestive clues. As Szarkowski puts it, “The photographer could not assemble these clues into a coherent narrative, he could only isolate the fragment, document it, and by so doing claim for it some special significance, a meaning which went beyond simple description” (Szarkowski 2007). For instance, the discarded objects of my practice are things that have run out of time—the narrative that gave them function is exhausted (Viney 2015). Hence photographing these objects re-energises them and confers on them some special significance.


Frames are the edges that demarcate a photographer’s selection—things the photographer regards as necessary appear within this frame. Even when the subject is selected, isolated, and framed in a photograph, they still point to the many other possible objects. Szarkowski suggests that this process of selection and rejection is the central act of photography. Likewise, selecting is key to my practice; identifying which item is waste and what is stuff is not always straightforward. My intent with selection uses specific objects indexically to represent the concept of waste.


Photographs describe a discrete parcel of time frozen and always made present. Immobilising these thin slices of time has been a source of continuing fascination for photographers, as exemplified in the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and his well-known phrase, ‘The decisive moment’. According to Szarkowski, “the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax but a visual one. The result is not a story but a picture.


Photographs present their ‘reality’ from a vantage point selected by the photographer from a range of possibilities. Often this means, as Szarkowski says, pictures from the other side of the proscenium, showing the actors’ backs, pictures from the bird’s view, or the worm’s, or pictures in which the subject is distorted by extreme foreshortening, or by none, or by an unfamiliar pattern of light, or by a seeming ambiguity of action or gesture” (Szarkowski 2007).

Despite all these attempts to define a photograph, we are no closer to an answer to the question, “What is a photograph?” It remains an open question that reveals the complexity of the debate and the varied ways practitioners approach photography.


  • ELKINS, James (ed.). 2007. Photography Theory. New York: Routledge.
  • LENSCULTURE, International Center For Photography |. 2014. ‘What Is a Photograph? - Photographs from the Exhibition at the International Center For Photography’. LensCulture [online]. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/international-center-for-photography-what-is-a-photograph [accessed 23 Jan 2022].
  • ROMER, Grant. 2010. ‘What Is a Photograph’ [online]. Available at: https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/teaching/photo_tn_whatis.pdf.
  • SZARKOWSKI, John. 2007. The Photographer’s Eye. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
  • VINEY, William. 2015. Waste: A Philosophy of Things. Available at: http://www.vlebooks.com/vleweb/product/openreader?id=none&isbn=9781472530011 [accessed 20 Jan 2022].