Charles Peirce on photography

I will now be spending a few days working at the 25th International Summer School for Semiotic and Structural Studies (I wonder why they still keep calling it that…) organised by the International Semiotics Institute in Imatra in Eastern Finland. This afternoon I got a little break from work and attended one of the plenary lectures. Paul Cobley gave a paper on genre. He proposed that genre may be a phenomenon based on indexicality rather than iconicity. I won’t go too deep into genre this time, but his proposal made me think of what Peirce wrote about photography. All three people who actually read this blog probably know this already but Peirce proposed that the photograph is actually based on indexicality, rather than iconicity. The photograph is always a forced resemblance by physical connection, not an iconic sign by virtue of similarity. Here is what Peirce writes in What Is a Sign? in 1894:

Photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are very instructive, because we know that they are in certain respects exactly like the objects they represent. But this resemblance is due to the photographs having been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature. In that aspect, then, they belong to the second class of signs, those by physical connection.

There are, of course, many possible components in a photograph that do not support its iconic relationship with “reality”. A blurred, over exposed, or grainy image is by no means an iconic sign of reality, but it is an indexical sign of camera use, film type, etc. Neither do cameras (film or digital) capture colors and light the way humans perceive them. It is therefore always possible to say under what circumstances a photograph was taken, but not make any interpretations of the object of the photograph based on iconic signs.

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