August 2, 2012
In the last section of Representation in Photography The Competition with Painting in Hilde Van Gelder and Helen W. Westgeest's Photography Theory Historical Perspective text --it was mentioned in this post ---Van Gelder and Westgeest explore the “index” and “icon” (or “indexical” and “iconic”) opposition.
This duality is often used to define the relationship between the photograph and reality and the difference between photography and figurative painting. Photography’s indexicality is deemed to constitute the basis for proposing ontological distinctions between painting and photography.
Gerhard Richter, Erschossener 1, Man Shot Down 1, 1988, Oil on canvas
Erschossener1 has been hand-painted from photo- graphs that appeared in German newspapers and it comes out as black-and-white, blurred photograph.
Van Gelder and Westgeest say that some theorists define index and icon as two different forms of representation, with – sometimes – an overlap in formal relationship. Susan Sontag, for instance, argued in On Photography (1977) that style cannot exist in photographs because it is automatically installed due to the image’s indexical nature. Photography supposedly lacks an iconic and is “condemned” as it was to indexicality. Figurative painting, in contrast, has most often been accorded higher valued than photography on the scale of art due to its presumed purely iconic nature.
A photo is a physical trace or index of that reality. Gelder and Westgeest say that:
Many theorists...have basically used index and trace as synonyms, privileging the term index and emphasizing the causal relationship to the detriment of the formal or iconic aspects. The reason for this conflation seems to be that causality can be linked to photography’s assumed relationship of veracity to the reality it represents. Photography’s indexicality thus constituted the basis for proposing ontological distinctions between painting and photography. Indexicality, understood in sheer terms of a cause–effect relationship, would be the hallmark of photography. Iconicity, which in this logic does not possess such causal capacity, is left for painting, as being its own specific characteristic of a stylized resemblance.
My own view of this is that the resemblance between a realistic depiction and the reality it refers to, be it a figurative painting or a photograph, is always ultimately based on a cultural/aesthetic convention, shared by many persons. In Sontag's terms style exits in photography.
Photography and figurative painting share a common characteristic in the sense that they both are a mode of representation in which the picture can be perceived as resembling the object it depicts. They can, therefore, both be defined as iconic. Even an photographic image that is strongly indexical--eg., analogical photograph considered to be a witness, stressing the singularity of a moment--- becomes interesting photograph to look at in different ways when we do not know and do not bother anymore about the who or where.