Definition of Photograph

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Fuji Neopan 1600 emulsion

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Fuji Neopan 1600 and developed in Kodak XTOL in 2008. © 2008 Luigi Cassinelli. All rights reserved.

What are the indispensable ingredients of the document reproduced above? Light reflected by an environment, silver halides, an optical system, and the decision of one photographer. What is this thing? We call it a photograph. It is NOT an image like any other. It is a FOSSIL of one human experience. It is evidence, cemented by a natural phenomenon, of an irreversible human interaction within a real environment.

Given all the elements that contribute to generate a photograph, the definition that we honor is: a material and permanent, original trace of the light conveyed by an optical system, generated in the instant where light, the photographer's interaction with his or her environment, and matter connect at the same time.

The term original helps us to assess the unique genesis of the photograph, its inherent irreversibility, and consequently to differentiate a photograph from its reproductions. The term trace should be interpreted with its existential meaning: an indication of the existence of something (the metallic silver left in developed film is the physical trace of the direct action of the light reflected by the environment).

The following sections will cover in depth analyses of this outline.

The Fundamentals: Technology, Ontology, Semantics, and Ethics

I. Photography is defined by the natural phenomenon of the interaction between light and silver halides; there is no photography without physical evidence of such interaction. For example, digital files alone cannot bear any photographic evidence, since they are mutant entities, by design.

II. The essence of photography is rooted in one, specific moment: the instant where light, the photographer's interaction with his or her environment, and matter (silver halide) connect at the same time. This connection, created by the photographer's irreversible decision, generates the latent image that will be developed into one physical, permanent, and original document: the photograph.

III. Photography must be differentiated from other techniques by using semantics consistent with its etymology. Authentic photographic work is only the one directly recorded by light. For example, ink on paper is not photographic.

IV. As in the reproduction of any original document and work of art, an ethical criterion is necessary in the reproduction of photographs. On this account, it is essential to differentiate between a photograph and its reproductions (whether the reproductions are photographic prints or digital images published on the Web) and to reproduce faithfully.

I. Technology

The Peerless Invention

Each photograph is a natural phenomenon where the energy of light and the energy of silver halides generate one material record. Matter is essential to photography. There are many websites dedicated to sensitometry and to the properties of different emulsions. Our goal here is to remind that cameras alone are not sufficient to achieve photography. Leonardo da Vinci built a camera, but his camera couldn’t record anything. We need photographic cameras, where the output is matter, matter sensitive to light and capable of delivering one permanent record of its interaction with light.

Two Reasons Why Digital Files Are Not Photographs

digital image displaying a digital file recorded on perforated tape

Reason one. The image above shows the print out of a digital file, a code, paper perforated according to instructions. This medium is now obsolete, but it served the same purpose of our hard drives and flash cards, to store instructions for controlling the operation of machines. For example, right in this moment, your browser is reading instructions stored in a digital file (electronically stored in the server hosting this website) and is operating the pixels of your monitor. Each pixel of your monitor is lit according to specific instructions, thus creating an electronic image, but the image you see is an electronic simulation, not a photograph. If you press "print," different instructions will operate your printer, but drops of ink configured by a machine do not make a photograph either. Photographs are recorded directly by light itself. Conversely, the instructions written into digital files are created according to human protocols and recorded by machines.

Reason two: digital files are mutant entities. Right now the digital file that your browser is reading contains one specific set of instructions, but, at any time, those instructions might change. Digitalfile.jpg is not a permanent entity, simply because it is designed to be whatever we want it to be. It "says" whatever we wish. We can name it whatever we please. It can be stored into punched cards or into solid state components. It operates our monitors and printers so that we are happily surrounded by the images we covet, but it does not produce what light itself would record. It cannot be a photograph.

Photographic technology is rooted in one natural phenomenon: the attraction between light and silver halides. No matter how much we rely on information technology, we should always remember that it cannot and it will never replace natural phenomena. In the realm of photography this means that digital files might display simulations of photographs, but digital files are not and will never be photographs. Digital cameras are computers that translate the electric input of sensors into a code. The output of a digital camera is a grid of instructions, input for simulation software, but it has no physical link with light. The output of a digital camera can also be generated without a digital camera, by software alone.

Examples of Photographs in Positive and Negative Forms

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with instant developing film Fuji FP-3000B

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with instant developing film Fuji FP-3000B. Actual size 3.75 x 2.875 inches (95x73 mm). © 2017 Luigi Cassinelli. All rights reserved.

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Kodak TX400

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Kodak TX400 and developed in positive form by DR5. Actual size 70x56 mm. © 2011 Luigi Cassinelli. All rights reserved.

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Ilford HP5+

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Ilford HP5+ and developed in Kodak XTOL. Actual size 24x36 mm. © 2010 Luigi Cassinelli. All rights reserved.

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Kodak portra

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Kodak Portra 400VC and developed in Kodak C-41. Actual size 56x41 mm. © 1999 Luigi Cassinelli. All rights reserved.

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Kodak Kodachrome 200

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Kodachrome 200 and developed in Kodak K-14. Actual size 24x36 mm. © 1999 Luigi Cassinelli. All rights reserved.

II. Ontology

The Heart of the Matter

By pointing to a specific moment we assess and honor the photographer's decision to record what he or she sees, through a chosen optical system, by trusting solely the instantaneous and independent action of light on matter. This is the heart of the matter; this is the point where our view differs from other assessments of photography. For the members of digital and chemical retouching in the reproduction of an original photograph are forms of self inflicted illusions, of trivial denial, or of plain deception. Retouching motivated on aesthetic or conceptual grounds might serve the purpose of image makers, storytellers, animators, but it voids the direct link with light, the reason to exist of a photographer. On the same account, the boundary between the transient nature of digital imaging and the permanent one of photographic phenomena should be defined unequivocally. Obviously this doesn't mean we do not appreciate other crafts, technologies, codes, and freedom in creativity. What we do not agree with is the practice of selling simulations as real phenomena.

The Unique Bond with Reality

A photograph is a fragment of reality and it cannot be dissociated from it. This is because it is rooted in the natural phenomenon that takes place when light and matter react. The image we read in it might convey a message, and its interpretation is subjective, but what light actually records is something close to a fossil (citing Sontag), and its body is objective. No other technique demands such a continuous interaction with what is real, light first of all. Photography challenges our direct relationship with reality, a harsh test for our frustrations, one that alienates many from photography and explains the success of retouching techniques. Setting aside all frustrations and illusions, an important question should be posed: Which evidence do photographs bring us?

Photography is neither a representation, nor a reproduction of reality; reality is more complex and dynamic than a single clue. That said, each photograph is the result of an interaction that takes place within reality, and this is quite a monumental achievement. For example, a photographic portrait is not a "copy" of a face; still, it shows how the photographer and the model interacted in that precise instant. Photographs cannot differentiate actors from soldiers. Nevertheless, photographs are inestimable historical records of the photographer's life, his or her exploration and decisions, as experienced.

III. Semantics

The word "photograph" has been abused by incomplete, vague, often wrong definitions. If we assess its etymology: "n. 1839, formed from English photo- light + -graph instrument for recording" (From the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology) and the initial definitions formulated by Daguerre and Sir John Herschel, we should not use the word "photograph" for something essentially different.

"Written by light" is not a sufficient condition for the definition of a photograph. By examining photographic work, we should be more specific and ask ourselves "Which light?" Point is that, today as two centuries ago, a print is not a photograph; since the light emitted by an enlarger is not the light that created a daguerrotype or a negative. Reproductions and originals are not the same thing. Thus, we differentiate photographic prints from photographs.

"Written by light" is not a sufficient condition for the definition of a photograph, but is a necessary one. By ignoring this fundamental point, in the last century, marketing executives invented a decoy: "digital photography." "Digital photography" is an oxymoron, and "analog photography" is redundant. Fact is that photographic cameras record photographs and digital cameras deliver digital files, mutant entities that have no link with real light. Wrong word choices foster ambiguity and manipulation. We don't say, "I ate an analog pear," unless we believe there could be a digital one. We don't say, "I enjoyed a digital flight;" we use the words "virtual flight" or "flight simulator." We also do not consider pilots those who just play with flight simulation software. Real pilots are the ones who have the skills to fly a real plane. We need a new glossary for a new invention. The output of digital cameras should be named "virtual photography," "simulated photography," or, even better, a completely new word.

IV. Ethics

Originals and Reproductions

The very same question we ask about images on the Web is pertinent to printed work too. One example of ethical statement is what Helmut Newton wrote on page 29 of his book Work (Taschen, 2000): "Nothing has been retouched, nothing electronically altered. I photographed what I saw." Now, how do we know that any print, photographic (gelatin silver) or digital, is faithful to its photograph? There is no other way than examining the original photograph. Upon request, the members of commit to keep their archives open to the public. We also encourage publications, art galleries, museums, and photographers' websites to inform their spectators about the existence and the characteristics of each original photograph.

The following two examples illustrate how to abide by our code of honor.

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Fuji NPH400 and its printed reproduction on the cover of Italian Elle February 1999

Left, digital scan of a photograph, recorded with Fuji NPH400 and developed in Kodak C-41, © 1998 Luigi Cassinelli; on the right, its reproduction published on the February 1999 issue of Italian Elle.

Digital scan of a photograph recorded with Fuji neopan 1600 and its photographic print

Above, digital scan of a photograph, recorded with Fuji Neopan 1600 and developed in Fuji SPD in 2010, © 2010 Luigi Cassinelli. All rights reserved. Below, photographic print, printed by Gianni Romano on Ilford Multigrade FB Classic Matt, in 2015.