Book Review – “What is a Photograph?” and “See the Light”

  By John Veldhoen

I started writing this because I was going to watch a movie on Netflix directed by Jean-Luc Godard called “Goodbye to Language”, but this seemed like a better idea because 1) I have been thinking about two books that I recently purchased, and 2) I don’t really like watching Netflix that much, or cinema for that matter. Although “Life Itself”, about Roger Ebert, was mostly good…

Anyway, despite recently reading about the formal connections between philosopher Owen Barfield, and the subject of my last review, Howard Nemerov, and confronting a critique of the still image, I am still beguiled by photographs, though it is clearly an inherent vice. I write these “reviews” that are only provisionally reviews because I want to share a little bit of my interest in photography, and that is really the sum and substance of this review, but it should be added that “interest” is exchangeable with “symptom”. Despite myself, I want to look at two recent collections, both of them recent catalogs from exhibitions, “What is a Photograph?” curated for the International Center of Photography by Carol Squires, and “See the Light—Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection”, curated by Britt Salvesen for the Los Angeles County Museum. This is a long preface, and a way of saying that saying anything about photographs is just as fraught and mistaken as anything else, but nevertheless, I’d like it if my reader sought these two collections out, as it is my pleasure to own both of them, and to ruminate on their perspectives.


Yet, I’ve struggled all week with which to review first. I hope I am getting the order right, as I have tried to suss out the order, chicken-or-the-egg-wise. What comes first, a picture, or how we see a picture? Here it goes… “What is a Photograph?” is essentially based on an “objective correlative” thesis, or on what was called by literary theorist Bill Brown, “Thing Theory”. Carol Squires’ approach is precisely limited to a conceptual turn in photography that was not phenomenological, inasmuch as it put the photograph at the fore, limiting the open-ended question of perception so apparent in the other collection in question. An essay in “What is a Photograph”, called “Photography and the Philosophers”, hits the nail right on the head, and notices that the images in the collection share a seemingly intended “image-affect”. “See the Light” differs is how it is concerned instead with a neurocognitive, phenomenological (as opposed to epistemological) effect. That is, it confronts the visual regime with an eye toward the principles of Gestalt psychology, cybernetics, biology, and photographic technology, all at once, seeking to understand how a photograph works to make the eye, and the mind, see. “See the Light” disposes of the photograph as a subject, as the “observant I” cedes to the “non-attentive eye”. As a stunning collection of photographs, it does not cease to enchant. 


In “What is a Photograph”, Christopher Williams’ selenium toned, silver-gelatin print, a cross-section of a lens, entitled “Cutaway Model Zeiss Distagon *T 2.8/15 ZM Focal Length 15mm. Aperture Range 2.8-22. No. of Elements/groups 11/9. Focusing range: 0.3-infinity. Image Ratio 1:18. Coverage at close range: 43cm x 65cm. Angular field. diag/horiz/vert: 110/100/77. Filter 72 x 0.75. Weight 500g. Length: 86mm. Product no. black 30 82016. Serial no: 15555891. (Subject to change.) Manufactured by Carl Zeiss AG. Camera Lens Division, Oberkochen, Germany. Studio Rhein Verlag, Dusseldorf, January 19th, 2013…”, looks something like pornography; perverse, and merely an affect.”
While in “See the Light”, Edward Weston’s “Nude in Sand, Oceana, 1936” looks… Well, simply beautiful. It causes me to swoon, my eye totally seduced by Weston’s inescapably masterful tonal gradients. It shines compared to the brutal contrast of the hardcore cutaway. I guess I am upholding the “I know it when I see it” standard made by Potter Stewart in 1964, which is in common with Owen Barfield’s comments about the affectation of seeing a picture of “a woman with a motorbicycle substituted for her left breast”. I may be accused of romanticizing but art is just as much a choice of making as it is a choice of seeing. Definitions are sometimes merely a matter of “saving the appearances” while expressions are oftentimes personal, wholly felt experiences, which is what makes Ms. Salvesen’s LACMA catalog more persuasive.


“Carol Squires: What is a Photograph?” and “Britt Salvesen: See the Light, Photography, Perception, Cognition” are both available for sale in-store and online at

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.