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An Intentional Understanding of Photographs

MPhil thesis copyright © 2002 by Jim Batty. All rights reserved.

You can download a PDF copy of An Intentional Understanding of Photographs at the right — chapter by chapter — subject to the copyright conditions below.

This thesis is a philosophical discussion about how we understand pictures — especially photographs. It begins by discussing some of the theories about how pictures represent their subject matter, and then develops a view in which the intention of the photographer is seen as central to how we understand the photograph he or she has produced. It is written primarily for professional philosophers, and will appear arcane to the casual reader. Chapter 1 is introductory and the most accessible, though, and worth having a go with if you are curious about this complex but highly interesting area of understanding.

For an easy introduction to photographic representation have a look at my article How do Photographs Represent Things? — Of puppets, philosophy and pictorial representation.

Technical abstract

The aim of this MPhil thesis is to contribute to a philosophical characterisation of photographic understanding which accounts for the role of a photographer's intention in producing a photograph. While four key elements are acknowledged as necessary for a full characterisation of photographic understanding – the causal, intentional, cognitive and contextual – only the causal and intentional are treated. It is emphasised that photographs are the result of a photographic process. Paintings are used as a foil to photographs throughout the work.

The essay adopts Richard Wollheim's seeing-in thesis as its underlying theory of depiction, but critically examines and ultimately rejects Wollheim's claims for a 'species of seeing' peculiar to photographs. It seeks to determine whether we can dispense altogether with the intentional element in understanding photographs through an investigation of Roger Scruton's 'ideal photograph' view and general notions of photographic transparency. The essay concludes with a critical examination of photographic realism by evaluating a number of 'likeness' theses.

Copyright conditions of use

No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, without signed written permission from the author. Exceptions are allowed in respect of any fair dealing for the purpose of research or private study, or criticism or review – for which the downloadable pdf files associated with this page are made available.

Of course, anyone may be directed to this website page to view a copy.

Note: For copyright reasons, the images which illustrate the original thesis cannot be reproduced here, but may be traced via the List of Plates (p. 8) and the Bibliography (pp. 94-9). Hard copies of the thesis (with illustrations) are lodged with: University of London Library, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU, United Kingdom; and Birkbeck College Library, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX, United Kingdom.

An Intentional Understanding of Photographs
(PDF downloads)


Ch 1: Introduction

Ch 2: Difference in understanding photographs and paintings – one of degree or kind?

Ch 3: Ideal Photographs and Photographic Transparency

Ch 4: Realism in Photographs

Ch 5: Conclusion/