Cover Page

New Directions in Aesthetics

Series editors: Dominic McIver Lopes (University of British Columbia) and Berys Gaut (University of St Andrews)

Wiley’s New Directions in Aesthetics series highlights ambitious single- and multiple-author books that confront the most intriguing and pressing problems in aesthetics and the philosophy of art today. Each book is written in a way that advances understanding of the subject at hand and is accessible to upper-undergraduate and graduate students.

  1. Interpretation and Construction: Art, Speech, and the Law

    Robert Stecker

  2. Art as Performance

    David Davies

  3. The Performance of Reading: An Essay in the Philosophy of Literature

    Peter Kivy

  4. The Art of Theater

    James R. Hamilton

  5. Cultural Appropriation and the Arts

    James O. Young

  6. Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature

    Edited by Scott Walden

  7. Art and Ethical Criticism

    Edited by Garry L. Hagberg

  8. Mirrors to One Another: Emotion and Value in Jane Austen and David Hume

    Eva Dadlez

  9. Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor

    John Morreall

  10. The Art of Videogames

    Grant Tavinor

  11. Once-Told Tales: An Essay In Literary Aesthetics

    Peter Kivy

  12. The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach

    Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook

  13. The Aesthetics of Wine

    Douglas Burnham and Ole Martin Skilleås

  14. The Possibility of Culture: Pleasure and Moral Development in Kant’s Aesthetics

    Bradley Murray

  15. Four Arts of Photography

    Dominic McIver Lopes

Four Arts of Photography

An Essay in Philosophy


With commentary by



For Turner Wigginton


James Welling, Flower 009, 2006. Chromogenic print mounted to acrylic, 116.8 × 94 cm.

Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London.

List of Illustrations

  • 1 Clarence H. White, Landscape with Figure
  • 2 Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of David Garrick
  • 3 Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of an Elderly Man
  • 4 Bill Brandt, Nude, East Sussex Coast
  • 5 André Kertész, Buy Bud, Long Island
  • 6 Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #3
  • 7 Gerhard Richter, Betty
  • 8 Lotte Jacobi, Photogenic
  • 9 Shirine Gill, Untitled No. 1

Notes on Author and Contributors

Dominic McIver Lopes is Distinguished University Scholar and Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Understanding Pictures and Sight and Sensibility: Evaluating Pictures, as well as books on computer art and the nature of art. His first camera was a Kodak Instamatic 124, which he used to document his family’s migration from Scotland to Canada.

Diarmuid Costello is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. He co-directed the Arts and Humanities Research Council project on Aesthetics after Photography, and has co-edited issues of Art History, the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and Critical Inquiry on photography. He is now working on a book titled On Photography for Routledge. He grew up on the smell of D76 and Neutol WA, and supported himself through art school as a photographer.

Cynthia A. Freeland is Moores Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston. She is currently (2015–2017) serving as president of the American Society for Aesthetics. Her publications include work on ancient philosophy and feminist theory as well as aesthetics, and her most recent book is Portraits and Persons. Her photo stream can be viewed on Flickr, where she is known as “Philosopher Queen.”


Philosophers cultivate the virtue of cool detachment, but philosophers of art must make a special effort to keep their aesthetic passions in check. Neutrality clears space for multiple perspectives and frank confrontations, but it can be fragile. Slight errors in emphasis, hasty generalizations, too obvious assumptions, and slips of imagination can mislead catastrophically. We must therefore curb our enthusiasms. Yet, I confess I have a soft spot for photography.

My first book, Understanding Pictures, took on drawing and photography as our two principal modes of imaging, and I thought an article that I subsequently wrote about the aesthetics of photography would be my final say on the topic.1 Then came the passion. Over the past 10 years, I looked at a lot of photography as a private citizen rather than as a professional philosopher, in a city with an intense photography scene. Readers of early drafts of my book on computer art urged me to say something about digital art, which got me thinking about digital photography. Soon after, my stepson began to train as a photographer, and our conversations brought the practice of photo-making back into my life—I grew up taking and printing photographs. Back on the professional side, Diarmuid Costello asked me to join him in co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism on photographic media.2 His enthusiasm rubbed off, along with some (though not enough) of his vast knowledge. The last straw was an invitation to speak at a show of contemporary photography at the Kunstmuseum Bonn during the summer of 2011, for this led to the key idea of this book.3

Through all this, I had become convinced that some of the most compelling, and also pleasing, works of visual art in recent decades were photographs. A rarity, photography appeals as much to ordinary art lovers as to art world insiders. At the same time, I was annoyed whenever I heard critics say, as they too often do, that photography only became a serious art form in the 1980s, mainly through the efforts of the Düsseldorf and Vancouver schools. No amount of critical discourse could get me to reconsider 150 years of brilliant photographic art. Even the narrative of its triumphal march through the gallery gates seemed to assume a stunted or partial picture of photography.

This essay uses a little philosophy solicitously to gauge the power of photography as an art. The approach is not philosophy in the standard academic mode, where theoretical analyses are constructed and tested through technically precise (some say tedious) argumentation. Neither is it the kind of philosophy–criticism that draws philosophers, critics, and art lovers to the writing of Richard Wollheim, Arthur Danto, Martha Nussbaum, Alexander Nehamas, or Robert Pippin.4 I lack the skill and sensibility for that. My aim is not to argue for a thesis, and I cannot pretend to plumb the depths of specific photographs. I aspire instead to open up and complicate our shared view of photography, counteracting a history of thinking about it from one narrow perspective after another.

As its subtitle proclaims, this book is an “essay.” The word has acquired a squalid reputation through repeated association with classroom assignments requiring students to say pretty much nothing in 500 or 5,000 words. When added to subtitles, “essay” has become meaningless, except to foretell the onset of some dry academic prose. I want to repatriate the word. The essay is a relatively short text that tries out a new idea, without full-on proof, scholarly discussion, and literature review. The essay is experimental, concrete, and personal in its vision (but not always anecdotal). In landscape architecture, gardens are a design opportunity where ideas are put in play, freed from clients’ demands, and follies are built. The essay is the garden of philosophy.

I am tremendously lucky to know many gifted thinkers and scholars. Without their intellectual generosity, this book would never have been written. My thanks to Gemma Argüello, Aleksey Balotskiy, Diarmuid Costello, Richard Eldridge, Emma Esmaili, Susan Herrington, Luning Li, Samantha Matherne, Madeleine Ransom, James Shelley, and Servaas Van Der Berg. Thanks also to audiences at UNAM, Auburn University, the Kunstmuseum Bonn, Cal State Fullerton, Dartmouth University, the University of Durham, the 2015 New Philosophy of Photography Conference at the Institute of Philosophy in London, the University of Miami, Minho University, Northwestern University, the University of Oklahoma, the 2013 Ovronnaz Workshop on the Philosophy of Photography, Paris–Sorbonne University, the University of Utah, the University of Valencia, the University of Warwick, and my 2014 undergraduate seminar in the philosophy of photography. A big thanks to five anonymous referees, whose reports set the gold standard for intelligent, constructive peer review.

The bones of the book were presented as the 2012 Mangoletsi Lectures at the University of Leeds, and I am grateful to the donor who sponsored the lectures and for the warm hospitality of Matthew Kieran, Aaron Meskin, and all the members of the Leeds philosophy department.

Philosophy moves forward through dialogue, but only indirect traces of the dialogue tend to get written down and preserved. Outsiders often miss out on an important and rewarding part of the life of philosophy. Regretting this, Plato wrote dramatized conversations among interested parties, and Plato’s model remains viable.5 Another model is the commentary, a kind of conversation in slow motion, and this book includes a pair of commentaries—by Diarmuid Costello and Cynthia Freeland. For me, it is a great honor to get a thorough going-over by my most respected peers. Costello and Freeland do not agree with everything I say. Good thing too, because their insights and acute observations show us the way forward. Nothing makes me cringe like a book that presents itself as being the last word on its topic. Freeland and Costello get the last word here, but our exchange is an invitation for you to join in.