RELATED TERMS: Painting; Apparatus - Dispositif

In the context of the design of narrative environments, photography is one of the many media that may be employed, often as part of a multi-media, multi-modal environment or assemblage. As the history of the cultural and artistic disruption caused by photography shows, the use of any particular medium alters the balance of roles among media in engaging with materiality through what might be called a media ecology.

(Media) History of Photography

Wallerstein describes the invention of photography as posing a serious challenge to the system of the fine arts, prompting, first, a crisis in painting. The idea of the subjective and expressive quality of image making, and implicitly the hierarchy between the artes liberals and artes mechanicae that informs the concept of ‘fine art’, underwent a profound upheaval. The question of the image began to be discused in ontological terms. Thus, the question of “what is…” was gradually seen to precede questions of beauty, composition, and so on. This precedence was, in turn, gradually generalized so as to encompass not only painting, but also sculpture, literature, music and finally art in general, becoming an essential feature of modern art, manifested as an aesthetic as well as ontological unrest.

The encounter with photography as a medium that mechanized image production was taken by some as a dismantling of subjectivity and imagination, and possibly even as the end of painting. Such a sentiment is epitomized in Paul Delaroche’s hyperbolic outcry in 1839: “From today, painting is dead”, cited by Wallerstein (2010). By others, photography was seen as a liberation of the imagination by redirecting it toward the essentials of art.

In this context, as a response to the advent of photography as a mechanical medium, the arrival of abstraction at the beginning of the 20th century could be understood in two ways. First, as the final discovery of what painting had been since the beginning; and second, as a last stance, beyond which painting had to be abandoned in favor of other forms of practice that would be able to interiorize mechanical and serial (re)production into their very substance.

The first stance imagines the painter uncovering a primordial perceptual dimension in and through painting. Such a claim can be understood to underlie Cézanne’s claim to show us “the truth in painting” peinture”), by plunging into the genesis of the visible that takes its cues from the pure sensations of colour. The second stance, emerging in the period around the First World War, accepts that technology has deprived painting not only of its old mimetic function but also dispelled the idea that it could reach a more true, profound, or elevated reality.

To a large extent, Wallerstein, argues, modernist painting evinces the mutual implication and even inextricable entanglement of these two positions.

Ethics and Politics of Photography

The central focus of Vilem Flusser’s investigation of photography is the camera as prototype for the ontologically conditioning apparatuses of postindustrial society, the prototype for all technical apparatuses of the present-day, postindustrial world. His analysis aims ultimately at the ethics of photography (van der Meulen, 2010).


van der Meulen, S. (2010) ‘Between Benjamin and McLuhan: Vilem Flusser’s Media Theory’, New German Critique, 37(2), pp. 180–207. doi: 10.1215/0094033X-2010-010.

Wallenstein, S.-O. (2010) Nihilism, Art, and Technology. [PhD thesis] Stockholm, Sweden: Stockholm University. Available at: (Accessed: 6 February 2016).