Thinking in Action

On Photography: A Philosophical Inquiry

by Diarmuid Costello (2018 [2017])

- Photography — Philosophy.
- Photography — History.
- Photography, Artistic.
- Aesthetics.

What is photography? Is it a source of knowledge or an art? Many have said the former because it records the world automatically, others the latter because it expresses human subjectivity. Can photography be both or must we choose? In On Photography: A Philosophical Inquiry, Diarmuid Costello examines these fascinating questions and more, drawing on images by Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott, Paul Strand, Lee Friedlander, James Welling, and Wolfgang Tillmans, among others, and the writings of Elizabeth Eastlake, Peter Henry Emerson, Edward Weston, Siegfried Kracauer, Andre Bazin, and Stanley Cavell. This sets the scene for the contemporary stand-off between "sceptical" and "non-sceptical" Orthodoxy in the work of Roger Scruton and Kendall Walton, and a New Theory of Photography taking its cue from Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Patrick Maynard. Written in a clear and engaging style, On Photography is essential reading for anyone interested in the philosophy of photography, aesthetics, art, and visual studies.

1. Introduction: On Photography, Then and Now.
2. Foundational Intuitions and Folk Theory.
3. Aesthetic Scepticism and its Critics.
4. Transparency and its Critics.
5. Conclusion: The Unity of Photography.


Diarmuid Costello is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Philosophy, Literature and the Arts at the University of Warwick, UK.



"Diarmuid Costello is at the forefront of a small group of philosophers pushing the debate on the aesthetic and evidential value of photography beyond its traditional boundaries. His work is indispensable as a guide to these traditional debates, their historical origins, and the contemporary possibilities thrown up by both technological innovations and new developments in philosophy. Costello's concise and tightly-argued essay, ranging across diverse photographic practices and discussing both canonical and less well-known photographers, packs a powerful punch, and will be of great value to everyone interested in the special fascination that photography continues to exert upon us."
- Murray Smith, University of Kent, UK

"On Photography is a lively, intelligent, and very helpful exploration of some of the most fundamental theoretical issues concerning photography, informed by extensive knowledge of the history of photographic technologies and the ways photographs have been understood and used."
- Kendall Walton, University of Michigan, USA

"Nothing is easier than taking a photograph, so how can photography function as art? Philosophers and theorists have wrestled with the question for decades. Costello shakes up the debate by carefully probing the aspirations of contemporary photography and vigorously challenging the assumptions of the most influential thinkers."
- Dominic McIver Lopes, University of British Columbia, Canada

"An excellent critical introduction to the main debates in the philosophical study of photography from the early days until recent times. Unlike essays on cultural criticism, the book provides a thorough philosophical argumentation and, unlike other philosophical texts, it is deeply informed by the artistic practices. I very much recommend this book."
- Paloma Atencia-Linares, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico

"This insightful and engaging book is a valuable resource for all who are interested in photography, whether as theorists, fans, users or practitioners. Costello reveals the tensions inherent in the contemporary conception of photography as both artistically and epistemically important, and makes a compelling case for a renewed focus on the photographic process itself."
- Catharine Abell, University of Manchester, UK


Reviewed by Laure Blanc-Benon.
In: The British Journal of Aesthetics 58,4 (Dec 2018), pp. 489–492.

In this short book Diarmuid Costello presents a valuable new framework for philosophical discussion on photography. Costello aims ‘to treat photography philosophically’ (2). He thoroughly investigates our intuitions about the essence of photography, showing that the most sophisticated ‘theoretical’—in a broad sense—claims often turn out to be only reformulations of basic folk intuitions about some uses of photography or paradigmatic examples that are unduly taken to stand for photography per se. Debunking many fallacious distinctions, he introduces new questions that philosophers could ask about photography—as an imaging process first, but also as a set of practices. Theoretical texts about photography have focused...


Costello, Diarmuid
On Photography: A Philosophical Inquiry.
London / New York: Routledge, 2018 [2017], xv, 165 p., [12 p.], ill., 22 cm.
(Thinking in Action.).
ISBN 9780415684705 (hb.)
ISBN 9780415684491 (pb.)
ISBN 9781315266688 (eb.)
ISBN 9781351970822 (mobi)
ISBN 9781351970839 (epub)
ISBN 9781351970846 (pdf)
[Bibl. refs.: p. 153-160]