The photograph as sacred icon

“It is the existent itself - the sun, the stars, plants, animals, men, fire - to be apprehended as the form of the Absolute that is already adequate in its immediacy. Sensuous representation is not, as art demands, formed, shaped, and invented by the spirit; on the contrary, the adequate expression of the Divine is found and enunciated directly in the external existent.” (1) These words by Hegel about the Parsi religion define what in my view is the essence of the photographic gesture: the desire of moving outside ourselves and towards the existent, in the hope of encountering it. In other words: the hope of accessing reality through its sensible form. A vain hope, perhaps; yet all of human life is a tension-towards and never a complete fulfillment. 

In the words of Russian theologian P. Evdokimov: “If abstract art exists, it is because figurative art no longer represents anything, for it incarnates no spirit and radiates no light. Surrealism arises only where we have lost the flame of things and the secret content of simple reality.” (2) Abstractism and surrealism - to be intended here not as historical realities but as metaphors of a certain inner disposition - would be the consequences of an alienation in the projections of a phantasmatic self, an estrangement from reality; a reality that conceals within itself a secret and a mystery precisely by virtue of being, for us, nothing more than appearance. The surface of things, then, would not be maya, vanity and deception, but an invitation to delve into the living mystery of the real of which this very surface is the skin, the eidos (figure), the exterior body. The relationship between reality and appearance is perhaps the same as between body and mind, spirit and matter - a relationship of absolute interdependence and ontological coparticipation?

This perspective would necessarily invalidate all the accusations - typical of postmodern thought - that the photographic medium is intrinsically a multiplier of illusions. If, on the one hand, a photograph produces sur-reality in revealing a presence that is also an absence, in subtly transforming the real that it claims to represent, on the other it undeniably maintains the strength of a physical and symbolical interconnection with the real from which it originates, in the sense of sym-bolon as actual identity of reality and representation, opposed to a dia-bolos that “multiplies distances and absences” (Evdokimov) (3). Propending for the one or the other view (or for a synthesis between the two) is a matter of finality and intentions. Well before the photographer decides to create surreal and phantasmatic worlds, or to compose mosaics with the available pieces, the pure photographic gesture arises (at least for myself) from a simple desire to move “outwards,” from a need to “trespass,” to project oneself beyond the “I” and towards the “you” of reality.

For this reason, in clear opposition to the semiological view that photography is always in bad faith and must be “deconstructed,” I feel compelled to return to a mythical dimension of infancy, innocence, immediacy of seeing. Postmodern thought declares innocence impossible in the belief that experience is nothing more than text, language, ideology. The origin of this thought could be in the predilection of the Modern for the appearing and manifesting of the real in its “exterior” form, the phenomenon and the way it “mirrors” itself in the structures of the mind - at the expense of a reflection upon the pure, effective, and shocking existence of a reality that is outside the self but also includes it (the noumenon): a reality declared unthinkable (Kant) or even unprovable (Berkeley).

The exclusion of German idealism and religious thought - both of which attempt to overcome this impasse - from the contemporary philosophical landscape seems to indicate a relation to reality that can only lead into solipsistic subjectivism on the one side or objectifying realism on the other. Two views that reinforce each other in denying any possibility of veritative coparticipation to the real, of unity of phenomenon and noumenon, world and consciousness. The mediatic dimension disproportionately amplifies this aut-aut and multiplies the points of view, the appearances and the distances in an endless hall of mirrors. At this point the access to reality may exclusively belong to the spiritual traditions, and particularly the Christian, still capable of posing the problem of the existence of the Other outside ourselves and of a reality that is not merely a content of consciousness.

Far from claiming that photography is a path towards the truth, or that it can in any way be free from ideological conditioning, I wish to dwell on that initial moment of purity and incipient desire. Recalling the words of L. Ghirri, the act of seeing “through” something, of “gazing through lenses, filters, ground glasses, prisms, optical devices, viewfinders, nets, and frames” (4) allows us to perceive our co-belonging to space, our dwelling in a distance that is simultaneously proximity and abyss. According to G. Chiaramonte, the final photograph receives “its sense only in relation to the analogous instant of life that had engendered it and that I had lived,” and yet “that instant of life could be adequately comprehended only in the light of the reflective vision yielded by the corresponding photograph.” (5)

A “photographic truth” that is not mere “exactness” will then have to include the experiential, existential, and human content that had accompanied the genesis of the image, and it will be indivisible from this content like the two sides of a leaf. The fact that the human content is ultimately inaccessible, as it is located on the invisible side, is irrelevant: it exists in the sphere of the unexpressed, where “the superior power of the true” appears (W. Benjamin) (6). And because a photograph is not mere depiction but also “something directly stenciled off the real” (S. Sontag) (7), the unexpressed is concealed within each photographic image as “a living and unsettling fire” (A. Sichera) (8). It is also in this sense that I personally intend D. Arbus’s words: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”

Hence photography is much more than representation: philosophically it is a problematization of the apparently innocuous fact that something exists out there; psychologically it is a recovery of the sense of wonder (thaumazein) towards reality’s effective existence.

In this sense, the only non-photographic image that is comparable to a photograph is the sacred icon. The icon is a physical and symbolic evocation of a Presence, as established in the Second Council of Nicaea (787): “He who venerates the image, venerates the reality of the person who is represented in that image.” We see the icon and, at the same time, the icon sees us. Similarly, if on the one hand we observe the photograph with a look of appropriation (com-prehension), on the other the real observes us through the image, shifting our being’s center of gravity away from the ego and closer to the border between the I and the world. For this reason a photograph can never be truly com-prehended. The authentic experience of seeing is always liminal. It is the scandal of the presence of the Other alongside ourselves; it is the awakening from the tired dream of having already experienced all of reality.

The act of searching could be the key to everything (Christ’s first words in the Gospel of John: “What are you looking for?”). If the initial desire is a movement towards the truth of the existent (truth as istina, “that which is”), the hope of the heart is to encounter a revelation, the surfacing of a hidden truth (truth as aletheia, “that which un-hides, that which comes to light”).

As in the Heideggerian figure of the Lichtung, the “luminous clearing” in the woods, an image emerges from the darkness of the visible as a perimeter of light in obscurity, a word spoken in silence.

(June 2020)


1. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics, Vol. I.

2. Pavel Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life.

3. Ibid.

4. Luigi Ghirri, Lezioni di fotografia.

5. Giovanni Chiaramonte, Arte della luce.

6. Walter Benjamin, Elective Affinities.

7. Susan Sontag, On Photography.

8. Antonio Sichera, Oltre la Romantik, verso Gerusalemme. Per Jerusalem di Giovanni Chiaramonte.

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