a blog by knut skjærven

Posts tagged “phenomenology and photography

Waiting For Wagner

Waiting for Wagner. © Knut Skjærven

I am introducing a new line of posts. I call it picture posts. It is simply a picture with as little text as possible. These posts are tagged, what else: picture post.


Copenhagen, July 29, 2011.

The Interview: Question One.

The Artless Art.© Knut Skjærven


Before we start this interview, and let’s say, some of our readers took an interest in this area, are there any books that you would recommend? Let’s face it, a discipline like phenomenology is not something all our readers have for breakfast. It is difficult enough to pronounce the word. What would you recommend? Only ONE book.


Hmm, now I could pretend that this was a very difficult question, but it is not. It took me more than 20 years to realize that everything that has to do with phenomenology is really very simple and straightforward. I will come back to that later, but if you ask me to recommend one, and only one, book to get a feel of it, I have no other choice than to tell you that that book is called: Introduction to Phenomenology. It is written by an American named Robert Sokolowski.

I found this book by accident some years ago at my old university in Bergen, Norway. It is very, very good. It is not quite there yet, but it is close. Read that, read it once more, and read it many more times. Till you get the feel of it. This book has nothing to do with photography, but it gives you what you need at the moment concerning phenomenology. Even that is not an easy book if you know nothing about phenomenology. Remember that understanding phenomenology demands that you refresh your brain a bit. Many people are not used to that (smiling).

Most people misses the point of phenomenology. This goes particularly for university people. They think that phenomenology is something you read in books. This might very well be so in the beginning, but basically phenomenology is something YOU DO. It it even a lifestyle. A lifestyle of observing, describing and acting accordingly. Very similar to photography, in fact.

Then, as a SECOND book I would get a copy of Jean-Pierre Montier’s: Henri Cartier- Bresson: Seine Kunst – Sin Leben. Find the English version. It is called The Artless Art. Read it and study the pictures. I will tell you later why this is such a good match.

But If you only want one book at this stage, it got to be Sokolowski’s.

Leica, Or No Leica

How High The Sky?. © Knut Skjærven.

One thing has struck me. Every time I go shooting with a camera I have the feeling that I am executing phenomenology. Why is this? Are there any reasons why I should have such an idea?

I think there is, and I will make a note about it here.

Phenomenology teaches you to study the things themselves. The way you can experience them in the natural attitude doing day to day chores. Beyond that, phenomenology also tells you to wait a second, to freeze the situation, and to study it further. To bring out the heart of the matter.

Phenomenology has special words for these activities. They call it bracketing and phenomenological reduction. Bracketing is the freezing of a situation. Reduction is studying it in detail to bring out the general structures of phenomena. Phenomenology simply means to study, to talk about, or to argue for that which can be experienced. And how it is experienced. As man’s knowledge is confined to that which can be experienced, phenomenology is a basic discipline. A first science.

Doing phenomenology is very similar to what I do with my camera. Bringing my camera with an intention to take a picture, already frames the moment in terms of having that and that intention. When I press the release button, I actually freeze the moment that I intend, or don’t intend, to photograph.

Having done my homework I know what structures a phenomenological reduction brings with it. Every single picture I take is a window to all structures of all experiences. Every time I take a picture I am, in terms of phenomenology, half way there. I do not have to think about bracketing, or freezing, the natural attitude to understand it better. The camera does that for me.

That is what you see reflected in my photographs. That is the type of pictures that I enjoy taking. Take a look at the one above. Every phenomenological dimension you can ever think of, is in there. You only need to unfold them. Here are 425 more photographs you are welcome to look at.

That’s all, ladies and gentlemen. Think about it. Leica, or no Leica.

So high the sky.

The picture is shot with a Leica X1, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, November 7, 2010.

Chan-fai Cheung:”Kairos. Phenomenology and Photography” (book review)

Click the text image above to read the full review at pages 137-143.

This is an amazing book. It combines close to 200 photographs with phenomenological theory.

Normally, I would just have posted my review here, but because of copyright reasons, I am in no position to do so. If you, however, click the picture  above, or this link, you will be taken to the review that was published online a couple of days ago in Romanian journal, Studia Philosophia, 3/2010. In January 2011 there will be a print version, as well.

The book is Kairos. Phenomenology and Photography. It was published by Edwin Cheng Foundation, Asian Centre for Phenomenology, Hong Kong, 2009. The author is Chan-fai Cheung. He is professor and chairman of the Department of Philosophy at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, as well as director of several other departments and units.

Professor Chan-fai Cheung is one of the international capacities on phenomenology and photography. He is also a keen photographer.

The book also includes articles by Hans Rainer Sepp and Kwok-ying Lau.

Good luck with it. Feel free to comment on the book review, right on this blog.

Husserl: Photograph’s Three Objects.

Honouring Henri.© Knut Skjærven.

There are a couple of statements that are “a must” for everyone who deals with phenomenology and photography. The statements are made by Edmund Husserl, and found in the text for the winter semester lectures held in 1904-1905. He gave these lectures in Göttingen, Germany.

Speaking about perception, images, phantasy and memory he moves into the area of physical images. In chapter two of the lectures he speaks about physical images, and even about photographs.The situation is, as he says, “somewhat more complicated” (20)

“For example, there lies before us a photograph representing a child.” (20) Husserl continues by stating that we, in fact, deals with three object:

“We have three objects: 1) the physical image, the physical thing made from canvas, marble and so on; 2) the representing or depicting object; and 3) the represented or depicted object. For the latter we prefer to say simply “image subject“; for the first object we prefer “physical image”; for the second, “representing image” or “image object”. (21)

Husserl deals with photographs as a particular type of image (or picture). What he says about images includes reference to painting, drawing, sculpture “and so on”. In that context he occasionally speaks explicitly about photography, and film.

Husserl’s statements imply the following for the photograph above:

Physical Image:

The physical image is the combination of pixels that I perceive at my computer screen at this very moment. Likewise, what you perceive on your screen. Husserl did not, for obvious reasons, speak about screen images in 1904-1905.

If I want to manipulate the pixels I can do that in different image editors, or I can simply turn off the screen and the image will be gone.

If I print the image on paper, I can tear it up, lay it on my desk, place it upside down, hang it on the wall, or whatever.

The physical image is quite indifferent as to what is depicted (image subject) or what is depicting  (image object).

Image Subject:

The image subject is a particular spot at the wall memorial at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin. Including the people and other physical objects, that were present.

Image Object:

The image object is what you would normally refer to as the picture or the photograph. It shows what it shows in the way it shows it. In this case the image object is a piece of a wall with some people in front of it. Different activities are observed. Is it a cropped picture where the composition plays an important part. It is a black and white picture. And so on …

Some would say that a picture, when the picture is a photograph, is merely a mechanical reproduction of what was in front of the lens when the release button was pressed. Certainly something was in front of the lens (and always is) when this photograph was taken, but a photograph is hardly a mere mechanical reproduction of an image subject.

Yes, it is a bit complicated. I am not sure if three objects will do it either. Since this is merely a note, however, I will leave it here.

Quotes are made from Edmund Husserl: Phantasy, Image, Consciousness, and Memory (1898-1925), translated by John B. Brough, Springer 2005. The numbers in brackets are reference to pages in the book. For full information on the book please see Library Thing.

Announcing: New Series of Notes

Train Transition. © Knut Skjærven

I am starting a new series of posts. These posts will have the form of notes, much like the ones you have in your personal notebook made of paper. The difference is, of course, that these notes will be made public. Feel free to comment as they emerge. You can do that in whatever way you find suitable.

The notes will have the form of short, unpretentious, often fragmented pieces of information from areas within phenomenology that will be relevant for investigating photography as a phenomenological phenomenon. Many of the posts will be inspired by well known philosophers, and their well known phenomenological texts. Others may seek to pave a new way.

In the notes, I will also seek to bridge the gap between phenomenological description of photography, and the activity of taking pictures with a camera. I find that to be an interesting task since I have a liking to both practical phenomenology and practical photography. Yes, I do think that there is a special affinity between phenomenology, and certain types of photography. That issue has not been investigated yet. My hope is that I will be able to contribute to make that affinity more tangible.

Some of you may have noticed, that apart from running this blog, I also run two picture blogs. The largest one being Berlin Black And White, which I started in July 2010. At this moment it holds 270 photographs. The second picture blog is Photos Of The Danes, which is quite recent and does not hold that many images.

And there is barebones communication, which has a much wider scope. That blog was started in November 2007, and already took an explicit interest in phenomenology and photography at that time.

I have worked rather hastily in loading pictures to Berlin Black And White. The reason is, that I wanted to have a stock of pictures in place for the blog you are reading now: Phenomenology and Photography. I believe that many of the pictures loaded to that blog are shot in a phenomenological “frame of mind”. They honour certain unspoken demands that phenomenology could be said to pose on photography.

Mind you, I could be wrong in this assumption. Please, therefore, consider  it a hypothesis to be investigated. Such an investigation will indeed be a main theme on this blog. The forthcoming notes will, hopefully, bring bits and pieces to such an investigation.

I cannot explicitly tell you why I find many of the shots in the Berlin photo blog particularly phenomenological, for the simple reason that I am not able to set words on it yet. It is more of a gut feeling based on certain phenomenological preliminaries. So, you have to bear with me for the time being. Just as I have to bear with me.

I am excited to see where the series of notes will take the investigation, as I hope some of you are too. Why don’t you start by looking at some of the photographs in Berlin Black And White. There is even a slideshow presenting some of them. See if you can spot the preliminaries :-).



This post have been tagged: note, notes, notebook. A new category has been set up, as well: notebook.

Husserl’s Curious Image

Curious Couple. © Knut Skjærven.

What’s luck got to do with it? A lot, I would say. Being at the right place at the right time.

Last week I decided to start mapping out the best brains on phenomenology and photography. Not separately, but combined. Who are they, where are they, and what have they done that could be of interest for this project. What are they presently working on?

I started to ask around. It was my guess that the Husserl-Archives in Leuven, Belgium, would be one of the good places to start. They should know who is who, where and when.

I had a look at their web page, but that did not ring any immediate bells so I just roamed the site. And there it was: Professor John Brough (Georgetown University, Washington D.C.) was on his way to Leuven, Belgium, to do a guest lecture. (This was Thursday October 7, 2010.) The theme: The Curious Image: Husserlian Thoughts on Photography. To be held Monday 11 October, 17.00 – 19.00, Room C. I could even download a poster.

I know John Brough’s reputations already. He is the guy who translated Husserl’s Phantasie, Bildbewusstsein, Erinnerung (Husserliana Band XXXIII), which, I am ashamed to say, have owned for many years, but until recently never have done anything serious about. I bought the English translation by Brough a couple of years back, and was actually re-reading his brilliant introduction, when I found out about the guest lecture in Belgium. I wanted to drive down (from Copenhagen, Denmark), but there was not much time to prepare. So I did not go.

Did you know, by the way, that you can read most of John Brough’s English translation, absolutely free of charge. On the net. Try it. You can definitely read the Introduction.

There is even more: Handbook of Phenomenological Aesthetics just came out. Edited by Hans Rainer Sepp and Lester Embree. I am the lucky owner of one copy. Professor Brough has two articles in the book. The first one is titled: Edmund Husserl (1859 -1938), and the second one is on Representation. Both are good reads on the way to photography.

The common view is that Husserl said very little about photography. I don’t hold that opinion.

That is, basically, what I wanted to tell you. I am really looking forward to reading John Brough’s guest lecture on Husserl’s curious image. Once it is ready for publishing. I will probably write about it too. If I am right, the lecture definitely fills a gap.

Should I say that I am eagerly curious, or is that too banal?

NB: The photograph above has nothing to do with the lecture. It has been inserted for visual purposes, by the blog author. Go here for more photographs.

In Any Single Picture

French Visit.

“Of course it is impossible to separate thinking from acting; in any practice of photography, in any single picture produced by a camera, there is already an idea of the function, the character, the limits of the medium.”

Classic Essays on Photography, edited by Alan Trachtenberg, Leete’s Island Books, New Haven 1980, Introduction, p. vii.

Library Thing.