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Zsolt Bátori: Categories of photography

In Fabian Dorsch and Dan-Eugen Ratiu (eds.), Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics, vol. 8, 2016, 79-88.

ABSTRACT. In this paper I argue that Kendall Walton’s system of the aesthetic property types of artworks serves as an excellent philosophical starting point when accounting for important aspects of the processes of interpreting and evaluating photographs. I suggest that this recognition is an often-neglected first step in interpreting and appreciating photographs, and I provide an account of photographic relevance on the basis of the discussed property types.


Walton suggests that we need to distinguish standard, variable, and contra-standard aesthetic properties. These properties are recognised by us in the specific socio-historical context of our art making and appreciating practices. Standard properties, like the motionlessness of paintings, establish the artwork status in a given category. Variable properties, like the presence or absence of particular shapes or colours in a painting, are irrelevant from the point of view of belonging or not belonging to a given category. Contra-standard properties tend to disqualify a work from a given category.


I argue that the presence or absence of properties belonging to these types also influence the interpretation and evaluation of photographs. For instance, until about the nineteen seventies most photographers used black and white film simply because that was the technology readily available to them. By 2016, however, colour technology has been available for decades. Colour in photography has been established as a standard long ago. Opting for the now contra-standard property of black and white today carries extra meaning; the choice is to be noticed, and the contra-standard is to be interpreted. Another example is the practice of staged photography to create images that seem to record spontaneous moments. While this is acceptable (variable) in some photographic genres, like fashion or fine art photography, it is highly contra-standard (to the extent of being forbidden) in other genres, like photojournalism and wild life photography.


In my paper I use a number of further examples to demonstrate how we can incorporate the system of standard, variable, and contra-standard properties into an account of relevance for photographic interpretation and evaluation. The account applies to both artistic (fine art) and non-artistic photographic genre categories.

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