The iconic indexicality of photography

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The unique visual appeal of photography results from combining the basically iconic code (resemblance between image and referent) with indexicality. Photography is indexical insofar as the represented object is “imprinted” by light and the chemical (or electronic) process on the image, creating a visual likeness that possesses a degree of accuracy and “truthfulness” unattainable in purely iconic signs such as painting, drawing, or sculpture. The indexical origin of the photographic image explains why discussions of the photographic media (including film and television) often employ categories normally reserved for the emotive and irrational effects produced in traditional societies by sympathetic magic, with its objectively wrong but psychologically compelling sense of direct causal link between objects once physically connected but later separated. The essay discusses the iconic indexicality in the context of its historic antecedents such as imprints of hands, death masks, wax effigies, shadow portraits, and experiments with camera obscura.


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