What is photography? A historical cross-comparison of definitions

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapterpeer-review


An invited 6000-word essay on photography for the three-volume Bloomsbury Encyclopaedia of Visual Culture (Volume: Practices, Sites, Controversies) edited by Barry Sandwell and Martin Hand.

Abstract: The question ‘What is photography?’ while seemingly simple, is, perhaps, impossibly huge. Why should something so familiar, ubiquitous and self-evident prove so elusive to determine? As a technology, practice and media form, photography’s parameters are enormously wide, penetrating a broad range of territories, while its products and outcomes proliferate to a degree that makes them impossible to see as a whole. Its diversity of meanings and purposes across these expanding borders have created a bewildering range of contemporary definitions, playfully demonstrated by Mishka Henner’s 2012 text-based artwork, ‘Photography Is’, where the Belgian-born conceptual artist typed the phrase into an internet search engine and received millions of disparate, subjective and often contradictory results, which he distilled in a publication and display of 3000 running phrases. Henner’s artwork, in turn, inspired the 2015 exhibition, Qu’est-Ce Que La Photographie? at Pompidou Centre, Paris, which took photographic definitions as its quixotic subject.

As the scope of technological and computational possibility becomes so wide and uncertain that researchers now ask, ‘Are you sure you know what a photograph is?’ (Rashed Haq, Wired, 2022), this essay reviews recent attempts to define the form. It looks across recent publications and projects that consider photography’s slippery identity, and it contrasts these with another key period in photography’s conceptualisation: its earliest years. Founding struggles over names and definitions, when photography was new, unfamiliar and still taking shape in the mid-19th century, provide a productive base for cross-comparison with the present-day definitional crisis, showing enduring and shifting themes about, for example, art and machine vision.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBloomsbury Encyclopaedia of Visual Culture
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 29 Aug 2023

Bibliographical note



Dive into the research topics of 'What is photography? A historical cross-comparison of definitions'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this