In Photography and its Shadow, Hagi Kenaan addresses the medium specificity of the photographic image, particularly the transformation of the image experience due to the invention of this medium. It is not his first publication to reveal his interest in and critical confrontation with the dominance of the visual in contemporary culture. In his book on the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, The Ethics of Visuality. Levinas and the Contemporary Gaze (Tauris, 2013), Kenaan stated that “[s]omething has happened to our gaze. The experience of seeing has changed. The visual field has undergone a radical transformation” (xiv). In this study, he scrutinized the limits of contemporary visuality, which attracts the gaze “into the constant flickering of images, large and small screens, at every angle, at every moment, in every possible size, always in plural” (xii). Contrasting the visuality of the image with Levinas’s phenomenological description of the appearance of the face of the other person, he explored the possibility of the emergence of what he called the “reflexive gaze,” a visual field that appears to be oriented (in the strong sense of the word “orientation,” as being essential to what appears) and that as such opens up an ethical domain.
In his new book, Photography and its Shadow, it may appear that Kenaan is leaving behind the Levinasian optics of ethics as first philosophy, were it not the case that the title of this publication reminds us of an early article on art by Levinas entitled “Reality and Its Shadow” (1948). While in this article Levinas does not consider the emergence of the photographic medium, and Kenaan in his new book does not pay particular attention to Levinas’s treatment of the artwork and artistic visuality, the notion of the shadow reveals the legacy of the latter in Kenaan’s approach to photography. This legacy is manifest at different levels: the understanding of the image as a shadow; the reflection on the kind of connections between reality and shadows; the examination of the appearance of shadows in the general economy of being; the definition of the shadow as a double of reality, which fixes the momentary or, as Levinas formulates it, which “transform[s] time into images” (Levinas 1948, 139); and as a “fixed shadow” (Kenaan 2020, 6), a “shadow [that] is immobilized” (Levinas 1948, 141). Significantly, it is Levinas who, at the end of his article, brings the creation of the artistic image since the Renaissance into the horizon of the Nietzschean theme of the death of God, or what he calls “the alleged death of God” (Levinas 1948, 143). It is this same Nietzschean horizon that gives a decisive twist to Kenaan’s approach to photography, as becomes manifest in the third part of the book, entitled “Photography and the Death of God,” where he writes: “The proclamation of God’s death by Nietzsche’s madman was the point of departure for our study of photography. Photography emerges with the death of God, a condition that calls for a new way of orienting humans within an indifferent (homogeneous, meaningless, nihilistic) space” (Kenaan 2020, 159).
Let us consider this central claim of the book, through which Kenaan intends not only to describe the transformation of the visuality of the image by the photographic medium, but also to understand this transformation in light of a more encompassing historical transformation of Western culture as a whole in the 19th century and its aftermath, which Nietzsche labeled the death of God. This connection with a broader cultural field of investigation provokes a certain analytic complexity. The approach is first of all phenomenological in that the author describes the specificity of the visual experience of the photographic image on the basis of many concrete examples. This phenomenological approach is complemented by a strong historical interest, with the author returning to the beginnings of photography and providing a detailed description of the different techniques from which photography – as a practice (as a guideline for ‘taking’ pictures) and as a new theory of the image (as an image of nature, made by nature, not created by the artist’s hand) – emerges in the 19th century. However, the methodology is intended to be “ultimately ontological rather than historical” (9), in the Heideggerian sense of the word, namely in the sense that, as the author formulates it in the opening lines of his book, “[p]hotography has become an intrinsic condition of the human” (2) and this condition is both “existential” (i.e., photography has become part of ordinary experience) and transformative (i.e., this condition indicates an ontological shift in our understanding of the world and ourselves).
The central claim of the book is thus ontological, with the Nietzschean theme of the death of God not mentioned merely to establish a contextual and/or epochal connection with the appearance of the photographic image in modern culture, but in order to define the ontological transformation that manifests itself in and through the visuality of the photographic medium. This transformation, understood in its ontological dimension, is not limited to the photographic medium or to the question of what an image is, but more radically concerns the experience of seeing, the visibility of world, the meaning of existence. Kenaan is certainly not the first to draw particular attention to the transformation of the image experience and of visual perception through the invention of the photograph, but his departure point of the Nietzschean theme of the death of God within the framework of a Heideggerian understanding of ontology creates a new, intriguing perspective. How is this theme at work in Kenaan’s approach to photography?
In fact, the theme of the death of God brings together different lines of argumentation and it is the combination and consequent elaboration of these lines that constitutes the book’s originality, as well as its complexity. The first – and most familiar – of these argumentative threads consists in pointing to a reversal of Platonism with regard to the image experience. Here, Kenaan joins “an anti-Platonic approach” characteristic of theories of the image in the late 20th century. This approach no longer takes the image to be a copy or a representation but “is aware of the need to articulate a modality of presence that belongs to images qua images (and not as objects or functions)” (102). Maurice Merleau-Ponty already announced this new direction of thought in Eye and Mind when he wrote: “The word ‘image’ is in bad repute because we have thoughtlessly believed that a drawing was a tracing, a copy, a second thing.” However, considering the reversal of Platonism as an intrinsic condition of the invention of the photographic image, Kenaan not only dates the event of this reversal more than a hundred years earlier (even prior to Nietzsche’s birth), disconnecting it from the debate about the developments of modernism in painting, but also points to a naturalistic basis and proposes a new, more precise interpretation of the reversal of Platonism with regard to the image experience. The invention of photography presupposes that the appearance of the image is no longer related to the divine or to the ideal forms, as is the case in Platonism, but to the mere physical laws of (breaking) light rays and (fixing) shadows. It is the possibility of seeing in mechanically fixed shadows the appearance of an image which defines the reversal of Platonism. In photography, the relation between image and shadow is reversed and this reversal implies a completely different ontological understanding of what a shadow and an image are.
Kenaan retraces this new relation between image and shadow in the writings of William Henry Fox Talbot, the author of The Pencil of Nature (1844), who described the invention of photography as the art of “photogenic drawing.” Talbot’s descriptions of his photographic experiments, which he initially called skiagraphy, “shadow drawing” or “shadow writing” (117), reveal that the invention of photography coincided with the discovery of the shadow as a transcendental condition for the photographic image and as an intrinsic part of the visibility of nature. In this regard, Talbot liberates the shadow from the binary opposition between being and appearance that determines Plato’s ontology. In a Platonic framework, shadow and image belong to the realm of appearance; they are both dependent on the presence of the real (being), and they are in this sense secondary. Moreover, the relation between the two is one of identity: the shadow, as projection of a material object, is defined as an image (eidolon) of that object, and the image, considered as the visual appearance of the idea (the original presence of the real), is defined as a shadow projected by that idea. Talbot discovers in his experiments with light rays that shadows have their own unique mode of appearance and that this mode of appearance is given in nature. The shadow belongs to the way in which nature unfolds its visibility. The shadow therefore cannot be reduced to the binary logic of object and copy, being and appearance. It is not in itself already an image, but the photographic image depends on it; depends on the possibility of “capturing,” “controlling” and “fixing” the shadow event projected by light rays. On the basis of his readings of Talbot, Kenaan describes the appearance of the shadow as an “in-between.” It both belongs to nature and transcends nature, it is part of nature’s visibility and it reproduces this visibility, it is not itself an image but it provides the ground for a potential image: “the shadow manifests a doubling of nature that belongs to the very order of nature itself” (135). In this sense, he makes plausible the continuum thesis that defends a causal continuity between shadow and image; between nature’s visibility and the image’s visuality. In this sense, the appearance of the photographic image has its origin in nature.
A second line of argumentation is construed around another aspect of the Nietzschean theme of the death of God, namely the belatedness of the effects of this event. In Nietzsche’s narrative, the event of the death of God is not yet recognized, its meaning remains concealed and its consequences are simply denied. In this sense, the death of God casts a shadow, the extent of which is still undefined. In a similar way, Kenaan argues that the invention of photography, which is based on the discovery of the shadow in nature’s visibility, conceals its origin and confounds its meaning. He speaks of a “betrayal” (136). The second part of the book, “The Butades complex,” reveals the mechanism of this betrayal: photography, in its attempt to distinguish itself from the traditional concept of image creation as an act of drawing, defines itself within the limits of the idea of drawing. Butades, the myth of the Corinthian maid who traces the shade of her departing lover, plays an important historical role in this context. According to Pliny, who was the first to mention this story in his Natural History, “the drawing of pictures began with ‘tracing an outline round a man’s shadow’” (58). Between 1770 and 1820, in the wake of romantic classicism, this story was very popular in the visual arts as a pictorial theme about the origin of painting and of art in general. At the beginning of the 19th century, it delivered the main narrative frame for understanding the invention of photography and presenting the photographic image to the public: “‘The legend’s popularity in the eighteenth-century British visual culture, […], did not coincidently anticipate the dawn of a new relationship between image, object, and beholder that was photographic. Rather, it virtually establishes this relationship by setting the terms in advance by which photography would be discovered, understood, and assimilated’” (61). Kenaan quotes here the study by Ann Bermingham, “The Origins of Painting and the Ends of Arts: Wright of Derby’s Corinthian Myth (1782-1785).”
Relying on this narrative, however, it is clear that photography betrays its own newness. To make a photograph is not an act of drawing – the latter is created by the drafter’s hand, the former implies a mechanical process. Moreover, the shadow in the myth of Butades is defined as the picture of the beloved one. The myth relates the act of drawing to the amorous desire of keeping present an original presence even when this presence has gone, disappeared or died. The betrayal of photography’s newness implies thus a denial of what the invention of photography discovered: the continuously moving, transforming and evanescent appearance of shadows in nature’s visibility. Shadows, experienced as intrinsic to nature’s visibility, are not fixed and do not depict an original presence. Therefore, the idea of taking a picture, formulated to promote the camera as a technical means and photography as each individual’s way of keeping present whatever they want, is misleading: it conceals the mechanical process that is the birthmark of the photographic image, it misunderstands the outcome of this process as the visual depiction of an original experience, and it turns nature and world into a vast repository of photographic images.
A third line of argumentation deals with Nietzsche’s perspectivism. Nietzsche formulated this idea in his early writings in an epistemic context, namely as a criticism of the defenders of an all-encompassing theoretical access to the objectivity of reality. Perspectivism holds that a view from nowhere is not possible: knowledge of the real is not given independently of a point of view. The connection with the later theme of the death of God is obvious: “Perspectivism is primarily a way of acknowledging the disintegration of an all-encompassing structure of legibility, the loss of coordinates to orient man’s place in the universe. The collapse of an overarching, super-sensible principle that upholds human meaning and value is what Nietzsche understands as the ‘death of God’” (159). It is Kenaan’s contention that the invention of photography has opened the possibility of an infinity of perspectives: “The idea of an infinite plurality of perspectives is part of its inner logic. […] photography’s space consists of an indefinite multitude, a plurality of viewpoints that refuse to coalesce” (157). The introduction of the photographic apparatus detaches vision from the human eye and transforms the relationship between the visible and the visual: “photography’s visualization of the visible becomes, in principle, limitless” (154). This not only means beyond the limits of the human eye with regard to distance (too far or too close), time (too fast or too slow) or light sensitive (too bright or too dark), but also beyond the limits of the evanescent unfolding of nature’s visibility: “Every visibility is a potential photograph that can be taken from an infinite variety of perspectives.” In this regard, the photographic visualization has the potential of achieving “full domination of the visible.”
Anti-Platonism, denial of its own origin, and perspectivism: it is through these three conceptual frames that the major Nietzschean theme of the death of God functions as a heuristic and organizational device in Kenaan’s approach to photography. As a consequence, the appearance of the photographic image is presented as a kind of epochal transformation within the human condition. Ontologically speaking, this transformation can be articulated in at least three different ways: 1. a subversion of the Platonic opposition between being and appearing, including the ontological upgrading of the presence sui generis of the shadow; 2. the concealment of the mechanical nature of the photographic image and therefore the concealment of its emptiness and arbitrariness; 3. and finally, the submission of the embodied visual appearance to the limitless visibility of the photographic image, and hence the collapse and fragmentation of all meaning and values given within the visual field of human experience.
The outcome of this examination of the photographic image is challenging and at the same time disturbing because of its general, encompassing and nihilistic claim that the rise of the photographic image is based on the breakdown of all human meaning and value as given with the embodied condition of visibility. Moreover, according to Kenaan, this “ultimate breakdown of human meaning” (178) defines photography’s visual dominance today, despite its efforts to conceal it: “The visible thereby becomes a homogeneous expanded space of inhuman eyes, identical units, each of which can record an infinite number of views that are all equally set to provide sequences of representation. In such a space (the term ‘world’ no longer applies here) each and every point is a place mark for potential views” (170). Here, it becomes clear that the Nietzschean theme of the death of God not only functions as a heuristic device to analyze photography’s specific transformational power regarding embodied visible perception but also that the visual specificity of the photographic image is intended to concretize and to visualize the abyssal implications of the Nietzschean theme of the death of God: the appearance of a limitless shattered space of the visible without coherence and orientation, disconnected from the human body and indifferent with regard to the human world.
It thus seems that, in bringing Talbot’s invention of photography and the Nietzschean theme of the death of God into the same field of reflection, Kenaan first of all intends to say something about our contemporary culture, which has predominantly become a visual culture, and in which he has detected in his other book, The Ethics of Visuality, “a pathology” (xviii) of the gaze. The outcome of the examination in Photography and its Shadow seems therefore to confirm and to legitimize the starting point of this other book in the examination of another approach to vision, inspired by the philosophy of Levinas, that breaks with the limitless fragmentation of the visual without meaning: “the eye is flooded with images, swamped yet driven by a chronic hunger – rather than a desire – that does not seek meaning in the visual, only stimulation” (xv). However, returning to the mechanical roots of the photographic image, one may wonder what the theme of the death of God precisely adds to the analysis of the visual experience of the photographic image and whether the generalization it implies does not distort the specificity of this experience.
Considering the birthmark of the photographic image, Kenaan does not distinguish between the many different kinds, such as the digital and the analogical, the virtual and the real, the moving image and the snapshot, the simulation and the video game, the publicity poster and the family photobook, the visual artwork and scientific image production, or the passport photograph and the selfie on Instagram. The photographic image is considered a pars pro toto, and the original condition of a general transformation of visibility in contemporary culture. However, the problem with this generalization is not only that images have different meanings according to their various functions in contemporary society, but also that we are aware of these meanings and their differences and, accordingly, have different image experiences. The generalization implied by the Nietzschean theme of the death of God does not allow for an examination of these differences and, in a certain way, hinders access to such an analysis. Even if familiarity with the photographic image “[i]n our age of satellites, drones, Google Glass, and GoPro” makes it possible to bring randomized visible objects into one sentence, such as “the red spot on a seagull’s bulk, a particle of food processed in the digestive system, a cookie crumb on the desk of an administration, the tip of an iceberg melting in the Arctic, a dead fish in an oil spill in the ocean, the bronze hand of an ancient god at the bottom of the sea” (170-1), among many others, the meaninglessness of this collection of fragmented objects does not replace or obliterate the possibility of meaning recognition in each of these photographs. The latter is in fact dependent on the here and now of the single image experience, whereas the former requires abstraction from it.
Here, we touch on and are confronted with the basic ontological assumption of Kenaan’s approach, which we mentioned at the beginning and that Kenaan reformulates in his debate with Roland Barthes as: “[O]ntology teaches us to see the photographic as an Existential” (104). This means, according to Kenaan, that the task of ontology is “to open photography to the way in which its presence can be seen as a branch of being” and not, as is the case in Barthes’s view, to seek to define the essential features of the photographic image. The notion of “existential” is introduced to describe photography as a way of being (a way of understanding world and oneself) and not as a distinctive category of image experience. “Existential” is the term that Heidegger explicitly used to describe the existentiality of existence ontologically (cf. Being and Time §9). However, “existence” is the term he coins (against the metaphysical tradition, which defines existence in relation to a given essence) to address the question of the ecstatic openness to being, which distinguishes the manner of being of the human being. Moreover, this openness is only possible from a “being there” (Dasein), a situated being-in-the-world, or human being’s facticity. To understand the photographic as an “existential” thus implies a description of the photographic as one way of being of this facticity (among other ways of being, such as being mine, being-with, being born, being understanding, being caring, being anguished, being towards death, etc.). In other words, even if it is factually true that the mechanical condition of the birth of the photographic image (the invention of the camera) provokes a visibility disconnected from the human eye, it is still necessary to relate this visibility to human being’s facticity in order to be able to understand the photographic ontologically as an “existential.”
This ontological orientation indisputably constitutes the originality of Kenaan’s approach. It enables him to interpret the appearance of photographic visibility as an epochal transformation of being-in-the-world. Yet, it might be that the Nietzschean theme of the death of God, although explicitly intended to examine this transformation as epochal, is not sufficiently specific with regard to photographic visibility understood as an “existential.” In particular, it lacks the tools to describe the openness to being as related to this visibility. Nor are the naturalistic descriptions of Talbot’s experiments of (fixing) shadows able to address this. The natural effects of breaking light rays do not say anything about the existentiality of the human being, which seeks to capture and to understand these effects. What turns these natural effects into a new kind of visibility, the visibility of the photographic image, presupposes human being’s openness to being. Photographic visibility is a visibility with regard to the human condition. If this visibility thus constitutes an epochal transformation, as is the central claim of Kenaan’s approach, it should be possible to describe this transformation in terms of how the relation to being is concerned with the specific visibility of the photographic image. Kenaan leads the reflection in that direction but changes course by stating that the camera’s visibility is disconnected from the human body and interpreting this disconnectedness in line with Nietzsche’s perspectivism as a limitless plurality of views.
That the camera provokes a visibility disconnected from the human body is, however, itself visible in the photographic image. This kind of being visible is called “framing”: the photographic image reveals the visual appearance of a framing of the visible. Kenaan indeed mentions and explores the nature of this framing, especially in the experiments by and the examples related to Talbot, but he omits to analyze and describe the appearance of this framing as an “existential,” that is, as an appearance that delineates human being’s openness to being. It is not argued how and to what extent the Nietzschean theme of the death of God could be interpreted as the expression of the visual appearance of a framing. However, it is not difficult to point to some ontological implications that result from the framing of the visible.
The visual appearance of a framing implies first of all a re-organization of the relation between the visible and the invisible. In the field of an embodied perception, the invisible is intrinsic to that perception as what cannot be seen: either because it does not belong to the visible (but to another sense, e.g., it can be smelled), or because it is part of the other side of the perceived objects that we cannot see from our embodied perspective but only in moving our body around that object (what Husserl calls “adumbrations”). In neither case does the invisible limit or contradict the fullness of the embodied visual perception. However, this is different in the visual appearance of a framing. Here, the invisible is essential in at least two ways. The photographic image is itself cut out, extracted from or selected in a field of visibility that encompasses the framing. The invisible is also present within the framing as something that appears as not yet fully visible, still arising, happening. If it is the case that the photographic image catches and attracts the human gaze and is able, as Kenaan contends, to dominate the visible, then it is only because and on the basis of these two ways that invisibility limits its visuality. This means that the visual experience of the photographic image is not without a relation to what exceeds the visibility of the frame and is not without a certain organization of the frame.
Moreover, the visual appearance of a framing – whether or not fixed by the mechanism of the camera – presupposes the recognition of a frame. In fact, Talbot’s experiments showed this very well: he delineates and sets up a frame each time to be able to study the effects of light rays and precisely this experimental method makes it possible to recognize the effects of framing in natural processes of light rays. Interesting cases such as trompe l’oeil (and, by extension, immersive) experiments demonstrate that there is no visual experience of a framing without the recognition of the frame. In this regard, the visual appearance of a framing still refers to and depends on the condition of the human body in two ways: in order to be recognizable, it is necessary that the frame is adapted either to the visual apparatus of the human body (i.e., it remains within the limits of the human eye’s capabilities and expectations) or to its cognitive apparatus (i.e., it corresponds to a conceptual modelling). The fact that mechanical or digital production of visual fragments is limitless – like a camera out of control that cannot stop taking pictures of the same object whatever the picture resolution may be – is completely irrelevant without a reference to the human body in one of these two ways. This means that the mere fact of being framed does not fix or define the meaning of the visual appearance of the framed fragment. Or, to put it in an “existential” way: the visual appearance delineated by the photographic image cannot undo, replace or supplement human being’s openness to being.
Finally, as Kenaan amply demonstrates in his examination of the historical development and interpretations of the photographic image, each particular framing appears to be historical: it exposes and is the expression of human being’s situated being. The historical leaves a trace in the visual appearance of the framed that the frame cannot erase. Without this trace of the historical, Barthes’s discourse on the punctum of the individual photograph, to which Kenaan refers, and also his own discourse on “[p]hotography’s goodbyes,” which he calls “the book’s subject” (51), would not make sense. Yet, to say goodbye is not necessarily the appropriate response to photographs. In some photographs, the trace of the historical relates to the singularity of the here and now of the framing event as being intrinsic to the meaning of the photograph. This is especially the case for documentary photographs that record events from the perspective of the witness, that is, from the perspective of a here and now, the meaning of which the photographer is witnessing. In these cases, the frame of the photograph is explicitly used to reveal and express something about the meaning of the historical and hence about the meaning of human being’s facticity. This means that, however fragmented its visual appearance may be, the photographic image can contribute to making sense of being-in-the-world and to witnessing the values we live by.
As these remarks make clear, Kenaan’s approach is original and inspiring because it analyzes the photographic image as an “existential” and not just as a distinctive category of the image. It consequently shows the relevance of situating the visuality of the photographic image in a broader cultural, epochal transformation of visual experience. Establishing different and intriguing connections with the Nietzschean theme of the death of God, it sheds a new light on the origins of the photographic image and its effects on the visible. In this way, it contributes to a re-examination of the visual experience of framing in its relation to the human condition.
 All references to this article are quoted from Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader, edited by Seán Hand, Basil Blackwell, 1989.
 Quoted from Mauro Carbone, The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty between Painting and Cinema. New York, Suny Press, 2015, 2. Mauro Carbone pointed to this “form of reversal of ‘Platonism’” that “develop[s] the premises affirmed by Nietzsche’s philosophy and explored by modern art” (Ibid.) in the work of Merleau-Ponty.