Chapter 28. The Challenge of Atheism

As photographers we seek images that are sharp. Well, sometimes. I mean, of course the image has to be in focus to some degree. But a good picture is not just that, and quite often many of our best images may not be as sharp as they ought to be. At least, it seems to me that the better ones are the ones that saturate with meaning, than are necessarily sharp, for instance.

Put in another way, we aren’t exactly after the “clear and distinct”. If we can speak of a kind of logic in photography, and its intentionalities, then whatever it may be, the Cartesian project is just not it. Of course we use photographs to do different kinds of things: such as collect data for evidence. Here the clearness and distinctness of the picture is of great import. But here photography is a tool, for evidence gathering, and it is conditioned by the nature of its end, which is the collection of evidence, and the latter of course welcomes what is clear and distinct.

But if we can think of photography done, without such a pre-meditated end – as something we do, in order to discover what else might be more worth doing with it, I suspect the collection of evidence is not on the top of the list of priorities. Oh yes, we can collect the clear and distinct well, but if we use this camera for this purpose, it is something that is done when it is called to do so from the outside. If there is a peculiar calling of photography, which does not so much instrumentalize photographs and cameras, but rather attends to their inner calling, so to speak, its probably something else. That something else is what cameras call us to do, by showing us its affordances. Like a woman who exposes a little of herself in order both to give us a sense of her capacity for friendship, childbirth and caring, and also to seduce us into assisting with that, the camera might do the same.

In this way I am suggesting a logic, a project proper to the camera, which it calls us to help it fulfill. And it is not just taking sharp images, just like the glory of a woman is not her ability to wash dishes, even if she can do that squeeky clean. If there are dishes to be washed then these are what has to be done; but what else can be done without one being so obliged to do that, and which one grasps worth doing? So also, sharp impressions aside, what else does the photographer think worth doing, and not just out of expedience or obligation? It is not just, I think, the collection of clear and distinct images, since, as has been said, we find worth doing the development of images that are not quite as sharp, but carry something else, and quite often our thoughts focus not so much on clarity, but on other things besides.

So the question here is not what is worth doing with the camera, so that if one has the natural law we would say, quite many things, so long as they are in accord with the natural law. (Of course, a terrible answer is to suggest that we can do any and everything, even against the natural law). The question may be posed in a different way: one can of course significally design the camera, but how would the camera design itself? What important things to do, does the camera or photography impress upon the photographer? How does it wish to unconceal itself, even if it can be ready at hand as a tool in so many good ways? What is the camera’s theory (theoria) of photography, its looking back as we look through it?

In this way we can sharpen the question re: how to significally design the camera. We have made headway when we insisted that a normative framework viz the natural law is needed for us to design the camera focally, since we need such a practically reasonable point of view to make the kind of sense of the meaning of photography that matters. But we can go further, with respect practical things like cameras. Is there a certain field which it further beckons us to focus on? Over and above the natural law, and the variously incommensurably good goals, does it further request that we focus on something more specific? What is its “talk-back”, to further focus us on its genius and peculiar affordance, besides the many many good things it in its focal meaning, can do? Is there an even more specific focal activity? Meaning, isn’t there something further which is also needed to significally design the camera: and this something further emerges from the camera itself. In this way the camera distinguishes itself from all other tools, which taken centrally is indistinguisheable from every other tool in its central case: “this whatever in its focal sense is that which is used in order to satisfy the natural law”.

So besides the affirmation of the natural law, something else which is from the tool is needed to help us focally design/define the tool (which is no more merely a tool, a ready to hand), viz., its godly gazing back. This is an especially interesting question to ask about the camera, since as I’ve suggested, the camera’s unconcealment includes the epistemological grasp of the natural law: photography’s evaluative nature makes us think practically. So a natural law theorist who picks up the camera finds nothing new, since the camera enlightens him with what he already knows. So this is not the thing we are after. We are asking, over and above the natural law which the camera helps surface, and which now directs our significal design of the camera, what else might there be which the camera shows?

When we are asking this, we are really asking, me, or you, the photographer, even when rightly disposed in accordance with the natural law, to heed what the camera says to us. The camera itself of course is inanimate, and would not in any way communicate verbally. Yet when we use the camera, even if rightly disposed, we can consider what the camera especially beckons us to do. Eventually it is of course all from ourselves, but the camera is a prosthesis, drawing these out. Like a mirror it reflects what we find most joyfully good in photography. So beside the natural law, and its showing, what does the camera ask we do, or do with it, and how to better refine our design of the “camera”?

The answer to this must be, whatever it is that the camera impresses us most with, and gives us most joy noticing. The camera can be a paper weight in the service of scholarly truth, but that is not what it impresses us with, and so it need not be that, and this is not its central logic. I am myself most impressed with how the camera insinuates the saturating divine in the ordinary – not, as I’ve explained earlier, in the Heideggerian pantheistic manner, but in the more conservative form. Still, somehow, something envisioned as special – hence, a “punctum” – is present in what the camera pictures best. Hence for me, from amonsgt all the good things it can do and make it a “camera”, I would say the camera is that which signs the sacred in the ordinary.

Ah, that there is something sacred in, or amongst the ordinary. Of course, unlike a metaphysician it cannot show this to be true, or false. But perhaps it is not bothered by that. Even if false, the camera – and the conspiring photographer – wants to insinuate this. And if we hate the world, or think there is nothing to it, we might find photography offensive, misleading, and would not be bothered with it. Its *logic* offends – so, there is one! That something offends betrays the fact that there is a logic that is there, which is at odds with such a person’s belief, and so is now excommunicated.

But for those of us who persist, inspite of the world’s evils, then we are those who are open to its special gift, ability and desire to show that something special, that something wonderful. This then is its logic, that emerges from the photographer and the camera: that there is a sacredness in the ordinary, that we can have to capture. As a logic it is no merely something good to do (e.g., as I’ve suggested in Chapter 26. Metaphysical Poets), but something that amongst all other things it is most fitting for photography and photographers to do.

One last: this logic seems at odds with a kind of thorough-going atheism, or the belief in the exhaustiveness of the immediate. The camera wishes we would say otherwise with it. With Christian or thomistic metaphysics, however, we might find some corroborating comfort and rest, and no tension at all. So the logic of the camera cannot prove God’s existence (although I have suggested it does place us where such proofs can begin, in Chapter 27. Where the Signs Show), but it will nevertheless find atheism a challenging paradigm to cohere, ergo, et cetera.