In ancient times, Socrates distinguished mainly between two types of poetic narrative. One was the simple narrative (haple diegesis) and the other was the imitative narrative (diegesis dia mimeseos)1. The simple narrative was expressed through the voice of the poet himself, and the imitative narrative was expressed through his characters2.
“If the poet never hid himself [behind his characters], the whole of his poem would be narrative without imitation.” (Republic, III, 393d). Here, Socrates argues in favor of simple narrative because it is endowed with greater authenticity; it is more honest and less feigned (ibid. 396c), in contrast with imitative narrative, which cheats us artificially hypostatizing the poet’s voice.
In the Sophist (235d) Socrates also distinguished two types of techniques used in the image production (eidelopoiike): one that aimed to reproduce reality faithfully (tekhne eikastike) and another one that focused on its manipulative representation (tekhne phantastike). Socrates, as a seeker of the truth (aletheia), rejected both techniques as not useful for philosophy, since all representation is an imitation (mimesis) that distorts reality.
Aristotle was right in his Metaphysics (II, 993b) when he wrote that truth is something that no one individually can achieve; as individuals we can only glimpse it partially. If this is so, if the truth is inaccessible even to the philosopher, will not all narrative then be something partial and uncertain? Will not all narrative be something subjective and fictional? Who will judge what is true and what is not?
The curious thing is that photography deals with problems similar to those of philosophy. Initially, photography had a scientific vocation; it sought to reproduce reality in the most objective way possible3. However, despite its strong tradition, with the passage of time the artistic ambition of many photographers —such as Alfred Stieglitz— enabled the development of photography as a subjective art. Thus, photography, which initially freed painting from the task of representing reality in a faithful manner, released itself from that inherited responsibility and claimed its own place in the world of fine arts4.
Socrates saw it clearly: diegesis is primary. Diegesis —the direct voice of the poet— is implicit in all narrative. Mimesis is a type of diegesis. The characters always speak through their author. Photography —understood as a language— narrates by means of imitation, it is a mimetic diegesis. It is not an imitation that narrates, it is not a diegetic mimesis.
Just as literary art, photography is a means of subjective expression in which the author does not copy reality, but instead interprets it. Photography does not imitate nature but the optical-perceptive vision we have of nature. Photography does not capture reality chimerically as if it were the art of an objective lens-eye. Photography institutes a world inside a world5. Photographers define and express that world. Photography is their voice: photography is their diegesis.
1 “And aren’t these narratives either narrative alone [haple diegesis], or narrative through imitation [diegesis dia mimeseos], or both?” (Republic, III, 392d). Diegesis dia mimeseos means diegesis “by imitation”. The interpretation of this fragment is important since it has given rise to numerous misconceptions. Likewise, Paul Ricoeur tells us that Plato does not oppose at all mimesis to diegesis, since diegesis is the only generic term discussed. (Ricoeur, 1984/1985, p.180).
2 Is the real Socrates who speaks through Plato or rather is Plato who hides himself behind his characters? Plato said in one of his letters that “There is no writing of Plato’s, nor will there ever be; those that are now called so come from an idealized and youthful Socrates.” (Letters, II, 314c).
3 “The rhythm of the transformation of society does not allow art to correctly assume the descriptive and narrative function that had corresponded to it until then. The incessant progress of sciences and techniques requires a different iconographic system, capable of maintaining that progress.” (Marbot, 1988).
4 “As if photography had to absolve itself an ‘original sin’ —that of having caused the death of painting— pictorialism renews with sharpness the eternal question of the relationship between painting and photography. […] It is rather a relationship of competition, which pushes photography, not to imitate painting, but to rise to its level and, on an equal footing, to claim the same prestige. In this lies the great project of pictorialism, in considering photography as one of the fine arts.” (Mélon, 1988).
5 From a phenomenological approach we can conceive the aesthetic object as a window towards a world that is opened through perception: “The time at the heart of the aesthetic object is only an index of its interiority and of the relation of the self with itself which constitutes this object as a quasi subject. Such time is not a dimension of the objective world but rather a temporal atmosphere which corresponds to a world-atmosphere, to the world expressed by the work.” (Dufrenne, 1953/1973, p. 299).
Aristotle (1991). Metaphysics. (W.D. Ross, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dufrenne, M. (1973). The phenomenology of aesthetic experience. (Edward S. Casey, Trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press. (Original work published in 1953)
Marbot, B. (1988). El camino hacia el descubrimiento (antes de 1839) [The road to discovery (before 1839)]. In Jean-Claude Lemagny & André Rouillé (Eds.) Historia de la fotografía [A history of photography]. Barcelona: Ediciones Martinez Roca.
Mélon, M. (1988). Más allá de lo real: la fotografía artística [Beyond the real: artistic photography]. In Jean-Claude Lemagny y André Rouillé (Eds.) Historia de la fotografía [A history of photography]. Barcelona: Ediciones Martinez Roca.
Plato (1997). Republic. (G.M.A. Grube, Trans.) In John M. Cooper (Ed.) Plato: Complete works. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
Plato (1997). Sophist. (Nicholas P. White, Trans.) In John M. Cooper (Ed.) Plato: Complete works. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
Plato (1997). Letters. (Glenn R. Morrow, Trans.). In John M. Cooper (Ed.) Plato: Complete works. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
Ricoeur, P. (1985) Time and narrative. (Vol. 2). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. (Original work published in 1984).