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Making, Meaning, and Meaning by Making

True to his plan to take photographs to find out what things look like photographed, Garry Winogrand liked to delay processing his exposed rolls in order to scrub the memory of what he had in mind when he tripped the shutter. In a rich and astute essay, Walter Benn Michaels puts Winogrand in company with G. E. M. Anscombe.1 One through photography, the other through philosophy, each explores, articulates, even plays up, the “difficulties” of making sense of what it is for an act to be structured by intentions. Thus Benn Michaels enlists Anscombe and Winogrand in a protest against a recent maneuver of mine that would deflate the difficulties that seem to come with the exercise of photographic agency.2 The reply is that Benn Michaels’s insights are spot on, but they do not block the deflationary maneuver. What happens in Benn Michaels’s reasoning is that new and interesting difficulties get raised about photographic meaning; I propose to deflate them too.


Deflationary maneuvers are not facile attempts to expose our struggles as elementary errors. Critics, theorists, and philosophers have wrestled with how photography puts in question artistic agency. Only subtle theorizing can quiet the struggle while still taking it seriously.


Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of Cardinal Pacelli depicts a man with a toothbrush mustache looking away from the prelate. Suppose that the photographer did not intend to show the man as looking away (set aside epistemic questions about what evidence supports the supposition). How can taking the photograph be an act of the photographer—an act for which he gets credit—if aspects of it are unintended? After all, photography is an automatic imaging system, which is to say that photographs record scenes without regard to photographers’ intentions.3 Eddie Adams’s photograph would have depicted Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s prisoner as wincing no matter what Adams thought was in the scene when he exposed his film. Jeff Wall’s Mimic would have depicted the white dude as pulling his eye with his finger no matter what Wall thought was in the scene when he exposed his film. At the photographic moment, the agency of the photographer is exhausted by the act of tripping the shutter, and the photographic moment is the moment when information in light is inscribed on a photosensitive surface to create an image. If the agency of the photographer lies in what she does intentionally, then it shrinks to a point. Its shrinking to a point might induce anxiety about whether photographs afford the kind of agency needed to make art. Alternatively, its shrinking to a point might open up new avenues for making art.

A constellation of theoretical propositions animates this familiar pattern of thought. Photography is a system that automates image-making. Agency lies in acting, where actions are behaviors done intentionally. Except in some conceptual art practices, artists make things by acting intentionally. The difficulty is that not all of these propositions can be accepted at face value, yet none is clearly false.

The deflationary counter-maneuver deploys a bit of action theory originally due to Anscombe, made standard by Donald Davidson.4 An action is an event, one that happens intentionally. However, attributions of agency and intentions serve different purposes. In attributing agency, we credit an agent or hold them responsible for what happens. In attributing intentions, we explain or justify what an agent does—we work out their reasons for acting.5 Moreover, one and the same event can be intentional under some descriptions but not others. The guard flips a switch, turns on a light, draws 5.4 Amps, illuminates the room, and alerts a prowler: these are one action described in four ways, and what the guard does is intentional under some but not all of these descriptions—she did not intend to draw 5.4 Amps or alert the prowler, for example. An event is an action as long as it is done intentionally under some description. We explain the action by attributing intentions relative to descriptions, but we credit the act under all descriptions. The guard did draw 5.4 Amps, though she did not intend to, because what happens is 5.4 Amps get drawn and that is the same event as turning on the light, which she intended to do. One corollary of this theory of action is that it allows for acts of discovery. James Watson and Francis Crick get credit for discovering the structure of DNA. Their act was intentional under some descriptions—they wanted to use X-ray diffraction—but they did and could not intend to discover that DNA is a double helix.

Even if he did not intend it, Cartier-Bresson gets credit for taking a photograph that depicts a man looking away from the prelate. Winogrand also gets credit for discovering how the street looks photographed, without intending to depict it looking precisely so. Photographic agency is plain vanilla—no different from the agency of the security guard, the scientist, or indeed the painter. Granting that the painter must intend to depict things looking precisely so, there are nevertheless many descriptions under which the act of painting is not intentional. To reply that taking a photograph and making a painting are intentional and unintentional under different descriptions is simply to restate that photography and painting are different ways of making images. We draw on different resources to explain how they come about.

Getting the nature of action right deflates the difficulties that seem to come with the exercise of photographic agency.


Inspired by some of Anscombe’s reflections, Benn Michaels contends that the deflationary cure is worse than the disease.

The trouble is not that the deflationist thinks “it’s a mistake to tie any art too closely to the artist’s intentions.” If artworks are artifacts, they are products of action, but actions are behaviors done intentionally, so there is a close, indeed constitutive, tie between art works and artists’ intentions. Let the platitudes stand.

Rather, the trouble is that the deflationary maneuver puts in play which specific intentions are required in acts of making visual art works. For Benn Michaels, the difficulties that seem to come with the exercise of photographic agency stem from making sense of how photographers could possibly express the kinds of intentions that are standardly attributed to visual artists. Whereas we explain image-making acts by attributing a particular kind of intention, it is hard to see how photographers can take pictures with those very intentions.

Anscombe mulls a case where someone has a contemptuous thought about a peer, so that he means his polite and affectionate gesture ironically, though he betrays no outward sign of contempt. Thinking something while acting is not the same as meaning something by doing the same act, where meaning is expressed in the the act itself. No agent can mean an affectionate gesture to express irony without intending to express irony.

From Anscombe’s case Benn Michaels draws the lesson that “meaning is inseparable from intention.” In addition, he assumes that to understand a photograph is to explain the act of making it, and to explain the act of making it is to zero in on what the photographer meant. It follows that the deflationary attempt to unravel the ties between photographic agency and intentions is “doomed.” The logic is: understanding a photograph requires explaining its making, explaining its making requires getting what the photographer meant, and meaning is inseparable from intention, but photography is opaque to intentions.

The deflationary maneuver once again meets, at a deeper level, some difficulties that seem to come with the exercise of photographic agency.


Grant that to understand a photograph is at least in part to explain the act of making it, which is to get at what the photographer meant.7 Therefore, the question of whether or not the deflationary account of photographic agency is doomed hinges on the proposition that “meaning is inseparable from intention.”8 Thinking through this proposition invites a second deflationary maneuver.

Benn Michaels’s deep point is that there is a class of descriptions under which an act must be intentional if we are to explain the act as one of making an image. We must ascribe to image-makers such intentions as are needed to make sense of image-making acts as meaningful. In this sense, the road to meaning is paved by intentions.

A passenger responsible for navigation on a long road trip remarks to the driver, “there’s a gas station up ahead.” Obviously the sentence means that there is a gas station up ahead, but that is not what the passenger means. He means that the car is low on gas. What a sentence means is not always what a speaker means. Generalizing, the semantic content of a vehicle of communication is not always what the communicator uses the vehicle to communicate. A conventionally signals affection but the hug might used to ironically, to express the hugger’s contempt. U.S. Army photographers recorded the bloody aftermaths of battles in the U.S. Civil War. What the images depict is mud and slaughter. By taking the photographs, army photographers communicated their attitude to the war.

So the road to meaning is not necessarily paved by intentions. “There’s a gas station up ahead” means that there’s a gas station up ahead. Here sentence meaning is determined by linguistic facts, not facts about the speaker’s intentions. That a big hug signals affection is determined by social conventions, not the hugger’s intentions. According to the standard theory of photography, a photograph’s depicting blood and slaughter is determined by facts about the working of the photographic mechanism, not the photographer’s intentions. True, the road to what the photographer means is paved by intentions, but not the road to what their photograph records. Some meaning is separable from intention. I propose to save the first deflationary maneuver from doom by this second deflationary maneuver, which prizes some meaning apart from intention.

To repeat, deflationary maneuvers are not facile attempts to expose elementary errors. According to the standard theory of painting and drawing, the tonsured monk on the left of The Third of May 1808 is depicted as looking down because that is what Goya intended.9 Intentions pave both the road to what a painting depicts and the road to what a painter means by making a painting with that semantic content. A double distinction is needed between photographs and other images and between what a communicative vehicle means and what a communicator means by making it.

Cartier-Bresson takes a photograph that depicts a mustached man looking down. His taking a picture with this very semantic content is something he does—it is his act—even if he does not intend that the photograph capture the mustached man as looking down. At the same time, Benn Michaels is right to point out that the photographer means something about church and state politics by making this photograph. What he means by making the photograph is something he intends to convey. The first deflationary maneuver, which quiets our difficulties over photographic agency, is consistent with the constitutive role of intentions in meaning by making. Hence it ratifies those critical projects where the assumption is that to understand a photograph is to explain the act of making it, which is to get at what the photographer meant.

Combine a deflationary theory of photographic agency with a richly intentionalist approach to understanding what photographers mean by making photographs. We are now equipped to make sense of Winogrand’s practice of discovery. The photographer takes a picture of a beggar on the street, not intending that the scene look precisely so. Its looking precisely so is his discovery—it goes to his credit, not the camera’s. At the same time, by making the photograph, he means to tell us something about the beggar and how we should see him. Maybe he also means to tell us something about being a photographer, who means by making, even as what he makes is not just what he means.


1. Walter Benn Michaels, “‘I Do What Happens’: Anscombe and Winogrand,” Nonsite 19 (2016).
2. Dominic McIver Lopes, “Photography and the ‘Picturesque Agent,’” Critical Inquiry 38.4 (2012): 855–69 and Four Arts of Photography (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016). For discussion, see Charles Palermo, “Automatism,” Critical Inquiry 41.1 (2014): 167–77 and Diarmuid Costello, “‘But I Am Killing Them!’ Reply to Palermo and Baetens on Agency and Automatism,” Critical Inquiry 41.1 (2014) 178–210.
3. This is the standard theory of photography. I grant it here for the sake of argument, though I champion an alternative in Four Arts of Photography, 78–82.
4. G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963) and Donald Davidson, “Agency,”  Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980): 43–62.
5. In philosophy it goes without saying that intentions are explanatory posits. In art theory the point is made by Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
6. Artists need not intend that their drawings and paintings depict what they do, if they can make visual discoveries. See Dominic McIver Lopes, Understanding Pictures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), ch. 9 and Four Arts of Photography, 74–8.
7. While these assumptions are disputed by some, they are common ground for me, Benn Michaels, and the authors cited in note 2.
8. Alternatively, one might deny the standard theory of photography.
9. The intentionalist semantics for hand-made images is Richard Wollheim’s in Painting as an Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) and is widely accepted—see John Kulvicki, Images (London: Routledge, 2014).
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