Intention and the Photographer

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Intention is a critical factor in all photography – indeed, in all art. Let me illustrate.

Historically, I have not considered landscape photography as central to my practice, though like many others who started in photography with a lot of travel images, the genre has always been present within my work. However in 2020, landscape has become a more regular (and perhaps more thought-through) part of my work.

Mick Yates. 2020. Black Dog Wood.

The idea of the sublime has long been a source of fascination, as I earlier wrote on Landscape:

Theorist Sir Uvedale Price (1747-1829) placed the picturesque between the serenely beautiful and the awe-inspiring sublime (from An Essay on the Picturesque: As Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful, Robson, 1796).

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the Critique of Judgment (Part I, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, 1790) noted that the viewer projects beauty onto natural objects, and that experiences of beauty create universal feelings of delight. Beautiful objects need no underlying concept. Kant wrote that

the beautiful and the sublime agree on the point of pleasing on their own account. Further they agree in not presupposing either a judgement of sense or one logically determinant, but one of reflection’. However, he went on to say that the beautiful is ‘a presentation of an indeterminate concept of understanding‘.

By contrast, the sublime is found even in an object without form. The sublime is a ‘presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason‘. First Part, Section I, Book II Analytic of the Sublime, #23.

W.J.T. Mitchell, in Landscape and Power noted that:

Landscapes need to be decoded, they don’t merely signify or symbolise power relations; it is an instrument of cultural power. Landscape is a dynamic medium, in which we live and move and have our being, but also a medium that is itself in motion from one place of time to another. Landscape circulates as a medium of exchange, a site of visual appropriation, a focus for the formation of identity’.  (1994: 5)

And Liz Wells, in Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity commented that:

The content of images may seem natural. But representational and interpretative processes are cultural in that they are anchored in aesthetic conventions. Photographs substitute for direct encounter; they act as surrogates, mediating that which was seen through the camera viewfinder’. (2011: 45)

The distinction between the sublime and the picturesque is cemented by Kant’s comment that the sublime is an idea which challenges us. This, plus the comments above on cultural context and aesthetic conventions provide modes of critical analysis of images.

Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840) is usually noted as a painter of the sublime, with a romanticised, aesthetically exaggerated style. The audience ‘knows’ that he is not representing reality, but rather understands that he is expressing an interpretation of it.

Caspar David Friedrich. 1824. Reefs by the Seashore.

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was another artist who painted expressive and explosive ideas rather than strict representations of landscape.

J.M.W. Turner. 1842. Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth.

I would consider Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) punctum has congruence with Kant’s notion of the sublime. As I noted in Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida – An ultimately depressing book:

‘Both studium and punctum include objective and subjective elements, although Barthes suggests that punctum does not of necessity arise from a viewer’s interest in the subject matter of the photograph, in the way that studium usually does.  Barthes’ distinction between the two is thus thought-provoking yet confounding at the same time, in being left in so many ways a matter of personal taste and opinion’.

Modern-day landscape photographer Joe Cornish (1968 – ) is one of Britain’s most commercially successful. His audience clearly likes his work, though he frankly doesn’t often get critical review in the Fine Arts world, whatever that is. Even the most positive readings would find it hard to see the sublime in Cornish’s work, as it is essentially picturesque and vernacular.

Joe Cornish. Return of the Native – regenerating heather, sunset, Roseberry Topping

Cornish himself said:

‘I don’t think there is any photograph that I’ve ever done that I would say is on a level with an Ansel Adams or an Edward Weston. For me they remain a kind of benchmark that I aspire to. I would like to take pictures that move people in the way they did, or make people think about why they live the way they do’. Interview with Roger Voller, 2014.

Cornish would like to ‘move people’ – but he accepts that he doesn’t. There is little punctum present, despite his excellent, consistent craft (and highly sustainable marketing) skills. I would however submit that Cornish does illustrate another important issue in photography – intention. He intends to take photographs in a certain way, and then sell successfully. Many of us are ‘guilty’ of trying to emulate his work.

As my colleague Denis Low commented on picturesque versus sublime – ‘the latter attempts to hide the author, the former revels in it’.

Intention is a critical factor in all photography and not just landscape – indeed, in all art. Turner and Friedrich’s work exemplify an intention to paint the Kantian sublime, although I make no claim that they stated this explicitly. Cornish intends to sell. And in Photo Clubs, making photographs with the intention of doing well by the rules of competitions is another example. To be clear, I am not prioritising one type of intention over another – just simply saying that intention exists. And as we all develop our work, some thinking around our personal intentions can only help.

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919 – 2001) separated ‘intention’ from ‘prediction’ . I can predict that the sun will rise tomorrow, and I might predict that I will make a decent presentation to a camera club. But I do not intend to fail – an intuitive understanding of the difference.

Anscombe then defined three ways that we use the word ‘intention’:

  1. Intention to act – I intend to write a blog post tomorrow, I intend to take landscape photographs tomorrow. Of course, I might not actually do either.
  2. Intentions in acting – I intend that readers will better understand my practice because of this post. I intend to sell my work, or at least get many likes on Facebook. I cannot however predict that these will become true.
  3. Intentional action – I took some landscape photographs daily as part of my Coronavirus UK project this year, to illustrate the daily news headline.

Anscombe notes that it would be a mistake to try to totally separate these three meanings, and writes that ‘A acts intentionally = a certain sense of the question ‘Why?’ applies to A’s action’. (Intention, §5). In this she is clearly in the orbit of Wittgenstein, as the use of words in everyday language is often more useful than a theoretical definition.

The meaning of a word is its use in the language‘. (1953: Sec. 43, pg. 20).

When we are debating, if we followed Wittgenstein’s advice, we should ask ‘Are we talking about the same thing?’

Returning to my own landscape work, here is a very recent example.

Mick Yates. 2020. Social Distancing 259 – Day 25 Lockdown 2 – November 29th.

My intention was to create images that ask questions of the audience, occasionally with paradox, whilst recorded our collective journey through the pandemic with daily news.

For more on images and text, see this Photographs and Text. And for the Lockdown 2 series, see this gallery.

In a recent conversation with David Lewis-Baker, he referenced Paisley Livingstone’s work on intention. Livingstone adds considerable nuance to Anscombe’s basic definitions, and firmly sees intention at play in art, both from the artist’s and the critic’s point of view. The abstract of his book, Art and Intention; A Philosophical Study, notes:

‘Livingston advocates a ‘partial’ intentionalism. Intentions are never infallible, so there is a conceptual gap between the completed work and the intentions that initiated and guided its making. Yet in spite of the fallibility of intentions and of our beliefs and claims about them, intentions regularly contribute to the determination of a work’s features, including implicit meanings, the recognition of which requires the uptake of the artist’s intentional design’.

Livingstone writes (my emphasis):

(1) Intentions not only initiate, but sustain intentional behavior: for example, if a composer intends to compose a symphony, he intends not only to start doing but to keep on working until the project has been completed, or until sufficient reasons for giving up on the composition emerge; various intentions that follow from the over-arching intention will issue in episodes of trying to perform the
relevant actions.

(2) Intentions guide intentional behavior once it is in progress: the representational content of the intention directs specific actions towards the realization of the goal. For example, the activation of representational motor schemata guides the occurrence of particular finger motions involved in the composer’s tentative sounding out of musical phrases at a keyboard.

(3) Intentions prompt and appropriately terminate practical reasoning: once the musician is settled on the plan of composing a musical work, this intention initiates thinking about how to bring this about, and when the time comes, helps bring closure to these compositional efforts. Should the musician resolutely abandon the intention to write a certain symphony, deliberate work on it will be likely to cease.

(4) Intentions help to co-ordinate an individual agent’s behaviour over time: the composer’s intention to write a symphony is functionally related to a range of prior intentions such as that of pursuing a musical career of a certain sort–and influences not only those actions related to the realization of the particular intention, but the acquisition of other intentions, such as that of keeping a work routine, declining certain social engagements,

(5) Intentions help to co-ordinate interaction between agents: for example, publicly declared intentions in an artistic manifesto help artists make their projects known, and in turn help the public in their efforts to categorise and appreciate their works.

(2005: 14-16)

He is using ‘definitions in use’ a la Wittgenstein, relying on examples rather than some form of Kantian ‘a priori’ interpretation. In this, he taking a rather ‘western pragmatic’ approach.

Livingstone’s 5th point (co-ordination between agents) could be usefully extended to cover the idea that the ‘photographer – subject – audience’ triangle is always at work, and that often the final perceived meaning of a work from the audience perspective may not be exactly what the artist intended. That may be another essay to write.

Livingstone is not ignoring the role of serendipity in the creative process. Rather, for him, creativity is an emergent process seeded by intention. This might be congruent with Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that 10,000 hours of experience is needed before one can really be good at something, and I’d contend that is always be in the background as we make photographs.

On creativity, Livingstone notes a rather traditional process, which is recursive in nature and not linear. My summary of his framework:

1. Preparation – knowledge, techniques, context
2. Incubation – often attending to other things
3. Illumination – on the ‘best’ ideas
4. Verification and elaboration – critical evaluation

(2005: 47)

There seems little room for pure Zen-style enlightenment as a creative model, although Livingstone does reference the Japanese concept of wabi as a deliberate, intentional artistic process. I might extend his thoughts on the creative process with the practical option of Zen-style training and meditational discipline as intentional precursors of the creative process, but perhaps that is worthy of another essay.

Yet another essay might be in the arena of pre-planning shoots and post-processing of photographs to one’s particulate aesthetic style, rather than simply focusing on the moment of pressing the shutter – akin to the way that painters develop their armoury of techniques and expertise. Flusser’s ‘apparatus’ comes to mind, suggesting that intention is not just exhibited at 1/50th of a second, but both before and after that spilt second.

Livingstone confirms that the assignment of authorship can provide clues for critical context – social, historical and cultural of an artwork – and that leads straight to notions of intention. He defines an author as:

‘ … an agent who intentionally makes an utterance, where the making of an utterance is an action, an intended function of which is expression or communication’.

And he goes on to comment:

‘According to the proposed definition, anything that is not an agent, that is, anything that is not capable of action, cannot be an author. For an action to occur, a system’s (e.g. an organism’s) behaviour must be oriented and proximally caused by that system’s meaningful attitudes, such as its desires, beliefs, and intentions. Thus, if a computer is not capable of genuine action because in literally has no meaningful attitudes, then it cannot be an author, even though some of the configurations on its monitor are highly meaningful for some interpreter’.

(2005: 69)

My final comment, here, is on ‘life’s work’. To what intent is a series of work (oeuvre) by an artists intentional? Livingstone find that it has a role, though it’s hard to prove either necessity or sufficiency.

‘To sum although artists and authors often frame and act on second-order intentions that one or more works are to be created and appreciated as parts of a larger whole, such intentions may be neither necessary nor sufficient to the creation of artistically meaningful relations between works within a life-work. They are not sufficient if there are cases where such intent:ions, though acted upon, fail to be realized in the works constitutive of the oeuvre; and they are not necessary, not because appreciators always fill in as intentions in their factual absence, but because artistically significant life-work relations need not all be intended. Yet intentions are invariably relevant to work/life-work relations, and it can sometimes make a difference whether a feature of a life-work intentionally created or not. What is more, it is possible that certain life-work relations can be discovered only when we adopt a genetic perspective that embraces both the retrospective and prospective attitudes informing an artist’s creative activities’.

(2005: 100)

So, yet more research to be done. This has been a rather lengthy essay, covering a great deal of ground. But I hope it demonstrates the power of intention, and the application of theoretical aesthetic constructs to practical, real-world photography. Livingstone himself comments that ‘… our understanding of [artistic] interpretation can be advanced by improving our account of intention‘. (2005: 125). And he concludes with:

‘Art making is an intentional activity, even if it incorporates non-deliberative, unconscious and spontaneous processes. Neither the inspirations nor rationalist conceptions can capture the blending of deliberate and intentional, spontaneous and sub-intentional processes in the creation of art’.

(2005: 209)

I look forward to comments.


Header: Mick Yates. 2020.

ANSCOMBE, Elizabeth. 1957. Intention. 2008 Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

BARTHES, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 2000. Edition. London: Reaktion Books.

KANT, Immanuel.1790. The Critique of Judgment (Part I, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment).Oxford: Oxford University Press.

LIVINGSTONE, Paisley. 2005. Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press

MITCHELL, W.J.T. 1994. Landscape and Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

PRICE, Sir Uvedale. 1796. An Essay on the Picturesque: As Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful. London: Robson.

STILES, Kristine & Selz, Peter. 2012.  Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writing (2nd Ed.). Berkeley:  University of California Press.

VOLLER, Roger. 2014. Interview with Joe Cornish. Available at: (accessed 02/03/2019).

WELLS, Liz. 2011. Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. London: IB Tauris & Co.

WISEMAN, Rachel. 2016. Anscombe’s Intention. Abingdon: Routledge.

WITTGENSTEIN, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell.

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