Max Barstow & the Philosophy of Photography


Our fourth interview features Max Barstow.

Max is a recent graduate of King’s College, London where he studied Philosophy. Throughout his studies he continued to build his photography portfolio, making use of London to satisfy his interest in making images about city life. He beat thousands of hopefuls to win third prize in the prestigious 2018 Taylor-Wessing Portrait competition. The photograph is currently being exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Max spoke to CPA about his enduring interest in both philosophy and photography and how the two have enhanced his creative thinking.

Max Barstow | King’s Cultural Institute | CPA

The Philosophy of Photography

Photography, typically, is thought of as an especially real form of imaging. Photographs are more reliable if one needs to identify the rogue, more useful for extortion, more likely to engender sympathy for the starving and more likely to arouse pornographically. In choosing to represent the credentials of some important object, we’ll generally select a photograph rather than a sketch. Photographs have a kind of realism or immediacy that pencil drawings or luscious oil paintings lack.

Renowned philosopher Kendall Walton argues that photographs are distinctively different from other kinds of pictures for the following reason. We can literally see through a photograph to the objects and people they are of. They are a transparent form of representing.

But, with increasingly sophisticated and automated ways of manipulating images, this transparency thesis looks like it could come under attack. Is your selfie transparent to you? Is an e-fit transparent to the criminal? If the sunshine creates a natural ‘exposure’ on my sofa, is this a photograph and if so, what is this transparent to?

Walton has pointed out that confusion or accusations of counter-intuitiveness concerning his thesis are generally misguided. He does not mean that seeing grandma’s smile in a photograph is the same sort of ‘seeing’ as popping by to see grandma face to face. His claim is that in some important respect seeing a photograph of a loved one is significantly like seeing them face to face, in a mirror or through a telescope. In addition, it’s importantly unlike seeing them in a painted portrait.

How might we begin to interrogate Walton’s claim about the difference between a ‘picture’ and ‘photograph’? As luck would have it, Max Barstow, an emerging photographic talent, is a former student at King’s and specifically, the Aesthetics course at King’s College, London. So we met up for a coffee.

  • VB: Vanessa Brassey (Philosophy, King’s College, London)
  • MB: Max Barstow (Photographer)

Transcript excerpts from Interviews

VB: Hi Max, it’s great to see you.

MB: Hi – good to be back in Fernandez and Wells and to have a chance to catch up

VB: It’s been a busy time for you since graduated (Max studied philosophy at King’s College, London). I believe congratulations are in order!

MB: Oh thanks. Yes, I’ve recently finished a portrait project, Londoners, an image from which has been shortlisted for the 2018 Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. I’m currently working on a set of still-life pictures inspired by classic memento mori images, alongside an ongoing project, Reflections.

Londoners II 1© ‘Londoners II’ – Max Barstow

VB: How did you get into photography?

MB: I was self-taught from the age of 13, but I’ve worked for commercial photographers as an assistant and retoucher since I was 18. In particular, I’ve learnt a great deal from a photographer called Tim Kent. He’s exceptional at lighting. I didn’t study photography at university. I did the Philosophy degree, which, believe it or not, has really helped my pictures! Being a good artist of any kind has a lot to do with how well your head works, and studying something rigorous like Philosophy contributes to that.

Memento Mori 1©  Max Barstow

VB: Does this mean there is a lot of preparation required before you shoot?

MB: I’ve never started a project deliberately. I go out and take pictures without too much in mind, try to notice interesting things when I’m editing my shots, and then pursue that interest. I keep narrowing down my field of interest until I have a coherent set of pictures with some features in common. At that point, I still only have a rough idea of what I’m doing. I probably just know a few technical things –the kind of light I want to photograph in, the proportions of the images I want to make, whether they’re colour or black-and-white, what kind of tonality I want to use for the images, and, in a very general way, the subject-matter I want to photograph. I’d photographed people in the street for some time before this project began (which isn’t to say that I knew it was beginning at the time!), and I think that at a certain point I decided that I wanted to focus less on human interactions within a scene and more on the people themselves, which is really a shift from street photography to portraiture.

VB: How has your interest in photography influenced your interest in philosophy, if at all?

MB: I’m not sure. I did my BA at King’s and I was definitely more drawn toward the analytic over the continental stuff. Maybe that’s because I was quite interested in the methodology. That way of thinking has helped me in my creative practice. The Greeks, Epistemology, bit of Mind. I liked all that a lot. I really enjoyed the two Kant modules in the 3rd year, his moral and aesthetic theory. I guess the more technical stuff.

Memento Mori 2©  Max Barstow

I think part of what really moved me about Kant was the sense that the human condition is constitutionally tragic – we’re in this weird position in which, theoretically, we know in some sense the very limited boundaries of our knowledge, yet we also practically have to reach beyond that whilst knowing that we’re reaching to something which is off-limits and, according to our theoretical side, irrational to have any positive notions about e.g. a conception of a deity, external notions of beauty and goodness, even a belief that the world as discovered by fundamental physics is actually like that independent of our conceptual framework. I think Kant’s right about this – whether or not his arguments work, I think he basically got our position in the world (whatever ‘the world’ is! some conceptual construction on our part I’m sure…) right, and that it’s tragic – we’re split down the middle.

Londoners II 2© Max Barstow

My outlook’s been moulded by doing philosophy – and you can see an outlook in someone’s artwork. You can see what kind of person they are, at least on a certain plane. You can even see something about their religious outlook – compare Blake, in which the spiritual and physical realms merge, with Rembrandt, whose work has an obviously religious inflection more or less throughout, yet doesn’t, at least in ordinary portraits/non-religious scenes, depict the spiritual world merging with the material – mind/spirit and body are separate for him.

VB: You wrote on Hegel in Aesthetics, but are you more sympathetic to the Kantian approach?

MB: Oh yes, that’s right! (he laughs). I must have liked that particular reading. Actually, yeah that was an interesting text (Hegel’s Lectures in Aesthetics).

VB: Do you think Hegel’s views have affected your practice?

MB: Hmmm. I’m not sure. Maybe not. Although theories of how we look do. For example, David Hockney and Martin Gayford have jointly written a great book about pictures that’s full of insights.

VB: The History of Pictures? I’m reading that at the moment. It’s great.

MB: Yeah, it’s great. Not too technical, not too academic but full of important and unexpected insights. The comments about the Ghent Altarpiece and the discussion on perspective is particularly striking. Hockney’s someone who incorporates photography in an interesting way into pictures. So he’s not just relying on the transparency thing – he’s using the photography to add another level to painting. The way he discusses it, it’s all about how you see. And I think that is a crossover in photography. I think one thing he does well is place photography in the history of painting and see how it has affected the painter’s work.

Londoners II 2© Londoners II – Max Barstow

VB: Did you feel the discussions concerning composition were relevant?

MB: It’s hard to say. I didn’t pose any of the subjects in the Londoner series.

City 2© City 2 – Londoners, Max Barstow

I took several pictures on Regent St during a pause between streams of passers-by. Those pauses, with only one or two people, rather than a multitude, allow me to create a portrait without any other figures cluttering the edges of the frame. Vis-à-vis their ‘finding their own space’, I certainly didn’t have any intentions along those lines. I don’t have time to think about anything like that when taking portraits like this – I just follow my gut.

Londoners I 1

It’s very hard to say why any image works. Good composition is a prerequisite for a successful picture, but there aren’t any universal rules governing composition – only rules of thumb. With portraits in particular, facial expressions, handgestures and clothing are important. I couldn’t say why, but I find it visually interesting that the women’s faces point in opposite directions – it creates a bit of tension; a sense that, despite being physically close to each other, there’s distance between them. The hands of the front-most figure are important: her rear hand is tensed like a claw, as though clutching at something; the front hand is formed into a scoop, to hold her phone. She holds both hands very easily, as if they’re in positions to which she’s accustomed. Both women look confident.

VB : Do you think Walton is right that the photograph is transparent to the objects it captures?

Reflections 1

© Reflections – Max Barstow

MB: I’m not familiar with Walton so I’d have to think about it and what the contrasting claim re paintings/non-photographic images would be/is? That said, I think I get the flavour of the claim – might be that this section of my work (which I don’t have printed yet – that’s a headache for the next month or so!) is more obviously relevant to Walton’s theme.

Reflections 2

© Reflections – Max Barstow

What I think is surprising and interesting is that, at least to me, it seems that non-linguistic art forms and philosophical ideas can have an emotional tenor in common – this tenor doesn’t seem accidental/random to me either. If Kant makes you feel light-hearted and jolly you’re very weird! I guess what I’m saying is kind of obvious in a certain sense – put aside the emotional considerations for a moment, and look at William Blake’s work. It wouldn’t be crazily far-fetched to infer some kind of pan-psychic metaphysic from his prints (and if Blake isn’t the right example, I’m sure we could find a non-linguistic for which this was a reasonable inference).

Getting back to emotions, I think that one’s metaphysical outlook has a huge impact on one’s emotional state/outlook (I had just read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience when we did the interview, but it didn’t come up – he talks about this really interestingly; lots of stuff about how people with different emotional temperaments will tend towards different resolutions of the problem of evil/different kinds of theodicy). Taking those two things for granted (that you can infer different metaphysical outlooks from different works of art, and that a metaphysical outlook has non-accidental emotional corollaries/influences how you feel), it’s not really a leap to get to the idea that philosophical ideas can be touching/distressing in a way which mirrors the emotional impact of artworks.

VB: So is this connection linking an emotional thought and an emotional sound?

I’m not quite sure I know what you mean by an emotional thought or an emotional sound; I think thoughts can be about emotions or can trigger them, and that sounds, or sequences of sounds, can clearly cause emotions too (I don’t think even a philosopher would have much to argue with vis-a-vis the latter point!). But perhaps I’m being too pedantic.

Yes, I do think that there’s a link between certain kinds of thoughts, or perhaps interlinked sets of thoughts (i.e. a conceptual system/a philosophical outlook or position), and non-linguistic art, e.g. music – philosophical outlooks of one variety will cause a certain sort of emotion just as, for instance, music of a certain kind can cause a very similar or even identical emotion (but please don’t scrutinise that too strictly – I’m not making any rigorous identity claims here!); basically, they can both cause the same emotions and feelings in us. I also think that feelings of a certain kind can cause us to reflect in a more or less philosophical manner (not in the rigorous fashion which actual philosophers consider various problems – just in the sense of wondering what it’s all about and why we’re here, that kind of thing).

VB: Thanks Max, it’s been great chatting and a real treat to see your work.

MB: Thank you for asking me!