Fragmentary Images, Fragmentary Selves: Reframing the Photographic Portrait as a Frühromantik Fragment

Open Access
de Avillez, Andre Rosenbaum
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
October 10, 2016
Committee Members:
  • Leonard Richard Lawlor, Dissertation Advisor
  • Leonard Richard Lawlor, Committee Chair
  • Amy Rebekah Allen, Committee Member
  • John Philip Christman, Committee Member
  • Daniel Leonhard Purdy, Outside Member
  • Dennis Schmidt, Special Member
  • Photography
  • Ipseity
  • Fragment
  • Realism
  • Transparency
  • Roland Barthes
  • Walter Benjamin
  • Elizabeth Eastlake
  • Barbara Savedoff
  • Kendall Walton
  • Jacques Derrida
  • Schlegel
  • German Romanticism
  • Portrait
This dissertation investigates claims – made by scholars such as Elizabeth Eastlake, Walter Benjamin, and Roland Barthes – that photographic portraits are somehow superior to their painted or drawn counterparts. The analysis of works by these scholars will lead to the suggestion that this superiority lies in the photographic portrait’s ability to communicate ipseity, and the remainder of the dissertation will consist of an enquiry as to the nature and legitimacy of that ability. With the help of Jacques Derrida’s Demeure, Athènes, I will argue that this ability to communicate ipseity can be best explained if the portrait is understood as a romantic fragment, in the sense proposed by Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis: a work of art whose wit suggests multiple interpretations and whose irony prevents the audience from declaring any one interpretation as superior and final. This solution depends on an understanding of ipseity as inherently and irreducibly heterogeneous, and it will be shown that this is precisely how Barthes and Schlegel understood it. However, by arguing that ipseity can be best communicated through a fragmentary work, we will have simply shown that any fragmentary portrait (photographic or otherwise) is capable of communicating ipseity. If the claims of Barthes, Benjamin, and Eastlake are to have any merit, then there must be a property peculiar to photographic portraits which facilitates that communication. The last chapter of this dissertation will argue that photographic portraits can indeed effect such a communication more easily as long as the viewers accept a particular version of photographic realism: the realism of transparency. With the help of Kendall Walton’s counterfactual defense of photographic realism, as well as Barbara Savedoff’s investigations of the effect of the belief in such realism in the interpretation of photographic works of art, I will argue that the superiority of fragmentary photographic portraits lies in their ability to demand that viewers identify what (or who) was photographed regardless of how witty or ambiguous the image is. We will conclude with an investigation of the effects of digital manipulation on the widespread belief in photographic realism, and its consequences for the power of photographic portraits.