Why people keep photos – a note from Rob Hopkins

After completing the previous Post on “Why do people keep photos”, I emailed the philosopher Robert Hopkins of the University of Sheffield, and asked him if he could point me in the direction of someone who is knowledgeable on the subject of why people keep photos.  He very kindly sent me the following reply:

“I don’t know of any philosopher who has addressed this specific question. However, one might use some of the views in the philosophy of photography to try to answer it. As you perhaps know, Kendall Walton, in a famous paper called ‘Transparent Pictures’, argues that to see someone in a photo of them is literally to see that person. So photographs are aids to vision: like spectacles, mirrors, microscopes and night vision goggles, they allow us to see things through them. The special feature of photographs, in this regard, is that they allow us to see things that lie in the past. Walton thinks that, while ordinary folk wouldn’t necessarily put things that way, they are sensitive to this fact about photographs. We treat photos differently from other pictures, and we do so because they put us in some specially intimate relation with the objects in them. His account explains what that intimacy amounts to: it is seeing the thing. If he’s right about all this, the answer to your question comes readily enough. People keep photographs because they want to be able to see scenes, and the people and objects in them, even when those people and things are long gone, or far away, or no longer in the state they once were.”

The paper that Rob refers to is accessible at this address: http://komm.bme.hu/wp-content/uploads/group-documents/76/1315656188-Walton_Transparent_Pictures.pdf

It was published in December 1984 in the journal Critical Enquiry and is 30 pages or so of detailed discussion illustrated by example photos and pictures. At the time of writing it, Kendall Walton was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.

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