Wittgenstein and Photography: New Insights

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Fellowship admission photograph, 1929. F.A.II.7[2]

One of the most famous images of Ludwig Wittgenstein is the photograph which he sent to Trinity College as a requirement for his election to a scholarship in 1929. A new exhibition at the Leopold Museum in Vienna allows us to see this photograph in a new light.

The photograph is assumed to have been taken by Moriz Nähr, who worked closely with Wittgenstein for many years. The glass negative from which it was printed was closely cropped to show only Wittgenstein’s head and shoulders, but the edges of the plate have recently been unmasked, and show that Wittgenstein is sitting on a white garden chair in front of a rough white wall, staring directly and defiantly into the lens of the camera. The portrait seems to encapsulate not only something of Wittgenstein’s personality, but also of his work. His sister Hermine wrote to him in the Spring of 1930, when he was applying for a position of probationary Faculty Lecturer, that ‘it is no joke when I say: I believe a decision would have to be made on the basis of your photograph alone, because, if you believe in your work at all, you should also allow for the possibility that its value will be brought out somehow.’

The wide plain background of the newly revealed portrait was a particular obsession of Wittgenstein. On a visit to Connemara in 1934 he saw a plain whitewashed wall and commented ‘what an excellent background this wall would make for a photograph portrait. Professional photographers spoil their work because they will try to use an elaborate background. They won’t see the importance of simplicity.’ Much later in life, when his terminal cancer was overtaking him in 1950, his close friend and collaborator G. H. von Wright suggested that they should be photographed together in his garden. Wittgenstein immediately went indoors to fetch a bedsheet to form a backdrop to the picture, thereby continuing his insistence that nothing should detract from the expression of the subjects portrayed.

Wittgenstein with G. H. von Wright, 1950. Add.PG.43[3]

This strong desire for plain backgrounds is echoed in his well-known dictum, written in a letter to his friend Ludwig Hänsel in 1938, that ‘I always prefer a simple, dry &, if possible, earnest photograph over a genre scene, however natural it may be. – I am going to write a Laocoon for photographs.’ G. E. Lessing’s famous treatise Laocoön: Essay upon the Limits of Poetry and Painting was first published in 1766, and argued that the visual image has necessary limitations of expression: the classical sculpture of Laocoön and his sons showed that ‘screams must be reduced to sighs, because they would deform the countenance to a repulsive degree’. The consequences of Wittgenstein’s passing reference to a ‘Laocoon for photographs’ have occupied many later critics, and are developed further by the several contributors to the exhibition catalogue, Ludwig Wittgenstein: Fotographie als analytische Praxis / Photography as Analytical Practice.

Wittgenstein’s interpretation of the photographic image can be seen in many different contexts, and one perspective is through a series of postcards to his friend Gilbert Pattisson (1908-94), which have recently been added to the Wren Digital Library. These postcards have been lent for display in the exhibition at the Leopold Museum, as well as the Wittgenstein notebooks 114 and 115 (manuscripts of the Philosophische Grammatik and Philosophische Bemerkungen, respectively, both available on WittgensteinSource.

Postcard of Maria Zell, Vienna, sent by Wittgenstein to Gilbert Pattisson. Wittgenstein MS 402, f. 1

Wittgenstein adopts a wry and unusually humorous tone in many of these postcards, often commenting on the images on their reverse. A postcard of the church of Maria Zell at night with the Blessed Virgin Mary depicted in the clouds above is inscribed ‘This is how the total eclipse looked in Mariazell. You see me soaring in the air.’

Postcard of Queens’ College Cambridge, sent by Wittgenstein to Gilbert Pattisson’s sister. Wittgenstein MS 402, f. 9

Wittgenstein spent many periods of time living in a small wooden hut in Skjolden, a remote part of Norway. This postcard shows the grandeur of Queens’ College Cambridge, but he writes on the reverse that ‘I thought you might like to see my little house in Skjolden’. A postcard showing one of the 13th-century misericords of Exeter Cathedral is inscribed ‘an ancient representation of myself as God of love’.

Postcard from Wittgenstein to Gilbert Pattison, Exeter, 1937. Wittgenstein MS 402, f. 33

The Pattison collection also includes a few very small photos (measuring only 35 x 45 mm) which capture Wittgenstein in a more relaxed mood. Below are two photographs taken by Gilbert Pattisson of Wittgenstein, on a boat in Norway in 1931, and on a ferry on the Gironde in France in 1936 (Wittgenstein MS 402, photos 1 and 4).

The exhibition Ludwig Wittgenstein: Photography as Analytical Practice explores Wittgenstein’s varying attitudes to the photographic image in dialogue with photographic works by more than twenty contemporary artists. The exhibition runs until 6 March 2022 at the Leopold Museum, Vienna.