Since I began studying literature and modern culture back in 1996, I have suspected that the human experience of the world may be linguistic in some sense, and that photography exists somewhere between language and reality.
In the blog post The blind spot of theory I explained how I know of no theory which has answered how photographs can be realistic accounts of reality and at the same time expressions of our desires and imagination. In fact there seems to be little academic consensus on the nature of photography, or even on photography’s relationship with reality.
I did not do an in depth critique of any theory, but chose to take a more general look at the photographic horizon I find myself in – or put in other words – the development of a photographic discourse within academic theory, with the question of the relationship between photographs and reality as the point of focus.
What I found is that the photographic discourse has been based mainly on literary and art-historical approaches, combined to some extent with political, cultural and sociological perspectives. These classic theories have suggested (amongst many other things) that photographs show only a superficial truth (Baudelaire), that photographs capture both surface banality and the invisible traces of culture (Benjamin), that photographs are invisible windows on past lives, with the ability to prick the viewer with a kind of personal meaning (Barthes) and that they are a way for people to collect and wrap up the material world, reducing information to sentimentality (Sontag). (More on this in my last blog post The blind spot of theory.)
In this blog post I wish to introduce the theory of the index, and the invention of digital photography. The question is whether or not digital photography represents a radical break with an earlier more “innocent” type of analogue photography.
Rosalind Krauss & the Index
In the 1970s, American art theorist Rosalind Krauss (born 1941) introduced a new, more scientific way to describe how the art object is put together and how it works – how a particular artwork’s structure gives rise to associated effects. This approach was generally considered a welcome counterweight to the subjective, poetic approach which dominated much of current art criticism.
In 1977, Krauss published an influential two-part essay Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America, arguing that much of modern art – and specifically photography – was indexical in nature.
According to Krauss, the photograph was first and foremost connected to the world as a sort of imprint or trace, rather than bound to cultural systems. But even though the photograph was a trace of the world out there, it was still a mechanical representation, a copy.
Krauss was inspired by Roland Barthes’ development of structuralism and attempted to use similar approaches to art, combining his ideas with Peirce’s index. (Described in the blog post The Paradox of Photography (Introduction)).
According to Krauss, the physical relationship between the photograph and its referent, the fact that they were traces of that which they referred to, meant that they were not symbolic: In stead the power of the photograph resided in a kind of imaginary identification. The photographic image was in fact the object itself, freed from the conditions of time and space.
To Krauss photographs were mechanical copies so strongly connected to reality that they were like actual pieces of reality put forth as art. As such, photography was a language of things.
Although Krauss argued that context and discourse supplied the empty indexicality of the photograph with meaning, its referentiality remained at the core of her analysis.
In A Note on Photography and the Simulacral (1984) Krauss reworked theories of the French sociologists and cultural theorists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean Baudrillard to argue that the photograph breaks down differences between original and copy, singular object and multiple.
This collapse of differences pushes photography into the realm of the simulacrum, where it becomes impossible to tell the difference between reality and simulation. Instead consciousness experiences a world full of copies, of resemblances. “We are surrounded by the reality effect, Krauss observes, a labyrinth of resemblances of the real” as put by Sabine Kriebel in James Elkins’ Photography Theory (2007). Humanity has lost access to reality, and photography is to blame.
Krauss’ ideas about photography’s indexical nature became highly influential in photographic theory, and it will be discussed further in a later blog post.
1991 saw the arrival of the first professional digital camera system, a Nikon F3 with a 1.3 megapixel sensor. At about the same time the internet and the hypertext was combined, creating the world wide web, and with the launch of the graphic web browser Mosaic in 1993, the internet as we now know it started to take shape.
With the arrival and spreading of digital photography, the discussion of photography’s relation to the material world once again became central to the theoretical discussion, this time focused on questions of virtuality and simulacrum. The photographic image suddenly seemed completely immaterial and ephemeral, containing potentially infinite information.
Mitchell and Manovich
In 1992 William J. Mitchell published The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Postphotographic Era, a methodical account of the ruptures between analogue and digital photography.
Mitchell argued that traditional photographs contained more information than digital photographs. Meanwhile, mutability and manipulation were inherent to the digital medium, putting its truth value into question.
In The Paradoxes of Digital Photography (1995) Lev Manovich, one of Mitchell’s most vocal critics, argued that rather than representing a break from traditional photography, digital images were paradoxically reinforcing older modes of representation.
Manovich argued that associating realism with analogue photography and montage with digital photography was too simplistic and reductive. Realism and montage were two traditions of visual culture that existed before photography and that spanned many different visual technologies.
“the reason we think that computer graphics has succeeded in faking reality is that we, over the course of the last hundred and fifty years, have come to accept the image of photography and film as reality.”
Digital imaging did not fake reality, but what Manovich called “photographic reality”: Reality as the camera lens “sees” it.
According to Manovich digital technology does not subvert “normal” photography because “normal” photography never existed:
“there never existed a single dominant way of reading photography; depending on the context the viewer could (and continue to) read photographs as representations of concrete events, or as illustrations which do not claim to correspond to events which have occurred.”
Certainly the digital revolution created many visions (positive as well as negative) of a pure, true state of information and a loss of reality. In his essay, Manovich did not distinguish between digital images created in a computer program or those created using a camera, but concluded that the digital version of reality was comparable with our future cyborg vision. Both Manovich and Mitchell envisioned a very different future reality for humanity as the result of digitization.
In Photography, Or The Writing Of Light (1999) Jean Baudrillard claimed that the technique of photography took us beyond the replica into the domain of the trompe l’oeil, the image that gives the illusion of reality.
To Baudrillard, the photographic gaze did not probe nor analyze reality, but showed it as fragmented, and then obliterated it altogether. The photographic image was about light – not realistic, natural nor artificial light:
“Rather, this light is the very imagination of the image, its own thought.”
A light which to Baudrillard is cruel, and never intimate, always pointing toward darkness, emptiness and surface. Photographic experiments only means moving further away from the once innocent approach of the Camera Obscura.
It is worth noting that Baudrillard did not blame photography for the disappearance of reality – rather he seemed to feel that reality was already disappearing when photography arrived, but that it found a way to mutate into an image.
In these last blog posts based on the first part of my thesis The Paradox of Photography, I have been looking into the early beginnings of photography as a result of mimetic ideals, and at the shaping of an academic discourse around the media.
Since the invention of photography 170 years ago, photographs have spread to every part of our lives, but we still do not feel certain of what they are. When we look at photographs, we feel they have some connection to reality, but the extend of the connection is unclear.
This reality we see in photographs, is a past or a present reality? Is it the reality of the world, apparatus, of dreams or of art – fictive, mythical, religious? If it is reality – then how can it be so different from what we experience when we look at the world using just our eyes?
While none of the well known theories mentioned in these blog posts see the relationship between photographs and reality as straight forward, most of them favour the idea of the photograph as a kind of superficial, mechanical copy of nature.
But photography’s relationship with reality is not treated as suspicious when photographs are considered documentary or compared to windows or traces (Barthes) and as traces thought of as connected to the object in a way which is indexical in nature (Krauss).
Most importantly, none of the classic approaches properly explain the question posed by James Elkins in my Introduction: How photographs can, on one hand, be realistic accounts or copies of reality, and, on the other hand, express our desires and imagination.
The answer may be connected to the traditionally narrow misconception of mimesis as an imitation of nature. As mentioned in the blog post Mimesis and Photography, Aristotle considered mimesis to include an expression of emotions and experience and he felt that images could help us gain a new understanding of ideas, which to him were more real than appearances. As such mimesis could also be said to be an expression of human thought, and certainly an interpreted version of reality.
As stated earlier, the relationship between photography and the real was never a simple, innocent one. Photography was invented because of an unofficial desire for mimesis, magic and pictures, as much as for a scientific search for truth, or spreading of information.
In the next blog posts I will be looking closer at what kind of pictures photographs are, and how they affect the way we think about reality.
As mentioned previously, the invention of photography can be seen as the culmination of the Western tradition which saw Mimesis, understood as the exact replication of the outer reality, as the highest artistic aim.
Previously I wrote about the early beginnings – Mimesis and photography, Baudelaire and Surrealism. In this blog post I will look at the discourse which came a little later. This post is not an attempt at an in depth critique of any theory, rather it is about the development a photographic discourse, focussing on the question of the relationship between photography and reality.
The discourse surrounding photography, here presented historically with a focus on photography’s relationship with reality, has been based mainly on literary and art historical approaches, combined to some extent with political, cultural and sociological perspectives.
My aim here is to show how none of these approaches properly explain the most important question: how photographs can be realistic accounts or copies of reality and at the same time expressions of our desires and imagination. Albeit all may agree that photography’s relationship to reality is not straight forward, most of the theory seems to favor the idea of the photograph as a kind of superficial, mechanical copy of nature. Photography’s relationship with reality is not treated with enough care nor suspicion when photographs are compared to windows or seen as traces (Barthes) – and certainly not when they are seen as traces connected to the object in a way which is indexical in nature (Krauss).
There never was a time when photographs were “pure” or had a straight forward relationship with reality: But the complicated relationship between photography and “the real” seems to be a kind of blind spot within photographic theory. It is certainly not a question which has been adequately answered.
Early cameras were large and heavy, and demanded both patience and extensive technical skills from their users. Neither camera nor object could move during the picture taking. As the German intellectual Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) later described it:
“The procedure itself caused the subject to focus his life in the moment rather than hurrying past it; during the considerable period of the exposure, the subject … grew into the picture.”
But photo-technology was under constant development. The Kodak Brownie, introduced in 1900, was the first mass-market camera suited for snapshot photography. With the arrival of the portable 35mm Leica camera (1924), photo-sensitive film and paper, lenses with larger aperture, and the invention of the flash bulb, it became possible for photographers to work faster and with less available light than before.
The new mass reproduce-able photograph became an integrated part of a new media industry – the picture magazine. The reproduceable photo and the arrival of the picture magazine meant that Western culture became flooded with photographic images. Walter Benjamin saw potential for revolution in the mass-produced photographs, because they broke the aura of the artwork and brought the distant object closer to the masses, simultaneously, everywhere. Photographic production and reproduction was to be used for social change:
“Baudelaire’s ambitious poet, in Europe of 1934, needs to embrace modern technology in an aesthetics of struggle, to intervene using modern material.”
Benjamin argued that the best way to fight the modern (capitalist) problems was from within, using modern methods such as photography. Importantly, Benjamin was not looking for a simple reflection of the real, but for a political, artistic approach, as described by Baudelaire. According to Benjamin, a subjective, artistic interpretation of reality revealed more than the supposedly objective “mirror” approach:
“Less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality”.
The snapshot of the 1920s was unstable and in eternal flux, like Benjamin’s present day: But the photograph could reveal little image worlds, the “optical unconscious” – the camera caught things which were only visible to the unconscious and to the camera eye. In this respect Benjamin shared some of the surrealist ambitions for photography, seeing photography’s potential for accessing subconscious associations, potentially saying something about culture as a whole. Benjamin realized photography’s potential ability to capture the invisible and make it visible, allowing us to look beyond that which we consider real and into the darker shadows of our culture, examining the undercurrents and inner workings of that which we take for granted. Benjamin did not see the relationship between photography and reality as straight forward, but felt photography could be used by artists to communicate ideas about reality.
Between 1954 and 1956 the French intellectual Roland Barthes (1915- 1980) wrote several essays on photography as a base for construction of mass cultural myth. Barthes felt that the photograph had unique potential as a real representation of the world – even though it was used by bourgeois culture to represent implied meanings and ‘naturalistic truths’.
Through the 1960’s Barthes continued to elaborate on his ideas on photography and semiotics, but following the death of his mother in 1977, he began writing his highly celebrated essay Camera Lucida (1980), moving away from structural considerations, towards the more personal, subjective experience, focusing on the melancholic, poetic qualities of photography. In Camera Lucida Barthes uses the concepts of punctum and studium to explain two essential aspects of photography: Studium is the cultural view of the mass of more or less culturally coded, ideological pictures, while punctum is a non-coded detail in a picture, which pricks or wounds the viewer. According to Barthes the photograph was never separate from its referent: It was not possible to talk about photography in general, only to talk about the meeting with the photograph itself:
“Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.”
Barthes sees photographic essence as always variable, always part of something else. The photograph in itself is not what we see – we look straight through it at what it depicts and we are always experiencing it in context.
While Barthes considered the photograph invisible, the 1960′s was also a time of an increased interest in photographs as pictures, with a certain composition and style, and thus with a relevance to the art world. In 1966 John Szarkowski (1925-2007), curator at MoMa, published The Photographer’s Eye, which attempted to place photography in a modernist discourse, focusing on style, tradition and aesthetics. Szarkowski defined five qualities within the language of photography: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time and Vantage Point. But the method was, according to Sabine Kriebel, still focused on a description of photography, which preserved the myth of a transparent picture surface.
In 1976 Szarkowski curated the first one-person exhibition of colour photographs in the history of MoMA, featuring the American photographer William Eggleston. In his introduction to the exhibition Szarkowski included some observations on the relationship between photography and reality and the intentions of the photographer:
“Thus if a stranger sought out in good season the people and places described here they would probably seem clearly similar to their pictures, and the stranger would assume that the pictures mirrored real life. It would be marvelous if this were the case, if the place itself, and not merely the pictures, were the work of art. (…) A picture is after all only a picture, a concrete kind of fiction, not to be admitted as hard evidence or as the quantifiable data of social scientists.”
Szarkowski’s way of defending Eggleston shows how the question of realism was related to the acceptance of colour photography within the art world, since anything which resembled the real world too much might be assumed to be lacking in artistic intent and interpretation.
Szarkowski explains that albeit the people and strangers look similar to their pictures, it is the picture, not the place, which is the work of art. Pictures are fictions, according to Szarkowski, and they are to be understood as an expression of Eggleston’s subjective, personal, even intimate, point of view.
Szarkowski’s text shows how necessary it was, even in 1976, to convince the public that photographs were basically pictures, to be analyzed and looked at in a way similar to modern art. Because as long as photographs are considered a scientific copy of reality, they cannot be art.
Through the 1970s, the literary theorist Susan Sontag (1933-2004) wrote a number of essays about photography, focusing on the ethical and moral problems that came with the river of images flooding capitalist society. As Sontag saw it (In Platos Cave, 1977), photographing was about collecting the world, wrapping it up. The primary role of photography was a “social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.” Photographing meant controlling how the world was experienced, turning it into a safe souvenir, Sontag explained.
“Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images.”
Susan Sontag believed that photographs obscured and controlled human experience. She used the concept of Plato’s cave to explain how humans were still separated from understanding the truth about their surroundings. Instead photography gave us a false feeling of owning the world by reducing it to images in our head.
To Sontag, the knowledge accessible through photography was primarily sentimental; not actual knowledge, but something which resembled it. Although Sontag saw photographs as evidence of something having existed, she also seems to have felt that they were as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings. Sontag saw photographs as connected to reality, but at the same time she questioned the relationship between photography and our general act of seeing and thinking about the world.
In the next blog post I will be looking closer at the concept of The Index.
Since its invention in 1839, photography has become an essential means of communication and expression. It is an invention which is, or at least was, unique in the way it combined science and art. The photograph has had a complicated history. The photographic apparatus, the camera, has gone through many different changes of shapes, affecting how it has been used and complicating the definition of photography and photographic qualities. The history of photography and the discourse surrounding it has been written and rewritten a number of times since its invention.
In 1840 the author Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) wrote that the invention of photography was “the most important and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science” while Charles Baudelaire called photography a symptom of “the stupidity of the masses” in 1859.
According to art historian Sabine Kriebel their very different attitudes to photography stemmed from their equally different thoughts on science, which, according to Poe, surpassed man’s wildest imagination, while Baudelaire contrarily felt that man’s poetic inner life suffered when too much attention was paid to the outer reality.
According to Baudelaire, photography showed the world in a realistic and truthful way, which could never be beautiful. Imitating nature had nothing to do with art. Baudelaire felt that the public taste for photography was caused by a love of truth which was contrary to the inner human beauty which art was supposed to depict:
“If photography is allowed to deputize for art in some of art’s activities, it will not be long before it has supplanted or corrupted art altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the masses, its natural ally.”
As predicted by Baudelaire, photography had a substantial effect on art. Art was no longer supposed to be mimetic, rather the question of realism became the dadaist and surrealist question of what the real world was – and whether or not one could even talk of truth:
“People think they can explain what they write rationally, through thought. But this is very relative. Thought is a fine thing for philosophy, but it is relative…There is no ultimate truth.”
Wrote artist Tristan Tzara in the Dadaist manifesto, 1918. In 1860, Baudelaire published The painter of modern life, a much celebrated essay on modernity and art, stating that:
“genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will – a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis”.
In this essay, Baudelaire wrote that the artist should look at his surroundings as if he were a drunk child seeing “everything in a state of newness”. According to Baudelaire, art was not just an imitation of nature, but something more. The painter was to be an observer, philosopher, flâneur, recreating a combination of the fleeting and the eternal:
“And the external world is reborn upon his paper, natural and more than natural, beautiful and more than beautiful, strange and endowed with an impulsive life like the soul of its creator. The phantasmagoria has been distilled from nature.”
In my opinion, there is something scientific about Baudelaire’s idea of the distillation of dream images from nature, which predates Freud, and combined with the rebirth of the world on paper, connotes photography and Surrealism.
“The very narrow conception of imitation which art has been given as its aim is at the bottom of serious misunderstanding that we see continuing right up to the present…The mistake lies in thinking that the model can only be taken from the exterior world”
wrote André Breton in Le Surréalisme et la peinture (1928). In spite of this, photographs were often used in surrealist art. Part of the reason was various photographic experiments conducted by the artist Man Ray (1890-1976), but the surrealist magazines also contained numerous ordinary photographs; photographs of surrealist exhibitions and objects, portraits, street photography, ethnographic photography, scientific photography, film stills, and a mixed selection of popular trash, a kind of photographic ready-mades, objets trouvés. The photographs were seen as marvelous when combined with surrealism.
In a lot of ways the invention of photography had been the culmination of a Western tradition in which the mimicking of nature was the most noble, human endeavor – but as much as photography was influenced by pictorial arts, pictorial arts were affected by photography. The avant-gardes of the 20th century were fragmenting and layering work, playing with motion and space in new ways, clearly affected by film and photography. The question of mimesis and realism in art became intertwined with questions of science vs nature, machine vs human, and finally the question of reality and truth, and how we humans relate to our surroundings. More than anything the invention of photography brought on a new way of seeing and thinking about the world, questioning the difference between inner and outer reality.
A prisoner in Plato’s cave, man sat by the fire watching the shadowplay of distant objects on the wall, while listening to the echo of the world passing by.
According to the Greek philosopher Plato (424-348 BC), only the philosopher was able to see through the false layer of the particular to grasp the idea behind; the truth, which reality could only imitate. In other words, even in ancient Greece, there was an idea that human beings did not know reality, understood as the the truth about the world. This train of thought can be compared with the more contemporary idea that we live in a kind of matrix of simulated reality.
Plato’s philosophical method had abstract, universal forms as ideal. Plato’s student Aristotle also aimed at the universal, but believed that a greater understanding of universals had to come through particular phenomena. According to Aristotle all art was mimetic, and the urge to imitate was an essential human quality. The base of art was the joy of recognition one felt upon seeing a clever imitation:
“To imitate is instinctive in man from his infancy. By this he is distinguished from other animals, that he is, of all, the most imitative, and through this instinct receives his earliest education. All men, likewise, naturally receive pleasure from imitation. (…) Hence the pleasure they receive from a picture: in viewing it they learn, that they infer, they discover, what every object is.”
Imitation could improve, worsen or be accurate. Imitation did not necessarily have to be through image or poetry; it could be trough rhythm, melody, word, colour, shape, action and dance:
“with respect to the arts above mentioned, rhythm, words and melody, are the different means by which, either single, or variously combined, they all produce their imitation. (…) In those of dance, rhythm alone, without melody; for there are dancers who, by rhythm applied to gesture, express manners, passions, and actions.”
According to Aristotle, the poet could imitate the same objects either by narrating through a different character or using his own voice, or he could imitate by dramatizing, using actors who stood forth in his place. Performing mimetically meant placing action in a narrative. A narrator (using both speech and gesture) could have an audience of both listeners and viewers, and preferably a combination. Aristotle’s mimesis was not a realist imitation as later times came to understand it, but rather an interpretation of the world – the outer world as well as the inner world – feelings, actions, ideas, religion etc, expressed and enjoyed by humans.
To these ancient Greek philosophers, art was an imitation of the human experience, and an interpretation of divine ideas. Since reality was considered a kind of flawed reflexion of divine ideas, it follows that art would be as true and real as reality, if not more so.
During the Renaissance the Greek art ideals were readdressed in Europe, albeit in a Christian version as a realism full of signs and symbols. Mimesis was now understood as an artistic copy of nature. Perspective was rediscovered as a scientific method, where the eye was thought of as the receiver of light waves, and the artists canvas was compared to a window. The first description of a camera obscura (literally “dark room,”) as an aid to a draftsman was made in the book Natural Magic from 1553. In the camera obscura light travels through a hole and onto the back wall, appearing as a moving image, a reflection of the scenery outside, but up-side-down and mirror reversed. By the 17th-century the camera obscura system had become advanced enough to be a common piece of equipment amongst painters.
Albeit a century before the industrial revolution, it was the time of the invention of the first robots (automatons) like Vaucanson’s Canard Digérateur, from 1738. The bourgeoisie had a strong wish for a device which could help them create good portraits, and several of this type of devices saw the light of day. One of them was the Camera Lucida invented in 1807 by W.H. Wollaston. Placed above a piece of paper the Camera Lucida made it possible to see both the paper and the thing you were drawing simultaneously.
In the beginning of the 18th century the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) was experimenting with fixing the image of a camera obscura, using different combinations of substances and mechanical techniques. In 1827, Niépce met the painter Louis-Jacques- Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), who specialized in scenic paintings for theatre sets, and who also experimented with capturing the camera image. Niépce and Daguerre formed a partnership and received financial support from the French government. The earliest surviving photograph (daguerreotype) is from 1837.
If Aristotle was right in claiming that humans are mimetic beings and that our noblest sense is sight, then the camera and the photograph had to be the fulfillment of a highly important ideal. However, the official reason for the investment in photography by the French government was for copying ancient inscriptions. The first use of photography was thus officially for print-making and copying: not for the production of images, but for the spreading of words. It seems there was a conflict between the official wish for copying and spreading books and information and the unofficial public desire for mimesis and magic. This conflict is echoed today in much of the literary criticism of photography.
The invention of photography was a result of the search of an accurate mimicking of nature, as well as the result of a mixture of scientific and artistic endeavors, which was part of the age of mechanical reproduction and the industrial revolution. Right from the beginning, the photographic process was used for artistic means, which to a varying of degrees showed something very far removed from reality; for instance painterly staged situations featuring transparent, ghostlike characters, as seen in the photograph below.
In spite of much post-digital photography theory claiming so, the relationship between photography and the real was never a simple, innocent one. Photography was invented because of an unofficial desire for mimesis, magic and pictures, as much as for a scientific search for truth, or spreading of information. In my opinion this shows how, from the very beginning, photography managed to combine reality and imagination.
Let me begin by explaining what the term ‘photography’ means to me.
The word ‘photography’ was coined by the inventor John Herscel in 1839 and means light-writing. But in my mind, it is not photography, unless the process involves a camera.
The defining aspect of photography is thus the apparatus, the camera, and not the light (or light sensitive material) alone. If I scan something on a scanner, it may use light, but the resulting image is not a photograph, it is a scan. In the same way, the effects you can create on photographic paper or negative using object-shading etc., are maybe photographic in quality, but by my definition, those images are not really photographs.
This definition of photography excludes many artistic endeavors seeking to experiment with photography, while including what art historian John Tagg calls “mindless photography” – such as the computerized London traffic cameras. Mindless or not, in my opinion there are always human ideas behind the apparatus: not only because cameras are created by humans, but because any use of the camera is the result of human projects, driven by human desires.
Although I question the relation of photographs to reality, I do not doubt our emotional understanding of them as true to some extent. I am convinced that any interest in photography is emotional, and that the most fascinating thing about photography is its potential to both inform and mislead, since to some extent photography exists in a grey zone between reality and imagination.
Photographs have had a huge influence on how we see the world, how we remember and how we think. This is why the defining aspect of photography – the camera – has to be combined with a more general understanding of what pictures are and how they work, to be described later in the blogposts Photographic Image Formation and Embodied Vision.
According to Jan Baetens the theorizing on photography has been led by writers and academics, first and foremost from a literary point of view:
“Step by step, literary-minded scholarship has brought in an analysis that stresses the photograph’s vulnerability to the characteristics of its seemingly opposite pole: the text and, more broadly speaking, the time-based arts. This larger scope can be described in three phases: first, a picture is seen as situated in time; then, a picture is seen as telling a story; and finally, a picture is seen as capable of narrating a fiction.”
Three elements which, according to Baetens, contradict the traditional vision of photography as a realist slice of space. The literary discourse has also insisted on photography as a meaning-producing device, shaped by the spectator, projecting their own stories into the image. While literary theory has generated many good points, according to Baetens, it does not solve current issues. The main problem is that it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish photography from other types of visual knowledge production. Baetens sees the solution in a rediscovery and broadening of historicization, including the whole field of photography, a more interdisciplinary approach and a renewed interest in medium specificity.
In the next blogpost, Looking Back – History and Key Concepts, I will be placing the question of photography and the real within a decidedly Western tradition, beginning with notions of art and reality in ancient Greek philosophy, leading up to the invention of photography, and from there looking at the question of photography and reality as part of the development of a discourse around photography. My aim is to include the most relevant theory, without being unnecessarily detailed.
“It is precisely because there are ways in which photographs are not just representations that photography and the theory of photography have been so important. Indeed, we might say that it is precisely the photograph’s complicated status as a theoretical object that has made it so important in art. And it is precisely the efforts of photographers to establish them as pictures that have made photography so crucial.”
Walter Benn Michaels: Photographs and Fossils
Writing my thesis has allowed me to investigate some of the things which have fascinated me since I began studying Modern Culture back in 1996. For a long time I have suspected that the human experience of the world is linguistic in some sense, and that photography exists somewhere between language and reality. Photography has interested me for as long as I remember, and has been my full time occupation since 2002. Having read a great many photo-theoretical books since deciding to write my thesis on photography, I have discovered the following: There really is no academic consensus on the nature of photography, or even on photography’s relationship with reality.
Because we know that photographs are created in a specific way, by a camera which points and captures something, the way we look at photographs is different to how we look at other pictures. We take them to have a unique relation to reality. But the exact nature of this relation is unclear.
The photograph embodies a certain crisis in art: The question of what it takes for something to count as a work of art, the relation between the meaning of a work of art and how it was produced, the intention of the photographer as opposed to the mindless automation of the camera, and finally the question of representation. As put by literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels, photography
“marks the transformation of the natural object into the intentional one, of the trace into the representation, not exactly a representation, not exactly a representation of the referent but rather of the making of the photograph.”
Reading Photography Theory – The Art Seminar (2007) I was surprised to discover that my background as a photographer has given me an understanding of photography, which seems to be missing in many of the texts supplied by the 40 academic contributors. In his
recently published book What Photography Is (2011) the editor of Photography Theory, art historian James Elkins, wonders how it is possible that so few academics worry about photography’s realism. One of the most interesting aspects of Photography Theory is a
heated discussion which takes place amongst several of the participants about the use of the index within photography theory. The concept of the index originates from the scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), and was introduced into photography theory by the art critic Rosalind Krauss in 1977.
Peirce developed semiotics as a discipline to study signs – the symbol/index/icon triad was one of his many ways of distinguishing between signs, focusing on the relationship between sign and object. According to Peirce, indexes/indices are directly influenced by their objects, like for instance footprints and weathercocks, while symbols have convention based relationships, and icons have specific properties in common with their objects. Krauss used the index to explain photography’s relationship to the real, as a trace made by light (photons) on the negative. In What Photography Is Elkins explains that he was surprised to find that so few of the contributors of Photography Theory seemed to care about the subject of the index. As Elkins’ points out, the notion that photographs are the result of a mechanical interaction with the world coexists with the notion that photography’s realism is a matter of reading, and so photography is seen as simultaneously a projection of our desires about the world and an accurate record of the world. Like Elkins, I am interested in looking closer at how photography represents the world, and in this way discover if – and how – photography is able to be both a trace of reality and a projection of our desires.
Problem statement: What is the relationship between photography and reality, and is the concept of the index helpful in illuminating this relationship?
My hypothesis is, that albeit in many ways the relationship between photography and reality is a complex problem, it can be answered by rejecting the idea of the index in favor of a fresh look at the invention of photography as a result of mimetic ideals, examining how photographs are actually created as a combination of apparatus and human imagination, and how our relationship with reality is based in our embodied visuality, as described by film theorist Torben Grodal.
According to the poet and professor of cultural studies Jan Baetens, photography is first and foremost communication – and not in the simple form of showing through a window, nor in the sense of a ‘putting together’. The way toward a better understanding of photography is an intermingling of word and image, scholarship and creation, that leaves room for contradiction:
“Artists and scholars, to use the traditional vocabulary, should have the opportunity to work, think, and write together, and to do so in such a way that new, interdisciplinary forms of producing knowledge may become possible. (…) Visual artists not only ‘think’, but their work often proposes illustrations of thought- provoking devices, who’s structure and content have effects that can be compared to that of language.”
Baetens asks for a widening of the concept of “professionalization” to include people with a different knowledge of photography. In my thesis I tried to follow Baetens advice, combining words and images, art and theory, amateur and professional. I begin by defining what I mean by the term photography, in the brief section First Impressions. The next part of the thesis, Looking Back – History and Key Concepts, outlines a general background for the subject of photography and reality, starting at the beginning of Western thought, in order to establish a connection between the ideal of mimesis and the invention of photography. I include the technical development of photography in order to demystify the relationship between photography and reality. In the chapters Mimesis and Photography and Baudelaire and Surrealism I look at early views of photography as part nature, part science. The poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was concerned about the effect photography’s superficial truth values might have on art and culture, while surrealists such as the poet André Breton (1896-1966) used photography to question reality and explore the human mind. I see the main cause of their conflicting views on photography as based on a misunderstanding of the concept of mimesis, and so re-reading Aristotle‘s mimesis is my first answer to the question of reality and photography.
In the next part of the thesis, I provide a simple introduction to the best known photographic theory on the subject of photography and the real, in the sections Walter Benjamin, John Szarkowski, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Rosalind Krauss & the index, and briefly in the section Digital Photography. My aim is to demonstrate that none of these accounts manage to explain the relationship between photography and reality. The history of photography and the discourse surrounding it has been written and rewritten a number of times since its invention. My account is based mainly on the art historian Baumont Newhall‘s History of Photography (1982) and the art historian Sabine T. Kriebel’s chapter Theories of Photography – A short history from James Elkins’ Photography Theory (2007). I have also glanced at French lecturer Edward Welch & German professor J.J. Long’s introduction to Photography: Theoretical snapshots (2009). Finally, I will also be introducing Vilém Flusser, who believed that the human use of media (images, text and photographs) had a direct impact on our general thinking and understanding of the world. The following part of the thesis, The Art Seminar Discussion, is focused around the question of indexicality, based in large parts on the book Photography Theory. I begin with a discussion of Performative Photography. One of the starting points of the Photography Theory round table discussion is the art historian Margaret Iversen‘s essay on performative photography and the surrealist version of narration, which assumes that a subjective account of the experience of reality is more truthful than a supposedly objective realism. Performative photography demonstrates how photographs can act as documentary, realistic, staged, subjective, and narrative at the same time.
The next part of the thesis takes a critical look at how useful the concept of the index has been within photographic theory. The discussion is divided in two – the first part, The Photograph and the Index? Part I, is based on the Photography Theory discussion between art historian Joel Snyder and art theorist Rosalind Krauss. In the chapter Photographic Image Formation I then take a closer look at how image formation actually happens as the result of the camera and the photographer, demonstrating why the idea of the index is not very helpful in defining the photographic picture. The second part of the discussion, The Photograph and the Index? Part II, is based on texts by film theorist Martin Lefebre and art historian Geoffrey Batchen, who both argue that even for Charles Sanders Peirce, who originated the concept of the index, whatever is present to the mind can only be so as a representation.
In the chapter The Surround, I introduce James Elkins’ book What Photography Is (2011) where Elkins writes against Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980). Elkins is in search of the essence of photography, rejecting the concept of the index, noting that what separates photography from painting is “the surround” – all the dull detail surrounding the object of interest. This fits in with the next point of the thesis, Embodied Visions, where I take a closer look at film theorist Torben Grodal’s description of the experience of audiovisual realism. Torben Grodal looks at film through the lens of bioculturalism, using modern brain science as a model for aesthetic experience. In his chapter on embodied vision and realism Grodal analyzes some of the ways in which realism is experienced by viewers as an evaluative feeling rooted in perception, cognition, and habituation. Grodal describes how the human mind understands the things we see and experience, first taking in details and secondly remembering things in more general terms, thus creating meaning. As it turns out, this concept of embodied vision fits very well with my reading of of mimesis, performative photography and even with Peirce, because all this points to how there is no human access to reality beyond embodiment and representation, and because it demonstrates how we are always driven by associations when we create meaning in our minds.
Having thus argued that photography’s realism is not a question of indexicality but rather of our embodied experience of the coincidental excess of detail in the pictures, and that photographs are always an interpreted version of reality, I will try and see how this fits in with a highly exemplary contemporary photography project – Carmen and Alec Soth’s photobook project Brighton Picture Hunt (2010).
When the American Magnum photographer Alec Soth was commissioned by Photoworks and British photographer and curator Martin Parr for the Brighton Photo Biennal 2010, Soth planned to follow a photographer from Brighton newspaper Argus around as he went about his work, but upon entering the UK, Soth was informed by a customs officer that he was not allowed to work while he was there. Instead Soth’s seven year old daughter Carmen took her father’s place as photographer and produced the exhibited work, which also resulted in the book Brighton Picture Hunt.
The Brighton Picture Hunt project points to the questions mentioned earlier – the intentions of the photographer (in this case both child and adult) and the question of the transformation of the natural thing into a representation. In my opinion, the photos come across as unintentional snapshots, and as such seem like fragments of reality. However, because they do not conform to classic ideas about composition, they actually point to themselves as pictures in a way that a more traditional photograph might not. The photographs have a fairly obscure subject matter, and consist almost solely of the excess of details, which create the reality-effect. In this way they are good examples for most of the theory presented in this thesis, illuminating how photographs are connected to reality through a combination of embodied vision, the camera and the photographer.
August 31st 2011 I handed in my thesis on The Paradox of Photography. Since then I have been waiting impatiently to find out whether or not people like it (and what grade it got). It was very difficult to write. I guess I shouldn’t have started with such a grand title.
The first feedback I got from my advisor was that my writing style was too essayistic. That may be because I was writing it in a sort of blog-style, thinking I would publish it. I have since hesitated to do so, because I am not sure it fits the format anymore. After all I made a lot of changes to my writing while trying to turn it into a proper academic thesis, in stead of my own odd philosophising.
I have now decided to give it a go, and turn the chapters into blog posts. I might change a few things along the way.
As always, I’d be glad to hear your thoughts and comments! And feel free to write me if you’d like a copy which includes footnotes!