The Paradox of Photography (Introduction)

“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 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. I have been fascinated by photographs for as long as I can remember.

Because we know that photographs are created in a specific way, by a camera which captures something, the way we look at photographs is different to how we look at other pictures. We tend to think that they 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 many of the academic contributors seemed to lack practical experience as photographers, or at least knowledge of how cameras actually work. In his 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.

To me, 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.

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 began my thesis by defining what I meant 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 chapter 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 blind spot of theory and The index and the loss of reality, I provide a simple introduction to the best known photographic theory on the subject of photography and the real. 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). In the section Towards a Philosophy of photography, I also be introduce philosopher 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.

I then take 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 blogpost The Surround, I will 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.

2 thoughts on “The Paradox of Photography (Introduction)

  1. Pingback: The blind spot of theory « Eyes Wide Shut

  2. Pingback: The index and the loss of reality « Eyes Wide Shut

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