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. I will be getting back to this in a later blogpost (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, 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.