The blind spot of theory

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.

Walter Benjamin

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.

Roland Barthes

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.

John Szarkowski

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.

William Eggleston: Untitled from Los Alamos, 1965-74

Susan Sontag

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.

2 thoughts on “The blind spot of theory

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

  2. Pingback: The Paradox of Photography (Introduction) | Eyes Wide Shut

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