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.
In Notes on the Index (1977) Rosalind Krauss proposed the following definition of photography: “Every photograph is the result of a physical imprint transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface. The photograph is thus a type of icon, or visual likeness, which bears an indexical relationship to its object.”
The discussion surrounding the concept of the index was one of the most interesting aspects of James Elkins’ Photography Theory (2007). Here art historian Joel Snyder argues that the index is an inadequate way of explaining something as complex as a photograph. As Snyder points out, photographs are never analogue in the sense that they truly resemble anything we see in the world. In real life we cannot see a person frozen jumping mid air. Parts of the image may resemble what we know, other parts do not: “How does it improve our understanding of this kind of photograph to say that each sort of element it contains (diagrammatic, resembling or non resembling) is an index or a trace?” Snyder explains:
“You don’t measure photographs against the world: you measure the world against photographs. To enjoy photographs, or to study them, or think about them critically, requires not a one-to-one translation, but a recognition-and this is Weston’s thought- that the object matter in the world does not determine the subject matter of a photograph, even when you are dealing with the most formulaic cases: it’s the formula that determines the object matter. What I fear about the causal stuff is that it stops you from seeing the photographs as pictures.”
Seeing photographs as pictures means recognizing that they are not just automatic, transparent copies of the real, but that they are a result of a combination of choices. The formula determines the object matter in the sense that we judge what we look at based on a series of preconceived ideas. Any image interpretation involves a comparison between what we know and what we see. What Joel Snyder asks, is that we stop talking about the index, and start wondering about image formation instead.
Photographic Image Formation
Photographs are the complex results of a combination of apparatus (camera, lens, software), the cultural background and ideas of the photographer, as well as the certain place and time where the photograph is created.
The image formation which happens in a camera is a timed flow of light (light waves, photons) manipulated by a lens and interpreted by light sensitive material. This is affected by the choice of equipment and what the photographer chooses to do with it.
First there were certain mimetic and scientific ideals, then someone invented the camera obscura. Then the development of lenses, which bend the light, manipulating the image reflected in the back of the camera, giving us a narrower or wider picture, maybe a sharper picture, always distorted in one way or another, shifting shapes, making them appear larger or smaller, or appear closer together or further away, flattening the space.
The size of the hole, the aperture, affects the depth of field, giving the photographer the chance to regulate how much light flows in at once, making it possible to have only one sharp level in the image, blurring background and foreground.
In life we never feel our eyes blinking, and whenever our eyes are open and there is light, the vision of the world in front of us is always there, never frozen. In the camera there is a shutter, which regulates how long the stream of light passes through the lens and into the camera. The shorter the shutter opens, the less light will enter, but at the same time this means we can freeze movement, capturing a galloping horse or making water drops stop mid air. The longer the shutter speed, the more light, leaving moving objects blurry, or even allowing them to disappear – making it possible to photograph the stars as the movement of the earth seems to drag them across the sky. Thus the camera “sees” both more and less than we do. And different camera combinations see in different ways. And then there is the optional flash, giving a moments’ intense light, somewhere during exposure, illuminating that sole moment and only within a certain range of the camera and scenery.
The photo is captured on a light sensitive surface inside the camera. It used to be negative or positive film, or sometimes instant, but these days it’s mostly various sizes of image sensor/ chip. But regardless of whether it’s chemical or digital it’s a sort of system or program (in the Flusser sense of the word) put together by humans, to interpret the traces of light in varying colour or in black and white, varying degrees of grain and pixel count. And any type of camera-recording changes colour, contrast, darkness and brightness etc.
Finally there is the post-processing, be it in the lab and dark chamber, in camera, computer or using filters on a mobile phone. Digital manipulations are widely regarded as removing the photograph more from truth, and perhaps this is indeed the case… but it should not make us forget that a group of photographers may get very different results from visiting the same scene at the same time, depending on their perspective, ideas and equipment. And all though these photographs all look different, they are all equally indexical in nature. As put by André Guntert:
“Professional photographers know quite well that, by changing lenses or films, they have at their disposal, at the moment the shot is taken, a substantial margin of maneuver that allows them to change the appearance, the geometry, or the colors of a scene. But the general public, which has little grasp of such adjustments, is left in the dark about those alternatives. We do not like to think that the image depends on a series of filters whose parameters, which can be modified, have quietly been imposed upon us by engineers or by marketers. Photography’s objectivity is a powerful credo; we prefer to grant, without discussion, this medium’s transparency.”
Since the digital camera revolution people are perhaps becoming more aware of how photographs are the result of choices. But at the same time photographs are still read as testament to reality. In Norway a new law demands that influencers on social media let their followers know if their photos have been filtered or modified. This is one way of trying to separate truths from non-truths, but what about make-up, lighting and more or less flattering angles? There is no one photograph which captures the entire truth about a person’s appearance.
In my opinion, a photograph is always in the process of becoming, in relation to us, our act of viewing or consuming it, placed in a moment, within a continuous stream of horizons.