Key Writers on Photography – Jacques Derrida

Derrida, a post-structuralist philosopher, most famously known as a ‘deconstructionist’ who challenged the notions of ideal and primary as actually being secondary and real.  In his writings on photography he is perhaps most noted for the idea that Barthes ‘punctum’ is actually a duration and therefore makes room for time/difference and that any ‘instant’ contains a relation to past and future.

If one considers merely the laws of physics these ideas make perfect sense.  While we refer to photographs as ‘stills’, they are in fact only still because the movement in them is beyond our ability to perceive it.  A photograph, even one at very high shutter speeds contains many ‘instants’.  Light travels at 299,792,458 m/s and in 1/500 of a second light will have travelled 14,989,623 m.  Every atom in everything in front of the lens is travelling at that speed constantly so there is movement in every photograph.  So, to Derrida’s point of there being room in any ‘instant’ for difference, he is saying we as photographers have and make choices when to release the shutter and that a few nanoseconds one way or another doesn’t necessarily change the ‘punctum’ or miss a ‘decisive moment’ but is a different place in real time.  As I noted in an earlier post about Deleuze, he believed our ability to grasp the thing itself was rooted in our ability to see the differences from all the things it is not.

Derrida asserts, “if punctum is a duration, then the artifice and techne are part of photography.”  I think this relates closely to his idea that each photo bears a relation of the present to an immediate past and future. I again find this quite intuitively obvious in large part because of the type of work I make. Much of my work involved action, whether it be wildlife or sport.  In trying to capture complex movement and ‘freeze’ a period of time that pauses the action for the benefit of the viewer, there is a great deal of choice on the part of the photographer.  This concept is less obvious perhaps for a portrait photographer, though while there clearly is an immediate past and future, it may be more difficult to discern, but I think it remains an important concept.  For my work, to capture a bird taking flight just at the moment it breaks its bond with the earth requires knowledge of behaviour, preparation, anticipation and quick reflexes.  While a wildlife photo may be more dynamic and far more obvious in its connection to past and future, the portraitist is looking for a particular expression, or just the right tilt of a head to capture something important about the subject and that moment may be equally as transitory as that which the nature, street or documentary photographer faces.  Similarly, in landscape photography, my other main focus, it is a matter of just the right light, the position of a cloud or some other aspect of the composition that is not necessarily permanently fixed that makes the photo stand out.  These are all choices a photographer makes; what to photograph and how to photograph, the artifice and techne.

I will discuss Flusser more in a subsequent post, but I will say here that the basis of my disagreements with his concepts of the programme and the apparatus subsuming the role of the photographer are rooted in Derrida’s ideas.  But neither are Derrida’s ideas definitive; just another piece of the critical theory jigsaw puzzle for which no one has the boxtop.

 

REFERENCES:

DURDEN, Mark (ed.). 2013. 50 Key Writers on Photography. First. Milton Park: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

DELEUZE, Gilles. 2002. Desert Islands: And Other Texts, 1953-1974. Los Angeles: Semiotexte.

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

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