Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida wrote “From a phenomenological standpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.” (Barthes 1981: 89)
The questions posed for this week’s forum were:
- What Roland Barthes means and whether or not you agree.
- The difference between ‘authentication’ and ‘representation’.
- How the context in which we view photographs potentially impacts upon notions of authentication and representation.
- How this impacts your own practice.
Last week I wrote a fairly lengthy post on Barthes’ Camera Lucida which can be found at https://chasingthewildlife.blog/2019/02/01/key-writers-roland-barthes-camera-lucida/
I agree with Barthes on this point. First, Barthes explains;
“I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, and without which there would be no photograph.” “…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography. What I intentionalize in a photograph is neither Art nor Communication, it is Reference, which is the founding order of Photography.” “The name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That-has-been,’ or again: the Intractable.” (Barthes 1981: 76-77)
I believe Barthes notion of ‘intractability’ refers to the authentication of the existence of what was once in front of the lens. Whether it communicates or is judged to be artistic is in the power of the viewer not the photographer and that is the element of representation.
Flusser speaks of distribution channels and how they affect interpretation (representation).
“The essential thing is that the photograph, with each switch-over to another channel, takes on a new significance… The distribution apparatuses impregnate the photograph with the decisive significance for its reception.” (Flusser, 1983: 54)
Sontag likewise points out that photographs are mere fragments, and the context in which they are viewed changes them. Each context “…suggests a different use for the photograph but none can secure their meaning- the meaning is the use…” (Sontag: 1979: 106)
Szarkowski discusses the idea that photography is not successful at narrative and then goes on to refer to Matthew Brady’s work during the Civil War by saying: “The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, it was to make it real.” (Szarkowski, 1966: 9) I think this relates to the discussion arguing that these photographs authenticated the horrors of the war; they were in front of the lens and the photographs brought that validation to those who viewed them. However, how those photos were interpreted, that is what did they represent, would likely be quite different depending on whether one was from the North or the South, whether one fought in the war, or whether someone close was killed in the conflict.
Each of these suggest that representation is conditional upon who is looking and where they are looking. However, authentication, existence at one time of what was photographed does not change even though interpretations on the significance and meaning of what was photographed will vary with every viewer.
Again Barthes; “…it is not impossible to perceive the photographic signifier, but it requires a secondary action of knowledge or of reflection.” (Barthes, 1981: 5) and “…the Photograph’s essence is to ratify what it represents. … No writing can give me this certainty. It is the misfortune…of language not to be able to authenticate itself. …but the Photograph is indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself;…” (Barthes 1981: 85-87)
I have come to terms with the reality that I cannot control how my photographs are ultimately interpreted or judged, especially any single photograph. I can influence a reading of a body of work to a small degree by how I choose to edit and curate a collection of work and where it is shown, but again the ultimate power to determine what that work represents lies in the hands of each and every consumer.
I am in control of what I photograph and when I photograph. I am in control over the choices I make during that process and I can only hope that what I think and feel when taking that photograph is somehow revealed in the product in a way that it elicits a similar reaction in a viewer, but those reactions are beyond my control and therefore beyond the bounds of that which I can or should worry over.
FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.
SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
BARTHES, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.