Are photographs in general and constructed photographs in particular “lies.” Perhaps it is instructive to begin with the dictionary definition of ‘lie’: a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive: an intentional untruth; a falsehood.
As I wrote in a prior article, no photograph can present truth, but that does not make every photograph a lie. A lie is predicated with intent and it does not follow that every photograph by every photographer was made with the intent to deceive. In fact, I believe, for most the intent is exactly the opposite; that is, most desire to represent a reality as they see it. Heavily constructed photographs quite often make it obvious that it is not intended to represent reality and therefore, in keeping with the notion of intent, it is not a lie any more than a painter creating a scene is lying. There are inherent limitations in the medium that make it impossible to recreate exactly what was in front of the lens, but technology keeps pushing and 360-degree cameras and holography will begin to challenge traditional 2-dimensionality. Where it gets problematic, is where the intention in capture or publication of the photograph is to deceive.
I think of heavily constructed photographs much in the same way I think of paintings. They are intended to be artistic in many cases and they are creations from the imaginations of the photographers. It seems that often, even though there may be a degree of indexicality, something in the photo clues the viewer to the fantasy, joke, mood, or paradox it posits, and we then treat it as an artistic expression rather than a documentary photograph. There seems in these cases to be no intent of deception. The following two photos, the first by Sherman and the second by Rosler are not photos that would fool anyone into thinking they were meant to be realistic and purely documentary.
Martha Rosler – House Beautiful
Publications (traditionally respected and tabloid), social media and individuals and organisations have discovered it is possible to ‘weaponize’ photography to fit their desired narratives to influence their faithful and persecute their perceived enemies. Divisive politics, tabloid journalism and an erosion of civility and humanity are both caused and furthered by the highly selective use of photographic weapons. In the example below, an editor made a conscious choice to use the top photograph which carries a very different and quite inaccurate depiction of ‘reality’ and it seems clear there was a deliberate intent to deceive. The photographs were taken as Prince William was leaving the hospital with the Duchess of Cambridge following the birth of their third child. He is quite obviously, as shown from the perspective of the second frame, indicating the number 3, while the perspective chosen in the first frame would connote and entirely different message. Was the first frame real? Yes, from that photographer’s vantage point it was what was seen, but was its out of context use disingenuous, and deliberately deceptive? I think that it was.
The problem here is not one inherent to the photographic medium, but rather the ethics of those who practice photography and users of photographs. Photographs are just an inanimate thing. They hold no special powers on their own. They are only useful, destructive, pleasing, horrifying when they are in the hands of humans and when they are presented in some context. If the ethics of photographer, publisher or social media user are questionable then the photograph can be misused like any other tool. And like any other enterprise where power, money, or fame are in play photography is subject to abuse by those who would use it, or allow it to be used unethically.
I honestly do not know why I feel the need to argue this point. Perhaps it is because I do not view myself as an “Art Photographer” and that I work very hard to capture the world around me as accurately and faithfully as I can minimising behind the camera manipulations. Do I take the image (Sontag) or do I make the image? It is possible to do both with photography and I think there is a difference. A painter clearly makes their image and Cindy Sherman, Cecil Beaton elaborately create and stage the scene they are to photograph and so in that regard are much closer to a painter than a strict documentary photographer. Martha Rosler begins with indexical photographs and then behind the camera heavily manipulates the original image to “construct” the political statement she wishes to convey. She too is more like a painter. These photographers create tableaus.
Every photographer makes choices, selections of what, where, how and when to photograph, but those selections are first and foremost from real things that are in front of the photographer’s camera. One cannot photograph what is not there, or as Barthes put it “the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph.” (Barthes, 1981: 76) Certainly this is equally true for all photographers whether they come to the scene accepting it as it is, or if they choose to rearrange “what was there” before taking the photograph. And this is where I feel the need to challenge the assertion that every photograph is a construction, or at least challenge the way the term is used.
Every photograph involves choice and selection, but I argue that is different than construction. Just because I cast my gaze and that of my camera in a particular direction, I did not “construct” what is in front of me. Only when I purposefully rearrange the scene by moving objects or posing people have I constructed the scene that will become my image.
To argue that the “camera” coverts the light from the four-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional representation of that scene and therefore the image is made, and while true, it is not something over which the photographer has direct control and is in my view a lazy argument. By painting all photographs with that unnecessarily broad brush it fails to recognise the spectrum or continuum of photographic practice and creates a false equivalency between a Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman and Edward Burtynsky or Lynsey Addario. While this spectrum has no distinct boundaries at any given point on the continuum, I think it useful to acknowledge that there are differences in practice without having to necessarily assign a label or pigeonhole any photographer.
I do believe it is valuable to consider the spectrum of photographies in more nuanced way. Obviously, the grey areas in between are what create the difficulty and there are no hard and fast rules of distinction with regard to how much constitutes a truly constructed image versus one that is intended to be indexical. It is usually the case that the most highly constructed images and studio portraits for example make no pretentions of being anything other than constructed and it is fairly obvious to even the most casual of observers. With the advent of digital imaging, it is less obvious on the documentary end of the spectrum and there are plenty of documented cases of photographers and publications surreptitiously altering or intentionally choosing an out of context moment or vantage point to support a particular political or editorial point of view.
With the majority of my work out of doors and either landscape, wildlife, or action shots, I can with absolute certainty tell you the scenes in front of my camera that comprise my images are not constructed. I acknowledge the argument that because the light that enters the cameras lens is transformed and ultimately results in something made there are those that would consider that a construction. As well, any post processing is fundamentally an action that in some way alters that which the film or sensor captured and could be argued as constructive in nature. But I continue to hold that, as long as I am trying to remain faithful to that which was in front of my camera and not alter it in any substantive or significant way I am not constructing. I am taking, with the tools at my disposal and all their inherent capabilities and limitations, a representation of what I saw, not making something that did not exist before I arrived or a representation of something that was not there. This to me is the essential distinction in what constitutes a truly “constructed” photograph.
The following image for instance involved me carrying 20kg kit several miles and sitting in the same place for about 5 hours observing the tens of thousands of nesting seabirds as well as predators like the ravens. I took over 500 photos with 600mm and 840mm focal lengths. I didn’t direct the pair of ravens to the Razorbill nest they raided, but my knowledge of bird behaviour and observational acuity allowed me to see the situation developing and record it in its entirety. This is only one shot in a sequence. Now I suppose one could argue the final product, since it was cropped slightly and minor adjustments to the tonal quality were made in Lightroom, was constructed, but again I don’t find that distinction nuanced enough, and it creates a false equivalency with staged or posed images.
Raven Burglar – Ashley Rose
Another example would be the following photograph of a 9-day old colt out for its first run around the arena with its mother. This photo required knowledge of how horses move and what positions are most telling about a horse’s innate ability and potential as a world class dressage horse. This is an extraordinary example of an “uphill canter” and shows how well this young colt gets his rear legs under him and how light he is in the front. Once again other than some minor cropping and tonal adjustment, nothing about this photo was constructed in my view. Like the previous photo, planning, patience and a bit of luck were involved.
Falcon Caledonia at 9 days old – Ashley Rose
I know this notion of constructed versus not constructed is one that will continue to spark debate, probably for as long as photography exists. It is complicated further by the ease in which digital photography can be manipulated and frankly weaponised. And perhaps in the end the discussion is moot because photography has gone from the paragon of “objectivity”, to the perhaps the most suspect and mistrusted of the visual media. Divisive politics, tabloid journalism and an erosion of civility and humanity caused and furthered by the highly selective use of photographic weapons taints the broader world of Photography. It is an unfortunate reality of our time.
This week’s activity asked us to consider the following:
Post a short response below that outlines your own position regarding the nature of the photograph as ‘really real’.
Reflect on whether photographs are so unlike other sorts of pictures that they require unique methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation.
Identify and respond to key ideas raised by Snyder and Allen (1975) and in the presentations.
Refer to writers, theorists, and practitioners to support your views.
Provide visual examples to illustrate your points.
Reflect on any aspects of the ‘peculiar’ nature of the photograph that are important for your work.
Is a photograph real? This is of course a loaded question, perfect fodder for purely academic debate (and forgive the cynic in me that thinks it in the end so moot as to be of dubious import), and which must, as with most complex questions, be answered with the response, “it depends.” It depends on what is actually being asked. It depends whether beneath the veil of “real” are really questions of tangibility, accuracy (factual), reality (vs. fantasy), or truth. These terms are easily and often conflated. It is obvious even before beginning this discussion that there can be no one universal answer that covers the breadth of photographic genres and indeed the range of photographs with any genre.
A photograph whether as a print in hand or on the screen is indeed real on a physical level in the case of a print, and a virtual level in the case of on-screen. It exists, but it is not in fact the thing depicted, merely a 2-dimensional representation.
If the question is instead,” Is what is depicted in the photograph real?” Again, by virtue of the definition of a photograph, the image authenticates the presence of something that was in front of the lens from which light reflected and was subsequently captured on the film or sensor. But, further parsing of the question is required. Are we asking about the reality of the subject? The photographer’s intent and distribution channel will need to be considered. If it was an image of a news event published by a generally respected news outlet, there would be both an expectation and assumption that the image was a depiction of a real event. If it is a highly constructed set with elements we know to be unlikely to have been in the same place at the same time and seen in an art publication or on a gallery wall, we are likely to correctly conclude that while the objects did stand in front of the lens, the scene is not ‘real’, that is not naturally occurring. This question gets somewhat more complex when one asks, “Even if the scene is substantially ‘real’ (naturally occurring), has it been manipulated or altered?”
With analogue photography, this is somewhat less problematic because, while it is possible and certainly has been done, it is much more difficult to manipulate the image to add or subtract something from that which was present in the photographed scene. Digital photography makes it far easier and more likely that something might be different than was actually in the scene photographed and then the question arises; “Was the alteration substantive?” It makes a difference if someone cloned out a gravy stain on the tablecloth or replaced the Christmas turkey with a hippopotamus. The latter would lead most people to conclude the photo was altered and represented some form of fantasy.
Then arises the question of accuracy. To extend the example of Christmas dinner, if Grandma was in hospital and I put her in this year’s photo by using an image of her from the prior year at the table it is real, in that she sat at that table with the others albeit at a different time, but it is not accurate. Another example arises with scene compression from a telephoto lens. Consider the following photograph of the town of Dornoch taken with a long lens from a vantage point that suggests the statue of the Duke of Sutherland which sits atop Ben Bhraggie looms directly above the town when in fact it is at least 10 miles away. Metaphorically, it was (and perhaps is) accurate. This Duke was largely responsible for the Highland Clearances which reshaped the population of the Scottish Highlands and whose effect is still felt today.
Dornoch Cathedral with Ben Bhraggie – Ashley Rose
Lastly comes the question of truth. No photograph can ever represent truth. Firstly, the camera with all the limitations of its lens, film/sensor, program and looking at a smaller segment of a scene than that available to the eye is trying to capture a 4-dimensional event which it then translates into a 2- dimensional entity. I believe it is clear the photograph cannot be truth. Furthermore, aside from a very few absolute truths, e.g. we are all going to die, all other truths are conditional. They are subject to the limits of knowledge, personal and cultural perspectives none of which can be represented in a photograph. Even “scientific truths” are conditional as we only know what we know. For example, humans once believed truth was that the Sun revolved around the Earth and now, we accept as truth the opposite. Each major religion holds its own version of truth. So, truth in a photograph even in relative terms is always going to be a matter of perspective and therefore not really truth.
I have noticed some others referring to digitally created images as photographs. While they may appear to be photographs and may even be printed as a photograph might be, they are not photographs. They are Computer Generated Images. They were not created by the interaction of light with a photosensitive medium and they are therefore not by definition, photographs.
I am not convinced that in general photographs are so different that they require some completely unique form of criticism. Of course, photographs bear traits which make them inherently different than paintings or CGI, principally that they carry a degree of indexicality that is a physical manifestation of the prerequisite of a photograph; captured reflected light. Aside from that, they are of something, they contain some intent at meaning, they have a frame that includes and excludes, they include or represent a point in time, and they have a vantage point, so it seems Szarkowski’s five elements could be applied to virtually any form of visual representation.
“Even in the realm of serious and inventive photography there is no clear-cut break with older traditions of representation.” (Snyder and Allen, 1975: 165)
The seemingly endless quest for the silver-bullet of photographic uniqueness or critique is perhaps interesting to debate (for a while), but as it is ultimately moot, does it really do anything to advance photography? As I wrote in a prior CRJ post, does it really matter whether Photography as an entirety is considered an art or not? Are these distinctions important? To find anything close to a unifying theory would require a common language and commonality of culture and experience. At the denotive level photography in many cases can overcome the language and cultural barriers to arrive at a somewhat common (but not universal) visual language. However, at the connotative level, the meaning of any photograph is intractably bound to the language and cultural perspectives of the viewer and is therefore unresolvable in the universal. As I sit writing this, I see out my window (in my language) a snow flurry. If an Inuit were to see this (or a photograph of it) I have no doubt one of their 50 words for snow would be used to provide a far more nuanced description and meaning to the event I am witnessing. I would likely have no idea what their version meant, and they would think my version to be crude and uninformed, yet we are looking at the same denoted scene. A photograph of Daesh beheading someone is to me a horrifying and unspeakable act of human cruelty, while to them it is a triumph over an infidel enemy and worthy of celebration.
ISIS Propaganda photo
These connotations will never be resolved no matter how many critical theory books are written or read except by saying the photographer does not have much control over how a photograph is viewed or judged. What is trash to one person is treasure to the next. So we as photographers are left to do the best we can to satisfy ourselves that we have achieved the intent we set out to achieve and then we can hope that someone appreciates it for what it was meant to be while at the same time hoping that it is not at the same time taken so out of context that it is used in a harmful or nefarious way.
Snyder and Allen’s writing seems to support these ideas.
“Thus, to formulate a set of critical principles for photography based on what is purely or uniquely or essentially photographic is as absurd and unprofitable as would be the adoption in its place of standards taken from a mummified canon of nineteenth-century painting.” (p 165)
“The poverty of photographic criticism is well known. It stands out against the richness of photographic production and invention, the widespread use and enjoyment of photographs, and even the popularity of photography as a hobby. To end this poverty we do not need more philosophizing about photographs and reality, or yet another (this time definitive) definition of “photographic seeing,” or yet another distillation of photography’s essence or nature. The tools for making sense of photographs lie at hand, and we can invent more if and when we really need them.” (p 169)
Photography has the ability to be uniquely indexical even if it is not always used as such. My practice, and I suppose my worldview are largely rooted in this approach. I honestly believe there is enough wonder, horror, and interest in what exists around me that I feel no need in my practice to invent or construct something that does not exist. I don’t use my photography to illustrate or overcome personal issues and while I know it is impossible to completely mask insights into me as a person, I want my camera to be far more of a window than a mirror. I also generally don’t want to “look into the souls” of other humans because frankly, I am not very interested and often find myself at loss to read people the way an accomplished portrait photographer often can. If my work is viewed, I want people to be focusing on the work and not on me.
SNYDER, Joel and Neil Walsh ALLEN. n.d. ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’. Critical Inquiry 141–169.
BARTHES, Roland. 1977. Image Music Text. New York: Hill and Wang.
BARTHES, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.
SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
In the tutorial with Paul, I gave a short recap of the project I had been pursuing for the benefit of the others on the call who were not familiar with my work to date. I discussed how the project had evolved and how the timing that has been affected by external forces has jeopardised the potential for the FMP. It is a project I intend to continue to pursue even if it does not fit as an FMP.
Paul recommended an interesting element of a piece of work by Layla Curtis; www.laylacurtis.com/work/project/45 titled Trespass in which she designed a phone app to guide people around a plot of land she had previously photographed and which had been recently fenced off to preclude access. It was a clever way to promote her work.
The second recommendation was Lewis Bush’s work Shadow of the State; www.lewisbush.com/shadow-of-the-state-book/ in which the author imbedded bar codes that gave mapping information on the location of covert radio stations.
Both of these approaches were clever uses of technology to expand the experience of the author’s work beyond just looking at photographs.
In the group (of one) tutorial with Steph we covered so much that I have yet to fully explore all the references she suggested, but I will put here a brief summary of those I have and the remaining list to remind me of what is yet to be done.
Matt Jessop – Diverse commercial practitioner – couldn’t find any evidence of personal work
Matthew Murray – work can be found at https://www.elliothall.com Of particular interest was his Saddleworth project which is a combination of grand landscapes augmented with closer looks at details within those landscapes. Seems to have relevance to the line of research I have been pursuing and need to look at his work in more depth.
Nick Brandt – Inherit the Dust I was familiar with this work and think it some of the most powerful and poignant work I have ever seen. I is a superb example of rephotography and it is used to great effect.
David Company – Article Safety in Numbness which can be found at https://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ provided a very interesting discussion on ‘Late Photography’ or Aftermath Photography, but not in the very immediate timeframe. He explored the benefit of some degree of temporal detachment from the event and how that enabled a different perspective on the event.
Richard Misrach – I had seen some of Misrach’s work previously, notably the floating bodies in On the Beach, but discovered other of his projects that really intrigued me. I want to explore in more depth Desert Cantos and Chronologies, but unfortunately will need to get hold of the books once I return to Scotland because there is not much on-line that can be viewed.
Also suggested were the videos from San Francisco MOMA on the topic “Is Photography Over?” which can be found at www.sfmoma.org/photography-over/ and which I have not yet had time to explore. On the to do list.
For further reading the following sources were cited:
Routledge – Introduction to Commmunnications
David Bate – Key Concepts inn Photography which is in my library and to which I have referred.
Fred Ritchin – After Photography and Bending the Frame which will have to wait until later in February
Lev Manovich – on line at Manovich.net – Instagram in the Modern World
Charlotte Cotton – The Photograph as Contemporary Art in particular the chapters Subjective Witness and Deadpan
We discussed the project I had been doing and my concerns regarding the timing of it for FMP. Steph indicated she thought it a great project that I need to continue to pursue. She explained she likes @Photography with a purpose; socially conscious and meant to affect something. I fully agree the project needs to continue, but its suitability for FMP remains in question.
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.
I have heard some of fellow students ask; “What relevance does Barthes have?” and I confess to feeling the same way when I first began to read him during Positions and Practice. It is easy to be put off by his esoteric language and the occasional diversionary tactic and to get hung up on a couple of his ideas that in the end, in my opinion, have nothing really to do with essential relevance of Barthes. I have just finished carefully and thoughtfully re-reading Camera Lucida, taking lots of notes and trying to sift through Barthes’ philosophical, rambling musings and to distil to the essence what was most important and relevant to me as a photographer.
I think it is important first to understand the question Barthes sets out to answer, and the perspective from which Barthes approaches the question. Barthes intent is to identify what about Photography is its distinguishing feature, and he, as a non-photographer, can only approach the problem from the perspective of the consumer, or in his term the Spectator’s point of view. The virtual entirety of his treatise and exploration is based on peeling back the layers to determine what is it about a photograph that in Walter Benjamin’s term “stirs a tiny spark of contingency” (Benjamin 1931: 510) and why.
It is easy to get distracted by Barthes’ regular referrals to Death. Death seems to me a red herring as there are other places where he seems to offer counter arguments. “Every photograph is a certificate of presence” (1981: 87) “…it is still mortal, like a living organism.” (Barthes 1981: 93) It would be just as easy to argue the photograph is proof of life. In the end the discussion of death doesn’t make or break what is important about Camera Lucida.
The majority of photographs in the world are banal and they pass before our eyes as if we never saw them, ephemeral enough so as to appear non-existent. “I see photographs everywhere, like everyone else, nowadays; they come from the world to me, without my asking; they are only ‘images, their mode of appearance is heterogeneous. Yet, among those which have been selected, evaluated, approved, collected in albums or magazines and which had thereby passed through the filter of culture, I realized that some provoked tiny jubilations, as if they referred to a still center, and erotic or lacerating value buried in myself; …and that others, on the contrary, were so indifferent to me that by dint of seeing them multiply, …I felt a kind of aversion toward them…” (Barthes 1981: 16) ’“The principle of adventure allows me to make Photography exist. Conversely, without adventure, no photograph.” (Barthes 1981: 19) “Many photographs are, alas, inert under my gaze.” (Barthes 1981: 27) We are subjected to an ever-increasing amount of visual media and I think few would disagree with the idea that much of what is produced remains unseen to any individual and much of what is seen by that individual passes by quite unnoticed. Barthes asks what is it that causes a photograph to be noticed?
A small number of the world’s photographs catch the interest of some viewers, enough to hold their gaze and perhaps to even remember something about the photo. “…in these photographs I can, of course, take a kind of general interest, one that is even stirred sometimes, but in regard to them my emotion requires the rational intermediary of an ethical and political culture. …it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least immediately, ‘study,’ but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, without special acuity.” (Barthes 1981: 26) “…for culture, (from which the studium derives) is a contract arrived at between creators and consumers.” (Barthes 1981: 28) Studium, is the characteristic of the photo that cause one’s gaze to linger and to engage with the photograph. This, by the way, will be a completely different set of photographs from one individual to the next.
A very precious few of the world’s photographs will have something more, a detail generally unintentional and often not on the primary subject itself that expands for that viewer the photograph into something more than its studium reveals. This is the prick, the wound, the punctum that makes that photograph for that viewer more meaningful and unforgettable. “The studium is always coded, the punctum is not.” “What I can name cannot prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance.” (Barthes 1981: 51)“Very often the Punctum is a ‘detail,” i.e., a partial object.” (Barthes 1981: 43) “However lightning-like it may be, the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion…which makes me add something to the photograph.” (Barthes 1981: 45) “Hence the detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful…” (Barthes 1981: 47)
Excellent examples for me of both studium and punctum are pieces from Nick Brandt’s work, Inherit the Dust. There is an immediate tension which the viewer must decode about what is out of place in this photo. The conclusion will be drawn based on the ethical, political, and cultural proclivities of the viewer. While this may not ‘wound’ someone else, these are photos that grab me by the heart, photos I can never un-see, photos I will never forget. The counterpoint of the resting giraffe expelled from this place by the diggers whose profile mimics that of the giraffe to make way for a quarry is undeniably poignant.
And finally, Barthes concludes that what distinguishes Photography from other forms of visual media is the intractability between the photograph and the referent. “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) Whether it communicates or is judged to be artistic is in the power of the viewer not the photographer. And so quite contrary to Barthes earlier assertion that Photography represented Death, he is saying here that instead it represents proof of existence in a way no other form, painting, sculpting, or writing can. It is the single most unique characteristic of Photography.
The noeme, That-has-been, leads Barthes to one final significant conclusion and it is here again that I think he argues against himself on the idea of the photograph being death. He states: “I now know that there exists another punctum than the detail. This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (’that-has-been), its pure representation.” (Barthes 1981: 96) Time is the pure representation of what has been, and in this punctum can lie in the knowledge that something has happened before or will happen in the future. This says to me that Barthes herein abandons the certainty that the photograph is death, because in that model there could be no future that is implied in the punctum. A particularly effective example of this element of punctum is September 11, 2001 photograph by Richard Drew of the Falling Man.
There is the punctum of the detail in this photograph, the perfect alignment of the axes of the body and the building and the bisection of the light and dark. There is also the punctum of time, the certainty of the man having come from somewhere above, and the certainty of what will occur at the bottom of his fall.
In conclusion, it is clear that as a photographer, I am not in control of who likes or dislikes, or notices or ignores my work, judges it as art or whether it communicates, as that is in the hands of the viewer. We photograph and by doing so provide irrefutable evidence that something existed at a point in time, a reference to that which has been. Studium and punctum are not purely concrete but can be loosely translated into that which makes one think and that which makes one feel when looking at a photograph, but neither can be forced into a photograph by the photographer, and a photograph will carry different effects to its viewers depending on their personal and cultural biases. We can only, as photographers, photograph those things that make us think and feel with the hope the resulting photograph will elicit similar reactions in others. And, as we edit and curate our work, we can be sensitive to the intended audience’s cultural predispositions and use that knowledge to influence our selections. These are the things I find as the essence of Barthes Camera Lucida and its universal relevance to photographers.
BARTHES, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.
BENJAMIN, Walter. 1931. Selected Writings 2, Part 2 1931-1934. Edited by G. Eiland, H., Jennings, M.W., and Smith. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press.
At the outset of this course of study, I was not sure how to categorise myself as a photographer or where my practice fit. I entered the course on the basis of my wildlife work, which while important to me, didn’t fully represent either who I was nor who I wanted to be as a photographer. After three terms, I can say with confidence that I am a documentary photographer whose practice is based out of doors. My subject matter generally ranges between wildlife and natural history, landscape (natural and cultural), and human activities relating to animals or the outdoors and sport. These all derive from my fundamental intent as a photographer to use my camera as a tool to capture things I see and find of interest, and to be able to share them with others who may not have had the opportunity to see those things, or for whom those things were otherwise unseen or unnoticed.
While I always endeavour to make visually interesting and aesthetically pleasing photographs, I do not consider myself a ‘fine art’ photographer and instead hope to render what I see as realistically as I can because I believe there is more than enough inherent interest and beauty in the world around us and that additional manipulations and contrivances are not necessary. It is very much for me, first and foremost, about ‘the thing itself’.
I recently posted a rather extensive article on Szarkowski and The Photographer’s Eye which can be found at https://chasingthewildlife.blog/2019/01/17/john-szarkowski-the-photographers-eye/ , that goes into some detail about how it fits my view of the current state of my practice and my evolution as a photographer. However, to summarise, Szarkowski’s five interdependent elements that serve as the basis for how we as photographer’s take photographs, and how consumers of the work can view and judge that work serve to inform my way of making work. In each of the sub-genres under the broad umbrella of Documentary photography in which I work The Thing Itself, Detail, Frame, Time and Vantage Point factor into every photograph I take.
While it is undeniably true that Szarkowski was very much an adherent to and proponent for Modernism, I believe these five principles largely stand up to the test of varied genres and “schools” of photographic practice. They are both specific and general enough, and due to their avowed interdependence, to be applied with subtly shifting balances between the elements so as to be broadly applicable across the universe of photography.
That have been said, Stephen Shore in his book, The Nature of Photographs, to a degree builds from Szarkowski, but adds a couple of new and interesting elements worthy of further consideration. Shore begins with an intention similar to that of Szarkowski.
“The aim of this book then is…to describe physical and formal attributes of a photographic print that form the tools a photographer uses to define and interpret that content.” (Shore 2007: 12)
“This book is an investigation of what photographs look like, and of why they look that way. It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition: with the sense of possibilities that a photographer today takes to his work.” (Szarkowski 1966: 6)
Shore posits that “A photograph can be viewed on several levels. To begin with, it is a physical object, a print. On this print is an image, an illusion of a window on the world. It is on this level that we usually read a picture and discover its content:… Embedded in this level is another that contains signals to our mind’s perceptual apparatus. It gives ‘spin’ to what the image depicts and how it is organized.” (Shore 2007: 10) He calls these levels the Physical, Depictive and Mental levels respectively.
At the Physical Level Shore points out, “The physical qualities of the print determine some of the visual qualities of the image.” (2007: 16)It occurred to me that on the one hand of course this is obvious, but then again as much of our distribution and sharing of images these days is electronic (virtual prints) it isn’t really at the forefront of my mind until it comes time to prepare an exhibition or mount a print for sale. It matters a great deal to the final product on which paper, not only type but manufacturer, it is printed and by what process it is printed and by whom it is printed and whether the post processing platform was colour calibrated and matched to the print platform. This has to date not been a particularly significant issue, but it stands to become one moving on to FMP and whatever form the final product takes.
In the Depictive Level Shore again borrows from Szarkowski by suggesting the photographer “imposes order on a scene” by “choosing a vantage point, choosing a frame, choosing a moment of exposure, and by selecting a plane of focus.” (Shore 2007: 37) (Szarkowski’s Vantage Point, Frame, Time and Detail.) When Szarkowski referred to detail he was speaking more about the narrative capacity of photography, but when he said, “The photographer could not assemble these clues into a coherent narrative, he could only isolate the fragment, document it, and by doing so claim for it some special significance.” (Szarkowski 1966: 8) I do not believe it is a stretch to interpret isolating a fragment and granting it significance as an allusion to focal plane. That is precisely what we do as photographers when we decide how to capture a scene. We choose what is most important and that is where we focus.
Shore, like many writers before him including Szarkowski make the mistake of considering the photographic world three-dimensional when in fact it is four-dimensional. True enough the photographic image is essentially two-dimensional, but it is representation of a four-dimensional scene and as such it is always an illusion and never the truth.
“The world is three-dimensional; a photographic image is two-dimensional.” “The picture plane is a field upon which the lens’s image is projected. A photographic image can rest on this picture plane and, at the same time, contain an illusion of deep space.” (Shore 2007: 40)
Shore’s Mental Level seems to be the subjective counterpart to the objectivity of the Depictive. The Depictive was more about the mechanics of depiction and the detail of what was depicted. The Mental Level is about reading the photograph, assessing its meaning and significance. It depends on both the Physical and Depictive, for without them there is nothing use as the basis for the mental image. I think again in this way Shore is essentially reiterating Szarkowski’s view that his five elements are interdependent, and it is necessary to consider all in judging/ understanding a photograph.
There are strong similarities and parallels between Szarkowski and Shore, and while they may use slightly different wording, they are illuminating fundamentally the same concepts. Shore’s use of photographs and a little more parsing of the elements provides a complementary perspective to Szarkowski. As I stated in the linked article and briefly above I consider most of my work to be aligned with Szarkowski’s Modernist approach and as Shore is in my view quite generally consistent with that line of thinking I can see myself spending more time looking a re-looking at Shore’s examples as a means to continue to improve my ability to see and read photographs.
SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2018th edn. London and New York: Phaidon Press.
I have not often written much about work I was doing this early in the term. Partly because I quite often take on other projects or personal work that was unrelated to the MA project I had been pursuing. However, since I needed to be away from Scotland and the site where my project is based, I have been using this time to explore a different aspect of my landscape work, expand on a project that has been underway for about 12 years, and to push my skills even further.
I have talked in the past about the inspiration Axel Hutte provides, in particular his landscapes which betray no sense of place or time. Jem Southam is another photographer whose work is similar in the sense that it often belies place and time and yet, like Hutte, conveys a mood and often an intimacy of perspective.
Since I was only going to be back in the US for about six weeks, I also decided to travel lightly and only packed one camera body, Canon 5D MkIV and two lenses, 24-105mm f4 and 135mm f2 along with ND filters and a 1.4 extender. This choice has the added benefit of limiting the type of photographs I could reasonably take to the more intimate landscapes I intended.
My South Carolina house sits in the middle of a heavily wooded 8.5 acres and over looks a 5 acre pond on the lot adjacent. I designed the house in 2006 in a style that merged a Japanese and Frank Lloyd Wright aesthetic with some Western sensibilities, but the essence of the house was open flexible space with views in every direction and a clear intent to blur distinctions between space to space within the walls and between the inside and outside.
I have always loved and photographed the views from the house and enjoyed watching how they changed from day to day, season to season and year to year. My photographic skills have improved significantly over the past year and it seemed a good time to see what I could make of this very familiar place. Here are a few examples.
While I certainly know where these photos were taken and the place holds special significance to me, to any other viewer these photograph can represent anywhere and therefore contain a universality that allows a viewer to imagine or believe these are places they know or have been. I am pleased with these photos and believe they offer a line of enquiry for my practice in the future.
I took an opportunity during a short stay in New Jersey just after my return to the US in January to photograph a lovely waterfall I encountered. I had seen it the prior day, but the light was poor and so when the weather and light became more conducive I returned to the site.
I choose lengthy exposures and acute angles to capture the nuances of the light and shadows and the differences in the way the water came over the spillway on to the rocks below. The middle frame explores the varied textures of the stones of the dam as well as those in the river below the dam. Once again the intimacy of the framing does nothing to reveal its actual location and as such again make it familiar to any viewer who seen a waterfall somewhere. These too I feel are successful photographs.
I do believe have room to continue to grow and explore this type of photography and can certainly explore the moods that would result from different lighting conditions. I enjoy this type of work and it sits well as an element within the direction my practice is taking.
It seems from the outset photography has been locked into some apparent need to seek legitimacy by being acknowledged as art. Does earning that moniker somehow change photography? It reminds me of people who wish to argue whether golf is or isn’t a sport.
Photography is. Photography is not going away anytime soon. Photography is a form of visual communication that engulfs our every waking moment. Photography has value, whether as a cherished remembrance of a moment or a loved one, or a Gursky photograph of absolutely nothing for which someone was willing to pay $6 million. It makes no difference to the reality of photography whether someone deems it art or not.
Why not stop arguing about what it is not and focus on the fact that photography is just photography. And like everything else, some will be good, some will be bad, some will be both depending on who is doing the looking, some will sell, some won’t, some will be viewed as more important to more people than others which may important to only one person, some will last, and some will fade quickly.
Why some photographers seek to have their work considered art is frankly beyond me. The definition of art has never been ironclad and the “art world” are a fickle lot anyway. What was fabulous yesterday is passé tomorrow. What is art to one person is rubbish to the next, and there are as many opinions as there are people, so why fight the battle?
As I mentioned in a prior post, I have concerns that the project I have been pursuing for the past year and had hoped to take into FMP is looking less and less suitable for that purpose due to delays in the development decision. While there was always a risk the development would not be approved, I didn’t view that as a problem initially as I saw the project at the outset as a natural history focused endeavour. A year of taking photographs at the site has informed me that even a full two-year span is insufficient to truly reveal dramatic enough change from a natural history (repeat photography) perspective to create a story that would garner much interest. Consequently, my approach to the project evolved through each term and moved away from a purely natural history project to one that considered how the land was, is and could be used in the future. If the development is not approved, then there is not much of a story beyond that which I have already captured.
Had the development been approved as originally planned in June of 2018, the anthropogenic changes would have been well underway, and they would have been nearing completion as I approached the end of FMP. The current timetable would not see the development complete (if it is approved) until 2021 at the earliest. I intend to continue work on the project, but I need to consider alternatives for FMP and I intend to use the Informing Contexts module to explore possibilities.
I have been compiling a list of possible projects for some time as things to do after the MA and as I had time during the MA course. These ideas align with my interests and passions and are consistent with the description of my practice as my understanding of it has evolved. However, none of the ideas are fully developed and some are less so than others. Among the candidates under consideration are the following which is comprehensive, but by no means exhaustive.
Last May I published a book based on a short-term project completed as part of Surfaces and Strategies. That book, 19 Sutherland Bridges, focused on a very few of the many interesting and beautiful bridges in the north of Scotland. Bridges connect people and places and they are, for the most part, taken for granted by the many people that use them each day. Many people have no idea what those spans look like except from the roadway they traverse. I took a different perspective to show the bridges and how those structures connected what stood on either side of the span to show them in a way many will have never seen despite the fact they used the bridge many times. There are hundreds more bridges in Sutherland; old, new, large, small, pedestrian, rail, road, in disrepair or daily use, each connecting one place to another. This project is achievable in the FMP window and discrete enough to be accomplished.
Following on to my interest in interactions between humans and nature, the significant move to cleaner, renewable energy production has resulted in a proliferation of windmills. While windmills have been used in many countries in many forms for hundreds of years, this new generation of turbines are cropping up offshore, on mountainsides and hilltops, where once the vistas were unhindered and purely natural. While there is no question our planet needs to find alternatives to fossil fuels, cleaner energy, like everything, comes with a price. This project would explore from a neutral perspective, like Burtynsky, the landscapes and seascapes that have the mark of human activity imposed upon them. Once again, this project is manageable in scope and could be accomplished in an FMP.
Fly Fishing in the Highlands
Fly fishing for salmon and trout in the Highlands of Scotland is important as both a pastime for many and as an economic source for some. In keeping with my interest of how people interact with nature, and as one who enjoys fly fishing, I see this project having possibilities along the lines of David Chancellor’s work. Capturing the dynamic world of fly fishing in the beautiful settings in which it takes place perhaps along with stories of the ghillies and fisherman interests me as a project and is again one with manageable scope and achievable as an FMP.
I plan to further research and explore these ideas during this module and experiment with some locations and methods of approaching each in order to test their viability as projects and visual interest as subjects. I see each in my mind’s eye, but I will need to determine if I can translate that vision into meaningful work.