Week 2 Activity – Is it Really Real?

 

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.

 

IMG_0576

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 Beheading

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.

References

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.

 

Week 1 – Tutorials

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

For Research Steph mentioned www.academia.edu

 

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.

 

Week 2- Forum: Representation or Authentication

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.

References:

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.

Key Writers – Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida

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.

Brandt Inherit the Dust
Nick Brandt

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.

Richard Drew Falling man
Richard Drew 2001

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.

References:

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.

Week One Activity – Informing Contexts

Practice and Intent

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’.

Critical Contextualisation

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.

 

References

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.

 

 

Evolution and Experimentation – Current Work

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Photography as Art – Why does it matter?

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?

Is photography art?  Who cares?  The best quote I have found to address this topic is:

“Do not call yourself an ’artist-photographer’ and make ‘artist-Painters’ and ‘artist-sculptors’ laugh; call yourself a photographer and wait for artists to call you brother.” (Peter Henry Emerson in Trachtenberg 1980: 100)

References

TRACHTENBERG, Alan (ed.). 1980. Classic Essays on Photography. Sedgewick, ME: Leete’s Island Books, Inc.

The Path Forward – Charting a Course toward FMP

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.

Bridges

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.

Windmills

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.

 

Dissecting Feedback and Commentary about Sustainable Prospects

I have taken time to digest the feedback received on the assignments submitted for the Sustainable Prospects module.  I confess to being as disappointed with the quality of the feedback as I was with the course material and its presentation during the module.

I recognise that at some point more definitive information on details of exhibitions and books will need to be developed and it is not as though I have given those topics no thought.  It is early in my view to begin to make definite plans as there is much yet unknown about the eventual outcome of the project I have been pursuing and furthermore the likelihood of this project being the subject of my FMP is diminishing with every passing day due to the delays on the development decision.  The OP was limited to 10 minutes and there were any more topics that also needed to be (and were) covered.  This topic could well have consumed a substantial portion of the 10 minutes if it was to be addressed in the detail suggested in the feedback and I took a decision to address all of the requirements with the balance being directed at other areas.  Perhaps I should have discussed the topic more thoroughly in my CRJ and I will accept that critique, however, it seems odd then that it should have been raised in the OP feedback.  I do not know what to do with a comment like this: We do feel there is still room for exploring a more creative approach to this project as you move forward – do look to expand your ideas and think a little outside the box and see where it takes you.  My approach the project has evolved quite significantly since its beginnings as a purely natural history and repeat photography project in its original inception.  I think I have shown both a willingness to adapt and take new directions and I certainly see that vector continuing.  Cliched comments such as “think out of the box” are neither informative or constructive.  Specifically, what box have I been in?  How is my thinking limited?  Perhaps looking at feedback in the other assignments provides a clue.

I agree the project has potentially greater significance as an example of competing imperatives.  I have had that in mind from the outset and have spoken and written of it.  It is not yet at that point and I am not willing to compromise my independence at this point to make the case for one side or the other.  I have approached the work with an eye toward the ability to tell the story from different perspectives further down the line as the story and its significance develops.  But the comment of potentially broader significance is not lost on me.  The comment: “Perhaps you may explore more how you might introduce community to your work on landscape and wildlife.”  strikes me as a desire to impose the tutor’s version of the story.  I have discussed at length how I do not wish to do a different version of Sophie Gerrard’s, The Dunes in the north of Scotland.  I am passionate about the place, not the people who may be associated with the story and therefor that is not the story I wish to tell.

And that then leads me to the recommendations made of other photographer’s work. First let me address Burtynsky.  I wrote in my CRJ and made direct reference to his work as a key influencer in my OP.  To have included him in the list of recommendations implies my OP and CRJ were not read or considered.  Sternfeld’s work, rather than exploring the Anthropocene as was suggested, reminded me of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” and I can find no relevance to my work.  Bialbowski’s work explored urban environments and while one might argue that as an exploration of the Anthropocene, they were more travel and social documentary in character.

The other three recommendations were photographers whose work was exploring community.  I found the work of Pannack, Davey and Mitchell all to be fundamentally environmental portraiture and that of Davey and Mitchell to be oriented predominantly toward family and personal subjects.  Pannack’s work explored a few topics, but only the Naturists project even remotely seemed to address community as I understand the term.  I could again find little relevance to my work, nor could I take constructive lessons from reviewing their work.

I honestly feel once again this is an attempt to force my work in a particular direction that is consistent with the tastes of the tutors and which suits their sensibilities with regard to contemporary photography.  I undertook this course to find my own voice and I certainly recognise I may well need guidance to find that voice, but I object to attempts to homogenise me into someone else’s view of what contemporary photography is or should be.

 

Feedback Excerpts

WIP

You also comment on the local nature of your issue and therefore conclude that it will have a rather small audience – we could encourage you to reflect more on the fact that this is a local matter but it reflects a greater one – a global issue of environmental protection, local community, rural landscape and the balance between man and nature, this is far from a local issue when you step back – it’s a fundamental and universal one. We feel with more thought put into contextualising your work and presenting it you may further explore these universal themes and make them prominent in your work. You may enjoy looking at the work of Joel sternfeld, Peter Bialobrezki, Ed Burtynski – who all explore the greater impact of the anthroposcene – and then to look closer to those photographers who explore community – such as Lauara Pannack, Sian Davey, Margaret Mitchell. Perhaps you may explore more how you might introduce community to your work on landscape and wildlife.

 

OP

You identify your audience and address the concept of a book and also an exhibition. You would benefit from exploring further how the book would be made, how it would be designed, who you would be pitching it to and where it might be published. You might work to expand on this – and explore how you can take this from the local audience you describe to a larger one. Also in terms of presentation in an exhibition – more thought and exploration and research would be beneficial to you here. We do feel there is still room for exploring a more creative approach to this project as you move forward – do look to expand your ideas and think a little outside the box and see where it takes you. Best of luck with this project!

 

CRJ

It would be interesting and useful to hear more on your reflections of your own work – you do include it but more would be helpful as you move forward. Your CRJ reflects well on your progress through this module, both in terms of process but also in terms of theoretical approach and metaphorical exploration of your subject.

 

John Szarkowski: The Photographer’s Eye

The six pages that make up the introduction to John Szarkowski’s 1966 book, The Photographer’s Eye, are in my opinion the clearest, most concise, most accessible and for me, the most relatable description of the essential elements of photography and why they are significant.  It may not in the end represent the only photographic philosophy I embrace, but it is one for which I am all in.  My work is, has always been predominantly consistent with the Modernist and Formalist school of thought of which Szarkowski is a leading proponent and prominent voice.

Szarkowski ends his introduction with the following:

“The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth.  Its movement has not been linear and consecutive, but centrifugal.  Photography and our understanding of it, has spread from the center; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness.  Like and organism, photography was born whole.  It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies.”

I think this is an interesting and important description.  If one were to put an organism in a centrifuge it would separate into constituent components with the weightiest elements travelling through all the strata and ending up at the bottom of the test tube.  While photography’s origins are rooted in Modernism and Formalism, as the centrifuge spun, and photography grew, many other forms (genres) of photography became visible.  Yet traces of the Modernist origins trailed through those genres and even remained intact today in contemporary photography.  I believe Modernism, the quest for reality and purity in photographic form and function, are the weightiest element of the photographic organism and that is why the principles that define it are still in force today.

The introduction begins with:

“This book is an investigation of what photographs look like, and 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.”

“The invention of photography provided a radically new picture-making process – a process based not on synthesis but on selection.  The difference was a basic one.  Paintings were made – constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes – but photographs, as the man on the street put it, were taken.”

“The difference raised a creative issue of a new order: how could this mechanical and mindless process be made to produce pictures meaningful in human terms – pictures with clarity and coherence and a point of view?”

He goes on to speak briefly about how quickly photography grew in popularity and how the change from wet to dry plate suddenly made photography accessible to many more people resulting in a deluge of new images many of which were “formless and accidental” and some that were “memorable and seemed significant beyond their limited intention.”  If he could only imagine the world today.

Szarkowski goes on to point out:

“But it was not only the way that photography described things that was new; it was also the things it chose to describe.  Photography was easy, cheap and ubiquitous, and it recorded anything: shop windows and sod houses and family pets and steam engines and unimportant people. And once made objective and permanent, immortalized in a picture, these trivial things took on importance.

This ‘revolution’ in the visual arts brought the world near and far to the doorstep of nearly everyone.  As the medium was new and the technology evolving, photographers had to learn how to use their tools and materials and to adjust to the limitations of the early equipment and they had to learn from each other’s work.

Sarkowski chose the photos in The Photographer’s Eye, he claimed, not because they fit a particular aesthetic or school, or were made by renowned photographers, “that they shared little in common except their success and a shared vocabulary: these pictures were unmistakeably photographs.”  He believed these photographs shared a vision of photography itself, and that “The character of this vision was discovered by photographers at work, as their awareness of photography’s potentials grew.”

Although Szarkowski claimed not, I find there are precious few photographs in the collection that do not fit into the basic model of Modernism.  There is the odd modestly abstract photograph, but on the whole, they fit very neatly into the form with which Szarkowski was most familiar and most comfortable.  He was in fact reportedly criticised late in his career for having failed to embrace Post-Modernist work.  He continued to his death to champion the idea that the camera was a ‘window’ to the world and he wasn’t keen on those who chose to use the camera as a ‘mirror’.

Since photography was being discovered by photographers, Szarkowski thought the history of the medium could be defined by “photographer’s progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent in the medium.”  He posited five issues and said: “These issues do not define discrete categories of work; on the contrary they should be regarded as interdependent aspects of a single problem – as section views through the body of photographic tradition.  As such, it is hoped that they may contribute to the formulation of a vocabulary and a critical perspective more fully responsive to the unique phenomena of photography.”

And it is these five things to which I was referring in my opening paragraphs that seem so clear, concise, relevant and accessible.  With these, I don’t need the obtuse musings of Barthes, or the mad imaginings of a world about to be subsumed by automation of Flusser.  Elements of the thinking of most of the other critical theorists can be incorporated into these five categories, and if they can’t, perhaps they don’t need to be because this a pretty good list and covers more than enough territory to handle a wide swath of the photographic universe.

The five categories are, The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time, and Vantage Point.  As Szarkowski said, they are not independent, and each element is important to ‘reading, decoding, interpreting, judging’ a photograph, or whatever other term of art you choose for the process of looking at and seeing photographic work.

Each of these categories is supported by several paragraphs of contextual explanation that can be easily read in The Photographer’s Eye so I am not going to quote them wholesale, but rather attempt to draw some of the most salient points associated with each to include as a summary of Szarkowski’s points.

The Thing Itself

  • Photography deals with the actual
  • The world itself is an artist of incomparable inventiveness and to recognise its best works and moments, to anticipate them, to clarify them and make them permanent, requires intelligence both acute and supple.
  • The factuality of pictures is different than reality itself; the subject and the picture were not the same thing even though they might appear so afterward.
  • People believe the photograph cannot lie and that what our eyes saw was illusion and the camera saw truth, but except for the fact that the image would survive the subject and become remembered reality. (Ed. However, as I have written before truth is illusory, the photograph was never and never can be truth in absolute terms.)

 

The Detail

  • Photographers are tied to the facts of things, and it is the photographer’s problem to try to force the facts to tell the truth.
  • Outside the studio, the photographer can only record what was found; fragmented and unexplained elements – not a story, but scattered and suggestive clues.
  • The compelling clarity with which a photograph records the trivial suggested the subject hadn’t been properly seen before and was perhaps not trivial but filled with undiscovered meaning.
  • Photography has never been successful at narrative.
  • If photographs cannot be read as stories, they could be read as symbols.
  • Even the large body of Civil War and WWII photography could not without extensive captioning explain what was happening.
  • The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, but to make it real.
  • He quotes Robert Capra’s comment that expressed both the narrative poverty and symbolic power of photography when he said, “If your pictures aren’t good, you are not close enough.”

 

The Frame

  • A picture is not conceived but selected, therefore the subject is never truly discrete or wholly self-contained.
  • The edges of the frame mark the boundary of what the photographer thought was most important, even though the subject extended beyond inn all directions.
  • Choices create perceived relationships even where they do not actually exist
  • Choosing and eliminating, central acts of photography, forces a concentration on the pictures edge and the shapes that reside within.

 

Time

  • All photographs are time exposures, and each describes a unique parcel of time. (Ed. Derrida – punctum is a duration)
  • Faster lenses and film revealed fascinating details about movement that could not be discerned with the naked eye.
  • Great pleasure and beauty can be derived from fragmenting time to reveal momentary patterns and shapes previously concealed in the flux of movement.
  • He refers to Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, which define HCB’s commitment to this new beauty, but clarified the oft misunderstood phrase by saying ‘the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax, but a visual one; a picture not a story.’

 

Vantage Point

  • Photography has taught is to see from the unexpected vantage point.
  • Pictures can give the sense of the scene while withholding its narrative meaning.
  • Necessity sometimes, and choice others puts the photographer in places providing unfamiliar perspectives.
  • If the photographer cannot move the subject the camera can be moved.
  • Altering vantage points reveals the world is richer and less simple than the mind might have guessed.

 

Aside from Szarkowski’s reference to the camera discovering truth, I find this to be a remarkably relevant text and set of guiding principles for both the photographer and the critic. Just to elaborate briefly on the issue of truth, the camera is not capable of revealing truth.  Truth is at least a four-dimensional phenomenon and a two-dimensional medium cannot render it.  Moving pictures can come closer, but they too at best are only able to work in three dimensions at any given moment.  So, the idea absolute truth, aside from the fact that we will all someday die, can be discovered at all is dubious at best.   Relative truth is somewhat more achievable, but never in a single frame.  The best we as photographers can hope to achieve in my opinion is a reasonably faithful representation of facts and reality, bounded by the limitations of our equipment and our perspectives physically and politically.

 

References

SZARKOWSKI, John. n.d. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

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