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.