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.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.’
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.
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.
I first read Flusser’s Toward a Philosophy of Photography during the Surfaces and Strategies module and after reading a synopsis in Durden’s book, Fifty Key Writers on Photography, I felt the need to reread Flusser. A few more months of coursework, much more reading and becoming readjusted to critical thinking in an academic sense has put me in a better position to absorb, understand and challenge Flusser’s hypotheses.
I realise though Flusser is regarded as one of the key critical theorists on photography, he interestingly and by his own admission, just made it all up. His thoughts didn’t derive from someone else’s prior work and he make no references and has no bibliography. So, while it is a fine piece of original thinking and easy at first to buy into the logical train of thought he establishes, on further examination there are, in my opinion, some fatal flaws that derail his train.
His initial premise in the introduction about how the written word and then the photograph are significant events that altered who and how information is shared among societies is certainly worthy of recognition and supportable based on a review of history and current events. I believe Flusser is also spot on in his assertion that images are ambiguous and open to interpretation, but he starts to get sketchy when he begins his discussion on decoding images. He claims images are needed to make the world comprehensible because the world is not accessible to human beings. I find this premise completely off target. Human beings exist as an integral part of the world and that which surrounds each of us is not only directly accessible, but also comprehensible without need of images if one takes the time to look and understand what surrounds us. Images can help with communicating to others things with which they are not in direct contact, but those images are unlikely to be able to stand alone. I quite agree, however, that humans can be lazy or malign by malappropriating or misappropriating images and sending them out into the world. One need only look at the spate of social media platforms and the millions of memes that are taken by the gullible or naïve to be representations of reality. There is a necessary relationship between images and text.
To suggest as Flusser does that there are distinct breaks between idolatry, textolatry, and technical images is to ignore they are a continuum unique to humans and completely dependent on each other. We as humans see, we ascribe labels to the things we see either as pictorial representations or words that conjure the pictorial representation or the actual thing. When we read we visualise the meaning of the words. We read the “the large grey stone house set at the edge of the wood” and our mind’s eye conjures a picture. My picture will look different than the next person’s but there will be an image nonetheless that holds significance for that individual. When we are first presented with an image, our ‘decoding’ begins with assigning words to what we see. Our attempt to decipher a technical image is not really any different than our need to decipher what we see in real time with our eyes except that the image is static, and we are afforded more time with which to undertake that decoding. And just as when we read, that decoding will be unique to each person doing the decoding.
I cannot find the distinction Flusser makes in his notion that traditional “prehistoric” images represent phenomena and technical “post-historic” images represent concepts. Both periods are rife with examples that represent phenomenological and conceptual images. It is a distinction without a difference in my view. In fact a stronger argument might be made for the opposite and that most Renaissance art was based in religion and far more conceptual than phenomenological, while Impressionist, Pointillist, Dada are equally so conceptual. Technical images on the other hand are more likely to show what is (was) or what happened at a particular time and place and therefore are not representing concepts but rather phenomena.
The lack of criticism of technical images is not an inherent characteristic, but rather an indictment of human laziness, education systems which have stopped emphasising critical thinking and perhaps also the relentless onslaught of imagery that now perhaps even exceeds that which can be experienced by a human in real time with their own eyes. Just as we process what we see around us quickly to avoid danger and find our way we often haven’t time to linger over the significance of any particular instant. The inundation of images we face in modern society leaves most with inadequate time to process and therefore criticise those images. It is too easy to accept the images at their superficial face value or just disregard them and move on.
Flusser argues in first order images the painter puts themselves between the significance and the image and that to understand the image we must decode the encoding that took place in the painter’s head. I ask is that not an even more mysterious ‘black box’ than an apparatus? The painter makes choices of which they may or may not be aware to include or exclude or enhance aspects of the subject seen or imagined. This is abstraction of the highest order and a product of the imagination of the artist.
The technical image Flusser asserts is encoded in a ‘black box’, but I would argue the ‘black box’is far more easily decoded than the human brain of the painter. We can look with complete objectivity at the capabilities and limitations of an optical sensor (film or digital) and wee can understand how the photons that stimulate that sensor are subsequently translated into an image chemically or digitally. It is far less magical, and more predictable than the brain. Furthermore, the unaltered technical image cannot exclude anything from the image that was within the technical limitations of the device, so it is in every sense a purer representation of its significance.
The consequence realised, to which Flusser alludes, is that humans have allowed images to displace text (a picture is worth thousand words) thereby believing the necessity of conceptual thinking has been eliminated, or perhaps more correctly as an excuse for the lazy to avoid conceptual thinking. Flusser stretches way too far when he states technical images were invented to prevent culture from breaking up as a code valid for all of society. This may have been a consequence, just as the printing press ultimately increased literacy among the masses, but neither was an intent of the invention.
Flusser is consistently anthropomorphic and ascribes to inanimate objects, images, apparatuses, etc attributes of power and action they do not inherently hold. He tries to bestow up a thing, the technical image, powers only held by the makers and the viewers (users). How and why images are made and used are not inherent in the image, but in the humans make choices in what to make and how to use them. Photographs are a tool and a fool with a tool is still a fool. A photograph has no more or less significance than a screwdriver which can be used to poke out someone’s eye or used to remove a fastener as intended. Both are choices made by the user of the tool. A photograph can reintroduce traditional images to daily life and make hermetic text comprehensible or not.
I think Flusser is quite cynical and that he must have loved the Star Trek Next Generation portrayal of the Borg as they intoned ‘resistance is futile’ as that seems to represent the essence of his fears with regards to modern technology in general and photography in particular. His notion that we are all embroiled in a heated battle against various apparatuses, programs and metaprograms seems to me a pretty pessimistic view on the future of humanity, but then again perhaps we are all going to hell in the proverbial handbasket and his concern about humans abdicating their role in the world to technology is warranted.
My worldview developed in large measure from my education as a scientist and my work in engineering and technology is based in the concept of systems and systems of systems. It is in some ways analogous to Flusser’s ideas of programs and metaprograms. But unlike Flusser I think humans are still very much engaged and that what he goes to great length to describe as apparatuses are in fact nothing more than tools. At one point he declares the intention of the camera as a tool to produce a photograph. The camera tears the light from the world to bring a photo that humans can see and use. His comparison to an apple or a shoe is in my opinion is specious because whether it informs a little or a lot is entirely dependent on the viewer and is not fixed. To a hungry man the apple may inform far more than the shoe.
I think Flusser again gets overly anthropomorphic when he states “if an apparatus is neither a tool or a machine and its purpose is to change the meaning of the world by creating symbols, their intention is symbolic.” The apparatus has no inherent ability to act on its own. Yes its ‘program’ which is both known and knowable may do something with the confines of a ‘black box’, but it carries no independent inherent intention merely by virtue of its existence. I maintain that it is still a tool in the hands of a human who must convey intention with its use.
Flusser agrues each photograph is a realisation of one possibility resident within the program of the apparatus, and that photographers are trying to exhaust the full range of possibilities in search of information. He says any photograph that does not achieve a new possibility is not informative and therefore redundant. On the contrary, every photograph is unique. It occupies a unique temporal space. The differences may be beyond human perception but that makes them no less unique. And as to what is informative, that too is unique, but totally in the purview of the viewer. What is informative to me may be old hat to someone else. Furthermore, all the possible photographs are not resident in the program, they are resident in the world which is undergoing constant and inevitable change and in time, and they require a photographer with a tool to realise them.
Flusser says no photographer can understand the black box. While most don’t bother, it is in fact completely explicable. It is far more transparent and discoverable than the brain of the painter or a photographer’s artistic choices for that matter. I completely disagree with Flusser’s position that a photographer is a functionary controlling a game over which they have no competence and I will return to this in a moment.
Quite ironically, Flusser asserts photographers, after the statement in paragraph above, have power over those who look at their photographs and that the camera has power over the photographer. Misplaced assignation again. I don’t think the photographer actually has any influence let alone power over the viewer. How a photograph is interpreted is totally and uniquely in the realm of each viewer. And I don’t buy into the notion the camera is a complex apparatus, particularly in the context of 1983 when this treatise was first published. There is little mystery to the analogue camera; the mystery if there is any is in the chemistry of the film. In a digital camera, the camera is no more complex in its basic function than the analogue and it is the sensor and the subsequent processing that replaces the mystery of the film, but which is entirely comprehensible if one wished to take the time to understand the physics and programming logic. But that is no more necessary to a photographer than was understanding film chemistry.
Flusser then says the starting point for any consideration of the act of photography is that the apparatuses play and function better than the human beings that operate them. Szarkowski is spinning in his grave! The camera cannot take itself to a particular place at a particular time and it cannot imagine an output associated with a particular perspective or compositional choice, nor can it choose the precise moment to open and close the shutter. The ‘power’ remains with the photographer always and the camera remains a tool; albeit one with limitation that must be recognised. Flusser is correct in saying the camera can only photograph what can be photographed with a particular tool, but neither can I screw a fastener with a saw. Also true is that the photograph is a representation of states of things. The camera cannot photograph emotion, but it can discern representations or evidence of emotion.
Flusser claims the camera has more imagination than all the photographers in the world combined. Once again Flusser is anthropomorphising. The camera has no more imagination than a chisel. Put a chisel in front of a block of marble and it will never in a million years imagine or create as statue of David until it is in the hands of a Michelangelo.
I take exception again to the Flusser assertion that the traditional distinction between realism and idealism is overturned in the case of photography and that neither the world or the camera’s program is real; only the photograph is real. The world is always real, and a photograph is real only in the sense it is a tangible physical entity. The image it contains is not real but rather a two-dimensional representation of a reality that occurred in some specific time and place that is limited further in its ability to represent reality by the capabilities of the film or sensor.
Then in what almost seems a turnabout, Flusser summarises: “The act of photography is like going on a hunt in which the photographer and camera merge into one indivisible function. This is a hunt for new states of things, situations never seen before, for the improbable, for information. The structure of the act of photography is a quantum one: a doubt made up of points of hesitation and points of decision-making. We are dealing here with a typically post-industrial act: It is post-ideological and programmed, and acct for which reality is information, not the significance of this information.”
So where heretofore I find Flusser’s thinking frequently flawed, he starts to get interesting when he begins discussing the photograph. His proposal that black and white photographs are more conceptual as they are less real is intriguing. I confess to becoming lost again though when he claims that the more genuine the colours are, the less truthful they become. He makes this point in the context of black and white being closer to the theoretical origins of optics and yet farther away from reality while colour is closer to reality but farther from the theoretical origins. I cannot see the point of this line of enquiry and in doing so it seems he obfuscates the concept of decoding unnecessarily. This is especially so when he concludes that to follow this path leads down a bottomless rabbit hole and the whole thing can be avoided by not going there. He says in essence that a photograph is decoded when one has determined how the cooperation and conflict between the photographer and the camera have been resolved. Has the photographer succeeded in achieving his/her intentions and overcoming the limitations of the camera? He goes on to argue the camera is imposing its intentions on the photographer and here again I take issue with the idea the camera can have intentions. It has technical limitations, but not intentions which in my mind implies a sentience the camera does not possess. In any case he concludes this thought with the notion the best photographs are when the photographer’s intentions win out over the (my words) the limitations of the tool used to capture the image. I believe herein lies a significant part of the photographer’s skill; knowing the tools at hand and their capabilities and limitations so that the correct set of tools can be pulled from the kit bag to compliment the planning, positioning, light and other compositional considerations.
Flusser continues to be interesting in his discussion on distribution of photographs and of particular significance is his discourse on how the distribution channel has an impact on the meaning of a photograph and how that meaning is altered each time it enters a new channel. I believe this further supports my earlier contention that each viewing of a photograph is unique and in the hands of the viewer who is also influenced by where the photograph is viewed.
His observation that we are so overly exposed to photographs that we have come to regard them as fixtures and fittings in our lives and as a result hardly take notice of most of them. This helps to explain why most are not looked at in any critical way or attempt to decode them. And the truth is that to do so with most would be a waste of time. Unfortunately, that introduces the very real risk that photographs that deserve attention will go unnoticed. It also presents an additional challenge for the photographer who produces, in Flussers terms, “informative” work, work that breaks the program and is new and unique, because it will be even more difficult to be ‘heard’ amidst the noise of the millions of less worthy photographs being produced every day around the world.
So while I find it hard to agree with many aspects of Flusser’s essays, in large part because of the semantics and his sometimes fatalistic and pessimistic view of the world, in the end he comes nearly full circle and very early disavows the whole train of thought that preceded by saying: “The time is therefore not far off when one will have to concentrate one’s criticism of the apparatuses on the human intention that willed and created them. Such a critical approach is enticing for two reasons. First, it absolves the critics f the necessity of delving into the interior of the black boxes: they can concentrate on their output, human intention. And second, it absolves critics of the necessity of developing new categories of criticism: Human intention can be criticized using traditional criteria.”
He also sounds a warning that we are at risk of being automated out of existence and that it is necessary to fight against that automation to regain freedom of intention. And there are indicators that Flusser isn’t too far from the mark. One needs only to walk down the street to see how enslaved people have become to their mobile phones.
Flusser his treatise to conclusion with some profound thoughts. “The task of the philosophy of photography is to question photographers about freedom, to probe their practice in the pursuit of freedom. This was the intention of the foregoing study, and in the course of it a few answers have come to light. First, one can outwit the camera’s rigidity. Second, one can smuggle human intentions into its program that are not predicted by it. Third, one can force the camera to create the unpredictable, the improbable, the informative. Fourth, one can show contempt for the camera and its creations and turn one’s interest away from the thing in general in order to concentrate on information. In short: Freedom is the strategy of making chance and necessity subordinate to human intention. Freedom is playing against the camera.” “A philosophy of photography must reveal the fact that there is no place for human freedom within the area of the automated, programmed and programming apparatuses, in order to finally show a way in which it is nevertheless possible to open up a space for freedom.”
Towards a Philosophy of Photography is an important text and while I found the train of logic Flusser followed to be full of twists and turns, a few sidings and a couple of derailments, the end of the journey led to a destination I generally find quite agreeable. More importantly the journey through this book provoked thought, made me question and challenge my own beliefs and in the writing of my essay take positions even if they were contrary to the popular accepted thought of photography’s academic world. It was well worth reading this book a second and third time, and I think it can really only be appreciated in its entirety.
FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
DURDEN, Mark (ed.). 2013. 50 Key Writers on Photography. First. Milton Park: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
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.
Below are examples of the range of work I do, have done and will likely continue to do. They all represent examples of things I find of great interest and to which I am drawn as they are representations of a my and others passions for excitement, adventure, and the beauty of the natural world.
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’.
My MA Project work is centred on a piece of land on the northeast coast of Scotland called Coul Links. I have chosen this particular project because it encompasses the range of subjects I described above as my primary interests. It is a dynamic natural environment that changes visibly and often dramatically in response to seasons and natural cycles. It is wild, but not pristine. It is protected by national and international designations and is home to some rare species of flora and fauna yet has been unmanaged for years and is being encroached upon by invasive species. It occupies the liminal space between the North Sea and the moorlands and as a low-lying coastal area could well see dramatic effects as result of the current trend of climate change. It has in the past, and in the present, hosted varied human activities and there is a current proposal to construct a golf course on part of the site. The balance between environmental concerns and the economic needs of the Northeast of Scotland have sparked controversy. These tensions, natural and anthropogenic, make this an interesting story. How this story will play out is yet to be determined as the final decision on the development has been delayed by nearly a year and the final stages of the Scottish Government formal enquiry will commence in late February 2019.
My thinking and approach to this project have evolved significantly over the past year. I have, however, remained constant in my attempt to take as neutral an approach as possible to the work and to not take public positions that favour one side or the other. There are fair arguments to be made on both sides and while there have been many instances of hyperbole and even some nastiness in the course of the debate by proponents of each side, the ultimate decision will be made on which side is able to present a more credible scientific argument and how that balances against the economic side of the equation for the communities which stand to benefit.
When I began, I approached the project from a purely natural history perspective and saw it primarily as a repeat photography project that would also document the flora and fauna that inhabited the site. Because of my foreknowledge of possible anthropogenic changes to the site, I also had the opportunity to ultimately present the work in a ‘Before and After’ context if the development did go ahead. The year of delay in approving the development and the remaining uncertainty as to whether that approval will be granted has also resulted in the certainty that the development would not be completed before the end of my MA course. So, while this remains a potential long-term project for me it may not be the subject of my FMP or at least not in the form originally envisioned. Additionally, as I moved through the months, I began to realize the limited appeal a predominantly scientific approach to this project was likely to have.
Coul Links North April 2018
Coul Links North June 2018
Coul Links North October 2018
Coul Links North December 2018
Shifting my editorial perspective to take one side or the other would have been a potential solution to framing a more compelling story, but I am of the opinion there may not be a ‘right’ answer and regardless which way the decision falls there will be costs and consequences, some of which may not be recognized for years. While there was science behind some of the debate, it is fair to say that a lot discussion was emotional especially on the side of those against the development. It began to become more apparent to me that the heart of the controversy about Coul Links was a fundamental difference in opinion about how that land should be used in the future and whether a place that already accommodated centuries of different uses by humans could continue to be used as it is today while accommodating one more new use. Consequently, I began to look more closely at and photograph how the land was currently be used by humans and the non-human species that inhabited Coul Links. I choose to photograph people in the landscape in much the same way I photograph wildlife; from a distance. While I do use very long lenses for much of the wildlife work in order to bring out detail, I decided after some experimentation with closer environmental portraits to maintain my stand off from people and instead try to show their activities in the context of the landscape around them.
Through the course I have experimented with different ways to capture aspects of the story that is evolving. I did some ‘supermacro’ work which is technically superb, but got quite consistently panned by tutors as being ‘out of context’.
I also experimented with ways of conveying how the land at Coul Links might have been used in the past as a means of foreshadowing its possible future and while the desaturated versions did work to a degree the attempts to create a ghost like appearance of the golfer were pretty abject failures.
With the development decision by the Scottish Government due to be made in the next few months, I believe my work will require another incremental evolution. Depending on the decision, the project will either become study of a place over time and how it moves through the seasons and years in response to the forces of nature or will set about to document what impacts the building of a golf course have on the place and how it adapts to anthropogenic alterations. The former, could be comparatively shorter term and could be packaged to suit an FMP, while the latter would fall outside the MA timeframe and would necessarily be a longer-term project not suited to an FMP.
Evolution as a Photographer
The technical and artistic aspects of my work have evolved, and both qualities have improved markedly. I find I am shooting fewer frames, getting a higher keep rate from those frames and doing less post processing. In my landscape work I have been doing more work with ND filters and using longer exposures. I am taking more control of my process, being more deliberate in the way I approach my work, and I am taking more control of the camera by shooting much more in manual mode instead of Aperture or Shutter priority modes. Because my project’s intent was principally about a place over time, almost all the landscape work was shot with a clear sense of place evident in every frame. Of late I have also found value in photographs that do not necessarily convey an exactness or certainty of place, but rather more of an emotional rendering of place. Eliminating tell-tale landmarks or working in a tighter frame allows the photo to carry more universality at times and convey the simple beauty or the detail within the frame. It complements the more contextualised work on one hand and can stand alone on the other.
Some examples from my work where the place is made more universal by excluding from the frame elements that could identify its actual location.
Rising Mist Nov 2018
Inspirations and Contextualisation
Edward Burtynsky’s work has become a key benchmark for me. He has spent more than 30 years focusing his work on how human activity has impacted the natural environment. What is perhaps most striking about Burtynsky’s work is the aesthetic beauty he achieves in his depictions of scenes of shocking environmental abuse that comes with industrialisation and exploitation of natural resources.
In Burtynsky’s book Manufactured Landscapes, an included essay by Kenneth Baker titled “Form versus Portent” elaborates on this and on Burtynsky’s positioning as a photographer.
“Aesthetics and conscience collide in photography as nowhere else in contemporary art. Edward Burtynsky’s work owes some of its power to his fearless embrace of this fact. More often than not, we find the beauty and the meaning of images to be in conflict. Burtynsky continually celebrates the beauty possible in photographs: richness of detail and colour, amazing chance felicities of framing and natural light, the opportunity to freeze and share moments of ecstatic observation. Yet his subjects, the sites and equipment of heavy industry, are in almost constant connotative conflict with his work’s aesthetic elegance. Is he an apologist for the industrial order and its new face, globalization? Is he a documentarian, a pictorial epicure, an ironist? Burtynsky’s refusal to stand fast in any of these positions explains the improbable emotional authority of his art.”
As I mentioned above, I find it uncomfortable to be too pigeon-holed into one taxonomic category of photography beyond the broad description of documentarian which is more a reference to style than specific content. Also, like Burtynsky, I spoke of trying to capture what I see as faithfully as my equipment and skill as a photographer will allow without excessive post processing manipulations of the images. In the same essay, Baker notes:
“From abstract painting, we have learned to admire the bold, simple surface design we find in Burtynsky’s Nickel Tailings #34. But such enjoyments depend on our not thinking too hard about a bright orange river as a chemical and ecological reality: we know intuitively that in nature a river of this colour must spell trouble. We might suppress this thought momentarily by wondering whether Burtynsky has somehow re-tuned his picture’s colour through some trick of digital or darkroom magic. But in the deep view a retrospective exhibition provides, we can see clearly that he is not given to aesthetic manipulations for their own sake, nor even for emotional effect… Burtynsky wants us to experience the shock of seeing as a fact a bright orange stream flowing through a leafless landscape, and to notice our own resistance to digesting this information… His pictures are unarguably striking and thoughtful enough to warrant description as art. But does appreciating, or merely accepting photographs as art preclude being stirred to action by them for, say, a conservationist cause?”
Mere categorisation as art certainly does not remove a photograph from the possibility of being useful in some greater good. In fact, one might argue that because it garners attention through its inherent beauty it has potentially more power to influence. Burtynsky is a master at achieving that tension that so distinguishes his work. It forces us as viewers to ask the question, ‘How can something so beautiful come from something so horrific, or perhaps how can something so horrific be so beautiful?’. It forces us to face the questions of ‘What costs are acceptable?’ and ‘Is progress truly progress, or is it really the planet’s and civilisation’s death by a thousand cuts?’ While the controversy associated with my project is around a recreational use of a landscape, there are parallels to Burtynsky’s work and the questions that are raised. What are appropriate land uses? Does one group have more rights than another to enjoyment of open space? Is a balance between economic interests of a community or region and environmental concerns possible? Are people clever enough to develop carefully and selectively to preserve and enhance natural heritage while expanding opportunities for people to use the land?
From the same Baker essay, he notes:
“Once we have confronted the foreboding and helplessness that arise from thinking about the reality of a deadly orange river, for example, or the tundra of toxic sludge in Uranium Tailings, or the unstoppable drive tracked in the ‘Railcuts’, we recognize restraint as the true mark of Burtynsky’s art. How easily he could have turned didactic, considering the themes he takes on: humanity’s heedless treatment of the earth, photography’s potential complicity in narcotizing society’s uncomfortable self-awareness, the conflict of irreconcilable values as an inescapable human condition. Yet he trusts his art to work upon us, and us to respond appropriately, without being told what that might mean.”
Baker is suggesting there is power in photography to influence societal behaviour and that it can be achieved without necessarily being overt in its intention. I aspire to explore the questions I posed above and like Burtynsky, perhaps create work that is strong enough to take viewers on that journey of discovery with me.
In an interview with Michael Torosian also published in Manufactured Landscapes, Edward Burtynsky addressed a question about how he came to one of his favourite mantras while studying at university.
“Winogrand stated that he felt an image succeeded when form and content were on an equal footing – one did not dominate the other. In photography if you go too far one way it becomes reportage, too far the other way it just becomes a formalist exercise. I found this dictum to be a really useful tool. It was clear and concise, and it made sense. It gave me an orientation not just for approaching my work, but any work. I started to look at art as a balance. Can the artist put an image together? That is the form side. What is he talking about, what position is he coming from, what are the ideas at work here? That is the content side. And when those things are equally interesting, I find you have a lot more substance in the image. They play off each other.”
It seems to me Burtynsky is saying while what one photographs is important and the overall theme of his work is his departure point, that it is the how that theme is captured that is the artistic element, and when one is able to get the composition to be as strong as the content the photograph has more weight. Achieving the correct composition is a matter of perspective, positioning, but most importantly ‘seeing’; something Burtynsky describes as the
“essential element, something he would see which only occurs from one spot, from one height, with one particular lens. If I walk two paces back, there is nothing there. If I walk two paces forward, there’s nothing there. The essential element is in that one spot. It might be the coincidence of a thousand twigs creating something as simple as a wave pattern or a vortex, a form only discernible at that particular moment, at that particular point of view, under that particular light and time of year.”
Another technique Burtynsky uses to good advantage is elevation. He seeks out high ground and when that is not available, shoots using a tall mast, drones, or helicopters. I have found in my MA project work that generally elevated perspectives are essential to capturing a sense of the landscape. I regularly use the highest points of elevation around the 800 hectare plot and have been using a drone on a fixed 42 waypoint mission profile to survey the site on a monthly basis.
Mark Haworth-Booth in his essay, Edward Burtynsky: Traditions and Affinities, which is also included in Manufactured Landscapes, refers to the 18th Century philosopher Edmund Burke’s views on the differences between the sublime and the beautiful. Burke suggested both the beautiful and the sublime stir emotion, but while beauty stimulates emotion in a pleasant way, the sublime is associated with vastness at the limits of comprehension and terror.
I would argue that Burtynsky’s work strikes the viewer on both these levels. At first glance, Burtynsky’s landscapes are beautiful; well lit, well composed, rich in colour and texture, and because of the frequent use of elevated perspectives and no horizon they often take on a degree of abstraction. Only after being able to work through the abstraction on one’s own, or with the help of a caption or some other explanation of what one is looking at does the sublime of Burke’s definition kick in. The realisation of the vastness of the environmental impact caused by humans and the effluent and scars that result is indeed terrifying. It should stir strong emotional reactions and make us realise the price being paid for the “progress” mankind has achieved in the past two centuries.
The Anthropocene Project
The second body of visual work I intend to discuss is The Anthropocene Project which is another project led by Edward Burtynsky and in collaboration with film makers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. It is a massive 5 year project that covered the globe to look for evidence in support of a theory put forth by geologists that we have left the 11,700 year old Holocene epoch which began when the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded and entered an age where human activity is now the defining geological force on the planet, the Anthropocene epoch. “Terraforming of the earth through mining, urbanization, industrialization and agriculture; the proliferation of dams and diverting of waterways; CO2 and acidification of oceans due to climate change; the pervasive presence around the globe of plastics, concrete, and other technofossils; unprecedented rates of deforestation and extinction: these human incursions, they argue, are so massive in scope that they have already entered, and will endure in, geological time.”
Murray Whyte, Visual Arts Critic for the Toronto Star, in a 30 September 2018 review writes:
“That built-in sense of feeling tiny and insignificant in the face of nature’s grandeur has been turned thoroughly upside-down. As the scene makes clear, the dominant force shaping the planet at is most colossal scale is now us… For some 30 years, Burtynsky’s images of the ravages of industry, taken from afar, have highlighted the dizzying disconnect of our industrious species’ ability to transform things far beyond our own scale, like a colony of ants gnawing an ancient tree to dust…Burtynsky’s pictures have always held a terrible beauty. His compositions veer close to the abstract in their capturing of horrendous damage: the shimmering purple-blue of an oil-slicked tailing pond, pooled in the golden earth of an Arizona mine, or the silvery plume of phosphor tailings ballooning into bronze-coloured water in Florida. They’re gorgeous first, horrendous later, and that’s surely the point.”
Burtynsky’s work over the past 30 years has always attempted to walk the fine line of making a visual impact without being overtly didactic or polemic. He wanted the viewer to come to their own conclusions. This is a choice I made at the outset of my Coul Links project and one which I have maintained despite strong urgings by some tutors to force me to a point of view. I believe complex issues rarely have clear black or white, right or wrong answers. They are inevitably shrouded in shades of grey and which shade of grey, which view of right or wrong is largely a matter of the viewer’s perspective. In Burtynsky’s work, a viewer with an environmentalist’s perspective will see the work one way while someone with an industrialist’s perspective would likely see it another way. It is in the end not necessarily a question of right or wrong, but one of delicate balance. It is the same in my project and I believe the longer I can maintain the neutral perspective, showing as much as possible an objective perspective, the more weight my work can carry. This not an easy task however, as Whyte notes in his interview with de Pencier and Baichwal having observed that it was in the inclusion of moving images in addition to Burtynsky’s still images that the view may have changed.
“In motion, the balance can fall the other way.
‘Someone called us the three horsemen of the apocalypse,’ said de Pencier, a little glumly. ‘I really hope that’s not the case. But we can’t claim neutrality anymore. We used to say this is not a polemic, and you can draw your own conclusions—’
‘It’s still not a polemic,’ says Baichwal, interrupting, maybe a little defensive. Baichwal and de Pencier had made a first film about Burtynsky, not with him, in 2006. It was called Manufactured Landscapes, after the artist’s National Gallery show, and it adopted his ambivalent approach.
“Because (the film) was so non-didactic and experiential, it had this enormous impact around the world — it surprised all of us. We realized that experiential approach had a place — especially in an environmentalist’s world which is often polemic and preaches to a choir.”
This, I believe make an interesting and quite relevant point. Photography, like diplomacy, has the power to influence, to change hearts and minds. It is perhaps less likely to be successful if it is so overtly in the viewer’s face so as to scream, ‘your current point of view is wrong’ because most will become defensive and further retrench in their already held positions. So, like effective diplomacy, a more measured and subtle approach that looks for common ground and moves people to come to their own conclusions maybe is more effective in the end.
In the Dec 2018-Feb 2019 issue of Photo Review magazine, Nicholas de Pencier is quoted supporting this point;
“We all believe that this is the important issue of our day. It’s actually a crisis. If you engage in the environmental rant, I think people turn off. But if you open up a place for discourse, for understanding – through photographs, through things that are open to a personal interpretation, hopefully that’s a more profound transformative experience.”
In an article in Hyperallergenic on December 4, 2018 author Lev Feigin wrote:
“If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end,” wrote the novelist W.G. Sebald in Rings of Saturn. From the window of a plane above an urban sprawl, we witness among geometries of rooftops, factories, and highways “infinite networks of complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine.”
“Photographing such complex, large-scale networks from the air has been the career-spanning pursuit of the Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky. For more than three decades, his work has focused on the impact of human activity on the environment from a God’s-eye view, prompting us to think about our species, our purpose, and our end.”
Burtynsky uses drones, camera masts, and helicopters to achieve the bird’s eye perspectives that make his work so striking and at to a lesser extent somewhat abstract initially. I have also found in my work that a drone is invaluable for its ability to cover the large site on which I am working and for the massive advantage the elevated perspective provides in depicting the character of the land as it changes through both the seasons and in response to anthropogenic activity.
Feigin also comments on the scale of Burtynsky’s photos in exhibition and how in contrast to Cartier-Bresson’s notion of a decisive moment Burtynsky’s are different.
“These immense image composites are not about “decisive moments” — split-seconds when the universe arranges itself into a perfect shot. The “now” of each photograph is not about the captured instant, since humankind’s destructive activity never pauses. Instead, it’s about intuiting the future from our present gaze: the landscape’s inevitable demise promised by our inaction.
Burtynsky’s photographs are glimpses into the vastness of industrial and technological systems of global capitalism that elicit both awe and unease; they can feel like encounters with the postmodern sublime. The Anthropocene Project — with its encyclopaedic reach and factual rigor — transmutes the unsettling, otherworldly appeal of his aesthetic into ecological conscience and a grave call for change.”
The type of work Burtynsky produces requires great planning and patience, and technical expertise and excellence. I understood the need for planning, patience and persistence explicitly from my wildlife work, but I don’t think I fully appreciated how true those same factors are for landscape photography as well. This past year has taught me much and these are among the most important lessons.
In the 26 September 2018 issue of Now Magazine, author Keven Ritchie’s article ‘Anthropocene reveals the scale of Earth’s existential crisis’ he makes a very relevant observation that bears also on my project.
“Getting audiences to grasp the existential implications of climate change – one of the topics covered in the film, along with technofossils (congealed human-made materials), terraforming (altering the atmosphere)* and species extinction – is a challenge many documentary filmmakers have taken up. It’s often dismissed as a “ratings killer,” but environmental journalists have countered it’s not the topic that’s unpopular but the way it is presented.”*[should be altering the Earth’s surface]
“We are trying to take people to places they are connected to but would never normally see,” says Baichwal. “To convey the scale of [human] impact by going to these places and witnessing rather than preaching.”
I will need to continue to be mindful about how my work will ultimately be presented and that requires considering what and how I capture work along the way. It reinforces my belief that I should continue with the ‘objective’ neutral observer approach and not adopt a pro or con point of view. That may become necessary after the fact when the true outcomes of the development (if it occurs) are known, but that is a matter for editing and curation and my capture plan should support a variety of outcomes. In my project, Coul Links is a place to which many people are connected, but which few have really seen other than from the margins. My work has already begun to show people Coul Links in ways they never had seen before. Even one woman who with her husband lived on and managed Coul Farm for 25 years was quite astounded when she saw the aerial videos of Coul Links.
The third body of work I wish to discuss is that of German photographer Axel Hütte. As with Burtynsky, I have found Hütte’s work inspirational and instructive despite how different the work they each create is. In an interview with Camilla Boemio titled ‘A Dynamically Sublime’ and published in Landscape Stories, Hütte talks about his work. When asked why he focuses on a particular topic he responded;
“To focus on a topic is a method of working to avoid the kaleidoscopic idea that everything is possible, and everything works as an image. This is only correct if you are working on the topic of banality. Working on a topic means that you look sometimes up to 500 possibilities, but you only choose one or two views for a photo. Selection is only possible by experience – learning by doing- but sometimes you fail, and the image is not as good as you have thought as your eyes look different than the camera lens.”
I have to agree with the point that practice is essential and can note with certainty that the quality of my work has improved in the past year as I have mentioned earlier in this essay. Hütte also speaks to what I think David Hurn was referring to when Hurn said “too many photographers look but do not see.” Hütte’s comment about one’s eyes looking differently than the camera lens strikes me as part of what distinguishes a really good photographer from a mediocre one; the ability to see a scene as the camera will see it and this is not an easy thing. Our eyes are extraordinary instruments that see like a fish-eye lens and telephoto simultaneously. To control the at vision and imagine how the completely different field of view afforded by the camera and lens selection is key to getting consistently good photographs.
When asked about what characterises his landscape work, Hütte replied;
“In my landscape work I am working with the emptiness, avoiding any signs of civilisation or narrative indication, so in best case you are lost in time and space. It is always difficult to reconstruct the point of view, where precisely the camera had been placed and sometimes like in the water reflection even the landscape seems to be drowned. Irritation of the perception and awakening the fantasy or imagination of the beholder is my aim, as whatever you see is not produced by digital technique and It is not leading into a virtual world but the fantasmi- phantasm of reality you can discover yourself.”
In this aspect, Hütte’s work is in stark contrast to Burtynsky’s. While much of Burtynsky’s work is also absent humans, the marks of their activity are unmistakeable and very much the focus of Burtynsky’s work. Where Burtynsky is seeking the sublime, Hütte is seeking the beautiful. Interestingly, Hütte was asked about his interpretation of the sublime.
“To follow the track of the sublime one should have in mind the statement of Lawrence Weiner “Turned as the world turns.” Edmund Burke wrote his “Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful” 1757, (and) only seven years Immanuel Kant wrote “Kritik der Urteilskraft.” For Burke the sublime is linked to fear and fright caused by darkness, obscurity, vastness, gigantic, eternity or certain colours as e.g. black. Sometimes this horror is tamed e.g. in art, and then he speaks of “delightful horror.” Kant also describes the sublime as a feeling caused by the encounter and confrontation of large and over powerful nature. Limitless ocean, huge mountains, lightning flashes, drums of thunder, all this natural phenomena appear beyond all measure and the synthesizing power of imagination is led to its limitations. But thanks to “reason” human beings have a tool to encounter those phenomena. Barnett Newmans essay “The sublime is now” brings up a new frame of reference to the sublime. It is not linked to the experience of overwhelming nature, but to the confrontation standing in front of a large monochrome painting, that leads to a breakdown of form synthesis. Thus creating the experience of something “unrepresentable / inconsummatable.” This short summary indicates the change of meaning, as the references have changed.”
As this interview was originally in Italian and the photographer is German, there are some issues with the translation in the above. But Hütte does correctly take us through the evolution of the understanding of the term ‘sublime’ and in the end argues in favour of his work falling into that category by the latest definitions. I think though that this interpretation of sublime does not stand against the prior statements by Hütte in which he claimed to seeking emptiness, pure beauty, and ambiguity that must be resolved by the viewer and which is intended to stimulate the imagination. I don’t see Hütte attempting to capture the unrepresentable, but rather he captures scenes to which most of us can relate in some way through our own experiences and he thereby creates a universality that is independent of the actual place and time the photo was taken. He creates scenes, whether urban or rural, which are absent people and into which we can each place ourselves. It is very much like the guidance estate agents in the U.S. give their clients when preparing a house for sale. They ask the client to remove clutter and all personal artefacts so that when a potential buyer visits the property, they imagine their own things in that space.
In the introduction and biographical section of works by Axel Hütte for an exhibition at the Deutsche Bourse Photography Foundation the following paragraphs were written. I find quite interesting the distinction they make between nature and landscape, and as importantly how the perceptions of humans have altered over the centuries and what motivates humans to seek unspoiled places. It is perhaps here where the essential difference between Hütte’s landscapes and Burtynsky’s are most evident. Burtynsky’s leave room for the viewer to become aware of the destruction mankind leaves in the wake of progress while Hütte provides the escape for those who have already come to the realisation or those who refuse to see acknowledge it.
“Heaven, earth, water, and forests are the natural ingredients in Axel Hütte’s landscapes. The photographs stage a subtle play on the difference between nature and landscape. Here, ‘nature’ is the physical world which surrounds us while ‘landscape’ is nature as it appears to the observer.
Nature has always been the subject of participatory interest, and man’s view of it is as ever subjective. Arcadia, for example, is a region in Greece you could visit – and likewise a spiritual landscape in which the earth is more fertile, the sky brighter, and life full of milk and honey. How nature appears to man – be it georgic, heroic, pleasant or fearful – depends on his own sorrow or yearning informing his gaze. As civilization advances, our vision has become more sentimental. As inner harmony became lost, people have sought an environment that was intact. A wider horizon and a view of unspoiled places which manifest no evidence of the destructive hand of man promise flight from urban claustrophobia.
Axel Hütte’s photographs are void of people: man has no place in these barren landscapes. They follow the concept of ‘soulscapes’ – an integral notion in European culture. But the artist’s vision is not satisfied with the level of the figurative, for he elects to show us geometrical structures: a dune formation that dissolves into horizontal lines, a bamboo forest in which the vertical thrust predominates, treetops that appear as abstract surfaces. Axel Hütte’s landscapes are not snapshots, but meticulous compositions and their beauty, too, lies in the eye of the beholder.”
I have often said and continue to hold firm to the idea that every photograph is uniquely viewed. It is impossible to divorce the experiences and education of any individual that form the bases for their personal versions of objectivity and subjectivity. Every photograph is ultimately in the eyes of the beholder.
In a 1996 review by Katerina Gregos published in Zing Magazine of a series of photographs taken in Greece and exhibited at the Eleni Koroneou Gallery in Athens, the author provides yet more insight into the work of Axel Hütte. There is a great deal to unpack in this review.
“Hütte’s work is based on a strict visual language which is optically accurate and evidently neutral. Devoid of narrative and overt sentimentality, it seems to adhere to an ideal of photographic “objectivity” and veracity. His series of photographs of the untamed Greek landscape are not prone to “artistic” editing, but rendered in a sincere straightforward manner that perfectly capture the precise physicality of the location depicted. Hütte’s vision is one of precision and clarity. He approaches his subjects with a disciplined restraint that truthfulness of representation is never prone to doubt. In addition, he responds to the landscape with an unflinching respect for its morphological identity.
Hütte’s is a sober reconstruction of the world based on rigorous organizing principles and a systematic approach to image-making, that transcends questions of taste. All details in the picture space are rendered with alarming equality meaning that no part of it appears more important than another, even features that recede and gradually dissolve into the background.
Hütte comes from a country with an influential tradition in radical naturalism. Similar to much of German romantic landscape painting, his photographs rely on the use of compositional and structural devices to create an intense atmosphere that evokes feelings such as solitude and loneliness. His vast expanses of space in the natural environment possess the meditative quality and air of detachment so typical of 19th century German landscape painting, and recall the concerns of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich. Yet at the same time, Hütte’s unmediated observation is reminiscent of the quasi-scientific objectivity that also characterizes the German naturalist tradition. His direct rendering of the landscape avoids the trappings of emotional excess and entirely refutes the self-conscious pathos of the romantic tradition. Furthermore, the absence of anecdote and narration creates a neutral pictorial space that encourages a sense of individual empathy. One may have never actually visited any of his locations, but they do appear peculiarly familiar.
Within the landscape, itself, however, it is the point of view chosen that is of primary importance, as it is that through which the viewer is prompted to “enter” the scene. Because there is no story told, there is no directed way of receiving the photographs; people can wander freely in the landscape and interpret it according to their own sensibility. By choosing uncomplicated yet dramatic vistas, Hütte also places an emphasis on the sublime value of the landscape, itself, and its inherent ability to stir the emotions and evoke feelings of awe.
Moreover, what is most remarkable in Hütte’s work is that despite the lack of photographic effects, the systematic composition of each picture, and the sparseness and economy of his language, his landscapes manage to transcend the mundane. Despite his matter-of-fact pragmatism, Hütte’s images possess that sense of metaphysical realism that overwhelms the viewer. This is also emphasized by the fact that he abstains from including people, and, thus, not only avoids the trappings of overt narrative, but also manages to eliminate any sense of time and any sense of decay.
Hütte’s capacity for understatement is what enables him to capture the essence of his subjects. His strength lies in his refusal to impose a forced aesthetic, or to provide a comforting sense of the picturesque. Above all, he never denies the landscape its integrity. Refraining from nostalgic cliche or sentimental narrative, he is prone neither to idealizing, nor to romanticizing the landscape. He does not allow himself any excesses except that which the character of the landscape allows. Yet his images possess a discreet meditative charm and, at the same time, retain that quality which Kant has termed the ‘dynamically sublime’.”
Gregos described Hütte’s work as “optically accurate and evidently neutral. Devoid of narrative and overt sentimentality, it seems to adhere to an ideal of photographic “objectivity” and veracity.” This is a place where there is perfect convergence between the works of Burtynsky and Hütte and it is this space I wish to occupy. Another striking similarity between the two is reflected in this observation: “All details in the picture space are rendered with alarming equality meaning that no part of it appears more important than another, even features that recede and gradually dissolve into the background.”
However, distinctions between Burtynsky and Hütte are evident in the following: “… the absence of anecdote and narration creates a neutral pictorial space that encourages a sense of individual empathy. One may have never actually visited any of his locations, but they do appear peculiarly familiar. Hütte’s work has that universality inherent in the sense of déjà vu he creates, while Burtynsky depicts places that few have been, and which are shockingly unfamiliar. Both are effective though and I believe there is a place for both approaches in my work. Another interesting point is illustrated by Gregos with this observation about Hütte: “Within the landscape, itself, however, it is the point of view chosen that is of primary importance, as it is that through which the viewer is prompted to “enter” the scene.” Here again I see a distinction and a similarity because Hütte varies his point of view markedly from photograph to photograph and he uses high, low and mid perspectives as the situation dictates while Burtynsky is very consistent in his use of elevated perspectives with minimal to no horizon, yet both leave the viewer with no ambiguity as to where they are to enter the scene.
Axel Hütte High Perspective
Axel Hütte Low Perspective
Above are three examples of how Hütte chooses very different perspectives and how the scenes depicted are not only absent people, but also any reference to where these photos were taken and as a consequence anyone who has been to the mountains in the winter could feel they have been there.
Further Development and the Road Ahead
Through the course of this next module, I intend to continue pursing my project work at Coul Links. Since there is no chance that the development approval will be granted in time to see any work begin, I will be continuing to look at how the landscape changes in response to seasons and weather, and observe the interactions of people and wildlife with the place as I have in the past three modules.
I will continue to experiment with perspectives and points of view to capture the unique aspects of this place over time and continue the vector of pushing my skills to new levels. At the same time, I need to be looking for alternatives for the FMP. I am confident the work I have done and will do in the coming module will have informed my practice sufficiently well to allow me to transfer the acquired skills to another project which is realistically achievable in the time frame allotted to FMP. I will use some of the time during the PH702 module to investigate possibilities, do some practice shoots to help judge the viability of those possibilities, a narrow the range of possibilities to one or two viable options.
There are many landscape photographers in Scotland and there are thousands of photographs of all the iconic places. I would like to pursue subjects less well recognised and taking inspiration from both the likes of Burtynsky and Hütte find a way to capture those subjects in both the beautiful and the sublime.
BURTYNSKY, Edward, Jennifer BAICHWAL and Nicholas DE PENCIER. 2018. Anthropocene. Gottingen: Steidl.
PAULI, Lori. 2003. Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky. 7th (2014. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada.
Derrida, a post-structuralist philosopher, most famously known as a ‘deconstructionist’ who challenged the notions of ideal and primary as actually being secondary and real. In his writings on photography he is perhaps most noted for the idea that Barthes ‘punctum’ is actually a duration and therefore makes room for time/difference and that any ‘instant’ contains a relation to past and future.
If one considers merely the laws of physics these ideas make perfect sense. While we refer to photographs as ‘stills’, they are in fact only still because the movement in them is beyond our ability to perceive it. A photograph, even one at very high shutter speeds contains many ‘instants’. Light travels at 299,792,458 m/s and in 1/500 of a second light will have travelled 14,989,623 m. Every atom in everything in front of the lens is travelling at that speed constantly so there is movement in every photograph. So, to Derrida’s point of there being room in any ‘instant’ for difference, he is saying we as photographers have and make choices when to release the shutter and that a few nanoseconds one way or another doesn’t necessarily change the ‘punctum’ or miss a ‘decisive moment’ but is a different place in real time. As I noted in an earlier post about Deleuze, he believed our ability to grasp the thing itself was rooted in our ability to see the differences from all the things it is not.
Derrida asserts, “if punctum is a duration, then the artifice and techne are part of photography.” I think this relates closely to his idea that each photo bears a relation of the present to an immediate past and future. I again find this quite intuitively obvious in large part because of the type of work I make. Much of my work involved action, whether it be wildlife or sport. In trying to capture complex movement and ‘freeze’ a period of time that pauses the action for the benefit of the viewer, there is a great deal of choice on the part of the photographer. This concept is less obvious perhaps for a portrait photographer, though while there clearly is an immediate past and future, it may be more difficult to discern, but I think it remains an important concept. For my work, to capture a bird taking flight just at the moment it breaks its bond with the earth requires knowledge of behaviour, preparation, anticipation and quick reflexes. While a wildlife photo may be more dynamic and far more obvious in its connection to past and future, the portraitist is looking for a particular expression, or just the right tilt of a head to capture something important about the subject and that moment may be equally as transitory as that which the nature, street or documentary photographer faces. Similarly, in landscape photography, my other main focus, it is a matter of just the right light, the position of a cloud or some other aspect of the composition that is not necessarily permanently fixed that makes the photo stand out. These are all choices a photographer makes; what to photograph and how to photograph, the artifice and techne.
I will discuss Flusser more in a subsequent post, but I will say here that the basis of my disagreements with his concepts of the programme and the apparatus subsuming the role of the photographer are rooted in Derrida’s ideas. But neither are Derrida’s ideas definitive; just another piece of the critical theory jigsaw puzzle for which no one has the boxtop.
DURDEN, Mark (ed.). 2013. 50 Key Writers on Photography. First. Milton Park: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
DELEUZE, Gilles. 2002. Desert Islands: And Other Texts, 1953-1974. Los Angeles: Semiotexte.
FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
As part of the assessment period preparatory work for Informing Contexts we were asked to look at a case study on Cindy Sherman and respond to the questions.
Questions for reflection.
How do you feel about this more inclusive and anti-intentionalist approach to producing work? Sherman’s self-portraits call attention to female stereotypes. Berger Ways of Seeing addresses this topic. I question whether Sherman’s work is anti-intentionalist. Is that even possible as a photographer? Sherman goes to great lengths to create costumes, do make up and create sets or find locations. Are these not all done with intention? Whether she admits it or not she is trying to depict a particular thing with each photo and with that is an intention however conscious or subconscious that might be to communicate something to a viewer. To be truly anti-intentional one would have to close one’s eyes and take random snaps, do no editing and publish whatever came from the camera. Otherwise there is always some level of intention in a photographer’s work.
Do you give your viewers this openness of interpretation and do you think Sherman is successful in this regard? My work is predominantly documentary in character and focused on landscapes and nature. When humans are included it is usually to show how they interact with a place and what is around them. Because I am not generally trying to impose an interpretation, and more importantly, because interpretation is almost solely in the realm of the viewer regardless of the photographer’s intention, I would argue my work is open. Sherman, I suppose does succeed to a degree as there are those who argue her work is feminist and challenges the stereotypes by which women have been viewed, while others argue that her work reinforces those stereotypes. I think though because she is the model it is difficult to argue her work is exploitative of women. I do find it difficult though to understand how she can claim no intention as I discussed above as her work is among the most intentional I can think of, and seems that it must have some purpose beyond a decades long documentation of her ‘performance art’.
With respect to the Brisbane exhibit: How do you feel the curators theoretically position her work, and how do you respond to this work being shown in a gallery context? The curators state Sherman is a conceptual photographer not concerned with technical aspects of photography but rather with using photography as a tool to tell a story. The also state her work is an exploration of how identity and imagery are constructed. It seems to me entirely appropriate that this work is presented in a gallery, because it is only there, or perhaps to a lesser degree in a large format book, that one can see and experience the body of work and appreciate the photographs in relation to each other. The tie in to films and their relation to Sherman’s work was another important curatorial move that brings more context to the show. It is also interesting as Sherman’s work is essentially performance art and she as the central character in this decades-long effort are captured like single frames from a film and subsequently displayed on the wall as a series of frames from that movie of her life as a photographer.
How is the intent of the work achieved in the way the photos are presented? If one of the intentions is to show the effects of ageing, then the sequential display of work is able to accomplish that effectively. Are there paradoxes for you? As discussed above the whole intent bit seems to me paradoxical. Also I cannot resolve whether the work chips away at or reinforces stereotypes and I suspect that it will continue to be interpreted both ways depending on the biases, filters, and the personal and cultural experiences each viewer brings to their viewing of her work.
Do you read Sherman’s work as feminist? I do not. There is no questioning she is clever woman who has parlayed a theme into a career. Her allusions and tributes to a bygone era of cinema are brilliantly done for the most part, but they do not strike me at all as standing for women’s rights or in any way attempting to break stereotypes. One might argue by making contemporary photos in a style and with sets and costumes reminiscent of the past and with the grandeur of the early work of Cecil Beaton makes a statement about how different things are now, but I don’t think it is a very substantive argument. It is for me egocentric performance art and it does that very well.
Do you invite any critical or theoretical lenses by which to consume your work and are multiple readings possible? I guess in a way I hope not on the question of critical or theoretical lenses. I think of my work as being simple expressions of places at a particular time, and frequently including the beings that inhabit those places. The intent is mostly to present a view that may not be readily accessible to most of the viewers of my work, whether that comes from seeing the dynamics of a bird on wing or breaking free from the from or returning to the bounds of earth, or the details of a plant or insect not visible to the naked eye, or a landscape with visual interest. Will that stop someone from trying to apply a critical lens; probably not. It is just that all too often doing so causes far more to be read into work than was ever intended by the photographer.
Can these photos be read in multiple ways? Of course, as I stated earlier, the reading of every photograph is subject to the limitations of the cultural and personal experiences of the viewer and while in some cases the standard deviation in interpretation may be smaller than others, each person will have their own take on any work put in front of them.
In the intro to Informing Contexts, Dr. Cosgrove referenced Deleuze and mentioned very briefly the idea that there is no unified theory in photographic critique and that we should therefore pick the one that suits us best. That statement, that there is no unified theory, stood out for me for a few reasons. First, that it is statement of the patently obvious as there are practically no unifying theories of anything that are considered immutable so why would anyone expect there to be one in photographic critique which is by its very nature subjective. Second, thinking about the various “icons” of the critical world and how divergent some of their ideas are, unification isn’t likely anytime soon and I would argue ever. After all, people cannot unify on whether the loo roll should go on flap up or flap down for heaven’s sake. Third, it seemed a practical bit of advice to use whichever theory fit best. But the question remains; Which one? And lastly, who is Deleuze and what might his writing have to offer.
Given that scholars have spent a lifetime studying philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, and that his thinking is in some ways quite different than other philosophers, it is not possible to even remotely do anything but scratch the surface and in reading scholarly summaries of his work hope to find some sense of his teachings that could be applied.
Deleuze wrote “If philosophy has a positive and direct relation to things, it is only insofar as philosophy claims to grasp the thing itself, according to what it is, in its difference from everything it is not, in other words, in its internal difference.” (Desert Islands, p32) He makes the assertion that no two things are the same, and that even things in the same genus are in fact different. It is from these differences that identity is derived which a departure from other philosophical thought that argued difference is derived from identity, from the categories assigned. I agree with Deleuze. There are 7 or so billion humans on this planet and all are unquestionably human, but each is an individual unique in their own right though they may share many similarities. It is in the digging for the differences that they emerge as individuals. Similarly, no two photographs are the same, even of the same subject in the same place and proximal in time. There is at minimum at temporal displacement of the shutter opening on two occasions. The differences may not be easily discernible, yet they are always there. This perhaps is the first clue applicable to the question of photographic critique.
I have written before how David Hurn talked about our goals as humans and photographers was to achieve our maximum potential. Deleuze writes of something similar in his 1993 Essays Critical and Clinical in which he claims:
“standards of value are internal: to live well is to fully express one’s power, to go to the limits of one’s potential, rather than to judge what exists by non-empirical, transcendent standards. Modern society still suppresses difference and alienates persons from what they can do. To affirm reality, which is a flux of change and difference, we must overturn established identities and so become all that we can become—though we cannot know what that is in advance.”“Herein, perhaps, lies the secret: to bring into existence and not to judge. If it is so disgusting to judge, it is not because everything is of equal value, but on the contrary because what has value can be made or distinguished only by defying judgment. What expert judgment, in art, could ever bear on the work to come?” (Essays Critical and Clinical (1997). p135)
In other words, creativity is the pinnacle and critique is not constructive. Critique is retrospective and itself has no part in creation of the next thing, and I think Deleuze is making the point that if a creator is responding to critique when embarking on the next creative episode then perhaps it is not the creator who is creating.
Photographic critique seems to have always been very much about putting things into categories; Modernist, Post-Modernist, Abstract, etc. and the lens through which the critic chooses to look; Sontagian indexicality, Bartheian studium and punctum, Cartier-Bressonian decisive moment, Flusserian examination of the programme of the apparatus. All of these are narrow perspectives like looking at the world through a soda straw and when the prejudgements of what category a photo fits in are made a priori it is stifling. Delueze challenges the Kantian thought and says,
“experience exceeds our concepts by presenting novelty, and this raw experience of difference actualizes an idea, unfettered by our prior categories, forcing us to invent new ways of thinking.” (Desert Islands, p 262)
Furthermore, any viewer, but most certainly a critic, brings with them armloads of baggage; the collective sum of their culture and their personal experience. A photograph that to one person is abhorrent, pornographic, stirring of intense emotional response is to the next person none of those things. In his paper, Negotiations, Deleuze addresses this idea with regard to philosophy, but again I think it relates to viewers of photographs and again critics in particular.
“Philosophers introduce new concepts, they explain them, but they don’t tell us, not completely anyway, the problems to which those concepts are a response. […] The history of philosophy, rather than repeating what a philosopher says, has to say what he must have taken for granted, what he didn’t say but is nonetheless present in what he did say.”
Walker Evans, and perhaps John Szarkowski as well, are perfect examples of critics whose perspective was entrenched in a love for the Modernist aesthetic and anything created in other than that style was deemed less worthy and insignificant. To be fair Evans was unequivocal about it and it should have been no secret if he wrote a scathing criticism of your work that it needed to be taken with the understanding that his soda straw looked only in one direction. I confess to being somewhat guilty of falling into a similar trap at times and I have been trying to “see” better when I look at work that is outside genres with which I am most comfortable and in which I work. The point, however, remains and it would be useful to know through biases and filters a critic is examining and critiquing one’s work.
Deleuze departs from the traditional image of thought espoused by Aristotle, Descartes and Husserl and believes they misconceive thinking as easy and straightforward. In their view;
“Truth may be hard to discover—it may require a life of pure theorizing, or rigorous computation, or systematic doubt—but thinking is able, at least in principle, to correctly grasp facts, forms, ideas, etc. It may be practically impossible to attain a God’s-eye, neutral point of view, but that is the ideal to approximate: a disinterested pursuit that results in a determinate, fixed truth; an orderly extension of common sense.” (Desert Islands, p 262)
Is this not what is seen in photographic critical theory? Flusser is a prime example of us being led down a chapter by chapter garden path of “logical argument” each seemingly leading to a conclusion and then, just like the infomercials of American television, “but wait there is more.” And in the end, he wants us to believe, because he took us through a step by step progression, that his is the definitive answer to the problem of a philosophy of photographic criticism.
Deleuze instead argues;
“Truth changes what we think; it alters what we think is possible. By setting aside the assumption that thinking has a natural ability to recognize the truth we attain a ‘thought without image’, a thought always determined by problems rather than solving them. Reason is always a region carved out of the irrational—not sheltered from the irrational at all, but traversed by it and only defined by a particular kind of relationship among irrational factors.” (Desert Islands, p 262)
From the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, I was able to find this on Deleuze’s writing on the arts.
“For Deleuze, the task of art is to produce “signs” that will push us out of our habits of perception into the conditions of creation. When we perceive via the re-cognition of the properties of substances, we see with a stale eye pre-loaded with clichés; we order the world in what Deleuze calls “representation.” In this regard, Deleuze cites Francis Bacon: we’re after an artwork that produces an effect on the nervous system, not on the brain. What he means by this figure of speech is that in an art encounter we are forced to experience the “being of the sensible.” We get something that we cannot re-cognize, something that is “imperceptible”—it doesn’t fit the hylomorphic production model of perception in which sense data, the “matter” or hyle of sensation, is ordered by submission to conceptual form. Art however cannot be re-cognized, but can only be sensed; in other words, art splits perceptual processing, forbidding the move to conceptual ordering. This is exactly what Kant in the Third Critique called reflective judgment: when the concept is not immediately given in the presentation of art. With art we reach “sensation,” or the “being of the sensible,” the sentiendum. You have to be forced to think, starting with an art encounter in which intensity is transmitted in signs or sensation.”
This strikes a somewhat familiar chord with me and evokes something of Barthes ‘punctum’, just as other writings speak to Sontag’s ‘the thing itself’, Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, and Szarkowski’s ‘window’. It also suggests we cannot enter an encounter with art full of preconceived ideas or burdened with a conceptual construct that prevents from sensing the almost imperceptible.
What is one to take from this very cursory review of Deleuze? I take that none of the key writers on photography is right, and none of them is wrong. They are all just incomplete. To look only through a single lens is oversimplification of an infinitely complex and multiplicitous problem, and it ignores the possibility that other interpretations are possible if one changes perspective. If every photograph is unique and every viewer is unique then the possible combinations in interpretation are theoretically infinite. Deleuze’s work address the significance of the “thing itself” which is found its differences from other things. It challenges us to accept new experience as a novelty that forces us to think in different ways and implies that the search for absolute truths are futile efforts. We are also to realise that creativity is at the centre of achieving human potential and that judgement does nothing to further creativity. And lastly, that art needs to be first sensed with all the senses and only then can we forced to think.
To bring this to a close substituting the term “Photographic critical theorist” for the term “Philosopher” in the following quote seems to be a perfect statement about the challenges of critical theory in photography.
“To read a philosopher is no longer to aim at finding a single, correct interpretation, but is instead to present a philosopher’s attempt to grapple with the problematic nature of reality.” (Negotiations, p 136)
DELEUZE, Gilles. 1997. Essays Critical and Clinical. University of Minnesota Press.
DELEUZE, Gilles. 1997. Negotiations. NYC: Columbia University Press.
DELEUZE, Gilles. 2002. Desert Islands: And Other Texts, 1953-1974. Los Angeles: Semiotexte.
STANFORD UNIVERSITY. and CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF LANGUAGE AND INFORMATION (U.S.). 1997. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/deleuze/ [accessed 21 Dec 2018].
HURN, David and Bill JAY. 2009. On Being a Photographer. Third. Anacortes, WA: LensWork Publishing.
SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Penguin Books.
BARTHES, Roland. 1981. ‘Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography’. New York Hill and Wang
FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
Robert Adams, an American who abandoned his career as an English professor to become a celebrated photographer, wrote a series of essays which comprise his book Why People Photograph. In the Foreword he writes, “Though these essays were written for a variety of occasions, they have a recurring subject – the effort we all make, photographers and non-photographers, to affirm life without lying about it. And then to behave in accord with our vision.”
In the first section are musings by the author on a variety of topics of interest to photographers under the “What Can Help”. He discusses the importance of colleagues, humour, writing, teaching, money and dogs. Each section is written in a very plain and accessible way, and each is filled with examples to support the theses he puts forth. It is practical, affirming and uplifting and thought provoking. He doesn’t attempt definitive answers to unanswerable questions, but rather provides his own thoughts and that of others to frame a discussion around the subject that serves as a starting place for the reader to ruminate and derive one’s own conclusions.
In the second section, “Examples of Success”, he analyses work of a number of celebrated and some perhaps not as well known photographers.. Each are well referenced and rife with meaningful insights into both the person and the work they produced. There are wee gems embedded in each of the stories. For example, there was something that came up in both the Paul Strand and Dorothea Lange essays that I found particularly interesting and useful. “Strand, I think, understood that combining the concrete and the universal is at the center of what makes art important. He knew, as William Stafford was later to write, that ‘all art is local’ but is saved from being trivial by its wider applicability.” And in the Lange essay, “There is, however, no question that her ultimate goal was art, specifics made universal.” Lange shied away from the use of the term art about her work but in 1939 stated, in an effort to get her work exhibited at MOMA, “A documentary photograph is not a factual photograph per se, it is a photograph which carries the full meaning of the episode.”
If one looks back the work of Lange, Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Frank, and others whose photographs remain significant today as well as the work of current photographers like Nachtwey, Addario, Burtynsky, to name a few, their work endures because of the underlying “universality” conveyed through the depiction of something very specific and local to a time and place. There is something in most of those photos to which most of us can relate. It may not (will not) necessarily be the same thing for every viewer, but every viewer can find something in that photograph that stirs emotion, memory, empathy, etc.
It seems to me to align quite well with the idea that subject is the most important thing along with a true passion for that subject. It is in the recognition by the viewer of ‘the thing itself’ and connection the photographer made with it that a photo carries impact, has weight or thickness which will cause it to endure.
The third and final section of the book is about Adams’ own work in the American West. He gives remarkable insight into himself and the people and things that have influenced his work.
While this book is about photography and photographers, it also about far more and it reads more like a lovely compilation of short stories than text book. It is a worthy addition to the library of photographers and non-photographers alike.
Adams, R. (1994). Why People Photograph (1st ed.). New York: Aperture.
These two gentlemen have had a more profound impact on me as a student and a photographer than any of the other authors on critical theory and photography that I have encountered to date.
Occam’s Razor articulated so many things that I had been feeling but unable to put into words myself. In the first module I was a bit frustrated with the critical theory and the obtuse language with which most of it was written. It was though it was meant to obfuscate rather than illuminate. In the end it struck me as a lot of hot air; academics looking to justify their tenured chair positions using language that did little to clarify the topic and make it accessible to in practical terms. Bill Jay seemed to lift the veil in plain language and with uncommon sense cut away so much of the unnecessary. He was my Dorothy pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz to reveal the world of critical theory as more overblown, pompous and inaccessible than it needed to be.
On Being a Photographer, in which Jay and Hurn teamed up to have a frank discussion about all things photographic was another breath of fresh air. Down to earth, practical advice that could be understood, absorbed and put into practice. I have extensive underlines and highlights throughout both of these books, and I have regularly returned to both throughout this module.
On the relationship between life and art Jay wrote, “A photograph is the end product of someone caring about something ‘out there’. The best photographs exude this caring attitude in a manner which is not definable but which is very evident.” “Life and art should have everything to do with each other. In practice, as I view the medium of art photography, art and life have very little connection.” “Students are taught, by implication, that their photographs must make reference to current stylistics trends, deal meaningfully with critical issues in the medium, refer self-reflexively with photography itself. Because that is what so-called significant photographers are doing. Life itself? Irrelevant.” “Apart from a lack of manners, taste and common humanity, these photographers display an abysmal ignorance of life: no one is interested in the sordidness of their petty lives.” I found these words very much described how I viewed a great deal of contemporary art photography. There were tropes and trends I saw in exhibit after exhibit at Unseen Amsterdam. I found these tropes uninteresting when they first appeared and by the time I’d seen them several times they had become just plain tiresome.
On the importance of subject and the development of a unique style, Jay writes, “When I walk through a forest at night, the track emerges from the darkness by not looking for it. A unique style emerges in photography by ignoring it, concentrating on the subject, and allowing care, passion and knowledge to bubble to the surface through a lot of hard work over a long period of time.” And Hurn’s thoughts, “It comes down to the choice of subject. The photographer must have intense curiosity, not just a passing visual interest, in the theme of the pictures.” “If the images are not rooted in ‘the thing itself,’ to use Edward Weston’s term, then the photographer has not learned anything about the real world. He/she can only justify the images by reference to self: ‘This is how I felt.’ Before long, this leads to incredibly convoluted psychoanalysis in a futile effort to justify the most banal, superficial work.” “A unique style, which is what we are talking about, is the by-product of visual exploration, not its goal.”
On photography and its power as a medium, Jay commented, “Words were required before the disturbance of the image was received with full power. We constantly need reminding that photographs are not narrative in function, and when asked to perform this function they need words. In fact, an important point must be stressed: The source of much disturbance in photography is created by the words which accompany the image – with the image making the words up-close, real and actual.” In this case he had been discussing disturbance in several senses in the context of photographs having some degree of power to upset the status quo societally or personally. In a prior post on the idea of truth in photography and otherwise I made the point that a single photograph can never tell the absolute truth and even with words truth can be elusive because the interpretation is always in the hands of the viewers who are burdened with their own unique sets of filters, biases and experiences that influence their interpretations. Words can help to clarify intent but will not guarantee understanding.
On photographic criticism, Jay noted, “All meaning in photography is imposed; it is not intrinsic to the images.” “Ideally, photographic criticism should provide one or more of the following services: introduce you to photographers of whom you were unaware; expand your appreciation of a photographer’s work; place the images in the context of photography’s history; place the images in the context of the artist’s culture; and, while accomplishing these services, throw light upon the creative/artistic process. These services demand that the critic demonstrates superior knowledge and insight. The result will be photographic writing which is informative, elevating and, above all else, useful. The problem with so much of photographic writing at present is that it is destructive, mean-spirited and useless to the practicing photographer. Critical opinions should always be taken with a large grain of salt. For the most part they are manifestations of the critic’s debate with himself as to what opinions he should hold in order to be a fully paid up member of the group to which he aspires to belong. These opinions may have no direct relevance to the photographs being discussed.” I think Jay’s point is again that there is a good deal of self-justification in the world of critique as there is in critical theory, when photography is and should be foremost an artistic expression of the photographer’s view of his or her world at the moment the shutter button was pressed. We as photographers cannot control completely how our work is viewed or even in some cases how it is used. So, I think we need to be true to ourselves and develop some thick skin at times. Jay also wrote, “The use of language that is worthless leads to the propagation of worthless ideas and, inevitably, to the adoption of worthless acts. Language, ideas and actions are inseparable. A good deal of the trite, witless, meaningless photography which is being shown, and praised, today has its roots in our refusal, or inability, to use words precisely. The photographic fashion for art-jargon, puffed up with false erudition, and decorated with complicated constructions, reveals an underlying poverty of thought. Photography demands clear thinking. Good ideas demand clear communication. Yet our language seems designed to conceal more than it tells, and usually cloaks the shameful nakedness that there is little or nothing worth telling.” “Photography is healthier when its language is specific. It improves our chances of understanding and we are better able to sift the meaningful from the meaningless.” “I have had enough of these bad writers whose main purpose is confuse rather than clarify, to confound me with complicated constructions when straight talk would be preferable.” “It is ironic that as photography has become more popular with the public, so the language of photography has become more turgid, ponderous and unintelligible. Never before has the importance of clear communication been so imperative. Never before has its lack of clarity been so clearly evident.”
I appreciate so much that Bill Jay, an academic, is able to speak in such plain terms and is willing to take to task those who do not. But like many large organisations and institutions, the tail eventually ends up wagging the dog. Support functions begin to think that the real doers only exist to give them a job rather than the reality that the supporting cast are there to make it possible for the doers to accomplish their mission, which is always ultimately the reason the organisation or institution exists in the first place. Photographers photograph and they should be encouraged to continue to do so. Every photograph has worth and significance to someone and while they will not all be Pulitzer or Taylor-Wessing winning compositions they are, at least for the person who took the image, ‘the thing itself’. Photography is a tool for communication. No photograph will communicate to everyone, and in fact no photograph will communicate the same thing to those who view it, but if a photograph can communicate something to someone, no matter how small, it has served its purpose. David Hurn elaborates on this by saying, “What is indisputable is that the better the picture the more people will look at it over a longer period of time – which means the subject matter will have more resonance whatever the original reason for admiring the image. I have never understood the idea that the picture is ‘too good’; it is never too good as long as the subject has been clearly revealed. The photographer’s aim is to create beautiful pictures, of any and all subject matter.”
Finally, on the future of photography, Hurn’s comments on photographic morality and the role of photography in society were particularly poignant and instructive. He wrote “Morality means nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, decent, and doing it with a reasonable expectation that in the long run, as well as the short, we will not be sorry for what we have done. It means we protect our subject matter when we shoot. It means we do not lie about or abuse it in order to increase our chances of being published. It means we do not lie about or abuse it to gain status for ourselves in the gallery or fine art world.” “Without compromise we must attempt to present our inspiration, our representation, in a way that makes it credible and vivid to our audience. Not only information to the intellect, but feelings to the emotions. But sincerity is not enough. Very few people who take photographs are visual. They do not see. They record – that’s not seeing. It is very hard to see.”
I take it my challenge as a photographer to learn to see more and learn to see better, both when taking images and when looking at images others have taken.
Hurn, D., & Jay, B. (2009). On Being a Photographer (Third). Anacortes, WA: LensWork Publishing.
Jay, B. (n.d.). Occam’s Razor: An Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography (Third). Tucson, AZ: Nazraeli Press.
Lynsey Addario is an American photojournalist who I have come to consider among my favourite contemporary photographers. She had no formal training when she began photographing as a professional in 1996 and yet her work is among the most powerful and evocative of any photojournalist today. She is every bit on par with James Nachtwey in my view.
Addario masterfully pictures people in their environment, but with a far more intimate perspective than Simon Roberts and her focus is clearly more on the human side of the equation. Though she approaches her craft from the perspective of a photojournalist, there results a far more portraitist quality in her work. I can’t help but be moved by virtually every photo she has published, and each one seems to have the ability to, if not fully convey a story, to at least strongly suggest one. While the character of her work doesn’t relate directly to mine, her ability to capture so much in a frame is something to which I aspire.