Perspective

Informing Contexts: Week 6 Reflection

“The illiterate of the future, it has been said, will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet, but the one who cannot take a photograph. But must we not also count as illiterate the photographer who cannot read his own pictures?”

Walter Benjamin, 1931

This week saw me emerging from the fog of recent exam stress and trying to regain a foothold in this course, while also still grappling with the idea of narrative (an issue that is probably going to scupper my MA chances unless I get it sorted ASAP!).

The work this week focused on the ubiquity of images today and the idea that this might lead to the establishment of cultural ‘myths’ or result in all-powerful ideologies.

The importance of being able to interrogate one’s own images was proposed, an idea that got me thinking. I’m not sure that I’ve been particularly interrogative of my own work to this point. This is almost certainly why the way forward from here seems so hard to discern, as I seem to lack the means of analysing my own work and putting the key elements together into a useful blueprint for further progress. This is becoming super frustrating to be honest. As well as my apparent inability to interrogate my own work, I have been considering this week whether or not my images ‘stand up to scrutiny’ in any way. Do they bear anything more than superficial analysis with respect to the themes I am claiming to be trying to explore? Maybe I am just illiterate after all.

While that might sound like a bleak conclusion, I am still confident I can figure it out given time and more contemplation (and shooting of course). I know what I want my images to say, at least in headline terms. Possibly, I need to be more specific with the work, which may then make it easier to see the best way to articulate these ideas.

Another idea worth considering this week was that of ubiquitous images setting up a pervasive narrative that eventually becomes accepted as the ‘truth’ of a particular situation. The photographs of the National Geographic magazine, which over the years has tended to put forth a rather idealised vision of the unexplored world as primitive, subordinate and meekly accepting of Western dominance and superiority, were used as the example of this idea of narrative that becomes subliminally dominant.

I don’t think this idea of a dominant narrative is at all new. Having grown up in a society where the commonly-held perception of black males is of them as a physically intimidating, intellectually unrefined homogenous whole, I have been personal victim of this establishment of a cultural myth on numerous occasions. It only requires that the party holding the power of influence decide on a narrative, for that story to take hold and be accepted by the majority, and this is a pattern that has been repeated many times throughout history.

I’m not sure how much it’s ever possible to challenge these myths, without the apparatus of widespread dissemination of an opposing viewpoint. It’s difficult to be heard as a sole voice whispering against a torrent of noise from a powerful opponent. I do think there’s value in acknowledging where one’s work might be making use of established ‘myths’ though, and that there might be an alternative view, although I don’t believe that an individual practitioner necessarily has a responsibility to represent more than one side of an argument.

Of course, seminal artists manage to present a new perspective, stretching our understanding of an established truth and showing us a new way to see something that was previously stable and familiar. Even then, I believe it takes repeated re-statement and reproduction for the new view to become the new truth, in due course.

In my own work to date, there has definitely been some reliance on some of the commonly-held assumptions about the night and its associations – danger, crime, menace, fear, mystery etc. This has been largely intentional. It’s important to concede that there will be future stories for which this milieu would be jarring and inappropriate. It’s also possible that my current story will benefit from being told in other ways too, rather than simply relying on the night for ready-made context.

And there we are…back to the narrative (aargh)!

Reference:

LE MASTERKLASS. 2017. ‘Étiquette : personal photographic expression’. Available at: http://lemasterklass.com/tag/personal-photographic-expression/ [accessed 11 March 2018].

Informing Contexts: Week 2 Reflection

The ideal photograph, as I mentioned earlier, stands in a causal relation to its subject and "represents" its subject by reproducing its appearance. In understanding something as an ideal photograph, we understand it as exemplifying this causal process, a process which originates in the subject "represented" and which has as its end point the production of a copy of an appearance. By a "copy" of an appearance I mean an object such that what is seen in it by a man with normal eyes and understanding (the intentional object of sight) resembles as nearly as possible what is seen when such a man observes the subject itself from a certain angle at a certain point in its history. A person studying an ideal photograph is given a very good idea of how something looked. The result is that, from studying a photograph, he may come to know how something looked in the same way he might know it if he had actually seen it. With an ideal photograph it is neither necessary nor even possible that the photographer's intention should enter as a serious factor in determining how the picture is seen. It is recognized at once for what it is-not as an interpretation of reality but as a presentation of how something looked. In some sense looking at a photograph is a substitute for looking at the thing itself”

Roger Scruton, 1981

 

“With these kinds of characterizations in mind, Arnheim's notion that "the physical objects themselves print their image" seems more like a fanciful metaphor than an "acknowledged fact." It is the light reflected by the objects and refracted by the lens which is the agent in the process, not "the physical objects themselves." These "physical objects" do not have a single "image"-"their image"-but, rather, the camera can manipulate the reflected light to create an infinite number of images. An image is simply not a property which things naturally possess in addition to possessing size and weight. The image is a crafted, not a natural, thing. It is created out of natural material (light), and it is crafted in accordance with, or at least not in contravention of, "natural" laws. This is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that something in the camera's field will be represented in the image; but how it will be represented is neither natural nor necessary.

Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen, 1975

 

“The notion that a photograph shows us "what we would have seen had we been there ourselves" has to be qualified to the point of absurdity…By the time all the conditions are added up, the original position has been reversed: instead of saying that the camera shows us what our eyes would see, we are now positing the rather unilluminating proposition that, if our vision worked like photography, then we would see things the way a camera does.”

Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen, 1975

 

 

The work this week explored the idea of authenticity in photography, how an image relates to its subject and whether there is a different relationship between the ‘truth’ of a photographic image and its subject and that of, for example, a painting and its subject. The terms ‘authentication’ and ‘representation’ were introduced and we were asked to consider how we might define these terms and how they relate to photographic images in general and the images we each produce individually.

The quotes above exemplify for me the conflict between opposing positions in this argument. On one hand, commentators state that photographs have an inescapable property of being able to prove the existence of something in the world and act almost as a surrogate for vision. Other commentators would argue that a photograph should be no more expected to reflect ‘reality’ than a painting or a motion picture is.

One of the associated issues in this argument is the idea of photographic intention. Those who propose an indexical link between subject and image are possibly denuding the photograph (and the photographer) of the autonomy of intention and the idea that the image-maker has significant agency over the way the subject is captured and the output the camera produces. Again, the counter argument to this would be that the image cannot be anything other than the index of the subject, and thus it is up to the subject chosen to communicate different messages, as the link between camera and subject can never be altered. Of course, the decision as to which subject is chosen will remain, largely, with the photographer.

To speak of my own perspective, I cannot subscribe to the idea that photography offers an incontrovertible truth. I think the truth of an image very much depends on the perspective of the photographer and the experiences and biases of the viewer. The relationship between the image and the viewer is also influenced by the intent behind the image and the context in which it is viewed. Additionally, the ongoing development of photographic technology and practice further weakens the directly indexical relationship between the subject and the image as it is incredibly easy for even the novice to add, amend or remove elements of the image that was originally captured. This facility must challenge the blind faith in the inherent truth of a photograph in my opinion, we must be wary of attributing veracity to images when it is so easy for details to be changed.

All photographs are a construction of some kind to a greater or lesser extent. The choices made by the photographer of light, location, camera and lens, as well as the functions of the tools used to capture the image, all impose conditions on an image.

In my own practice, the concept of ‘truth’ is more of an internal consideration, with the imperative being to try and reflect my truth rather than represent an external truth as such. This is partly for all the reasons outlined above. There seems to me to be a certain arrogance in presuming that my image can claim to be ‘the truth’ to someone else, when everyone has a different view of the world.

As Bate (2016) wrote:

“Reality is what we believe exists, whereas ‘realism’ is the mode of representation that supports that reality…The realism of an image corresponds to a preconception of reality. A photograph showing ‘aliens abducting soldiers’ no matter how realistic or believable as a photograph, is unbelievable (except possibly to UFO ‘experts’ and other alien-believers) simply because we do not believe aliens exist. The point is that any picture is usually tested against pre-existing suppositions and knowledge about the world.”

p. 31, Photography: The Key Concepts

My feeling then, is that there is no absolute reality and there is certainly no way that a photograph can be blindly accepted as truthful or providing authentication, without further consideration of the elements that comprise the photograph and its creation. The distance between a physical fact and the visual perception of that fact in our occipital cortices leaves too much space for us to be dogmatic about ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’.

 

References:

SCRUTON, Roger. 1981. ‘Photography and Representation’. Critical Inquiry Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 577-603, [online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343119 [accessed 6 February 2018].

SNYDER, Joel and ALLEN, Neil Walsh. 1975. ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’. Critical Inquiry Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 143-169, [online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342806 [accessed 5 February 2018].

BATE, David. 2016. Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.