Photograph

Informing Contexts: Week 4 Reflection

This week we’ve been looking at how viewers interpret images and whether the intent of the photographer can ever result in a ‘dominant’ reading. We were presented with a range of images, many from advertising campaigns, and challenged to consider how a shared understanding of visual and cultural references might influence their interpretation.

To use a couple of examples here:

 

The Falling Man   by Richard Drew

The Falling Man by Richard Drew

This photograph immediately evokes my own memories of where I was on September 11th 2001 when these terrible events began to unfold. These events are now so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that seeing an image like this causes so many thoughts to surge forward - ‘The war on terror’, America, New York, George Bush, Tony Blair, Iraq, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, missing persons, the sense of a world before and after this moment – to name just the first few that spring to mind. I imagine that most people reading this would understand instantly how this image fits into the wider social, cultural and historical landscape and would need no further explanation of the events that it connotes.

Marilyn Monroe   by Sam Shaw

Marilyn Monroe by Sam Shaw

To me this photograph conjures glamour, sex symbol, JFK, Hollywood, cinema, 1950s. The fame of Monroe, who remains a revered icon many years after her death, allows for a shared understanding of her significance and to be presented with an image of her is likely to result in a number of shared associations. 

So, does the way an image communicates rely entirely on shared references? Must the viewer and the photographer have a shared cultural and visual lexicon for the image to connect? I’m not sure where I stand on this question. Instinctively, I feel like shared references significantly improve the chances of an image being received in the way it was intended. In advertising for example, controlling the likely message your visual information communicates is key. Whether this can ever be controlled absolutely doesn’t remove the imperative of trying to shape the narrative as much as possible.

I also feel like any successful photograph probably succeeds by somehow tapping into a universal sentiment that allows the viewer to relate to the image before them and find something in it to which they can apply a personal relevance, even if only on a subconscious level. Conversely, I also think that it’s possible to make an interesting or ‘good’ photograph without any conscious attention to any of these things. I’m unable to reconcile these two opposing ideas into a coherent conclusion as yet. I think this question relates back to my ongoing struggles with understanding ‘narrative’ and how I might bring this understanding into hopefully improving my own work.

No words are required to understand   what this is

No words are required to understand what this is

Another question raised this week is how text can relate to images and help to mediate meaning. I certainly think it’s possible to communicate with a photograph, without the aid of supporting text. I do however also believe that text can be used to anchor a concept that can then be further explored visually in an image or series of images.

Again using advertising as an example, text can help to establish the narrative of a brand or product, particularly if that product is new to the marketplace. In such cases, it may well be possible to dispense with text once the product and its supposed characteristics have been established and accepted (e.g. Coca Cola) but text may be important in the early stages of a product’s life to guide the customer in the desired direction. 

In all of this it’s important to consider, if not also try to influence, the relationship between images and viewer. This possibly begins with the intent of the work, and aiming to produce work that is considered, well-researched and grounded in a personal truth (whatever that might mean). The relationship between image and viewer strikes me as a mysterious and possibly unknowable one. I don’t suppose we can ever truly know what the viewer will see when they look at our work. There’s a certain arrogance in expecting the viewer to see it in the same way you do, or believing that your interpretation is the only possible reading. There’s no way to account for the viewer’s personal history, their sense of humour, their cultural references, their mood at the time – all factors that might influence the way the viewer receives and interprets the image before them.

There’s also something to be said for creating open-ended narratives, allowing space for the viewer to create their own stories, using your work as the starting point. This potentially offers the work to a broader audience, if in some way you can be all things to all people, simply reflecting the viewers back to themselves in a way that is neither too confronting or banal. So ambiguity of meaning can be a valid approach, and also possibly acknowledges the fact that you can never entirely control the meaning of the work anyway.

The skilled practitioner will be comfortable with this, while being careful to use commonly accepted signifiers as far as possible if the intention is to speak clearly in the work. Whether the use of commonly accepted signifiers results in a limited palette from which to paint and whether that then results in work lacking in expressivity or individuality is something to be considered. These are questions we all must answer for ourselves: what is the intent and how far are we willing to go to try and influence this mystical space between the image and the viewer’s perception?

Increasingly in my own work I’m trying to edge closer to a representation of an internal state that feels uncomfortable, vulnerable, but also somehow mundane and entirely normal. Previously, my strategy has been quite literal, very visual and not very subtle or varied. This approach now seems quite redundant and so I’m scratching around, trying to find a more nuanced way to communicate, a way to do visually what I have not yet managed to do verbally. That’s why it’s so hard I guess. But I’ll keep working at it. 

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.

 

Informing Contexts: Week 1 Reflection

“A photograph evokes the tangible presence of reality”

John Szarkowski, 1966

 

The Nature of Photographs, 2nd edition, by Stephen Shore

The Nature of Photographs, 2nd edition, by Stephen Shore

This week we were challenged to examine how the context in which photography is consumed affects the reading of the work, and then how this might relate to our own practice.

The week was titled ‘the shape shifter’ which suggests the potentially wide-ranging scope of such a discussion. The presentations introduced some key texts relating to this debate, one of which ‘The Nature of Photographs’ by Stephen Shore, I already had in my collection and have thus re-read this week.

 

 

The first text we were asked to reflect on was ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ by John Szarkowski (1966). Szarkowski proposed five characteristics inherent to all photographs:

-       The thing itself

-       The detail

-       The frame

-       Time

-       The vantage point

Szarkowski argued that these characteristics could form a common vocabulary with which all images could be discussed. 

The term ‘the thing itself’ evokes the belief that has long been thought to establish photography as separate from all other visual practices, that being its ability to directly represent or truthfully reproduce the ‘real world’. My view however is that photography has moved beyond the strict necessity of being tied to, or responsible for, representing the real world. So many questions arise from the preceding sentence alone, that it immediately becomes clear that attempting to hold photography to this lofty obligation is unrealistic. What is ‘real’, and whose ‘world’ is photography supposed to depict? And why should photography be expected to represent reality when other visual practices are not held to the same standard?

“Where a painter starts with a blank canvas and builds a picture, a photographer starts with the messiness of the world and selects a picture”

Stephen Shore, p37, The Nature of Photographs

Examining the other four criteria that Szarkowski proposes further loosens the imperative of photography to be a facsimile for real life. Each of these variables, applied by different practitioners, would result in a different photograph even if ‘the thing itself’ was unchanged. The idea that the photographer selects a fragment of the world in front of them on which to focus their attention and to act as the substrate from which they will derive their image renders this debate redundant to my mind.

Reality is such a subjective concept, particularly in the digital age. Photographs now often rarely ever exist in any physical sense, and thus never have any tangible connection to the world in which they were created. Photographs now mostly act as a conduit of visual information from one location to another, from a point of origin to a destination in the viewer’s occipital cortex, via a screen or hard drive far removed from where the image was first captured.

I think a photographer must find a way to accept this current state of affairs and seek to master different ways to harness this conduit, this fizzing superhighway of visual information, to best communicate to their anticipated audience, all the time accepting that this audience may never be known in any real sense and that the image at all times can find its way to places that the photographer could never have originally conceived of.

So, no pressure!

For myself, I don’t feel bound by a commitment to represent the reality of the scene in front of me. The scene has always served as a starting point from which to create an image that most truthfully represents my inner reality. The challenge for me has always been more that of selection, giving myself the broadest range of possibilities to paint the picture in my mind. To date, the night time has always been the first criterion, mainly because it allows me to most easily access the internal visual landscape that my photography is usually trying to chart.

Of Szarkowski’s 5 criteria, the one that resonates most readily with me is the idea of ‘time’. Photographs have the power to communicate across time in a powerful way and for me images have always held the power to evoke memories and emotions from years ago, in a way that I still don’t fully understand. In the context of my current work being shot mainly at night, there’s the immediately evident fact of time being crucial in the exposures and the way that time can be used to manipulate the way that light is represented.

Stephen Shore’s book openly builds on the propositions made by Szarkowski before him. I have always been drawn to Shore’s work, not least because of his idea of elevating the ordinary to the level of interesting photographic possibility. I believe (as does Shore I’d say) that the world around us offers endless interesting viewpoints, with beauty to be found in apparently unexpected places.

“The context in which a photograph is seen effects the meanings a viewer draws from it”

Stephen Shore, p26, The Nature of Photographs

Shore’s quote above seems difficult to argue against. The same photograph viewed in a gallery would seem to carry a different meaning to the same image viewed as part of a video slideshow or on the back of a cereal box.

To consider the contexts in which my work has been, and could best be seen in the future, I’m not sure I have a great handle on this at the moment. Before this MA I’d already had work exhibited in a gallery setting and early last year had work displayed in an online context also. 

Since the course began, I’ve made a small book and in the break between modules also experimented with t-shirts. Trying to sell these proved to be a total flop (for a variety for reasons I’m sure). The context in which images may be optimally displayed is possibly not the same thing as the context in which a potential audience may wish to view them. The question then becomes, how does the photographer reconcile that difference? For example, increasingly I feel that sharing my images on Instagram does them a disservice, as displaying them at the sizes native to most devices makes it impossible to appreciate the details and gradations of light on which the messages I hope to communicate in my work depend. Also, there seems to be a futility attached to sending these thumbnails out into the turbulent sea of images in the hope that they will catch someone’s eye. It just feels pointless.

How can you hope to communicate your nuanced message in a vast arena full of shouty people? This is a question I haven’t yet resolved. Most certainly though, my work on this course will benefit from a clear understanding of the context that best suits it. I plan to keep experimenting in the weeks ahead in the hope that I can gain a clearer idea of the best way to place my work.

References:

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. London: Phaidon.

BATE, David. 2013. ‘The digital condition of photography: cameras, computers and display’. In Martin LISTER (ed.). The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. Routledge, 77-94.