Saturday, September 25, 2010

Photography: A Critical Introduction - 1. Thinking about Photography

The book starts with a chapter written by the editor Liz Wells and Derrick Price, covering the broad gamut of the history of photographic thought, theory and to some extent how it is practiced.  The study is clearly upon the image and not the photographer.  It is not practical to summarize the whole chapter, which is in a sense a summary of multiple other works, rather I will extract some key learning points and present them as a list.

As photography started in the middle of the 19th century it was hailed as bringing a new objectivity, photographs were an accurate record of reality.  However, this meant that it was very much viewed as a science and not as an art - photographers were seen as operators not artists.  Baudelaire commented: "if photography is allowed to deputize for art in some of art's activities, it will not be long before it has supplanted or corrupted art altogether" (1859).  How wrong he was!

However, photographers responded in two distinct ways, which I think are still prevalent amongst much vernacular photography today:

  1. The Pictorialists attempted to reproduce a painterly style, copying the aesthetic of painted work, even resorting to blurring the image or using printing techniques that added an artistic look.  I consider this to still persist today in the ongoing obsession with sunsets and long exposures of water adding that "dreamy" look to sea shores
  2. The Straight photographers specifically sought out to create accurate records of what they saw before them, continued in much modern American photography.
The emphasis that photography document and then conveys facts persisted for quite some time.  One of the first to really dispute this was Walter Benjamin, who stated in the 1930's that a photograph must be viewed within the sociopolitical circumstances in which it is viewed.  In other words a photograph will be interpreted in the context of the times in which it is exhibited.  Interestingly at this stage there still seemed to be limited discussion of the act of photographing and the influence of the photographer within the photograph.

The book then moved onto modernism, one of the ism's I am struggling to understand and place in the context of other ism's.  Here photography was seen as bringing facts to the attention of the politicians of the age.  Also its very technological way of capturing images, aligned to the ongoing obsession with progress and mechanization.  Post-modernism has to be understood in response to modernism, given that I am struggling with the latter the former is even more difficult to understand.  The text at this stage seems to assume an understanding of both and as such loses its claim to be "introductory".

My take on the postmodern (and this will need to be reviewed later) is that it does away with any claim of authenticity and requires that the photographic image can only be read in relation to all other contemporary influences. 

Stepping into a description of theory the book postulates that there are two basic debates in theory of photography:
  1. The relationship of a photograph to reality
  2. How a photograph is read
Photography is seen to be particularly vulnerable to divergent views as it is at the cusp of science, social science and art.  I can relate strongly to this as it is this very fact of bringing together the science of image capture, with the social elements of what is contained within the image, and its presentation as art that has led me to being on this course of study.

The chapter from this point on presents a history of theoretical ideas and the development of writing on the history itself of photography - good source material, but very difficult to summarize.  Rather I want to comment on two theoretical concepts that appeal to me:
  1. Semiotics - the science of signs.  The idea that we can codify the meaning of a photograph using signs, which are the conceptualization of media within logical systems.  Although I cannot admit to fully understanding this, it is the further idea that the semiotics of the picture, must be combined with that of the viewer, a concept from psychoanalysis that appeals.  In other words no matter how the meaning of a photograph is logically decoded, the reading must also take account of the sociology of the reader.
  2. The division of the content of a photograph by Roland Barthes into the Studium and Punctum.  The Studium refers to the general look and feel of the images, whilst the Punctum is an occasional piece of content that immediately arrests out attention.  A "good: photograph must exhibit both and perhaps explains why some photographs jump out of the page, whilst others whilst aesthetically pleasing are banal in appearance.
Neither of these concepts actually explain why we like or dislike an image, but they do start to built a reference model to understand what builds up like or dislike.

The chapter also includes a very good case study of the "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange and cleverly points out the many meanings of this photograph and how it relates to the reality of the time it was photographed, all is not quite as it seems!

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