Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Theoretical Basis of Photography

In the last few months I have focused much of my energy on taking photographs and working through the exercises and assignments in People and Place.  I have also worked steadily through an expanding bookshelf of works concerning themselves with either technique, critical theory, or discussion of a particular photographer.  Currently my bookshelf is growing faster than my reading pace, although this is in part due to a desire to create a small library of photographers images to furnish ideas for the upcoming assignments 4 and 5.  My recent acquisitions include books covering Alfred Stieglitz, Fay Godwin, Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, and a wonderful volume covering the key photographers from the Düsseldorf School of Photography.

However, a greater interest has been in reading more about Critical Theory in Photography and how the current thought processes at any given time influenced the subject matter and style of contemporary photographers.  Many years ago I studied as a Theoretical Physicist and worked for 2 years as a research fellow at Imperial College's physics department, before realizing that my future was in the IT industry.  Back then I read extensively around my subject digging deeply into theory or the testing of theory through experiment.  However, this theory was all grounded in Physical Principals and explained through the very precise medium of mathematics, a concept had a clear beginning and end, it could be right or wrong, proof came through its ability to predict reality.  Theory built models of the observable world to either explain or predict phenomena, experiment then sought to confirm or tear down.  A complex, but structured world.

Clearly reality was more complex that I have just described, personality and fashion influence science as with any other subject area, however, Mathematics underpinned all with a rigorous structure.  Coming to artistic theory I feel as if I have landed on a different planet.  The concepts that I have come across are complex, however, they are obscured by language that seems to exist simply to hide the meaning of what is being said.  I realize that I have much to learn, but did not realize that my vocabulary was so lacking.  Beyond the challenge of the academic language, the concepts themselves are very nebulous and difficult to pin down, ideas seem to drift with time and fashion, absolutes or axioms do not exist or themselves seem to drift in meaning.  This is all very different from scientific theory, however, it is interesting and understanding such theory is critical to appreciating why modern photographic art deals with the subjects and structures that it does.  I also suspect that as I progress into the latter stages of this course such an understanding will be assumed not desired.

At present I am wrestling with how to go about developing a deeper understanding. The course "Visual Studies 1: Understanding Visual Culture" looks appealing and would certainly be an excellent solution to learning about theory of how we look at art.  However, I am reluctant to commit to a course that is very much book learning based, I am getting so much pleasure out of the photographic modules of the course.  The choice for completing the year 1 courses is this or DPP, which I am also not so sure of, I already have a good understanding of Digital Photography developed through working the first two courses and my general photographic practice.  It seems that my options after completing PaP are:

  1. Embark upon DPP
  2. Embark upon Visual Studies 1: Understanding Visual Culture
  3. Slightly ambitious, but do VS1 in parallel to a level 2 course, permitting a mix of photography and theoretical study
I think this is a topic for some external advice, my tutor should be able to help and perhaps the forums could be a good place for debate around this.

In the meantime, I am not going to wait so am slowly working my way through Photography: A Critical Introduction, edited by Liz Wells.  This is the recommended introductory text to critical theory on the book list for both AoP and PaP.  I must admit that whilst doing AoP I think this might have been rather intimidatory, however, now working on PaP I think it is essential.  

Thus far I have read the first two chapters of the book and was happily plowing through it, but was not really fully taking in what I have learned.  Study skills are not really taught to Physics students, learning is more through reproducing the maths and extending it through solving parallel problems.  Sitting and reading a complete book was unknown to me at the time, perhaps the reason I am no longer a physicist.  Subsequently I have decided to step back a little and reflect upon what I am reading, the concepts are not hugely difficult, but need serious consideration.  I have decided to read the book a chapter at a time and briefly blog, chapter by chapter, the key points and what I understand of them.  

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