Sunday, October 31, 2010

Photography: A Critical Introduction - 4. The subject as object

This book becomes harder going the longer I read it, I usually experience the opposite.  Each chapter has such a different feel and approach that I am not finding a sense of a central thread, other than a very strong socio-political slant to the topics.  This chapter deals with the human body as a subject for photography, covering a controversial subject from a number of distinct and in fact quite thought provoking angles.  The most interesting element is early in the chapter, dealing with the attempt to use photography to typify people by their outward appearance, in a visual parallel to the terrifying psuedo-science of phrenology.  The use of photographic images in this manner is terribly reminiscent of the Nazi's attempt to group humans beings into classes by race or culture. I have noted that German photography contains several examples of this practice of creating typography's, the Bechers being a classic example, but in this context it is the work of August Sander that interests me.

browsing in a second hand bookshop, I found this little volume on sale for 4 Euros and immediately grabbed it.  each image is a portrait of someone (or a group) belonging to a specific profession or social class.  At first the fact that these images were created in Germany in the inter-war years is quite disturbing, however, his work was suppressed by the regime.  The book provides the anti-thesis of what the phrenologists were trying to do, this is an honest (well as much as a photograph can be) record of the people who lived in Germany at this time and is like looking into a time machine.  The book is also tinged with great sadness, it is impossible to look at these people without thinking about what confronted them, especially the pictures of student revolutionaries and Marxists who would have ended in the camps.

I digress, however, when reading chapter 4, this book immediately came to mind.  The remainder of the chapter deals with the politics of the body and its use in pornography for the gratification of men (me I guess), the use of photographic images in science, ending in a discussion of the photography of birth and death.  This final element was very interesting, the use of photography to capture and celebrate birth is now almost compulsory, images of new babies are all over Facebook.  However, how often do we see photography of death, other than in the context of social documentary or photo-journalism.  In Victorian times, photography was frequently used to record the face of the dead, much as death masks used to be moulded directly from dead peoples faces.  The most disturbing image is that of a dead infant taken in the modern era (1992) that at first glance would be a cute child sleeping, only the caption reveals that the child is no longer alive.

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