According to Karl Marx, all art is ideological and should therefore be considered an ideological apparatus, a means of manipulation of human beings. This statement seems rather plausible when one analyzes for example paintings: the painter has got the ultimate power to decide what and how he depicts, and to change every element of the nature he is trying to give a picture of. Surrealist pictures, for example, have little to do with actual reality, but so also do the soviet posters representing the bountifulness and prosperity of the Soviet Union. Therefore, although for some critics the main aim of painting was always to reproduce the appearances of things , there was always plenty of space for the artist to underlie the picture ideologically and diminish its representational content. But when we think of photography, and especially about photography as it was understood in its very beginnings, we may arrive to the conclusion that a photograph stands in a casual, not intentional relation to its subject, it's a representation in its purest form: an objective image of reality, to this extend, that some critics even argued that it is not art. Other critics, like philosopher Stanley Cavell, claimed that photography is not only art, but even a higher form of it: Photography overcame subjectivity in a way undreamed of by painting, one which does not so much defeat the act of painting as escape it altogether: by automatism, by removing the human agent from the act of reproduction. But are such opinions rightful? Is photography only a representation of reality? This essay is going to focus on refuting of the representational function of photography.
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From one perspective, photography can be a very easy means of representing reality: the camera captures the object as it sees is, the final image being a mere outcome of the combination of photographer's craft and the natural condition he has been working in. If we are not talking about techniques such as photomontage or collage, it seems that there is practically no space for the photographer to manipulate his picture. He can of course change the sharpness, blur, contrast of colours, but he cannot really change the object itself so the picture remains objective. Sometimes, there is even no photographer needed, the self- timed shutter can do the whole work for the artist. Why then cannot we say that photography is objective?
When the photographer decides to take a picture, his perception of reality is already limited by the photographic lens, and the subject of a photograph is always subjective: it has been chosen by the photographer. Photography is not only the process of copying a 3D image into a 2D picture, the human agent is never absolutely erased, there always is someone who releases the shutter, who decides when and of what the picture is taken (unless we are talking about accidental pictures, the shutter release is always intentional). What is more, in photographing real human flesh, the actual people, the model is always aware of being photographed and therefore strikes a pose, puts on a mask, wanted to be shown not as he really is, but how he wants to be seen. Therefore the photographs do not denote the actual reality but embody its presence .
A more controversial reading of images is proposed by Jean Baudrillard. In The Evil Demon Of Images this philosopher argues that modern images not only do not denote actual reality, but are the sites of disappearance of meaning and representation, they are the very denegation of reality. Those images have the ability to proliferate, creating more and more copies of copies: various simulacra. The images aim to depict the reality, but in a masked or perverted way, and as a result they try to mask the absence of this reality, becoming its own simulacrum. If they no longer bare any relation to reality how can one consider them nothing but a faithful copy of an object? This essay shall not justify photography as an objective depiction of future, but show the dangers which such an assumption brings and try to explain why even what seems to be a mechanical process is not free from ideology and photographer's/ viewer's consciousness and how it changes our perception of reality.
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From Baudelaire to Baudrillard: A Historical Overview Of Approaches Towards Photography.
The great French decadent poète maudit, Charles Baudelaire, said that "photography must return to its true duty which is that of handmaid of the arts and sciences, but their very humble handmaid. Let photography quickly enrich the traveler's album and restore to his eyes the precision his memory may lack. Let it, in short, be the secretary and record- keeper of whomsoever needs absolute material accuracy for professional reasons". This suggests, that as early as 1859, the photography was already perceived not as a lesser version of a painting or a scientific couriosity, but also as a seemingly objective and impersonal way of depiction and documentation.
Like Baudelaire, most 19th century people believed that photography provided an accurate and faithful image of reality and celebrated its ability of precise depiction. Its assumed power of accurate, dispassionate recording moved photography into the realm of science rather than art. For most Victorians, photography was offering an objective access to reality, not distorted by the human agent, political ties or philosophy. Being perceived as a method of naturalistic documentation, a medium of truth and unquestionable accuracy, photography soon became to be used rather as an evidence than a commentary. Many of the 19th century photographs were not even intended as artistic statements or means of self- expression, but rather were determined by the expectations of empirical science, topography and record keeping.
As for record keeping, the documentary photography in the Victorian society was used not only to document event and ceremonies, but also proved itself to be an objective and precise witness in scientific investigations. Unfortunately, it was also used not only as a scientific evidence, but also as a (insufficient) crime evidence, and the cases of arresting on the basis of mistaken photographic identity were common.
The photograph is not sufficient evidence by itself, it needs an interpretative structure in order to produce a steady meaning. This analysis of photographic truth leads towards the analysis of power, and our understanding of documentary photography is shown to depend upon our understanding of its social and political aims. It is therefore not only the photographer who produces the meaning, but the viewer himself as well, and this meaning will usually be dependent on the viewer's perspective of class and power.
This reveals the double system of representation in photography. The photograph can be used to honor or repress its subjects, to either complement the ceremonial presentation of the bourgeois self or establish and delimit the terrain of the other. One of the aims of the photographic image is either to describe the powerless to the powerful, and vice versa, or to describe the powerful to the powerful, and therefore photography is one of the means of establishing class systems and moral hierarchies. On the other hand, the depiction of both, rich and poor, creates the myth of liberal and objective photography. What is more, by the means of mechanical visual reproduction (i.e. by photography) unique objects, distant places, paintings, sculptures and art in general became more accessible.
This reproduction of images has also its drawbacks. According to a Marxist philosopher and literary critic, Walter Benjamin, it made the valuable images ubiquitous, but, as even the best reproduction has an imperfect presence, therefore it lacks its unique existence, an authenticity, a state of being an authority, the reproduction immortalized the imperfect, the empty, replacing the real with a second- hand copy. These reproductions are nothing like reality because the surface appearance of places tells us little about the sociopolitical circumstances which influence and circumscribe actual human experience, at their best they can not be nothing more than an evidence that something existed somewhere at some time and that it was photographed. As Italian writer Umberto Eco said, the photograph reproduces the conditions of optical perception, but only some of them it is not a precise image of reality, and its lower quality , diminished by mechanical reproduction, leads only to second- hand experiences, by being fed by duplicated images one not only looses the contact with the authentic world, with nature, but his personal self, and a work of art as well, loses its individuality and independency. The idea of simulacrum- a reproduction of a reproduction is explored in greater depth by Jean Baudrillard, whose criticism will be discussed in Chapter III.
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The image of photography has therefore evolved from an objective, chemically produced image into a manipulative, shallow, yet dangerous simulacrum. As photography is looking only at one aspect of reality, in its pretending to be objective it creates a false consciousness. A photograph on its own can only reveal surface information, and , what is more, text can dramatically change its meaning. The photographs match the object's proportions and simulate its colours, but they do not denote the real. They represent by the virtue of resemblance- that is by the virtue of failures in depiction. In the next two chapters I shall expand the criticism of Susan Sontag and Jean Baurdillard in order to prove how photography fails to deliver an objective image of reality, and, what is more, how it alters and replaces the real.
'Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire' : A Study Of Susan Sontag's On Photography
Susan Sontag, an American literary and cultural theorist, in a set of essays collected in On Photography presents a worldview radically different from this of Charles Baudelaire (quoted in Chapter I). While for the French poet photography was only an aid for the memory, for Sontag photographs are not so much an instrument of memory as an invention of it or a replacement. A photographic picture does not help in recalling memories, but it substitutes for them. Additionally, it not only replaces memory, but also the whole reality, as we tend to interpret the world through images.
These photographic images that constitute our reality and create our worldview gain a practically unlimited authority because they are perceived as an objective medium of conveying information. As photography is less dependent on the image maker then painting or writing (because it is an automatic optical- chemical process), photographs tend not to be considered as interpretations but as reflections, and this association with reality gives them superiority status over other media and sets them apart from them. While painting and writing are generally perceived as narrowly selective interpretations, photography is treated as a narrowly selective transparency, a more objective insight into reality.
Sontag proves that an assumption that photography can be objective is a wrong one, as even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience, they portray the world in an aesthetic way, accordingly to the expectations of the photographer. As an example Sontag uses the photos taken for the Farm Security Administration, where the photographers took numerous pictures of the same subject until they had captured the 'correct' expression that conveyed their notion of poverty. Most photographs therefore tend to follow a canon of aesthetic expectations, not the actual reality.
This means that photographs are like shadows in Plato's cave: they resemble reality, but are nothing more than a resemblance. We, as the viewers of a photographic picture, just as prisoners in Plato's cave, start to construct our perception of the world by using these imperfect images. However sad such a view is, for Sontag it is also a marker of a modern, capitalist society: a society becomes modern when it is producing and consuming images, when images determine our demands upon reality and become the substitutes for firsthand experience, a capitalist society requires a culture based in images, gathering unlimited accounts of information. In such modern societies photography not only provides a new way of understanding the present, but it also imprisons and consumes reality.
When reality starts to resemble what we are shown by cameras, people start to perceive themselves as camera constructs as well. While in non- industrial countries many people avoid being photographed as they believe it steals their soul, the citizens of industrialized countries hunt for being photographed as they feel that having their picture taken makes them real. The position of photograph reverses from being a material trace, an extension of its subject, into being its constitution, its integral part.
For Sontag, the previously mentioned belief that photography steals the subject's soul is not an unsubstantiated one. She perceives the camera as a weapon, and photography as a violation of its subject as it turns humans into objects that can be symbolically possessed. To photograph is to acquire the person/ object placed before the lens. Sontag distinguishes three types of such an acquisition. Firstly, a photograph is a surrogate possession of a dear person or thing. Secondly, it is a means through which events enter our experience. Finally, there is an informational acquisition, as through being photographed, something becomes a part of our system of information. Additionally, photography can not only be used as a medium of acquisition, but also as a surveillance method, a way of controlling the population. Camera lens is therefore not an objective mirror, but seems rather like an evil demon or Orwell's Big Brother. Sontag stresses the acquisitional quality of photography even further- as our reality is constructed by images, to acquire an photographic image is to acquire a piece of reality.
In order to escape the authoritarian quality of photography, the photographer should distinguish between art and documental photography. The eye of an art photographer is an individual one and it is commonly known that the image it produces is subjective. The documental photographer should be an objective recorder, but, as I previously mentioned, the objectivity of photography is only a myth. The instrumental use of photography is therefore more dangerous than the aesthetic one, as it wears a mask of innocent, accurate relation to visible reality. The aesthetic, art and fashion photography always bears a hint of fake reality that can be easily acknowledged by the viewer. On the contrary, the documental photography veils its subjectivity in a curtain of fake truth and assumed objectiveness, and therefore manipulates its reception. It is tempting to say that artistic photography is closer to the reality as its subjectivenes is obvious for its viewers. No matter which, artistic or documental, images create our reality, it is a reality based on lack and absence. Photography is, after all, a token of absence, a reminder of something that was and no longer is.
Overall, for Sontag photography fails for five reasons. Firstly, it excludes and includes things in a frame and therefore presents the reality in small units. Secondly, in offers an insight only to the facade of things and leaves the viewer to reason himself what the reality is like. The viewer's reaction will depend on his moral or political standpoint and therefore the interpretation will not be objective. Thirdly, photographs can give us knowledge of the world as we accept to see it, which paradoxically is the opposite of understanding. They transform what is present into a mental image and require a narration for understanding. They also do not arouse real ethical or political conscience but only its sentimental resemblance. Finally, as they can be easily reproduced mechanically, they duplicate the world and make it seem more accessible than it actually is.
Evil, Sorcery and Phantasmagoria: Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra
Similarly to Susan Sontag, Jean Baudrillard assumes that photographic images consume reality and become its substitutions. He refers to the images as 'simulacra', which means a copy of which there is no original. Simulacra supplanted what they were supposed to signify, they replaced reality and restrained our ability to genuinely response to life. The images became the rulers of our socio- political life, replacing the logic of production and class conflict with themselves, and the industrial production and political economy were in turn substituted by the media.
Our society is a media- saturated one, where media are the main simulation machines reproducing images (as well as codes and signs), which constitute an autonomous realm of (hyper) reality.This process of reproduction ,as opposed to production, reverses the relation between reality and representation. When the boundary between the two dissolves, reality becomes inferior to representation and disappears. Then, signs and modes of representation come to constitute reality, and out universe becomes a relative and imaginary one, the mass consciousness and media phantasmagoria blend, falling for copies of images, for copies of meaning.
The plentitude of images does not indicate the plentitude of meaning. On the contrary- images are not sites of production of meaning and representation, they are the sites of disappearances of meaning and representation, sites in which we are caught quite apart from any judgment of reality, thus sites of a fatal strategy of denegation of the reality principle. Unlike images, meaning is not infinite, it is always limited precisely by its end, by its finality. The world is therefore flooded with empty, meaningless images that no longer signify real objects but start to signify nothing more than themselves. Images murder their own model, they murder the real and bury meaning. Signs and modes of representation start to create the reality, no longer denoting it.
When images no longer signify the real, the other images become their only destiny. Images become more real than the real, in a kind of vertigo in which it does no more than resemblance itself and escape its own logic, in the very perfection of its model. An image becomes to be a remake of itself, a copy of a non existing original, caught in a never-ending pursuit of itself, it becomes a phantom image, a simulacrum.
Before an image becomes a simulacrum, it undergoes a relatively short process if transformation. Baudrillard distinguishes four successive phases of the images. At the first stage, images are reflections of a basic reality, and are, as Baudrillard calls them, a 'good' appearance of the order of sacrament. In the second phase, an image starts to pervert the reality, thus becoming an 'evil' appearance of the order of malefice. Images on the third stage mask the absence of reality, they play at being an appearance and Baudrillard assigns them to the order of sorcery. In the fourth case, an image is detached from reality and bears no resemblance to it, it is its own, pure simulacrum. The images of today not only are in the fourth, last phase of transformation, but they are as well the third- order simulacra (their 'originals' were already the images of the fourth phase which later twice underwent the process of further reproduction). This stage is the stage of the simulation proper, the final result of the process of simulation.
The image no longer acts as a reflection, mirror, representation, or counterpart to, the real, but it begins to contaminate reality and to model it, when it matches the reality in only does so in order to distort it, and it appropriates reality for its own ends, when it anticipates it to the point that the real no longer has time to be produced as such.
With the disappearance of the real nostalgia assumes its full meaning, there is a pletheora of myths of origin and signs of reality- a plethora of truth, of secondary objectivity and authenticity. A similar issue was raised by Susan Sontag and discussed in Chapter II: images do not arouse real ethical or political conscience but only its sentimental resemblance. The relationship between the real and the meaning twists and its place is taken by nostalgia. As a result, the ethics are lost, the reference between the signifier and the value it signifies are dead and the place of an individual is taken by the mass.
Why is it that we allowed images to contaminate and finally replace our reality? Baudrillard, just as Sontag did, sees the disappearance of the reality principle as a sign of postmodernism. The modern universe of production fell into the postmodern society of simulacrum. Postmodernity is characterized by radical semiurgy, by a proliferation of signs. The power of images lies in their capacity of proliferation, hence they gain superiority over the limited meaning.
Finally, photographic images are insidious as when they appear most truthful, most faithful and most in conformity to reality that the images are most diabolical. Photographs are more realist then images from the past, and this reality makes them most immoral and perverse. And this immorality is their fundamental power, derived from the primal pleasure they offer, from the brute fascination unencumbered by aesthetic, moral, social or political judgment. This immorality lead to the state when there is the lack of differentiation between image and reality, with no place for representation as such. The images only seem to resemble things, but are in fact diabolically replacing them.