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Photography: Then And Now

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Published: Mon, 15 May 2017

Why is the photographic image so powerful & iconic, how do they produce connections of timelessness, and emotional context + what are the perspectives around image making in addition what is its relationship to painting?

In its first decades of its existence photography was labeled as “sun painting” a term coined to be contemptuous, and one which epitomized the mechanical character to the painters artistic freedom. Therefore because of this, photography has become an ever-growing field of investigation and argument. Photography and its role in art and the everyday is something which I would like to open up in this discussion, I have looked at various writers to aid this discussion as well as a series of classic and contemporary photographers. This dissertation will inform and open up concepts around photography whilst putting it under a microscope and examining it with sensibility.

Photography as a medium has become a phenomenal sensation of capturing a still image; it inspired historical as well as literary imaginations. Photography was the possible brainchild of modern science, or of modern invention explicated by science, it oscillates between the realms of science, poetry fiction or fantasy. The registration of the first daguerreotype signaled first and foremost a mystery it also permeated this idea of it being the aura of a cultural creation, and if not a legend, rather than that of a scientific discovery. This idea is particularly evident in an account provided by critic Jules Janin in L”Artiste of 27 January 1839, which extolled the daguerreotype as a modern realization of the biblical Fiat Lux 1, and in particular marveled at its ability to record the most minute detail (down to the “grains of sand”) as well as, even more improbably, “the shadow of a passing bird”2.

Speaking to the camera detaches the visible from the capacities of the eye and brings forth the virtuality of the visible, in a sense the camera can be seen as the third eye which extends ones vision. The procedure of photography is a materializing which makes something material from apparition and through photography things can be seen differently. The ability to photograph was seen as a strange phantasmagoria and a method of hyping up the real, it posited bewilderment at the magic of the daguerreotype, combined with the urge to make the idea of photography as generic as possible.

Many photographers change how we look and perceive photographic images. Eugene Atget -a surrealist photographer- was one of the first to refuse to photograph the face and body, Atget removed people from his pictures and with them the last remainders of cult value in the medium. His photographs of Paris were like scenes of a crime, desolate scenes of everyday objects as ordinary experience were revealed as strange and quite unsettling. In this way photographs acquired the first traces of political significance that all was not as it seemed at first glance. Atget’s photography replaced the aura of the early image with the emptiness of the city view. He asks “But isn’t every square inch of a city a crime scene?”3.

Hippolyte Bayards 12 minute exposure entitled Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (1840) 4, presents us with a fictional image which shows how a photograph can deceive us. At the time was considered quite racy and controversial, nudity was something which was private and highly discouraged, and especially not something to be photographed. It presented a dichotomy of what was and what was not allowed.

Latin Phrase ‘Fiat Lux’, ‘let there be light’ The phrase comes from the third verse of the Book of Genesis.

Quotefrom book

From Walter Benjaminpage???

Bayard, Hippolyte. Self Portrait as a Drowned Man.1840, France.

Instant death is not accessible, so the alternative is to feign death and stimulate the artificial arrangement of it. This staged photo montage displays a conspicuous protest against the cruel injustice of life. Nowadays, every calamity with fatal outcome is photographed in its horrifying representation within the media. We find photographs of death intriguing and visit monuments which represent places where vast amounts of people have died. Why is this? The feeling of being exempt from calamity stimulates interest in looking at painful pictures like war photos etc, partly because one is ‘here and not there.’Photographs therefore subtract feelings from something we experience firsthand, but it is the closest we can get to this experience. To summarize, one is vulnerable to disturbed events in the form of photographic images in a way that one is not to the real thing.

Pictures are things that have been marked with all the stigmata of personhood and animation: they exhibit both physical and virtual bodies; they speak to us, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. “They present not just a surface but a face that faces the beholder as if pictures had feeling, will, conscious, agency and desire.” 5. With a kind of social or physiological power of their own: a power to attract the beholder, arrest and enthrall, transfix or paralyze the beholder, turning him or her into an image for the gaze of the viewer, the ‘medusa’ effect. U.S Civil War Photographer Matthew Brady used the power of photos to create social and political photo essays, often centered around injustice and suffering. His images raised public response and outcry which led to positive social changes, they had the ability to change the nation’s noble, romantic view of war, and although Brady was simply recording events, his picture essays were powerful enough to change public opinion.

Photographs can be quite allegorical; they have natural instinct to produce potent emotional responses. In Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, 6. a major part of this book is dedicated to a narrative telling of his bereavement for his dead mother, and through looking at his collection of old family photographs he can find her again. This concept is something that leaks into a large extent of our private lives, as photographers the majority of us have in our archives, portraits of people who are no longer living – some of whom may mean an enormous deal to us. We have all gone through this procedure of en masse as a culture following the death of public figures that have touched us: Marilyn Monroe, John F Kennedy, John Lennon to name a few. Correspondingly, we look for the diabolical streak in pictures of persons who turn out to be mass murderers: Myra Hindley, Ted Bundy Etc. Photographs make us, as a collective, understand and appreciate our emotional attachments to them. This hidden agenda is something Barthes tries to permeate in our minds. Barthes was overwhelmed with the connections he found between the images, and time and death are themes which very much personify his writing.

The reality here is, as Barthes tries to evoke, that death is ultimately concrete and that the actuality of the photos is palpable. We find ourselves being struck with such emotional attachment when we look at old photos of loved ones in addition to being face-to-face with what time and the instant mean in an image. The Aura in these pictures may be related with time because when we observe them, we sometimes feel nostalgic. The revelation of this is to reflect back to the genesis of his ideas, that the genius of photography provides a spectrum for which the subject really was there; and that he would conclude that death indeed was the rational and logical implication of every picture. Poring over images of the dead

Quote : Freedberg, D.( 1991)The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. University of Chicago Press, USA

Camera Lucida : name of the apparatus, anterior to photographer, which permitted drawing an object through a prism.

is an active part of grief, of mourning, of dealing with the actuality and immediacy of death. This ritual did not exist for anybody but the upper classes (obviously before photography was invented.) Photography marked the birth of the image and in1839 I believe would have been a milestone in the history of mourning rites and thanatology.

Barthes looks carefully over these images with a keen hope of remembering. He seeks in sorrow and love for the loss of his mother in hopes of finding one picture which would represent his mothers spirit, he accounts the following when an old childhood photograph is found: “My mother was five at the time (1898), her brother was seven. He was leaning against the bridge railing…she, shorter than he, was standing a little back, facing the camera…she was holding one finger in the other hand as children often do, in an awkward gesture. The brother and sister had posed, side by side, alone; under the palms of the Winter Garden…I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother.” 7. What we can extrapolate from this examination of the Winter Garden photograph is that Barthes become comforted by its actuality, in the sense that the picture literally emanates his mother (although being a child Barthes never knew of.) He sees the photograph as a magic relic of his mother perpetuating love, there is an assertion of tenderness in the photo as she lends herself to the photographer and allows herself be photographed. He can then reassure himself of his mother and know that his heartfelt experience with her was real. Old photographs are ghostly semblances that materialize before our eyes and in our imaginations, this is certainly evident when Barthes sees this particular photograph; and through photographs we try to immortalize a significant moment in our lives.

Photographs possess an extraordinary ability to touch us in ways that are supernaturally impossible. They retain a certain animation which cannot be possessed or captured in a painting or sculpture, they speak to us. Through speaking we understand and realize their true intentions and motivations, and this is what we learn from Barthes. The same ideas apply when we look at photographs of people who have committed crimes. A photograph is not just a picture of something or someone it’s what is attached to it that we hold that emotion. In the case of serial killer mug shots it’s the evil that you know behind that photograph or the sinister intention which reinforces the feelings of loathing, hatred and disgust

Photographs are visual fossils, they make us think about and realize our own mortality and existence, and therefore have remained so timeless. Old photographs fill out our mental image of the past; the photos being taken now transform what is present into a mental image. The passing of time also adds to the aesthetic value of photographs. The Art of the portrait photographer may be to induce in his or her subjects a sense of presence and there-ness. Oddly photographs have the magical capabilities to move you back and forth through time, and because of this, the past always seems accessible except physically it isn’t. The photograph becomes a kind of resurrection as it continues to live after the person is gone. It has the strange ability to evoke memories through imaginative recall and gives the texture and essence of things; it is not so much an instrument of memory as an invention of it or a replacement.

August Sanders taxonomical portraits developed a philosophy that placed man within a cyclic model of society, by systematically photographing people from various classes, Sander hoped that by using light and photographing their facial features it would reveal and accentuate character, charisma, provenance or background.

Quotation : Barthes, R. Camera Lucida. (1980:29-30).

Walter Benjamin coined the optical unconscious as a realm of experience, as a similar way as psychoanalysis constituted as access to the psychic unconscious. It invests the photograph with intimacy as well as the capacity for illumination. “It is another nature which speaks to the camera rather than to the eye.”8. Photography is not only like its subject but homage to the subject; it is part of an extension of that subject. Photography has the power to ‘capture’ a secret, and we have the power to see it. The viewer “feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject….” 9. Benjamin refers to a photograph- a portrait- of the photographer Dauthendey and his wife who had later committed suicide. Looking at the photograph we search the picture for a kind of evidence in the past, of what was to transpire in the future. (Perhaps a sign written on her face, her posture, invisible to her fiancé who stands alongside her, but visible to us looking at the photograph many years later, and with the knowledge that she would, after bearing him six children, kill herself). What we can conclude here is that Benjamin then, grants the viewer (as well as the medium of photography) a kind of desire for omniscience. The photographic image calls for translation, and can show traces of the past and point at something that is absent.

On the basis of a partial assimilation to the model of painting and through the wake of modernism, the advent of photography has slowly gained acceptance within museums and that of the art market and thus making it a recognizable and distinct art form. But why have they thus far remained a provocative and intriguing form of art? Paintings and sculptures are a matter of interpretation from the artist; whereas with photographs to a certain extent- are a reflection of the real. It cannot just be seen in many ways as an art form but as a way of seeing and thinking. Photography represents a precious asset; they provide us with an encounter we would not think was possible without, however our perception of images and photography have greatly changed since the very first photograph was made. In its relation to painting, a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image) it is a usurp reality and an interpretation of the real, it can be thought of as a trace which is directly stenciled off the real like a footprint or death mask. It carries some of its simplest qualities to such perfection that it will become for even the majority of skillful painters a subject for observation and study. It’s because of this perfection that the painter, therefore, will find this a quicker way to obtain collections of studies that he would only by much time, and trouble be able to collect no matter how talented the painter. Paintings, even ones which meet photographic standards of resemblance, are never more than the stating of interpretation. In Benjamin Walters Little History on Photography he makes a point that “using photography killed painting”10.

There is a primitive notion which presumes that images possess the qualities of real things or that there is an inclination to attribute to real things – the concept of original and copy, reality and image. There are many conspiracies surrounding the notion of what is real, as well as the criticism of reality as a façade and the depleted sense of it.

8. Quotation: Gold,J.R. Film and Translation in the Writings of Walter Benjamin(2007: 602-622)

9. Quotation: Stamelman, R. Loss beyond telling: Representations of Death in Absence in Modern FrenchPoetry (1990:281)

10. Quotation: Walter, B. Little History of Photograph. (1931:PAGE UNKNOWN)

In Sontag’s The Image World (On Photography) a lot of emphasis is made of the reproducibility of the image. Photography has become a mass art, a social rite, in which we document sequences of consumption. It can provide knowledge independent of experience and can capture, classify and store the Information in a way that provides possibilities for control not feasible under earlier forms of information storage. Feurbach observes that our era -“prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original the representation to the reality, appeared to the being” 11.

Photography does not simply reproduce the real; it recycles it- a key procedure of a modern society which consumes images. In the form of photographic images, things and events are put to new uses, and assigned new meanings. The camera offers the possibility of possessing complete record at all ages and through being photographed something becomes part of a system of classification and storage – family albums, geology, medical training, police work etc. Photograph collections are used to make a substitute world. It can also been viewed as an instrument for depersonalizing our relation to the world. What Sonntag is trying to argue is that human beings have mistaken the copy for the thing itself and, as a result, have created a false division between the copy and the so called ‘real’. Sontag explains: “Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies – it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution” 12.

Photographs are a form of acquisition; the possession of cherished people or things as a way of consuming events and a potent means of acquiring something as information, and more importantly gaining control over it. At one end of the spectrum photographs are objective data, at the other end they are items of psychological science fiction. Even the most banal photograph or document can mutate into an emblem of desire.

Nowadays the lure of the image is starting to replace the real via advertisements, newspaper, TV, and digital. “The situation is complicated by the fact that less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything but reality” – Bertold Brecht 13. Copying was seen as immoral, however Aristotles view of the imitative faculty is precisely what makes us human. There has been a lot of speculation surrounding the mechanical reproduction of the photograph. Walter Benjamin had a keen relation to nostalgia and a poetic understanding of the world. He explains in A Small History of Photography that the beginning of image-making was seen as a ‘fog’ which would blind you, using this metaphor politically he is referring it to something which is perhaps dangerous- that art would become nothing more than ideas, signs, allusions or concepts. There was very much a storm of moral fear, it was seen as being blasphemous and opened up ideas about god. That perhaps the photograph or that being photographed would contain the soul- a fetish or magical object. In addition to this the reproductive factor of photography was seen as taking away the aura away from the real thing, ideas surrounding forgery, fakery, copying were highly frowned on. Reproducing images was seen as deracination of authenticity and dissolution of aura and historical depth, because of its special condition it can be exploited by capital for advertising purposes. To an ever increasing degree, the work which is reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work intended for reproducibility.

Due to the reproducibility of images, this condition opens up theories of the ‘politicizing of art’ and

11. Quotation: Feuerbach, K. (1843) The Essence of Christianity. Quoted By Sontag,S. (1979-PAGENA)

12. Quotation: Sontag, S.The image World: Traces of the Real (1977-NA)

13. Quotation: Brech, B. Quoted by Walter,B in Little History of Photography (1931-NA)

Releases questions like how might the photographer go about dealing with a practice that is not completely reducible to propaganda and modern advertising? The mechanical nature of the reproducibility of art and photography has changed modes of perception in which we have reduced objects and made them manipulable, “It is necessary to create something artificial than represent the real.”, “The singular, the unique is divested of its uniqueness- by means of its reproduction.” 14. Process reproduction can reveal those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens- which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. Through photographic reproduction and with the aid of certain processes (such as enlargement and slow motion) can capture images which may escape natural vision. Today in the wake of proliferation and digital media, photography is in a state of dispersion, hybrid forms of photographic imagery mixing analogue and digital technologies have become the norm. Where much of the images we see are heavily manipulated.

There are many reasons why we are infatuated with photography; the flowering of photography allowed for it to be available to everybody, anything in the world is material for the camera, one finds that there is beauty or at least interest in everything seen with an acute eye. The picture is treated as an expression of the artist’s desire or as a mechanism for eliciting the desires of the beholder. People weren’t used to seeing their image, so the photograph provided a difference sense of how we look. It awakened people into a new world. Photographs contain powerful presences present in them – it preserves the object – which is reason why there are superstitions around throwing away photographs of loved ones, as well as the obsession to photograph and to be photographed. Referring back to Barthes, photograph presents to us a spectral, corporal presence in addition to providing a means of reanimating what is unavailable. It imprisons and captures reality; this is something Barthes tries to burn into our consciousness. One can’t possess reality, one can possess (and be possessed by an image) with photographic images one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past. They imply instant access to the real – to possess the world in the form of images is, to re experience the unreality and remoteness of the real. Pictures communicate as signs and signals, it is clear they have a sort of power to effect human emotions and behavior.

Nowadays, we cannot live without photographs they are anywhere and everywhere. The logic of consumption is akin to lust, and therefore it cannot be satisfied because the possibilities of photography are infinite. I believe photography and image-making will continue to inspire and technologies will continue to expand. Presently, we find photography used for narcissistic purposes like surveillance. In an industrial society the camera becomes a spectacle for the masses and as an object of surveillance for rulers. It remains to be a source of great iconography as it is an art for all, which posits photography as universally accessible, and an addition to culture rather than science. Photographs will always and continue to be powerful mechanisms to change things or set things in motion, and it will continue to stand the test of time and document the vestiges of human condition until the end of our existence.

14. Quotation: Walter, B. Little History of Photograph. (1931:PAGE UNKNOWN)


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