“On Photographic Theory and Praxis”
To think, to act, or not to act, that is the question!
Whether it is better to enjoy the scintillating fruits
Of unarticulated talent, or to dissect with academic
Jargon the nature of photography? Unkind fate -
To let me agonize so, when others just do it...
To theorize, or to act, that is the question,
Or to act on theory, or to theorize about action,
Or, in deliberating, to remain paralyzed, able neither
To think or to act? Woe is me, I am undone!
To be a photographer or a theorist, or theoretically
A naïve photographer? Or a thinking photographer?
Woe is me, I am entirely undone! Yes! It is no snap.
Yin-Yang; Yang-Yin; Perhaps I think best by doing!
-- John Walford, February 6, 2011, with thanks to Elias and Grace Cannell, for drawing these thoughts out of me, in raising with me the question.
Do photographs re-present objects or merely record them? I'm confused!
E. John Walford
ALL human-made images say something ABOUT reality, they for sure do not "record" objects, except when used in strictly scientific conditions. But also, in re-presenting people or objects, they say something ABOUT how the maker perceives them - it is not objective - well, maybe the prison mug shot comes close to that - falling closer to the scientific mode of recording a likeness. But just look at that wonderful photograph of your stunning wife, face lined by the fur rim of her coat hood, gazing at the viewer, (recently gazing at us all from her Facebook page) and tell me its just about re-presenting an "object!" - or indeed a "person" - which I believe said Grace to be!
( [The following] aren't my thought necessarily, just my understanding and rewording of Dominic McIver Lopes in "Philosophy of film and motion pictures: an anthology").
The more I learn about the theory behind photography (as I study "media" for my major), the more I realize my wife "gets things" naturally without the aid of an expert's verbalization. I, on the other hand, seem to make connections 6 months or more later than she does. :)
Celluloid film (and digital photography) are the product of a mechanical causal process. In other words, the photograph is a conduit for the "content" (the real-life object), whereas the content of a painting is the medium (the how) and the subject (the what). Of course there are style issues within the control of the artist (such as focal length, framing and the exact moment a photo is taken: all things that de-contextualizes the object photographed and give it meaning outside of the original context), but a photograph is essentially a different medium than a painting (or any other art form that is not a literal translation of reality, for that matter). For the painter, "everything" in the painting is a representation of "how the maker perceives" those things. A photograph is a "record" of reality from a different perspective (not a fictional perspective?). Further more, a painting does not "entail that the object exists," (it could be merely fictional) whereas a photograph does suggest that the object is real.
I was reading in a book today that made me reconsider everything I thought about photography. The idea was about "photographic transparency". Here's a quote defining it:
" To say that photographs are transparent is to say that we see through them. A person seeing a photograph of a lily, literally sees a lily. She does not see a lily face-to-face, for there is no lily in front of her; nor is the photograph a lily - it is an image of a lily. Rather, her seeing a lily through a photograph of a lily is like her seeing a lily in a mirror, through binoculars, or on a closed-circuit television system. As in all these cases, seeing a lily through a photograph is indirect seeing in the sense that the lily is seen by seeing the image; even so, indirect seeing is seeing."
When we see a photograph, we are literally seeing the object the photograph is of, not just the photograph.
Your suggesting that the controlled elements that differentiate one photographer's photo from another photo of an object (focal length, framing, grainyness, etc) are what make the photograph subjective, even though the object is technically and necessarily objectively real in the photograph?
E. John Walford
I appreciate what is articulated above, and yet neither theorist fully gets to the complexity of a photographic image.
1) It is true that a photograph is different from a painting, in that all elements of a painting are consciously, and manually constructed by the painter -and therefore make visible what is in the painter's mind's eye. By contrast, it is true that there must be an object of some sort and light as well, before a photograph can start to be made.
2) Yet, I think it is a fallacy, or at least misleading, to say that photographs are transparent. In one sense, on the most fundamental and simplistic level, this may seem to be the case, which is why the idea once arose that "the photograph cannot lie, and therefore can be used as evidence in a court of law."
3) However, that implies the most direct and non-manipulated use of photography, as in say a police mug shot, in other words, when the camera is used as a scientific instrument, to record visible data.
4) Most photography - even documentary photography - is something subtler -because the photographer uses his or her knowledge of the camera and the medium to convey an impression of something the way they have seen it and want it to be seen by others. It is impossible to underestimate the amount of selection that goes on in the mind and actions of a good photographer to make something turn out the way they want it to be seen. In that process, transparency is erased, even if its semblance remains, which is one reason why photographs can be so compelling, and have such a strong sense of immediacy.
5) Of course Photoshop and digital manipulation extends #4 yet further, bringing the finished product into a realm closer to a painting. I strive, thus, in my own practice to see how far I can push the medium to make thought, and the realm of the invisible, visible.
E. John Walford
I guess where I was leading to in points 1-5 above, is the remarkable fact that even though photographers use a mechanical device, the trademark stamp of an intelligent, thoughtful user's vision is so pronounced that, even among the thousands of photographs from my contacts that I have by now seen on Flickr, I can now pick out--often even in the thumbnail of "your contacts recent uploads"--the distinct characteristics of any given photographer's work.
Thus, even without reading the up-loader's name, I SEE from the type of image, quality of color and light, composition, and subject, etc, etc, EVEN in the thumbnail, I can often recognize it as the work of X, Y, Z, because it has a certain "flavor" to it that I have come to associate with their work.
This does not work for run-of-the-mill work, nor family snapshots, but for that more carefully and thoughtfully made, or snapped on the basis of long, and now intuitive experience.
It is on the basis of this experience, that I hold the conviction that photography can be just as personal a form of expression as painting or drawing, and that the greater the individual is a master of the medium, the more effectively he or she can use it to embody NOT a transparent mediation of the object out there, in front of the camera, but a particular person's discrete mode of perception, sensibilities, likes and dislikes, sense for color, tone and texture, and much, much more.
I hope that helps feed your thought processes. But note: This is theory forged from the long experience of viewing, and does not come from books, nor authorities.
From a Facebook exchange between Elias Cannell and John Walford, Feb 5, 2011.