The Blog of John Walford, British-born, but long resident in The United States. I am an art historian, currently studying satire in Netherlandish art, an amateur photographer, and occasional writer, who writes here about art, photography, and the human condition--some of it ekphratic poetry, responding to works of art. This is to be a site for words and images, interacting on one another, as vehicles of human expression.

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

John Walford - "Folly's Mirror -On Photographic Theory and Praxis," 2011

Folly's Mirror, 2011, originally uploaded by johnwalford.

“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.

Excerpts from a dialog on Facebook about theory and praxis in photography:

Eli Cannell
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!

Eli Cannell
( [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.


  1. Thanks John,
    Only connect...
    A couple random thoughts: relating, communicating via photographic or video-graphic retrieval systems has overshadowed most other means of communication over the past hundred years. How will this shape us long-term? After the spoken word, the written (and later the printed) word had massive shaping influence on human identity, cultural productivity, even on the nature of human being (especially perhaps the rise of nation-states and now global village).
    Being able to supplant human memory with cybernetic memory will change us -- as have audio and image retrieval via the still camera and motion picture camera.
    All communication is intersubjective -- even so-called objective scientific communication.
    The question, it seems to me, is how the space between us is charged. Is that intersubjectivity open and eager for the Other or is it one-way, monologic, manipulative or coercive? Painting and sculpture can be every bit as manipulative and colonial as photography, but the slower and more obvious subjectivity of those older mediums tends to ameliorate some of the possible power-motivation. Digital media allow hypnotic speed and unprecedented power of objectification...

  2. Bruce:

    I tend to think that painting and sculpture both carry more of an authoritative, and elitist voice than the more democratic medium of photograph and/or other digital arts. The former also carry in them the gravitas of a very long, and esteemed tradition, which adds to their authority.

    In short, I think speed of transmission is far outweighed--within the terms you have laid out--as a dominant factor by longer-term cultural perceptions of the authority of each respective medium. Thus painting is more prone to power plays than digital media - speed notwithstanding.

    What excites me with digital media, combined with the (relatively-comprehensive) open access of the Internet, is that it truly gives a voice to the demos - the hoi-poloi like me can even get our "artworks" seen, and our visual expression considered by others.

    As one small example, on Flickr, though I post mostly somewhat esoteric materials, not pulp fiction, nor quasi-pornography (which, sadly, always has a huge draw, wherever posted-even on Flickr), I have to date had approximately a quarter of a million hits, with viewers coming from almost all parts of the world, with the exception of Central Africa, and outer Mongolia. I have also been able to sustain discourse with some few of those same viewers, from widely different countries, and exchange ideas on a host of matters from sorrow and aging, loss of a marriage partner, the nature of depression, to religious belief, the joy of grandchildren, the signification of decay within nature,the role of light, shadow, and darkness, and most commonly, the nature of different modes of visual communication, including, of course, digital photography.

    I personally see many benefits therein, and am not aware of any power plays, manipulation, or such going on - rather I am engaging in an exchange of ideas with a range of different people, from the gay community of Glasgow, Scotland, fellow religionists all over the globe, to various Buddhists in India and elsewhere, as well as some ex-pats in Japan and Australia.

    Would any of them come to my aid, if in need? - Well, proably not, but them I also have a local community, so I don't see it as an either or, as some Luddites do, pouring scorn on the nature of Internet communication. I will have none of that! As far as I am concerned digital media and the Internet are merely a new set of tools, that offer new possibilities, AND new temptations, and just like all else, our bodies, brains, sexuality, money, and time, have to be used wisely, as visionary, and strategic stewards of the possibilities these media open to us.

    Finally, nor do I see these media as undermining or userping the place of painting, because painting offers other possibilities and other forms of appeal, value, and modes of address.


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John Walford

John Walford
Not All That Meets The Eye

About Me

My photo
United States
I am a British-born, art historian, teaching in the USA; I studied law, in England,1964-68; worked part-time in the art world, 1968-69; then studied art history at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, 1969-76; completed my Ph.D. diss. at the University of Cambridge, 1981; moved to the States in 1981, and have since written, or co-authored, other books. I am currently studying satire in Netherlandish art. My wife, Maria, was born in Milan, Italy, where she worked as an interpreter, in business; she spent seven years in Switzerland, at the University of Lausanne, 1963-70. She came to Amsterdam in 1971, and we soon married. She is a wife, mother, literary critic, of Italian (and French) literature, and completed her Ph. D. diss. in 2002, at the University of Chicago, on Cesare Pavese and His Critics. We have three married children, and eight grandchildren, all of whom we excessively adore! I welcome dialog about art, photography, human behavior, beliefs, and motivation from all comers, regardless of race, color, gender, orientation, values, or beliefs. This is to be a site for words and images, as vehicles of human expression, around topics of mutual interest.

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