Good Documentary Photography is Still Alive at the New York Times

Michelle Anderson, Writer and Advocate, author of “Go Home to Your Dying Downtown” , photo by Damon Winter

It’s more and more rare to see good documentary photography in online or print publications, which is ironic given the sheer amount of photographs out there and the fact that basically everyone now has a professional quality camera in their pocket at all times. The profession has been dumbed down by any number of things – whiz-bang digital photography capabilities and a generation raised on them, the disappearance of in-house photographers in preference for the work of unpaid “citizen journalists,” general vulgarity of taste.

So it’s refreshing to see good work when it appears. Damon Winter’s photography in “Go Home to Your Dying Downtown,” written by Michelle Anderson for the Time’s Opinion Pages is an excellent example of good work – simple, direct, evocative illustration of the author’s text.

The noun document is derived from the Latin docere, to teach.  In modern times, it’s also become a verb and taken on the more restricted meaning of furnishing evidence. I’ve discussed how this modern meaning has become increasingly problematic with the rise of digital technologies at length in previous posts. But this isn’t to say that, used properly and with integrity, it can’t still be so.

Documenting text with photographs represents a double struggle: first, the writer and photographer need to understand the extent of what can be noted by words and pictures; and second, they need to provide a context that informs and enlightens while staying true to the reality. These are issues of judgment, ultimately subjective, wherein the author and photographer take in the information, give it shape and present it coherently. It’s more difficult than you think, and when it’s done right it rarely gets noticed apart from the whole, because that’s the whole point.

What Your Mother Has to Do With Photography

The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, written by Elissa Marder,  grows out of the author’s longstanding fascination with “the uncanny status of the mother in photography” (frankly, until I read this, I had no idea that mothers had any status in photography). Marder “examines the properties of the maternal function to show that the event of birth is radically unthinkable and often becomes expressed through uncontrollable repetitions that exceed the bounds of any subject,” the act of photographing being one means by which these repetitions are concretized.

Marder’s thesis is that The maternal body serves as an unacknowledged reference point for modern media technologies such as photography, which attempts to mimic its reproductive properties. To the extent that photography aims to usurp the maternal function, it is often deployed as a means of regulating or warding off anxieties that are provoked by the experience of loss that real separation from the mother invariably demands.

So, to summarize: the reason you like photography is because you’re neurotic, and you’re neurotic because your mother didn’t love you enough.

Let me know if you’d like a full review.

About a Photograph: New York, 1967, by Garry Winogrand

That’s Garry Winogrand on the Left, Photo by Tod Papageorge

By Tod Papageorge from https://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/7084

I first met Garry Winogrand at the beginning of 1966. Although I was a dozen years younger than he was, we quickly became close friends and, soon enough, were photographing together on the streets of New York. In the beginning, I found this a little strange; for me, making photographs was something to be done in private, if only because it required such tremendous concentration to have any hope of doing it well. But I soon realized that meeting with Garry and walking the streets with him didn’t mean that I would have to give up the idea of working autonomously: we simply spread out, typically separated by about half a city block, and worked independently. Manhattan was rich enough in photographic possibility that neither one of us felt constrained by the other: there was more than enough to see and be excited by. And then, every once in a while, we could stop and have coffee together and indulge in the pleasure of talking about what we’d seen, usually in the Museum of Modern Art café.

And so, one Sunday, on an early spring day about a year after we’d met, Garry and I found ourselves walking through the Central Park Zoo. I was 20 or 30 yards ahead of him when I noticed a handsome couple walking toward me—they looked like fashion models, in their 20s, both well-dressed—improbably walking with a pair of chimpanzees who were as immaculately attired as they were (the animals even wore shoes and socks). A New York City piece of strangeness, it seemed to me, strange enough to take a picture. So I did.

Then, bang!, I felt myself being pushed in the back away from this odd little group. A real shove, unfriendly, hard. And, of course, it was Garry, camera already up, making pictures, who’d done it.

Garry Winogrand, Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967

Obviously, he was seeing something that I hadn’t seen, and what he was seeing was important enough to him that he was willing—for the first and only time in all the years that I knew him—to aggressively lay hands on me. I was shocked, of course, but once I saw that Garry, and not one of the Sunday strollers rushing by me, was responsible, I forgot about being angry or even irritated: he was my friend, I rationalized immediately, and must have had his reasons for momentarily acting as if he’d never seen me before.

By now, both chimpanzees were off the ground (as my picture shows, one had been toddling between the couple when I first saw the group), and I finally noticed that the man in the little quartet was black, and the woman white and blonde. I’d already recorded that fact with my eyes, I’m sure, but what it may have meant, or could mean, in a photograph, was something I hadn’t had the time or the consciousness to process.

Garry Winogrand, however, had obviously processed the fact: where I saw only the possibility for a joke that, at best, touched on the crazy-quilt nature of city life, you could say that Garry, by not so much seeing the group itself but instantaneously imagining a possible photograph of it, placed meaning, particularly as it might gather around the question of race, at the very center of what he was doing.

In other words, quite apart from whatever Sunday pleasure or notion of self-advertising had actually brought that couple together with those two animals, Garry’s quick mind construed from their innocent adjacency a picture (or the projection of one) that could suggest the improbable price that the two races, black and white, might have to pay by mixing together. He was speculating, of course, playing an artistic hunch, but a large and important enough one that he felt it was worth pushing his friend aside for. So he did what he had to do, and then, a moment later, I answered by making a picture of him standing by the same family group as they continued their stroll through the zoo.

Note Garry’s smile, like that of the cat who’d swallowed the canary, and also the stub of a cigarette sticking out between his fingers, which, with that grin, suggests a man deep into the moment, full of the pleasure of it, more than a truth-telling artist who had just produced an image that can arguably bear comparison with the best graphic work of Goya. For example, here, making such an argument, is Hilton Als, an African-American writer, describing this picture at the conclusion of an essay called “The Animals and their Keepers”:“In the photograph,” he says, “we see a white woman and a black man, apparently a couple, holding the product of their most unholy of unions: monkeys. In projecting what we will into this image—about miscegenation, our horror of difference, the forbidden nature of black men with white women—we see the beast that lies in us all.”

Of course, when he made this picture, Garry had no proof that it would mean anything at all. His film would have to be developed and, even then, he wouldn’t have photographs to see until he’d produced the small 1 X 1 ½ inch frames of each picture on a contact sheet that he could read one by one with a magnifying glass. In other words, as the digital age is now tempting us to forget, there was, and is, built into the usual photographic process a significant distance, both of time and physical immediacy, between an event and a photograph of it. This is a distance that, for Garry Winogrand, had virtually ontological implications, as suggested in the carefully chosen language of his well-known statement, that “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,” or, to elaborate it clumsily, “I photograph [at a given moment] to find out what something will look like photographed [when I eventually have the opportunity to study it in an undetermined future].” When Garry finally developed that film, then, it was not in the spirit of hoping to claim a masterpiece of photography, or simply a good picture (which never really interested him), but, in this particular case, to determine if the possible narrative he’d sensed in the three-dimensional, shifting space of the zoo had, in fact, been confirmed within the reduced two dimensions of his picture—in other words, to judge whether a photograph that more or less depended on a pair of well-dressed chimpanzees to become actors in a provocative, ambiguous tale had, somehow, in the shift from world to image, managed the feat. To put it another way: he was less interested in the ultimate “success” of the picture than in what he called the problem of making it, a problem he had consciously set for himself in the antic moment of pushing me out of his way. As he put it to a group of students a few years later, no doubt remembering this picture as well as others, “well, let’s say that for me when a photograph is interesting, it’s interesting because of the kind of photographic problem it states—which has to do with the . . . contest between content and form. And, you know, in terms of content, you can make a problem for yourself, I mean, make the contest difficult, let’s say, with certain subject matter that is inherently dramatic. An injury could be, a dwarf can be, a monkey—if you run into a monkey in some idiot context, automatically you’ve got a very real problem taking place in the photograph. I mean, how do you beat it?

As it turned out, Garry never reached a conclusion about whether or not he’d solved the problem, or question, that the picture we’re considering here had posed for him. Although it has become canonical, and is, perhaps, the single photograph now most associated with his body of work, the fact is that, in his judgment, it remained an aesthetic question mark until he died. For example, “The Animals,” his first book, comprised of photographs made in zoos, was initially published in 1969, two years after he made the picture, yet it’s not included in the book, a piece of evidence, that, while not conclusive (since John Szarkowski was the publication’s principal editor), at least suggests that he wasn’t sure enough of it to insist that it be added. But he didn’t really worry about such things: there were too many other pictures to think about, too many kinds of lessons in his pictures to unravel and learn from, too many problems put into play as he made them. As he understood it, photography was much larger than he was, and his pleasure as an artist was to unremittingly study it.

As I’ve already stated, Garry was remarkably unmoved by conventional notions of success, even artistic success as typically measured by exhibitions and awards. “You learn from work,” he’d say, and, further, “I really try to divorce myself from any thought of the possible use of my photographs. Certainly, while I’m working, I want them to be as useless as possible.” Which, turned around, also suggests that, as he understood the issue, any one of them could be judged a success by virtue of the possible lesson it might teach him. Failure, as much as success, was an irrelevant concept to him.

Garry could be scathing and utterly dismissive in his criticism of other photographers, however, if their work failed to measure up to what he felt intelligent photography should be. For example, he scornfully rejected a body of work by one of his contemporaries that concentrated on a minority community in Manhattan, by saying that “You expect the people in his pictures to tap dance and eat watermelon,” proof of how aware he was of the power of photographs to reduce black subjects to smothering cliché. But he conducted his own personal investigation into the nature of the medium in what was effectively a judgment-free zone where his interrogation of photography and the making of his pictures were effectively one and the same activity: as I understood it then, and still do, he was the pure artist, or as pure as one could be who was committed to conducting his researches in the open-air theater of the corporal world. Also, he began to teach during this period (at virtually the moment I met him in 1966) and, as part of his teaching, to formulate the series of cryptic, but powerful, aphorisms about photography that, even now, any young photographer would be foolish not to commit to memory before considering the question of whether or not to reject them. So, yes, as the curator of this exhibition, Leo Rubinfien, quotes him as remarking near the end of his life in Los Angeles, Garry was a student of America. Yet, during his most prolific and creatively fulfilling years as a photographer in New York, I would suggest that he was more nearly a student of photography whose observation at the time that “a photographer’s relationship to his medium is responsible for his relationship to the world is responsible for his relationship to his medium” traces an eloquent circle of causation that begins and ends with the photographer’s deep identification with his medium. Certainly, during that period, when I was seeing him nearly every day, he was very much the genius/apprentice implied in that remarkable comment, instructing himself, exposure-by-exposure, about the many different ways photographs could look;how their frames might drop around his subjects, or even tilt as if the photographer was falling or out of control. And, more, how free he could be, and let his subjects be, to move and claim their place in his pictures as if they were expressing their own active agency, rather than appearing to be responding to the whip of the controlling, manipulating artist. In other words, working out a method of picture-making capable of appropriately serving his fierce understanding of whatever his subject might be, whether that was America. Or a beggar in the street. Or a pair of chimpanzees and their putative parents. As he said to a student who asked him what the purpose of one of his photographs was, “My education. That’s the answer. That’s really the answer.” And then, “My only interest in photographing is photography. That’s really the answer.”

For Garry Winogrand, it was foolish to pretend that a thing and a photograph of it were, in any useful sense, one and the same, and that the photographer could no more than minimally control the way his or her pictures of that thing would look. As he understood it, the lens and its unforgiving memory; the world, full of color and dimension; and the photographer’s own limited ability to absorb all of the information arrayed in his or her viewfinder from edge to edge determined an effect, the photograph, that would inevitably be different from the cause that created it, which is to say, the nominal subject of the picture, wild out in the world. “Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed,” he said. As a result of this understanding, he came to see that, far from trying to control, or even limit, that difference, it might be embraced as a way of enlarging the meaning of his pictures, by charging them with an irreducible trace of unresolved, still-sparking energy that, from picture to picture, could be seen to embody the very élan vital that prods and pushes us forward in our own daily lives. So that, in the end, the picture, in some real, physical sense, re-joins us to life, but life transformed, still palpable in its vitality (always decomposing, always rising) and, by being so, true to the chaos—or “monkey business,” as he often called it—that Garry Winogrand knew it to be.

Photography, Truth and Your Truth: What You Can Take Away From Sartre, Sontag, Barthes and Baudrillard

 

Photography has a unique relationship to “truth.” This is the point of much of the philosophical discourse that’s grown up around the medium. It’s, at bottom, what thinkers diverse as Wittgenstein, Satre, Sontag, Barthes, and Baudrillard were exploring. A painter is unlikely to ever experience the same philosophical angst because a painting is a creation in the way that photography is not. From a truth perspective, photos are different than paintings…or any other works of “Art” for that matter. While you can take a photograph that is a complete artifact, (actually, as semiotic philosopher Jean Baudrillard claims, in the digital age all photographs are complete artifacts) to the uneducated eye it can appear as an objective depiction of whatever was presumably in front of the camera’s lens. We naively assume it tells the truth (although this has become increasingly problematic in the digital age – witness the “deepfakes” discussed here and how seductive they are to the untrained eye, or more precisely, the unenlightened, naive viewer).

There’s also a more fundamental argument, over and above issues of process (i.e. is the truth value of digital different than that of analog?) taken up by Austrian-British Analytic Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, about the inherent truth value of photography itself. The naive view would be this: a camera is a machine that faithfully records what is in front of it and then displays just that. If this is so, then any problems with it “telling the truth” are the consequence of some sort of manipulation by the photographer. The more nuanced view, the view shared by those of us with experience and knowledge of the process, is that a camera is not an objective recording machine. It never truly objectively records what is in front of it, given both the decisions made before and the steps that lie between, tripping the shutter and the resulting image. What we get is, at most, someone’s version of the truth. Wittgenstein calls it a “glimpse” not a full view.

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Photographs don’t lie per se. To believe so would be to deny any truthfulness to photographs. Photographs do present a truth –  the photographer’s truth.  A photographer’s truth is what the photographer wants us to see. The issue is not whether that truth has any relation to the Truth, but rather how the viewer relates it to his truth (as I discussed here).

If photography presents the photographer’s truth, what is his responsibility, if any, to the viewer? To a large extent, a photographer’s responsibility will derive from his understanding of how the medium operates. If you’re a “documentary photographer” you believe the camera to be a tool that will faithfully record what is in front of it, and, as such, you’ll put it out that way and expect viewers to demand the same. If, however, you believe your work has a creative dimension, is your interpretation of reality and not a depiction, then it’s about being truthful to your intentions, which are also based on a certain understanding of what your camera does, the creative possibilities it affords you. While the photographer needs to understand and master his intent, he also needs to master the process he chooses to employ – whether a view camera, a digital camera, a film Leica or an iPhone – much like a painter has to understand and master how to put pigments to canvas. A requirement of an effective presentation is that it be competently made. But, and this is what the hacks don’t get, it’s not just about technical competency.**

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I love the photo above. It says so many things to me, stories about desire, age, what we dream about, how the everyday doings of life can blind us to the beauty around us. To say that it represents some objective truth – about a well-dressed older woman looking at a poster on the streets of Paris – would be to miss the whole truth I want it to convey to you. While the photograph is taken from the world, it is not identical with the world.  It is the product of my world, of what is embedded in my mind, my “truth.” All good photography is a viewpoint, and that is what we as viewers must engage with if we are to understand it.

The best photographs present a truth that challenges the viewer’s truth, gives the viewer a different way to see things.  My responsibility is to present you with a truth to challenge your own. This is how photography becomes Art.  If it sufficiently challenges you, its “Art,” even if the challenge results in you deciding it isn’t. Think of Gary Winogrand and his wonky, off-kilter photos; they’re “Art,” not because they adhere to some preconceived aesthetic, but because they force the viewer into Winogrand’s world. The creativity that creates Art is singular, and many people to this day think Winogrand is a joke. But Winogrand didn’t sit around looking at Cartier-Bresson’s photos, trying to ape his style; rather he discovered his own way of seeing things, his own truth, and he put it out there for others to see. He didn’t put it out there for others to critique, or to get advice on how to do it better. That’s for rule-bound hacks. “Fuck em,” was what he said. “That’s how I see.”

That’s where you should be going with your photography – not to please the rule-bound or appeal to the sentiments of others. And while technical competence is a necessary prerequisite, it’s not about that. Don’t confuse the two. It’s about presenting what you see in the manner you see it. Only then will your photography be true, and only then will you have said anything meaningful.

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My advice: Stop worrying what other people think.  Worry instead about what you want to say and how you want to say it. And stop obsessing about technical solutions to creative problems. All the expensive gear –  the M10 with the latest aspherical lens in the elephant skin bag – means nothing and will get you nowhere, no matter how technically competent you are, if you have nothing to say. If you have questions, go look at the usual suspects, the guys pimping themselves as “Leica Photographers,” with their simplistic conflation of technology with creativity, their aesthetic stuck at the level of technical competence, all show, little substance. They have nothing to teach you because they have nothing to say. Ignore them. Stay completely out of their orbit for fear of internalizing their banality. Better an old beater Leica with a $20 Industar in a paper bag….and a head full of ideas.


**This justifies the role of criticism. The critic is someone who considers if the work is done well, meaning done, both technically and according to the parameters of the context in which the artist places his work. Those parameters are different for different types of photography –  is it a document or an expression? – and this can make it hard for viewers who aren’t privy to the context to understand it.  The idea that “I could do that” originates from this contextual confusion, the mistake of conflating simple form with simple art.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Photography, Achilles and a Turtle

Ludwig Wittgenstein. He Resigned His Chair in Philosophy at Cambridge University to Become a Shepard.

The last few posts we’ve been discussing the “ontology” of photography – what, at base, photography is. For the thinkers I’ve already written of – Jean-Paul Sartre, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard – the important thing about photography, its claim on our imagination, is its relationship to what’s “real.” For Roland Barthes, whom we’ve discussed at length, photography was a memento mori, indexical evidence of what had been, and this is what gives it its uniqueness as a medium of representation. Similarly, for Sontag, photography was a “stenciling off of the real,” conclusive evidence proving the reality of the photo’s subject. Both Sontag and Barthes wrote prior to the digital age, Barthes meeting his maker via a  truck in Paris in 1980 (there’s an interesting recent French novel The Seventh Function of Language, by Laurent Binet, whose premise is that Barthes was murdered by other Semioticians), while Sontag did live into the digital age but never updated her thinking about photography (I met her in Paris in 2004, where she signed my copy of On Photography…which, you gotta admit, is pretty cool).

Sartre, Sontag, Barthes all saw photography as basically honest, allowing us access to the real, a function of its “indexicality.” They weren’t questioning the truth of photography itself. Baudrillard might be, but his issue was with the severing of indexicality, which is about a type of photography and not photography itself.

Now, I’d like to discuss an Austrian born “analytic” philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose criticism of photography is of a different type. Wittgenstein’s critique goes to photography’s roots, where even traditional indexical photography – the analog process where light stencils itself onto film – isn’t truthful. This is ironic because, for Wittgenstein, photography is a practical expression of his preferred means of perception, his motto being “Don’t think, look!”

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Wittgenstein (1889-1951) worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of languageFrom 1929 to 1947, he taught Philosophy of Language at Cambridge. While alive he published one book, the 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), one article and one book review. A second work, Philosophical Investigations, contradicting everything he had espoused in the Tractatus, was published posthumously in 1953.  Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein’s mentor – and subsequent protege – himself a philosopher of enduring significance, described him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius, ” and Wittgenstein is now considered a seminal figure in Western Philosophy. A survey of American university professors ranked the Investigations the most important philosophical work of the 20th-century. 

Once you get past the work’s complexity, Wittgenstein’s main point is simple – not everything we know can be put into words.  While most things can be said some things must be shown. In this, he agreed with Thoreau, who said that ” you can’t say more than you can see,” except that Wittgenstein goes further than Thoreau and believes you can see much more than you can say.  More can be shown than can be said, because, for Wittgenstein, to think was not to mentally verbalize but rather to picture.  

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” is the famous last sentence of the Tractatus. Unspoken is Wittgenstein’s premise the things about which we must be silent are actually the most important ( do you see what he did there?). We can’t verbally reason our way to these truths, as Western thought has tried to do since Socrates, but rather we need to look.

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Wittgenstein was Into Selfies Long Before it was a Thing

Given that, it shouldn’t surprise you that Wittgenstein was a photography buff. Apparently, he loved photography, annoying his friends by constantly taking pictures of them with cheap cameras.  But, in spite of his interest, photography represented its own conundrum for Wittgenstein. It was not the problem of indexicality as it had been for Barthes et al.  For him the problem was more fundamental, involving larger issues of visual representation and its capacity to reflect “the truth” of a thing.

Wittgenstein was doing something different than Baudrillard or the others I’ve previously discussed.  For Wittgenstein, it wasn’t that photography lied as a process, it was that what photography produced didn’t tell the whole truth.  Wittgenstein said of photography that it could only memorialize “what one glimpses.” A photograph was not a memorial, as Barthes and Sontag saw it, but rather at best a “probability.” The world of the photo could never be sufficiently complete in an existential sense; the glimpse it offered was too impoverished to present the truth.

Wittgenstein’s archive at the University of Cambridge includes the photograph below, a true “probability”. The woman in the photograph is a composite, created by Wittgenstein, overlaying four different photos of four different faces: his three sisters and himself.

In compositing the images, Wittgenstein was attempting to manipulate the photograph to transcend the partial nature of photographic truth, what he characterized as the difference between the “glimpse” and the long, studied look. To illustrate the difference, Wittgenstein notes what its like to watch someone without their knowing it: “Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone who thinks himself unobserved engaged in some quite simple everyday activity. Let’s imagine a theater, the curtain goes up and we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, seating himself, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a chapter from a biography with our own eyes—surely this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage. We should be seeing life itself.”

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Wittgenstein Would Say This Photo World is a Fiction

Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea (c. 490–430 BC) is best known for what’s called ‘Zeno’s Paradoxes,’ a set of philosophical problems formulated to prove that there is no such thing as change and that motion is an illusion. (If you think about it, that’s the same thing people who claim photography is truthful are saying, isn’t it?)

One of his paradoxes is of ‘Achilles and the Tortoise’. Achilles is in a footrace with a turtle. If  Achilles, who runs faster than the turtle, gives the turtle a head start (100 meters, let’s say), Zeno claims that Achilles can never catch the turtle, ever.  Why? Once the race starts, Achilles will run 100 meters, bringing him to the turtle’s starting point. However, during time Achilles is running the 100 meters, the turtle will run a further distance, say, 10 meters. Achilles will then have to run that distance, by which time the turtle will have run some distance again, etc. In theory, this should go on forever – whenever Achilles arrives somewhere the turtle has been the turtle is no longer there, and now Achilles has a further distance to go before he can reach the turtle, ad infinitum. Achilles can never reach the turtle.

Common sense tells us Zeno is wrong, even though, conceptually, he’s right. Wittgenstein would say that the belief in photography as true is grounded in the same conceptual mistake giving rise to Zeno’s Paradox: the claim that reducing reality to a static slice of time – a motionless state – can tell us anything about truth. Zeno’s philosophy presumed that motion, however actual to the senses, is logically, metaphysically, unreal. So too is the idea that photography could reveal to us a truth, the truth.  

Wittgenstein says that photography can’t give more than a probability of truth. Contrast the quick glimpse of someone when they know you’re watching to the close observation of them when they’re unaware of you. That’s the difference between the photo and the truth.   A photograph is a frozen moment, outside time, and thus a fiction. For Wittgenstein, photography can at best give a “snapshot…one of those insipid photographs of a piece of scenery which is interesting to the person who took it because he was there himself, experiencing something, but which a third party looks at with justifiable coldness.” To get at what’s true, your eyes must be open to the dynamism of reality as it flows via time. Don’t confuse the impoverished glimpse photography gives you with real seeing.

Reader Input Needed: Are You Experiencing Barthesian Fatigue?

What This Guy is Thinking: ” Good God, Just Shoot Me…Another Leicaphilia Article About Some Completely Unintelligible French Philosopher”

As many of you know, I’ve been off on a Philosophy of Photography riff for some time now. Partly it’s because I find the subject fascinating, and partly because talking about the latest Leica gadget gets old after a while, and also, frankly, digital Leica gadgets, in general, bore me, although I’m open to someone gifting me an M10. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m now officially doing graduate work in history at an institution with fairly high standards, so that’s taking much of my time in addition to doing the work I do to pay my bills. As a means of motivating me going forward, I am open to someone starting a Go Fund Me campaign where every reader donates $10, the proceeds going to an M10 for me. It’s the least you could do, given I’ve been faithfully cranking out blog posts now for 5 years (I’m up to around 380 posts), all without running ads or mentioning sponsors or soliciting donations to “help offset” the costs to me of doing so (in actuality, the costs are minimal; it’s the time and effort that creates the burden). I’m assuming, however, that the Go Fund Me campaign, and the M10, aren’t happening. One can wish.

As long as I’m running the blog, there’s always going to be a certain philosophical aspect to it, but I’m afraid that the direction I’ve been going recently – all theory, little Leica – might be causing reader fatigue. All of which is leading up to the question I feel needs to be asked: what is it that you want to see from this site, if anything, going forward?

When I started Leicaphilia some years ago I didn’t care what my readers, if any, would think. I couldn’t have cared less. I saw this as my thing, a place I could say what I wanted to say about Leicas and film photography and digital photography and gear etc without being “moderated” by someone or censoring myself to avoid offending readers. That’s not gonna happen. Occasionally, in response to a particularly inflammatory post, I’d receive an email from a reader saying something to the effect that they’ve been reading my blog for a long time, they think it’s great, but…..I’m better than that. While I appreciate the input, I’ve made a conscious decision to ignore such advice. I think the blog works best when I say what I want to say in the manner I want to say it, and that’s the philosophy going forward. But, I’ve realized that reader input has been a really positive influence on the growth and evolution of the blog – readers’ photography, their essays, their comments.

As for my ideas about where Leicaphilia should be going, what I would like to see is more input from readers. I’m astounded by the quality of its readership, humbled really, by many of you, obviously highly intelligent people with all sorts of experience you could share with others, many excellent photographers, readers whose work I’d love to showcase, as I’ve done in the past. Some of the best work I’ve seen anywhere has been work submitted to the site by readers. I’d like to see more of that, but I’d like to see it accompanied by your thoughts and experiences of doing what you’ve done.

On an ancillary note, a reader recently commented something to the effect that the blog should be renamed Leicaphobia, given the often critical attitude I take to some of the things Leica does. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of my position. I love Leica, am absolutely dedicated to the traditional Leica ethos of simplicity of design and function. I love my Leica film cameras; I’m totally down with the idea of the Leica mystique. It’s real. Where I’m critical of Leica is when they depart from these core values and do silly things. Think of Leicaphilia as a love letter to a wayward lover.

So…the Comments section is open for your input, as is my email at leicaphilia@gmail.com. Let me hear from you.

Price of Fuji Films and Papers Going Up

FUJIFILM has announced a 30% price increase for its photographic films and an as yet undetermined increase for its photographic papers due to “the rising cost of raw materials and logistics.” The increase goes into effect April 1. In the past, Fujifilm claims it has absorbed some of the costs via “structural reforms and communalization of production facilities, but as a responsible manufacturing company and to provide the high-quality products our customers expect, the company will institute a price increase.” Products affected:

Photographic film :
Color Negative Film, Color Reversal Film, Quick Snap, Control Strips
The minimum increase is expected to 30%
Photographic paper :
All of Photographic paper
The minimum increase is a double-digit percentage.

This Person Exists. Maybe.

This Woman Seems Like a Nice Person, or at Least She Looks Like One

“Photographs furnish evidence,” wrote Susan Sontag in On Photography. “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened.” Sontag went on to admit that photographs might sometimes misrepresent situations, but the basic premise went unchallenged: Photos show us things that exist. It’s because of what we perceive as the photo’s truthful reliability, the “indexicality” issue we’ve beaten to death in the last post and accompanying comments. That’s a photo of me, over there; Sontag would say it’s evidence I exist. (I do.)

Of course, Sontag wrote in 1977, before digital photography was a thing. Now, go to the website “This Person Does Not Exist”. There you’ll see nice, unmanipulated photos of different men and women, normal looking people you’d expect to meet during your day, people just like me up there – except that the photos aren’t of real people. The people in the photos do not exist and never have existed (one of these non-existent persons is shown in the photo heading this post).  Their existence has been generated via an algorithm, in this case, a “generative adversarial network” which produces original digital data [read: a new photo] from existing sets of digital data [read: 1’s and 0’s created by a digital camera]. The generative algorithm scans photos of real faces and creates new photos of new faces from them. Voila! A real photo of a fake person.

Now, take a look at that photo. If I hadn’t told you the above, if I were to tell you that was my wife, or a friend, or a family member, and that’s what she looked like, you’d believe me. All you readers arguing with me in the comments section about indexicality, you’d believe me because photos, film or digital, basically tell the truth, right? OK, it’s digital, so maybe it might have been photoshopped a bit, a few pimples removed, eyes brightened, a few crow’s feet smoothed over…but the person is real, they stood in front of someone with a digital camera, obviously they exist, and they probably look something like that. Right. You guys crack me up, unable as you are to see past the outdated conceptual blinders you wear. For those of you arguing against the idea that there really isn’t much difference between the presumed truthfulness of film versus digital photos, go to the website and look around.

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in 1945, film critic André Bazin (1918-58) wrote an essay entitled ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’. ‘Ontology’ is a word you’ll see a lot in philosophy. It’s the study of the ultimate “being” of a thing (e.g. “What do we mean when we say a thing is an animal?”).  To discuss the ontological status of photography is to consider what particular kind of thing a photograph is. Kazin’s interest in the ontology of photography leads to Susan Sontag (On Photography, 1977) and Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida, 1980).

I’ve already discussed Barthes at length elsewhere. In Camera Lucida, Barthes employed a philosophical method associated with Jean-Paul Sartre called “phenomenology”, Barthes himself noting the book was written “in homage to L’Imaginaire by Jean-Paul Sartre.” Sartre wrote L’Imaginaire in 1940, a few years before Kazin’s essay, wherein he applied the ideas of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, to investigate various kinds of images, including photographs.

Sartre’s point in  L’Imaginaire is that there are different kinds of apprehending, correlated with different kinds of objects. Sartre says that when looking at photos we must “intend pictorially”; i.e. apprehending something as a picture is different from apprehending something as a simple object. “If it is simply perceived, [the photo] appears to me as a paper rectangle of quality and, with shades and clear spots distributed in a certain way. If I perceive that photograph as ‘photo of a man standing on steps’, the neutral phenomenon is necessarily already of a different structure: a different intention animates it.” That’s classic phenomenology, where every conscious experience has “intentionality,” which is a fancy way of saying that everything we think is shaped by the category we place the thing thought about.

Barthes, following Sartre, notes the difference involved in perceiving a photo versus perceiving it as a photo. For Barthes the essence of perceiving something as a photograph is ‘that-has-been’: “In photography,” he writes, “I can never deny that the thing has been there”. The person in the photo exists, Barthes is saying; the photo is the proof. By contrast, no painted portrait can compel me to believe its subject had really existed. Hence “This-has-been; for anyone who holds a photograph in his hand, here is a fundamental belief… nothing can undo unless you prove to me that the image is not a photograph.”

So, what of the analyses of Bazin, Sartre, Sontag, and Barthes in the digital age? I’ve discussed the implications of Barthes’ thought here. Listen again to what Barthes considered the ontology of photography: “This-has-been; for anyone who holds a photograph in his hand, here is a fundamental belief… nothing can unless you prove to me that the image is not a photograph.” Using this definition, a digital photograph is not a photograph in Barthes’ sense of the word. This is true of all digital photos, and not just the real images of fake people on “This Person Does Not Exist,”  because the necessary connection to the real thing photographed has been severed and replaced by its connection with a string of 0s and 1s stored in a computer file. With the onset of the digital age, in the words of William Mitchell, there is now “an ineradicable fragility of our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real.”

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Jean Baudrillard, Enjoying a Gitanes While Thinking Deeply

So, if digital images are not photographs in the traditional sense, what is their ontological status – what kind of thing are they? According to Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), French philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator… and photographer, digital images are “simulacra.” Baudrillard was a Semiotics guy like Barthes, who wrote about diverse subjects, including consumerismgender relations, economics, social history, art, Western foreign policy, and popular culture. He is best known, however, for his thinking about signs and signifiers and their impact on social life, in so doing popularizing the concepts of simulation and hyperreality. And, luckily for us, he was minimally aware enough of his surroundings not to get run over by a truck, like Barthes, and so lived to see the digital age.

Baudrillard’s post-digital world is made up of surfaces populated with self-proliferating “simulacra”, which are not copies of the real but their own thing, the hyperreal. Where classic philosophy saw two types of representation— 1) faithful and 2) intentionally distorted (simulacrum)—Baudrillard sees four: (1) basic reflection of reality; (2) perversion of reality; (3) pretense of reality (where there is no model); and (4) simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever.”  Digital photos are in the 4th category – simulacra – and are generated “by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map… it is the map that precedes the territory. It is … whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are… ours. The desert of the real itself.”

The problem with our new digital world, as Baudrillard sees it, is that our sense of reality is in the process of being inexorably altered by the endless profusion of non-reality based images, “simulacra.” In phenomenological terms, the categories we assign things to have been altered; that is to say, digitization has altered our ontology. As Sartre noted, from a phenomenological perspective, photographs form a distinctive category of objects. To see a picture as a photograph is to put it in a category. Now, for Baudrillard, to see something as a digital image is to locate it within the category of simulacra, the not-real, if only subconsciously (Baudrillard would say that we will gradually transition consciously once we’ve realized the ruse is up). This is the radical opposite of Sontag’s claim for analog photography. For Baudrillard, with digital’s severing of indexicality, we can never be certain what kind of image we are seeing, and so, by default, we must assign it to the category of simulacrum. Where once the image world provided us with windows onto reality, the image world now surrounds us in fictitious landscapes that heighten ontological uncertainty by eradicating the distinction between real and not real.

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A Photograph Taken with a Film Camera. These People Exist

So, back to the “generative algorithm scans” creating real, unmanipulated photos of fake people.  Yes, as some of my readers have noted,  film photographers have been able to manipulate images too, although such marginal abilities that exist have had, at best, a marginal effect on how we perceive the world.  And when we suspect a film image has been altered, we can generally find the original – the negative – to check. Now, in the digital age, we can create absolutely real photos of unreal people, what is referred to as “deepfakes,” generated by algorithms, and there’s no original to go back to compare –  the fake is the original.

As Susan Sontag wrote, when we take a photo or share one with others, we are creating and sharing “a tiny element of another world: the image-world that bids to outlast us all.” As to the truthfulness of the digital image-world which we’ll share with others and bequeath to future generations, this remains an open question. 

What Barthes’ Camera Lucida Means in the Digital Era

French Post-Modernist Intellectual Roland Barthes, Pondering the Studium/Punctum Distinction With the Aid of Non-filtered Gauloises

Consider this Part Two of my previous post on Barthes’ Camera Lucida. There, I gave what I considered the gist of Barthes’ thesis on Camera Lucida, the main point you as a photographer can take away from the book. My intent was to de-mythologize the book and make it intelligible to an educated lay readership. In my opinion, any thinker who can’t articulate his thought so that it’s understandable to an educated lay reader probably doesn’t have very coherent ideas to begin with.

Which is not to say Barthes didn’t have much to say. He did. He just suffers from the annoying tendency of “French Intellectuals” to make their thought sound more profound than it really is by expressing it in jargon that obscures it. This has had the unfortunate result that it’s also allowed less interesting thinkers than Barthes, or often thinkers with nothing to say, to join the debate simply via having mastered the appropriate in-group jargon (read this woman if you have questions). Much of modern Semiotics thought, of which Barthes is a pioneer, is, honestly, a mess of incoherent garbled nonsense.***

While I’m not denigrating Barthes’ thought, it’s instructive to compare Barthes’ Camera Lucida with Susan Sontag’s On Photography, written about the same time. Where Barthes is maddeningly opaque – he speaks of “the wound” of the punctum, the “Dearth-of-Image,” the “Totality of Image,” i.e. the usual jargonist clap-trap – Sontag, good practical, American intellectual she is, gets to her point clearly and concisely, absent in-group jargon, seemingly without the need legitimize her thought by unnecessarily obfuscating it.

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The Camera Obscura, Predecessor of the Photographic Camera

The question I posed at the end of Part One was this:  What, if any, are the implications of Barthes’ ideas, as expressed in Camera Lucida, for ‘post-analog’ (i.e digital) photography? After posing the question, I then suggested the answer should be fairly obvious. As I see it, it’s this: Digital capture has severed the direct connection between the thing photographed and the resulting photo. “Photography” as commonly practiced today no longer possesses the one characteristic that made it unique among communicative media – its “Indexical,” as opposed to its “Iconic” relationship with what is real, what’s actually out there.**  As such, you could argue it isn’t even “photography” anymore as the term is understood etymologically, but rather a new species of graphic arts. [Years ago, when I was naive enough to think that one could actually intelligently discuss issues like this on the net, I suggested this on a popular photography forum, whereupon forum “mentors” chortled at such ridiculousness (one “mentor” – a retired insurance salesman who mentors readers on the intricacies of varoius camera bags – opined that only an idiot could think such ludicrous things), forum members pointed at me and laughed, moderators’ heads exploded, and shortly after I was summarily banned, for life, no possibility of reprieve, banished to the nether regions of web-based photographic discourse. My response? I started Leicaphilia.]

At the time Barthes wrote, when photography was the result of analog processes identical to those of the camera obscura (see above), we could rightfully assume that a photo necessarily dealt in the real and was more or less faithful evidence of the real.  While someone could manipulate an analog photograph to a certain extent, the exception proved the basic rule: photography, in the words of Susan Sontag, was the stenciling off of the real. It was “evidence” of the real. For Barthes, that’s what makes photography absolutely unique as a medium of communication, Its very essence as a medium.

Digital capture doesn’t “stencil off” anything; rather, it turns everything into computer code which then needs to be reconstituted by more computer code. The “digital revolution” isn’t about simply providing more efficient photographic tools; rather, it’s a profound revolution of how we recreate the visual with similarly profound implications for its claim to being “true” by simply being. Unlike the photographic processes Barthes analyzed, digital processes de-materialize everything into non-material 1’s and 0’s ephemerally housed in computer “memory,” data that must then wait for an algorithm to reconstitute it “realistically” or transmogrify it into anything else imaginable, dependent upon the intentions of the algorithm’s creator. Need to make your selfie more sexually attractive, your landscape more picturesque? Need to remove an ex from a family portrait? There’s a “filter” (i.e. a certain computer algorithm designed to translate the latent data a certain way to acheive a certain pre-determined result) for that. Hell, those 1’s and 0’s that constitute the RAW file, or the DNG or the JPG, can just as easily be output as music if that’s your desire, the point being that the guarantee of indexicality that Barthes sees as exclusive to photography is a thing of the past. To quote Wim Wenders: “The digitized picture has broken the relationship between picture and reality once and for all. We are entering an era when no one will be able to say whether a picture is true or false. They are all becoming beautiful and extraordinary, and with each passing day, they belong increasingly to the world of advertising. Their beauty, like their truth, is slipping away from us. Soon they will really end up making us blind.”

The blind already exist. They’re the smug enthusiasts who think an interest in “photography” only means better cameras with greater resolution, easier capture and hassle-free output, who would dismiss those like Wenders who recognize something more profound at play while they simultaneously embrace – no, celebrate – the technologies undermining and ultimately destroying photography itself.


**Indexical Signs = signs where the signifier is caused by the signified, e.g., light enters a camera lens, is focused on a silver halide substance, and produces a negative via a photochemical process.  Iconic signs = signs where the signifier resembles but is not directly caused by the signified, e.g., a digital “photo”, wherein the “photo” has no direct causation by the signified and thus can only be said to “resemble” the signified.


*** For an example of what passes for intelligent discourse in Semiotics, this from the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, literally opened at random :

The phenotext is constantly split up and divided, and is irreducible to the semiotic process that works through the genotext. The phenotext is a structure (which can be generated, in generative grammar’s sense); it obeys rules of communication and presupposes a subject of enunciation and an addressee. The genotext, on the other hand, is a process; it moves through zones that have relative and transistory borders and constitutes a path that is not restricted to the two poles of univocal information between two full-fledged subjects.


To create your very own post-modernist essay, go here and click on the generator at the top of the page.