Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography

Believing is Seeing

“The amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the idea and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the beautiful.” – Paul Valery

In the Phaedrus, written by Plato circa 370 BCE, Socrates discusses the Egyptian myth of the creation of writing. Socrates thought writing a bad thing because it weakened our powers of memory and thus altered our reality in a profound way, memory being the pre-condition of all culture. This explains why Socrates never wrote anything; his student Plato transcribed his dialogues and thus gave him to history.

For Socrates, writing allowed a pretense of understanding, not true understanding. What we read we really don’t understand in the way we do when we hear and speak: “For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.” What’s interesting for present purposes is not Socrates’ opinion about writing but his recognition that the transition from orality to writing would lead inexorably to new modes of thinking and thus, new realities. This is also the thesis of Cambridge social scientist Jack Goody, who in 1977 wrote The Domestication of the Savage Mind wherein he traces the long-term changes in human cognition and culture brought about by the development of writing. The mode of our communication shapes what we think.

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David Levi Strauss’s recently published Photography and Belief, is about the photographic image and its relationship to what we believe to be true. According to Strauss, with the advent of digitization, we are in the midst of a second radical cultural transformation as profound as the development of writing- the move from a written culture to a culture of images. Strauss examines how digital technologies change how we look and how and what we trust by seeing.

Specifically, Strauss’s interest is the aura of believability that images provide. Photographic images have inordinate power to influence opinion, prompt action, create and direct desire. The question for Strauss is “Why?” Is their power based on an assumption of their truthfulness? If so, why do we assume images are true? As Wittgenstein noted almost a century ago already, such needn’t have been the case: “We regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relation to such pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without color or even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.”

Most would answer Wittgenstein’s question by pointing to the ‘indexical’ nature of photographs i.e. they are stenciled directly off of real things and more or less represent those things as they are. Of course, there are problems with this understanding as well. Behind the curtain of ‘indexicality’, photographs have been subject to various forms of manipulation. Questions about individual photography’s faithfulness to the real have been around since its inception, although digitization has made its manipulative capacity increasingly obvious to the lay public. For Strauss, however, the long-running debate about photography’s verisimilitude misses a bigger, more important point: what is the tsunami of images we’re deluged with doing to our understanding of truth itself?

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Strauss is interested in how our new technologies ultimately undermine the connection between seeing and believing and how a shift in our relationship to images may come to threaten our very purchase of the real. Instead of discussing whether we should believe images, Strauss claims that the surfeit of images we now consume has created a new type of consciousness – a quasi-hallucinogenic “optical consciousness,” borrowing a phrase from Walter Benjamin – and we aren’t going to return to an earlier mode of thinking. We are, in effect, “all in” in this new world of images, where we encounter so many, so fast, our critical faculties have essentially been disabled.

The day of a single photo hanging on a wall, a subject for critique and evaluation, is gone, replaced by images that appear “in a flow” of digital presentation: “Images that appear on the screens of our devices go by in a streaming flow. Individual images are seldom apprehended separately, as a singular trace. Singular, still images operate very differently on the mind. The images in a flow are seldom dwelled on, so their individual effect is limited, creating instead a disproportionately generalized effect.” This new consciousness isn’t predicated on a choice we make about believing, or not believing, particular images; it’s, in effect, forced upon us by the volume and rapidity of the images that deluge us. We are losing the ability to ‘see’ particular images, and with that are losing a means of believing in the real. As Strauss notes, “we no longer believe in reality, but we believe in images.”

I’m Back, Sort of….

Well, I suppose it depends on your definition of “being back.” Am I going to start cranking out thrice-weekly thousand word posts about what Aristotle would have thought about photography? Probably not, although it’s an interesting question and I think it would have fascinated Aristotle (384-322 BCE), given all its implications for the form/matter conundrum that animated Greek philosophy from Plato onward i.e. what is real – the individual thing or the ‘form’ it embodies? Does something have to be ‘actual’ to be ‘real’? Frankly, I think photography would have blown Aristotle’s mind.

So, a short diversion: According to Aristotle, no maker of anything starts completely from scratch. He/she always starts with material from which he produces something else. The maker’s materials are shapeless in a relative sense. The maker then ‘informs’ his materials i.e. forms or shapes them in a certain way to create something of a higher order. For example, the poet forms a poem from words and the poem is of a higher order than the words themselves. The material has the potential to be shaped into a higher order thing of human construction, and the process of doing so is a process of realization wherein material moves from a state of potential to a state of actuality. The maker “brings out” the material’s potential and transforms it into something with a higher reality.

The question that photography poses for Aristotle is simple: What’s the material the photographer (the maker) is shaping when he/she photographs? The thing photographed or the underlying physical substrate that creates the physical thing called a photo? If it’s the thing photographed, does the photograph possess a higher being than its subject? And what of a digital photo on a hard drive? Does it exist in actuality or does it just have the potential to exist?

One thing Aristotle would agree with: the movement of becoming a better photographer – a better maker of photographs – is also the movement to a higher level of being. The photographer realizes himself in the process turning potential into actuality. The good photographer possesses a design for the photograph he attempts to make, an abstraction that he/she makes visible to himself and others via its making. The photo he constructs is the realization of a potential. Potential of what? Aristotle would say it is the actualization of the photographer’s potential and thus a movement to a greater level of being for the photographer.

This is why you love photography: because your photography reflects the greater being you achieve via it, and love and being always increase together.

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So, I’m not going to be publishing as frequently as I’ve done before, at least not for the time being because, frankly, I’ve not given much thought to my photography in the last year or so. I’ve had other things on my mind. And I’ve pretty much tapped out my thoughts on the subject, until of course Thorsten Overgaard does something stupid, at which time I will mock him mercilessly. But, just when I think I’ve said everything I want to say about photography, I think of something else, so I’m fairly sure I’ll be posting more. Whether it’s worth reading is a different story.

And I’m going to sell my film cameras, as I never use them anymore. [Wanna buy a nice film camera? Contact me. Just don’t be the guy who haggles over everything and assumes the worst of the seller, because I won’t sell to you at any price.] It is what it is. I’ve got a freezer full of expired film – easily over a 1000 ft of various B&W stock [wanna buy some film?], and it just sits there while I snap away with my Leica M and MM. Which brings me full-circle: in 2013 I started the blog as a peon to film photography and its continued relevance (with a full dose of contempt for the crummy digital cameras Leica was then producing). Now I rarely shot film and I love my M and my MM. I’ve given up fighting the good fight, because it’s not the good fight anymore. Things move on, although Thorsten Overgaard will remain a really funny guy.

Significant Fact…or Insignificant Flicker?

“I capture reality but never pose it. But once captured, is it still reality?” – RIchard Kalvar, ‘Street Photographer

Having had looked at lots of it over the years, I’ve concluded there are three types of ‘Street Photography’: 1) photos of people on the street (go to any popular photo forum – and a lot of street specific websites – and you’ll see endless variations of this); 2) gimmicky photos of people in public spaces e.g people caught in awkward poses or fallen in the street etc; or 3) photos that attempt to say something about a person in the street, or something about the person’s relationship with someone else in the street, or or something about the person’s relationship with the built environment. (It helps as well if it also has a pleasing or interesting aesthetic i.e. it’s not completely dependent on its subject matter to generate interest). It’s only this latter type that holds any real interest…for me.

My problem with ‘street photography’ as it’s practiced by most is that it invariably falls into the first category – photos of people in the street that have no inherent interest beyond what they depict i.e. it’s just a picture of someone in the street. Below is my contribution (New York City, 2013): people in the street and not much more. While it may possess some marginal aesthetic interest, it doesn’t say anything. At most it relies on a gimmick, the juxtaposition of three people looking three different ways. So what. As a younger photographer, less aware of the subtleties that create real interest in a photo, I’d likely have picked it out and published it. Hey, look at my photo of people on the street!

New York City, 2013

Compare it with the photo below (Edinburgh, 2015). The two photos make for an enlightening juxtaposition. Same formal aesthetic – three people on the street similarly positioned. From a textbook perspective, the Edinburgh photo is a failure – bad framing, no faces. Yet, to me, the photo has a power the New York photo doesn’t, something about those rumpled clothes that talk about the lives of the people who wear them. You don’t need their faces to read into the photo a deflating reality about about the people shown; it’s there in their clothes, goods that promise so much while in the shop window but look like this once we’ve fallen for consumerism’s conjuring tricks.

Edinburgh, 2015

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New York City, 2013

A larger question is whether street photography can be ‘documentary.’ The legitimacy of ‘street photography’ is premised on the assumption that capturing a millisecond of arrested time in an image can reveal something true. Art critic Lincoln Kirsten thought this debatable. “The candid camera is the greatest liar in the photographic family, shaming the patient hand-retoucher as an innocent fibber. The candid camera with its great pretensions to accuracy, its promise of sensational truth, its visions of clipped disaster, presents an inversion of truth, a kind of accidental revelation which does far more to hide the real fact of what is going on than to explode it…It drugs the eye into believing it has witnessed a significant fact when it has only caught a flicker.” That kid above: did the camera catch something meaningful, or is that just a throwaway glance the camera insists is something more?

So, assuming we’re talking about interesting street photography of the third type, can we say that what’s being shown us is truthful, or is it trickery, an artificial reality created by the camera isolating in time something that requires a larger temporal context to be represented accurately?

Edinburgh, 2015

The Shadow

Paris, 2003

“The shadow’s most striking feature is its confirmation that the photographer was there, a reality not generally evident in photographs. We take it for granted that photographs were made by someone, a person with a reason for making them, but that observer – who by extension is also us – is rarely acknowledged so overtly in the pictures themselves.

It’s safe to say that this photographer did not see his shadow. The mind has a stubborn tendency to see what it wants to see, and with a camera it tends to acknowledge only the concrete objects in front of the lens: the car, the kids, the mountain. It usually chooses to ignore the shadows and other less substantial elements that fall within the edges separating the picture from the rest of the world, no matter how undeniable the shadow may be.

…Only in photography could such a phenomenon exist (a painting depicting the painter’s shadow could only be made with intention, the very intentionality of which would certainly make it less interesting).” – Jeffrey Fraenkel, The Book of Shadows

Freud Says You’re Unhappy, and That’s Why You’re a Photographer

Leicaphilia

I’ve just got done with a marathon reading of Sigmund Freud. Well, maybe not “marathon” but an extended reading including The Future of an Illusion back to back with Civilization and its Discontents, two of his sociological works published in the late ’20s. Freud is a remarkable intellectual figure, so clearly full-of-shit about historical specifics yet endlessly thought-provoking in his larger worldview. As W.H. Auden wrote at Freud’s death, “if he often was wrong and, at times absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our different lives.”

Freud says that we differ from other animals in that we consider ourselves to have a purpose ( you won’t find your dog wondering what his purpose in life is). The purpose and intention of human life is pretty simple: we strive to be happy. This endeavor has both a positive and a negative aim. On the one hand, it aims at an absence of pain, on the other the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure. ‘Happiness’ relates more to the second aim. Unfortunately, the intention that we should be happy isn’t shared by the world we find ourselves in. We are threatened with unhappiness from three directions: from our body, which is doomed to inevitable decay and dissolution; from external forces of destruction over which we have no control; and finally, from our relationships with other people, all of them pursuing what they think will bring them their own happiness and often getting in the way of ours.

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Leicaphilia

Clever animals we are, Freud says we’ve developed a number of ways of trying to be happy, or at least, fending off the inevitable unhappiness reality forces upon us. The first, and most obvious, is the unrestricted satisfaction of every need (e.g. you buy yourself a Lenny Kravitz Leica and enroll in a Thorsten von Overgaard seminar, thinking somehow that’s going to make you happy, because Leica and Mr. von Overgaard tell you it will. It doesn’t work, obviously, after you soon realize you’ve been conned into spending 40 large for an M240 with fake lizard skin covering and are spending an extra 3 grand to learn about ‘bokeh’ from a carnival barker who thinks he’s royalty).

Second, there is the happiness of quietude, i.e. voluntary isolation against the dreaded external world. You withdraw from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to seek a quiet space within ( e.g. you get yourself banned from the the photo forum you’ve compulsively visited because it’s nothing but a bunch of assholes all chasing their own ego-centric happiness, all talking past each other, and you’re better off not indulging such nonsense). Included in the pursuit of quietude is intoxication, introducing chemical substances into your system that alter the conditions of your sensibility (e.g. developing a fondness for bourbon neat.) Third, there is the attack against nature, attempting to subject her to the human will via science. We send people to outer space to learn its secrets or we embark on medical attempts to control and eradicate disease, all in the name of seeking our immortality as a means of continuing to pursue pleasure (e.g. I subject myself to the ravages of chemo because I’m being told that it’ll “cure” me in the end, irrespective of the fact that if cancer doesn’t get me soon, something surely will).

Finally, Freud sees our striving for beauty – our inborn aesthetic sense – as a defense against suffering in that, like quietude or intoxication, it seeks to master the internal sources of our needs by re-creating the world we perceive, building up in its stead another world in which the unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by a view that corresponds to one’s wishes. This is ultimately what our quest for happiness via an aesthetic outlook entails for Freud. Your attempts at developing a unique photographic vision are, for Freud, a result of attempting to remold reality in a more pleasing image. I do it by shooting stuff out of car windows. Thorsten von Overgaard seeks his bliss in bokeh. For Freud, your aesthetic strivings derive from the same cause as do your religious beliefs; they are both attempts to correct parts of reality unbearable to you by construction of a wish.

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Leicaphilia

Unfortunately, for Freud, the program of becoming happy via seeking pleasure, whether via sex, or intoxication or knowledge is bound to failure. We will always find our efforts at happiness to be fleeting at best. This is because the satiation of our desires only makes us happy when it’s intermittent and experienced against a larger backdrop of deprivation. Unrelenting pleasure soon loses its appeal, as anyone who spent too long in bed with an overly available partner can attest. As for the means by which we seek our happiness, “there is no golden rule which applies to everyone: every man must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved.”

And yet, there is in Freud a certain admiration of, and humbleness, before man’s quest for happiness via the enjoyment of beauty that you don’t see in his analysis of other forms of human pleasure-seeking. The beautiful temporarily takes us outside ourselves, having no obvious use except as a tonic for what would otherwise be a life of chronic discontent. This, actually is much the same argument for aesthetics that Schopenhauer makes. And, unlike finding solace in religion, Freud doesn’t see the joy of the beautiful to be a delusion; beauty does exist, and we can access it to satiate our desire for pleasure. Beauty’s efficacy as a means of happiness is something, Freud admits, that ultimately isn’t explainable by psychoanalysis. “Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization cannot live without it.” This is because, unlike other forms of pleasure, there is no satiation in our perceptions of beauty. Unlike sex or drugs, accessing beauty continues to give pleasure no matter the amount we indulge in it. According to Freud, this path to happiness, humble though it is, may be the best we can ask for.

Wittgenstein on Photography

“We regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, the landscape, and so on) depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relationship to pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without color and even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein

Luxembourg Gardens 2003

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 2003 — 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Pinhole Negative Straight Scan

“The manner in which one waits for elements to fall into place is far more important than the assistive capability of the software in your camera […] Two truths, one created by a bunch of Adobe’s programmers to impress and allegedly to aid in creativity, the other is the truth of aggregated knowledge along with the quirks inherent in every human mind.” — Stephen Jenner

Creating Yourself With Your Photography

Let’s Call this “Self-Portrait, 1966″.

As you probably can tell by all the references I’ve recently made to German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1899-1976), I’ve had the misfortune of reading him at some length in the past few years. (Try reading Being and Time on your day off and you’ll better understand what I mean). I say ‘misfortune’ because he’s pretty much unreadable, obtuseness being part of his philosophical schtick, his assurance to you that he’s telling you something deep and profound if only you’re smart enough to understand.

Heidegger did say some important things, evident by his continued relevance in current academic discourse, even if, in addition to being unreadable, he was an odious fascist who embraced Nazism and flourished under it. Specifically, for our purposes, some interesting things to say about the visual artist and art, about the artist’s need for ‘authenticity’ and the process of self-definition creative pursuits offer us. [Remember: you as a photographer are a ‘visual artist’, so all of this applies to you].

Heidegger is considered an ‘Existentialist’, which, in addition to requiring you to sit in Parisian cafes and expound radical political theories, requires your belief that you don’t have any fixed nature but make yourself up as you go along i.e. there’s no such thing as ‘human nature’; you get to define yourself any way you want. For Heidegger, you are a ‘self-interpreting being’ who makes yourself what you are in the course of the activity of your life. To be human is to be an Artist of yourself.

Heidegger sees your ‘Art’ – the self-conscious practice of creating palpable expressions of your inner being i.e. you taking photos- as a part of the process of self-construction that constitutes your life. Heidegger is pointing to the immense importance of creative activities in the process of you being human. The process of creating ‘Art’ i.e. palpable things like novels or paintings or photographs – is distinct from, yet part of, that larger creative act that is your being. Think of your art as permanently fixed creative action, a temporal snapshot – a slice of life – you take from the larger evolving creative process that is your lived life.

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Leicaphilia

Susan, Cape Cod. Me Looking at Her Looking at Me – A Perfect Visual Encapsulation of Heidegger’s Theory of Self

We aren’t alone in this process of creating ourselves. In Heidegger’s view, our being is also defined by the world into which we are “thrown.” Your identity is only possible in what Heidegger calls “shared forms of life” in a “public life world.” There’s no you without the context provided by others, the world you didn’t choose but rather are thrown into. If this is true it introduces a certain serendipity into your supposed ‘self-creation’; you are responsible for creating yourself, yes, but your ability to do so is circumscribed in some sense by the existential realities of others. Insofar as your palpable creations are concerned i.e. your photos, they are the creations of an interactive process that presupposes a third party, the recipient of your work – the viewer, the critic – as a necessary part of the process by which you create yourself. If your art is a formative exchange between you and your work, Heidegger also understands it as a formative exchange between your work and others, and this dynamic is as much a part of the artwork as is your relationship to the work.

Post-Heideggerian heavy thinkers like Merleau-Ponty, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur share this ‘dialectical’ concept of truth in art. Only through this dialogue with your work and with others through your work can you authentically express yourself. The ‘meaning’ of an artwork is the sum of dialogue of differing viewpoints brought to the exchange, both spoken and unspoken, between you, and its viewer. What others think about your work matters to you.

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Paris

Philosophical speculation can be fascinating. Often, though, I find myself wondering whether a given philosopher’s thought mirrors reality rather than an elaborately spun intellectual puzzle. Is Heidegger correct? Are we really somehow defined by how others see us? Are we at the mercy of other’s understanding of what we’re doing? Does it really matter what others say of our self-expression? If so, it seems to compromise the very premise of Heidegger’s notion of art as self-construction. How is it ‘me creating myself through my life and my artistic decisions’ if my truth, my definition, is also dependent on your understanding? How could you possibly participate in my own self-definition? Seems a contradiction in terms.

I don’t buy it. If my photography is a form of ‘self-creation’ I shouldn’t need input into what I’m doing. I’m doing it for me, not you, and it needs to make sense to me and if it does it doesn’t matter to me if it makes sense to you. It’s why I’ve often resisted showing my work in public. I can’t remember ever getting a comment or critique that helped me understand what I was doing. It’s why photo competitions and portfolio critiques seem deflections of creative energy, and at worst, self-destructive. It’s the off-loading of creative responsibility on others, or, at the least, a refusal to take responsibility for your creative autonomy.

Leicaphilia

Critique my work all you want, it’s your right. I’m glad it’s out there and possibly a small piece in what helps you achieve your own self-definition. But don’t confuse your critique with something that’s going to aid me on my own creative path. You can’t know. You don’t have that power…unless I cede it to you, and if I cede it you, I’m abdicating my own responsibility for self-definition.

The bottom line: use your photography in a way that makes sense to you. Stop apeing others and create photos that have meaning for you. Forget the ‘shoulds’ that others always seem to want to impose on what is a uniquely personal and singular quest. Allow others to do the same. Each of us, in exercising our creative capacities is building a self. Build the self that works for you.

Walking the Dog

“I photograph to see what things look like photographed.” Garry Winogrand

One of the things I appreciate about photography is that it gives you permission to look. Most of the time I don’t. I’m usually operating on auto-pilot, oblivious to anything around me except something that’s outside normal expectations. I suspect we all live this way, conserving our limited attention for when evolution had bred in us a need – fight/flight, sex, food. What about our aesthetic sense – which evolution has clearly prioritized as a basic human need? How might we indulge a sense of beauty? Does being a photographer assist in some way? I think it does.

Garry Winogrand was onto something when he decided to photograph things to see what they looked like when photographed. He was one of the first photographers to recognize the camera’s potential to make us see things. It both gives us permission to look and creates new visual realities, showing us things we otherwise wouldn’t see. The nice thing about the digital age is I now always carry a camera with me, which allows me to always be looking at things in terms of what they might look like photographed. Back in the film era, that really wasn’t possible, unless you were a lunatic like Winogrand who left behind 6500 unprocessed rolls of film at his death. Today, all you need is your iPhone and some attention. Winogrand would have gone nuts with an iphone.

Think of photography as a means to discover things, a way of saying “Look at what I saw!’ Often times (not always) it’s not so much a way of documenting what is but rather discovering new ways things might look if you leave yourself open to it. And because it’s about leaving yourself open to seeing how things might look, everything is opened up to you as a subject. An afternoon walk with the dogs and an iPhone can become an exercise in seeing things. This is a profound gift digital photography gives us. It turns a routine walk into an aesthetic experience…if we let it. That’s pretty cool.

All photos taken with an iPhone 8 and processed in camera with Snapseed