Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography

Can You Teach Creativity? Part One

 

Why do people go to Art School? (I wish I’d have asked myself when I was young; it might have saved me a lot of time, money and diverted energy). More specifically, why do people enroll in undergraduate programs in “Photography” or pursue an MFA in the same? Or, more commonly, why do we take ‘Seminars,’ either from recognized ‘experts’ or worse yet, from more rebarbative ilk, the boorish, flim-flammers peddling their nonsense to photographers who happen to use certain equipment? Why do a certain subset of us – ‘street photographers’ –  feel the need to pay good money to follow a self-appointed expert around for a day? What could we possibly learn? What could an ‘expert’ possibly ‘teach?’

I once asked this question to a semi-famous photographer who occasionally gives “street photography” classes through The Center For Documentary Studies at Duke University. Nice enough guy, but he evaded the question by mumbling some platitude while his eyes shifted nervously. Gotcha, I thought at the time, my bet being, deep down, he knew he had nothing to teach other than slavish imitation. My wife took the course. She enjoyed it. Did she become a better photographer? Probably not in any significant way she couldn’t have learned on her own with some minimal attention.

I’ve asked myself this for years, given I went to ‘Art School’ back in the day.  Was I someone who sincerely desired to express himself creatively…or was I just another sheep looking for the simple answer and thus easily led to believe in the expertise of others? If the whole endeavor was legit, what was I expecting to learn? Technique? Visual skills? Camera skills? Interpersonal skills? Street smarts? I’m stumped.  I’m willing to entertain that such pedagogical opportunities might have been of some value to me as a wannabe creator; I just don’t remember my motivations or expectations. Maybe readers who’ve attended these things – or “Art School” no less – might chime in.

So, as I usually do when I’m confused about something – good classicist I am – I go back to the Greeks for edification, ( which is a good general rule for life). Can we be taught “creativity?”

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The Dance of the Muses on Helicon.

The Dance of the Muses 

The Ancients certainly didn’t think so. The Greeks generally understood creativity to be the product of what Plato called mania, inspiration, or Aristotle called ecstaticos, genius. You either had it or you didn’t, and it came and went on its own schedule, irrespective of how hard you tried to conjure it. Paradoxically, the greater the effort to conjure, the less likely it would appear. This is because the Greeks considered such mania to be of divine origin, the gift of your “muse.”  You can’t force the hand of a god, and to attempt to do so is hubris.

 Specifically, the Greeks understood the Muses as the source of orally related knowledge of poetic lyrics and myths and were considered to be the personification of knowledge and of the arts, especially dance, literature, and music. The Muses were mythological beings who breathed inspiration and creative knowledge into mortals. The Muses lived on Mount Olympus, where they entertained the Olympian gods when they weren’t inspiring mortals. That’s the Olympians above, getting down and dirty to the ancient Greek equivalent of a Muse garage band.

The Muses did not teach at university nor did they offer weekend creative retreats or paid seminars. That’s because inspiration, the pre-condition of all creativity, couldn’t be taught.  The best mere mortals could do was to encourage the muse-inspired student and teach him to properly channel his mania when it appeared. This Greek idea of inspiration held the day in western culture through the 19th-Century, when Romantics (think of Goethe, Wordsworth, Emerson, etc) updated the idea of creativity and its sources…and ended up in the same place as the Ancients. They stressed the fundamental non-reductive individuality at the heart of all creativity and believed no group instruction could teach it.

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Helpful Hint #1: People Lying in the Street Make Great Art. Especially if They’re in Paris

My experience in 50 years of attempting creative endeavors is that the Greeks were right (they’re pretty much right about everything, actually). You can’t teach creativity; at best you can teach slavish impersonation of another’s style, which, obviously, is something distinct from creativity. What you can do is encourage inspiration. A teacher can pass along the enthusiasm necessary to be creative. The muses need to do the rest.

The Bauhaus, a 20th-Century German Modernist art and design movement, also believed that creativity couldn’t be taught. The Bauhaus promoted the radical simplification of forms, rationality and functionality. What’s interesting about Bauhaus theory is that they did believe craft was a fundamental pre-condition to any creative attempt. You couldn’t be creative if you weren’t competent to employ your tools in the cause of your creativity. As such, art instruction is legitimate for teaching the basic rules, techniques, and procedures of your chosen craft. Art teachers are really technicians. But that’s as far as they can go.

In this, the Greeks were in agreement. Classic Greek thought made a distinction between subjects that could be taught and those that could not. As noted, creativity, for the Greeks, fell into the later category.  Creativity was emperia, something which you didn’t gain via being taught by someone else, but rather something you “absorbed” via the grace of the gods. It was a gift that came and went on its own terms. In intellectual terms,  mania was not susceptible of theory, which was a prerequisite of all knowledge that could be taught. According to the Greeks, whatever could be taught had 1) a body of information, 2) a set of methods to apply to that information, and 3) a theory of how to apply the method to the info. Such subjects were called techne – crafts or sciences subject to rules – what we moderns call ‘techniques.’

To be Continued. Part Two – the Relationship of ‘Technique’ to ‘Creativity’ Or…. Will Using a Leica Make You a Better Photographer?

The Photographer as the Creator of Infinite New Realities – How Cool is That?

 

Post-Modernist Thinker of Big Thoughts, Gilles Deleuze, Paris

French philosopher Michel Foucault says that photographs form spaces called heterotopia, a concept he uses to describe places and spaces that function as something new, a unique space which is neither here nor there, simultaneously both physical and mental, spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. According to Foucault, photos do not “capture images: they do not fix them, they pass them on” and we are then left with utterly different spaces: images that are also “events” and “passages” and that are “absolutely unique;” photos construct “events’ that make possible the exploration of an “infinite series of new passages.”

Put in non-philosophical jargon, what Foucault is saying is that photographs always contain more than the merely visible; there are the inevitable associations to places and spaces via the imagination of the viewer and the thoughts, memories and life experiences they bring to their encounter with a photograph, which may change from time to time, from look to look, from viewing to viewing.  For Foucault, past, present and future space are necessarily conflated in the conceptual act required of recreating the visual reality of the photo, and in so doing, we create a heterotopia, a new space enclosing, while simultaneously opening up to, a new world.

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Me, Territorializing Myself via the “Double Movement” of an Assemblage, circa 1974….or, as we call it in America, A Bathroom Mirror Selfie

What is the means by which photography forms this new reality?

The photograph is a site of what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls “territorialization” – both de-territorialization and re-territorialization – post-modernist jargon for the claim that a photo both simultaneously gains and looses meaning, depending on who is looking at it, in what cultural era they’re doing so and with what distinct viewpoint.The act of viewing photos is always, at base, a conceptual process that is both productive and destructive, a “double movement” where the photo both accumulates meanings (re-territorialization) and is divested of meanings (de-territorialization).

Photographs are what Deleuze calls  “assemblages,” configurations of linked conceptual components in intersection with each other.  “An assemblage is the result of this process, and can be thought of as constituted by an intensification of these processes around a particular [photo] through a multiplicity of intersections of such territorializations.”  In other words, when looking at a photograph taken by Robert Frank, say, in 1958, its current meaning and interpretation may be completely different to the reading of the same photograph in the era it was taken, given the current cultural and social realities and the distinct concerns of the viewer necessarily embedded in those social and cultural realities. It’s the same photo but different assemblages.

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For Foucault and Deleuze, photographs are creations of the highest order, unique heterotopias redolent of infinite meanings lost and found. Your crummy photographs aren’t simple banal, uninspired documents of fence-posts, cats and/or your adorable kids, they’re the portal to a unique new conceptual reality – “assemblages,” formed from the intersection of your inner mental, physical, psychological, visual and spiritual dimensions at an historical moment in time with all its subjective components. Silly you, you probably had no idea. This is why we need Post-Modernist philosophers, to teach us this.

In all seriousness, we’ve become so incredibly habituated to photographs, we’ve lost sight of their remarkable nature, that maybe that’s a good enough reason to wade through the turgid jargon of thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze to get at the pearl of wisdom hidden therein, to be reminded of the miracle contained in the simple snap of the shutter. Be thankful I’m doing it for you.

It seemingly means nothing to us that we have the miraculous capability of freezing a moment otherwise destined to vanish in time…and thereby creating something new, unique. That’s a remarkably profound gift photography gives us, more so when we understand it in the way articulated by Foucault and DeLeuze – as the creation of an utterly new reality nestled inside a larger reality we share with others. The fact that we’re capable of doing so, with the simple machinery of a light-tight box, should inspire awe in you. Never forget how amazing photography really is.

Freud and Photography

This isn’t “just” a Photo of my cat Sitting next to my TV. Freud would say its an X-Ray of My Psyche

One of the more interesting places I’ve visited is the psychoanalytic office of Sigmund Freud at 19 Berggasse in Vienna, interesting for me, at least, because it was one of the few places in Vienna I found interesting (nothing against Vienna; just personal preference. Vienna is just a little too clean and orderly for my tastes. I much prefer more down at the heels – e.g. Marseilles, Naples, Detroit). What immediately struck me were the photos that hung on the walls. Freud clearly had a thing for photography. A connoisseur of art, Freud adorned his walls with both photos and paintings and covered his shelves with various cultural knick-knacks. It’s important to remember that Freud’s psychoanalytic theories took shape and matured during the early years of photography, and, as I suspected while visiting his office, photography formed more than a casual influence on his thought.

Jean-Martin Charcot, an important mentor of Freud, used photography to record and study seizures and hysterical expressions and postures. Likewise, G.-B. Duchenne, neurologist and electrophysiologist who worked with Charcot, sought to understand neuropsychiatric patients via photographs of their faces and body postures. Freud owned the 1876 French edition of Duchenne’s Human Physiognomy, where Duchenne had published his studies. Duchenne’s photographs profoundly shaped Freud’s thinking;  Freud repeatedly used the metaphor of photography—the photographic negative, in particular— as a means to illustrate his theory of the unconscious.

Mary Bergstein, Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, suggests that “photography penetrated the cognitive style of Freud and his contemporaries,” and “documentary photography—of art and archaeology, but also of medicine, science, and ethnography—influenced the formation of Freudian psychoanalysis.” For Freud, the fragmentary and evocative nature of photography mirrored how human memory works; the mind’s eye, both conscious and subconscious, mimics the photographic lens.

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A Deliberate Double Exposure: My 12 y/o Attempt at Profundity, circa 1970. God only Knows what Freud Would Make of It

A more interesting issue, apart from Freud’s use of photography as metaphor, is his understanding of the ontology of the photograph i.e. what is a photograph? In Freud’s era, photographs were viewed as transparent windows revealing objective truth but at the same time were thought to be subjective and dreamlike. A photo of a ruined temple, while depicting a specific place, also conjured loss, oblivion, the highly emotional reminders of the passage of time.  This produced a lot of really bad, pretentious photography (google “Alfred Stieglitz” for further details).

For Freud, far from simply producing a transparent image of reality, photographs manifested what cultural theorist Walter Benjamin called the “optical unconscious,” a term Benjamin coined to denote the visual depiction of unseen, the terrain of the imaginary. Benjamin’s concept raises the issue of the photographer’s unconscious communication. The ruined temple photo, for example, while conjuring loss, oblivion, time passing or whatever for the viewer, Freud saw also as giving entry into the coded language of the photographer’s psyche. Photography captures scenes that pass too quickly, too remotely, or too obscurely for the subject to consciously perceive. However, Freud would say that our unconscious – which is the real seat where our personal truth is found – takes in everything. The camera pictures phenomena that the photographer has unconsciously registered but not consciously processed.

Think of your unconscious as the curator of your photography. There are no accidents in photography. According to Freud, everything we present in our photos has been screened and found compelling by our unconscious psyche. Every one of your photos is your optical unconscious made visible, demonstrating the reach and complexity of your unconscious perception and, properly analyzed, gives access to the hidden psychological realities that animate you, including the style and structure of your perception, and the more nebulous regions of your psyche.

Baudelaire’s Eyes and What They Tell us About Photographic Truth

Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a French poet, essayist, art critic, and translator of Edgar Allan Poe. He’s best known for Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), an extended Modernist prose poem about where one might find beauty in modern, rapidly industrializing mid-19th-Century Paris. Baudelaire influenced a whole generation of Fench poets including Paul VerlaineArthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé, among others, and also 20th-Century artists as diverse as 60’s rock star Jim Morrison and Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa. He coined the term “modernité” to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of urban life and claimed that the primary responsibility of modern art was to capture and, in so doing, transform that experience.

While Baudelaire lay on his deathbed, dying of syphilis, his mother found two photographs of him he had secreted in his overcoat; apparently, he’d been keeping the two photos on his person, a hidden, guilty pleasure of some sort.  In one (that’s it above), he stares aggressively at the camera as if trying to directly meet the unmediated gaze of the ultimate viewer of the photo. Frankly, he looks pissed off, as if the camera itself were his enemy, something put between him and viewer, something that obscured the potential of a meaningful relationship between him and the person who’d view him as the subject of the photo. 

Baudelaire had been interested in photography since the 1850s. French photographer Nadar, (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820 – 1910),  was one of Baudelaire’s closest friends until Baudelaire’s death in 1867 (Nadar wrote Baudelaire’s obituary in Le Figaro). Nadar remains one of the great early photo-portraitists, his portraits held by many of the great national photography collections. 

In spite of his interest in photography and his friendship with Nadar, Baudelaire never much liked photography as a means of getting at anything subjectively truthful.  He thought the camera’s lens “a dictatorship of opinion,” a device that made an end-run around the active self-questioning required of a viewing subject. Photography could not, according to Baudelaire, encroach upon “the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary”; it was competent only as a means to document objective facts.

According to Baudelaire, only with an “embodied vision”, actively interrogating what one looked at, could you possibly gain any sense of mastery over the perceived object, and such active interrogation only became possible when the subject of one’s gaze could gaze back. Real subjective visual truth came only when there could be a reciprocal interaction of the viewer and the subject.  Rather than the one-sided transaction implicit in much of Western visual art – painting or photography – Baudelaire’s idea of a truthful visual representation would be a “forest of symbols” that looked back at you “with familiar eyes.” Using this criterion, photographic portraiture was, at best, caricature.

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In secular Western culture, where science and rationality are presumed to give us insight into what is “true,”  we are used to seeing the material world through the lens of science, where subjects are turned into objects and placed in categories. Photography aides that process by its ability to document objective facts, and Baudelaire saw that as a legitimate use of photography. For Baudelaire, the problem came with photography’s attempt to capture the subjective. It can’t, because it can’t look back. There’s no real interaction between the viewing subject and photographic subject. Relationship, that which underlies subjectivity, is impossible in the one-sided encounter offered by a photograph. The image will always be distorted.

Compare what happens when you look at a photograph of a woman, how you look at it, with the way you look at that same woman encountered in the flesh, on the street; how you do so determines whether or not you let her look back.  “Truth” is found in the reciprocal gaze, between subject and object, between the man and woman walking past each other in the street.

Baudelaire would say that modern man suffers from a distorted visual culture created by the ubiquity of photographic images.  Given the extent to which photography has been normalized and now embedded in our societal consciousness, it has led us away from the truth. It has distorted our ability to understand others. It gives us only a superficial caricature, a false representation of other people, visual images of persona as opposed to the person themselves. Capitalist consumerism uses its distortions to make us want things, playing on our imagination because the image can’t interact with us.  We see other people in this “post-truth” world, where photographed people are real only to the extent they conform to our imaginations. The image world it gives us is of strangers-as-passersby who never make eye contact. It’s hard to see, really see, someone else in this world of images, surrounded by people who are all doing the same.

Believing is Seeing

Edinburgh, May 1, 2015

” What we see is not independent of our beliefs. Photographs provide evidence but no shortcut to reality. It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.”

-Errol Morris, Believing is Seeing: On the Mysteries of Photography

A couple of years ago my wife and I found ourselves in Edinburgh for a day, traveling between some place or other. For those of you who’ve never been, it’s a really nice town to spend a few days – lot’s of history, good free museums, active and interesting culinary scene, great street life. We were also lucky enough to be there on May Day when Edinburgh celebrates Beltain, the Celtic neo-pagan holiday commemorating the beginning of Summer, the celebration consisting of naked people dancing around fires on Calton Hill overlooking downtown Edinburgh.

Edinburgh is also a great place for “street photography.” Given its latitude and the oblique angle of the sun, you get nice bright light contrasted with deep black lengthened shadows, which makes for the types of visual contrasts good street photographers exploit. And it’s a town of shoppers, for me at least, the perfect setting for interesting and thought-provoking visuals. Princes Street – a half-mile of upscale retail shops running east/west – being as target-rich an environment as I’ve ever experienced. So, of course, the day I was there I walked around snapping photos while the wife shopped for a kilt for her son (yup). The photos I’ve used to illustrate this post were all taken during an afternoon walking Prince Street.

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 “Street” Photography

Above is a “street photo.” I took it that day in Edinburgh. It’s an uninteresting photo. It says nothing, connotes nothing, implies nothing. It’s just a guy on a street, a throw away shot that doesn’t work on any level. But, hey, it’s properly exposed, it’s in focus, the tonality is nice, it’s framed competently (but what’s up with the big black empty space on the left?) and it’s a guy on a street. Bingo, I’m a “street photographer.” Too many “street photographers” seem to think that’s enough to qualify. If you have any questions, go here and look at what people post on public forums dedicated to showcasing “street photography.” 90% of the photos posted are no better than what I’ve posted above, many even worse. Why? They say nothing. They’re just people walking down the street. Ask the photographer ‘what’s the point’ and in all likelihood, he’ll reply with a blank stare – ‘what do you mean, what’s the point?’

Which gets me to my point. Street photos – any photo for that matter – need to say something. How do you do that? You have something to say. You must have a belief – an idea wishing to be made manifest – before you photograph, and the resulting photos should convey that idea, both individually and as a collective. Garry Winogrand’s 1960’s work, wonky and off-kilter though it was, was the result of a unified vision that worked both individually and collectively, the collective giving context to the individual, the individual stating its own visual truth.

Good “street photography” captures a fleeting moment that stands for something larger. The people and things pictured aren’t just people and things; rather, they suggest something more, some question to be answered or puzzle to solve. What is shown suggests something not shown, hints at it, implies it. It aspires to a  reality truer and deeper than anything immediately at hand, something more intense and deeper than the ordinariness of the routine life pictured – what the Greeks called anagnorisis – when the mundane surface is stripped away and the essence is revealed.

 

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Below are a number of photos I took that day in Edinburgh. I think they’re all good examples of street photography that works. They have a theme that runs through them, something I’m suggesting to you. They’re interesting visually and, and, if you’re paying close attention,  intellectually. They work both individually and collectively as a series. They have a point of view, something that I’m attempting to communicate to you the viewer. We may differ on what that point is, but the photos themselves admit of something more than their topical subjects, and they add something to each other when they’re viewed as a group. Really, that’s all you need to produce decent work. Just have something to say.

A Day in Paris

Paris, August 17, 2017

Has photography become too easy? I’m thinking it might have. The question, I guess, is, even if it has, why would that matter?

I’ve illustrated this post with photos I’d taken on one day, August 17, 2017, a day I spent chaperoning a first time visitor to Paris. The day started bright and clear, with increasing cloudiness as the morning progressed and, by afternoon, threatening rain.

I hadn’t even thought to take a camera with me. The day was just to be a day seeing the usual sights. Of course, I had my iPhone with me, and during the day, as much as habit as anything intentional, I took a few photos of things that interested me. Some were shot using filters – I presume I just chose a random filter for the hell of it – and others were post-processed in Snapseed on my phone.

Now, I’m not claiming any of these to be portfolio quality, but in reviewing them, I’m amazed at the quality and diversity of output I got with a simple camera phone and some free apps, all in a day’s walk around town. We used to expend a lot of time and energy and creative angst to get similar results back in the film era, weeks and months of hard labor both on the street and in the darkroom….and the results were indicative of a photographer possessed of technical competence and creative mastery. Back in the film era, the results below would have been the product of innumerable creative decisions about cameras and formats and films and developing and printing processes. Now, it’s indicative of a guy with some apps on his camera phone.

So, I’m not sure what argument I should be making…is this a good thing or a bad thing?

 

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.

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.