Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography

Photography and the Limits of Language

“Silence is the hidden content of the words that count.” A.G Sertillanges

I’m suspicious of critics who write about photography as an art form. I don’t think I’ve ever read a critical essay about a specific photograph or body of photographs that has in any sense added to, or explained, the experience given by the photograph itself. This is not to say that there isn’t good writing about photography. There is. Sontag and Barthes come to mind, but what they are doing is writing about photography as a practice and not attempting to explain or supplement the truth of specific photos. Reason, as expressed in language, can not articulate visual truths. Reason’s last step, according to Blaise Pascal, is to recognize its limitations.

For that matter, photographers who attempt to explain their work via written captions or accompanying essays seem to me to be missing the very point of visual art itself: visual art expresses that which can’t be expressed with words. To use a metaphor of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, words are a net we strain reality through. A lot gets through the net. What the visual arts offer us is a portion of that reality that gets through the net of language.

This, I think, is the power of photography and why many of us are drawn to it in a very profound way. It’s a means of expressing things that can’t be expressed verbally. The photograph above is an example. I found it on a roll of film I recently developed. I don’t now remember its specifics – why the took it, what I saw in it, if anything at the time – but now, as a finished product standing by itself, it denotes something to me. It presents something visible to me, something that resonates with me. Whatever it is, it’s not capable of being put into words. It represents that portion of reality Kant would say has slipped through the net of language.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked on the human urge to “run up against the limits of language.” We instinctively understand that words somehow deaden the fullness of our experiences. According to Isaiah Berlin, this is the paradox of language when faced with profundity: “the more I say the more remains to be said … as soon as I speak it becomes quite clear that, no matter how long I speak, new chasms open. No matter what I say I always have to leave three dots at the end. Whatever description I give always opens the doors to something further, something even darker, perhaps, but certainly something which is in principle incapable of being reduced to precise, clear, verifiable, objective prose.”

German philosopher Martin Heidegger agrees with Wittgenstein and Berlin…up to a point. Much of Heidegger’s philosophy is about limits, of knowledge, of words, of expression. For Heidegger, logical thought -i.e. that which can be expressed – is not sufficient when we’re trying to talk about certain things. “The very idea of “logic” disintegrates in the vortex of a more original questioning,” wrote Heidegger. Wittgenstein, Berlin and Heidegger all agree there is more of life than can be articulated. Heidegger, however, makes the further claim that what happens in the interstices between words is what’s really important. This is where we find the most profound truths. For Heidegger, this is a qualitative advance on what Kant was saying. Kant (and Wittgenstein and Berlin) was saying that some reality slips past the net of language. Heidegger is claiming that the most important part of reality slips through the net.

So, how do we communicate this most important portion of the real? Heidegger attempted to do so via language. This is the paradox of Heidegger and the reason he’s so hard to understand. He is attempting, with words, to express the truth that words miss the larger truth. This is purposeful. Heidegger holds that we should try to say something about the interstices – that the fact that we recognize an interstice means that there’s something to be said about it, however vague and preliminary that might be. Not directly, perhaps, and not even particularly clearly, but we shouldn’t abandon all efforts to use words to speak about things that lie beyond language. Unfortunately, Heidegger never took the next logical step of analyzing the visual arts and what role they might play in the process of expressing what’s true. I believe he might have found a way out of his expressive paradox had he done so.

Charles Baudelaire Hates Photography

A mad­ness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers – Charles Baudelaire 1859

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a poet, essayist, art critic, and translator of Edgar Allan Poe. His most famous work, a book of poetry titled Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), is about finding beauty in the industrializing world of the mid-19th century. Baudelaire’s work influenced a generation of French poets including Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé. Think of him as the Patti Smith of his day. He is considered the father of the aesthetic movement now known as ‘Modernism’ and is credited with coining the term “modernity” (modernité) to designate the experience of urban life and the responsibility of the artist to capture that experience.

Baudelaire was, paradoxically, deeply ambivalent about modernity and specifically, the role mechanism played in the productions of creativity.   Baudelaire’s 1856 poem, Correspondences  reduces the ‘Realist’ aesthetic (i.e. the description of things as they appear, of which Photography as a practice is concerned) to irrelevance. Baudelaire saw 19th-century ‘Realism’ as something new in human history, a secular version of what the Greeks called metanoia: a change of mind, a new way of looking at oneself and the world… but it was mistaken. Reality was actually an immaterial “forest of symbols,” a dictionary of subjective associations, metaphorical forms rather than concrete phenomena. Photography, rooted in ‘Realism,’ could never represent this true reality.

In this 1859 commentary on photography, Baudelaire critiques the public’s fascination with photography.  “It is useless and tedious to represent what exists because nothing that exists satisfies me….  I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to what is positively trivial.”  Baudelaire’s anti-materialist perspective and this commentary on photography will influence Symbolist poets and artists in the decades after his death.  Baudelaire’s aesthetics will subsequently be used to support every modernist movement from Fauvism and Cubism through Abstract Expressionism. As such, understanding Baudelaire’s thinking about photography can teach us much about the assumptions underlying both photography and modern art.

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Baudelaire’s Salon of 1859 was first published in the Révue Française, Paris, June 10-July 20, 1859. This selection is from Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art. Jonathan Mayne editor and translator.  London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1955.

“During this lamentable period, a new industry arose which contributed not a little to confirm stupidity in its faith and to ruin whatever might remain of the di­vine in the French mind. The idolatrous mob demanded an ideal worthy of itself and appropriate to its nature – that is perfectly understood. In matters of painting and sculpture, the present-day Credo of the sophisticated, above all in France (and I do not think that anyone at all would dare to state the contrary), is this: “I believe in Nature, and I believe only in Nature (there are good rea­sons for that). I believe that Art is, and cannot be other than, the exact reproduction of Nature (a timid and dis­sident sect would wish to exclude the more repellent ob­jects of nature, such as skeletons or chamber-pots). Thus an industry that could give us a result identical to Nature would be the absolute of Art.” A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the faithful says to himself: “Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), then photography and Art are the same thing:’ From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. A mad­ness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers. Strange abominations took form. By bringing together a group of male and female clowns, got up like butchers and laundry-maids in a car­nival, and by begging these heroes to be so kind as to hold their chance grimaces for the time necessary for the per­formance, the operator flattered himself that he was re­producing tragic or elegant scenes from ancient history. Some democratic writer ought to have seen here a cheap method of disseminating a loathing for history and for painting among the people, thus committing a double sacrilege and insulting at one and the same time the di­vine art of painting and the noble art of the actor. A little later a thousand hungry eyes were bending over the peepholes of the stereoscope, as though they were the attic-windows of the infinite. The love of pornography, which is no less deep-rooted in the natural heart of man than the love of himself, was not to let slip so fine an opportunity of self-satisfaction. And do not imagine that it was only children on their way back from school who took pleasure in these follies; the world was infatuated with them. I was once present when some friends were discretely concealing some such pictures from a beautiful woman, a woman of high society, not of mine—they were taking upon themselves some feeling of delicacy in her presence; but “No,” she replied. “Give them to me! Nothing is too strong for me.” I swear that I heard that; but who will believe me? “You can see that they are great ladies,” said Alexandre Dumas. “There are some still greater!“ said Cazotte.

As the photographic industry was the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies, this universal infatuation bore not only the mark of a blindness, an imbecility, but had also the air of a vengeance. I do not believe, or at least I do not wish to believe, in the absolute success of such a brutish conspiracy, in which, as in all others, one finds both fools and knaves; but I am convinced that the ill-applied developments of photography, like all other purely material developments of progress, have contrib­uted much to the impoverishment of the French artistic genius, which is already so scarce. In vain may our mod­ern Fatuity roar, belch forth all the rumbling wind of its rotund stomach, spew out all the undigested sophisms with which recent philosophy has stuffed it from top to bottom; it is nonetheless obvious that this industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mor­tal enemy, and that the confusion of their several func­tions prevents any of them from being properly fulfilled. Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place. If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally. It is time, then, for it to return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts— but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature. Let it hasten to enrich the tourist’s album and restore to his eye the precision which his memory may lack; let it adorn the naturalist’s library, and enlarge microscopic animals; let it even provide information to corroborate the astronomer’s hypotheses; in short, let it be the secre­tary and clerk of whoever needs an absolute factual exac­titude in his profession—up to that point nothing could be better. Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory—— it will be thanked and applauded. But if it be allowed to encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us!

         I know very well that some people will retort, “The disease which you have just been diagnosing is a disease of imbeciles. What man worthy of the name of artist, and what true connoisseur, has ever confused art with industry?” I know it; and yet I will ask them in my turn if they believe in the contagion of good and evil, in the action of the mass on individuals, and in the involuntary, forced obedience of the individual to the mass. It is an incontestable, an irresistible law that the artist should act upon the public, and that the public should react upon the artist; and besides, those terrible witnesses, the facts, are easy to study; the disaster is verifiable. Each day art further diminishes its self-respect by bowing down be­fore external reality; each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees. Nevertheless it is a happiness to dream, and it used to be a glory to express what one dreamt. But I ask you! does the painter still know this happiness?

         Could you find an honest observer to declare that the invasion of photography and the great industrial mad­ness of our times have no part at all in this deplorable result? Are we to suppose that a people whose eyes are growing used to considering the results of a material sci­ence as though they were the products of the beautiful, will not in the course of time have singularly diminished its faculties of judging and of feeling what are among the most ethereal and immaterial aspects of creation?”


Next: Walter Benjamin, (1982-1940) German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist critiques Baudelaire’s critique of photography.

The Art of Seeing Well

It is always good to keep your eyes wide open, because you never know what you will discover. The drive to live life more alertly being an instinctive need, whether you are an artist by trade or desire, the art of seeing well is a necessary skill, which fortunately can be learned. -Michael Kimmelman

What’s the point of photography? Maybe the bigger question is: what’s the point of looking at things, really looking at them? That’s what we’re doing when we photograph. Granted, we’re placing a value on preserving how something looks, whether it be a lover, a pet, a glimpse of what we daily encounter…. but we’re also attending to it in the moment. That’s why we value simple photographic tools – mechanical rangefinders the perfect example – that get out of our way and allow us to experience the moment without having to ‘interface’ with a machine and its requirements.

A good example is the difference between using my M5 or my Ricoh GXR with the M module. I rarely even use the meter in my M5; I find it more a disturbance than a help. What I like is the big, clear 35mm window, no clutter, just a focusing patch and you’re done dealing with the machine. Look at the light, set your exposure and forget the little details. The rest is looking. The Ricoh? Great little camera, but I’m constantly fiddling with something – a menu, an ISO setting, something flashing on the damn LCD – my attention drawn away from what I’m trying to see. It’s the story of every digital camera I’ve ever used; once you reach a certain level of competency i.e. you’ve distilled the photographic act down to its basics, all those technological ‘aids’ – those things camera makers promised us would make our experience better – just get in your way.

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For that matter, what’s the value of what we as photographers create? What’s the value of looking at a photo hung in a gallery or museum or published in a book? Why is it so important to us? For me, the point is the process of perceiving itself. It meets some primal need humans possess. But it also has to be disinterested to be an aesthetic experience. Looking at porn isn’t aesthetic, no matter how well done; the reason it isn’t is because we’re motivated by something other than the enjoyment of beauty. A genuinely aesthetic experience of beauty is aimless. We only fully apprehend the experience when we remain disinterested. A vested interest in what you’re looking at gives you tunnel vision. You see what you’re looking for, and as such, you don’t really see.

Photography allows me to move through the world with an attitude of detachment, in a state of heightened awareness. I’m always looking…which means I’m seeing things people habituated to their environments typically don’t. That’s pretty cool; we’re not here long. Best to pay attention while we are.

Photography – or, more precisely, film photography, where there’s typically a lag between what we see and how we see it reproduced by the camera – amplifies the enjoyment I get in looking. It allows me a second chance to see something I’ve already seen and to see it with new eyes. It’s why I find myself increasingly drawn to photograph the people I love. I’ll run a roll of HP5 through my camera in a day or two, just shooting domestic scenes around me – my wife, the kids, my dogs – and throw it in the pile of rolls to be developed at some later time. That invariable means a year or two down the road, when I’ve accumulated enough unexposed film to shame myself into doing something about it. When I develop them I’m always amazed at what I get. The banal circumstances of my domestic experience seem somehow re-valued and take on a larger meaning. The photo puts them in context. I understand what I see – and value it – just a bit better.

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Howard Axelrod, in The Stars in Our Pockets, addresses the technological processes that remove us from having to pay attention. GPS is an instructive example: with it we passively navigate our environment without reference to its larger context or where within that context we fit. It’s all end result – do we get there, or don’t we. (He doesn’t address the larger issue – that we’re also using a machine to move through space which itself mitigates our environmental interaction). Axelrod asks, “Will we still be able to achieve a kind of orientation that is really a kind of wisdom?”

It’s this “orientation that is really a kind of wisdom” that photographic looking gives. The heightened attention it cultivates can be difficult to practice. Really looking with disinterest requires effort. You can’t do it if your attempts to do so are mediated by tools that divert your attention instead of focusing it. In a photographic context it requires the correct tool, something that remains transparent to our purposes. This is why we hold onto those cameras that become extensions of our seeing through excellent haptics and long usage. Usually I don’t even recall putting the M5 to my eye; it’s such a simple act, done so many times, that its reflexive now. The digital camera? Not a chance. Even though it’s full of the technologies that supposedly simplify my experience – auto exposure, autofocus, auto ISO, facial recognition, etc etc, they’re never transparent to the act; I’m always scrolling through some fucking menu, or looking for some dial to turn or button to push in response to some LCD readout. The camera is telling me what to see.

There’s a reason we love our old mechanical film cameras. When used competently and correctly, they allow us to give ourselves over to the moment. We can exist in the moment for no reason or purpose other than that of the experience alone, for the appreciation and apprehension of what’s in front of us. That’s a remarkable gift. It’s also what’s required if one wants to produce work of any meaning, work that will help others see as well.

The Pleasure of Looking at Photos

I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs lately. Photo books, to be more precise. I spent last night looking through Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, (2014), a retrospective of Koudelka’s career published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Along with Robert Frank, Koudelka may be the photographer I admire the most. There’s something incredibly luxurious about his work, especially Gypsies and Exile – both shot with 35mm b&w film – when viewed as printed photos and not simply images on a screen. It’s something the current generation of photographers may be missing, which is a shame. The times a photograph has really moved me, not simply as an interesting visual experience but as something existentially and profoundly alive, have all been when viewing a physical print, whether hanging on a wall or printed in a book.

There’s something remarkably satisfying about looking at b&w film photographs printed in a high-end photo book on 100 weight semi-glossy fine-art photo paper. There’s a tactile dimension to the experience that incorporates both the hand and the eye. It’s so much more rewarding and inspiring than viewing the same photos on a screen, something about the instantiation of the photo as a ‘thing’ which makes the experience of the image on a screen so remarkably impoverished in comparison. Some of the most intense visual experiences I’ve ever had have been either standing in front of a matted and framed photo hanging in an exhibition or printed on the pages of a fine-art photo book. Viewed on a screen, it’s just another image, one of thousands we consume daily. Viewed on a gallery or museum wall, or as a page in a book held in one’s hands, it’s a unique thing having specific tangible qualities. One thing I’m sure of, and that’s b&w film photos print better than b&w digital photos. There’s some essential character of a printed 35mm negative that can’t be duplicated with digital capture no matter how you attempt to post-process it to mimic film. If you don’t see that, well, I’m not sure we have much to talk about.

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Which leads to the larger question: Why do we love photographs? What is it about them that makes their experience so important to us? Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet, playwright in his 1712 essay “The Pleasures of Imagination” sees it as a matter of possession (as in physical possession of a thing): “A man of polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures, that the vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a statue. He meets with a secret refreshment in a description, and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows, than another does in the possession. It gives him, indeed, a kind of property in everything he sees, and makes the most rude, uncultivated parts of nature administer to his pleasures: so that he looks upon the world, as it were in another light, and discovers in it a multitude of charms, that conceal themselves from the generality of mankind.”

If you agree with Addison, the pleasure we derive from looking at photos is a solitary thing, not beholden to being shared or intensified by being experienced with others. Experiencing Art is not about shared pleasure; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s because it’s an experience fundamentally incommunicable; I’ll be damned if I can explain to you why I sat up till 3:30 AM last night looking at Koudelka’s photos, or why I find myself obsessively going back to Robert Frank’s Valencia 1952, or why I could stand slack-jawed in front of a simple Walker Evans photograph in the Getty museum.

One thing that Koudelka, Frank, and Evans have in common, and that is their aversion to captioning their work. They present their photos without explanation, and we the viewers get to decide what it means. As Gerhard Richter has noted, “pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” A good picture “takes away our certainty because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.”

What Meaning Does a Photograph Have?

My Father Being His Usual Goofball Self, Atlanta, Georgia, 1971

From “I Am A Strange Loop” by Douglas Hofstadter

One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parent’s house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, said to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does a photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remake set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering – soul searching, quite literally – I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines:

“In the living room we have a book of Chopin etudes for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad – and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists have in turn conveyed to many millions the profound emotions that churned in Chopin’s heart, thus affording us all some partial access to Chopin’s interiority – to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards – scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Chopin.

In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again in the medium of brains other than his own. Like the score of a Chopin etude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”

For Want of ‘Dietrologia’

Italians have a word dietrologia — literally translated as “behindology.” It’s the art of looking behind the surface of things to find their meanings, the hidden meanings of things. The Italian dictionary defines dietrologia as the “critical analysis of events in an effort to detect, behind the apparent causes, true and hidden designs.”

I’m pretty sure it’s a necessary trait for creativity, the ability to see more than the surface of the thing. Creativity is the ability to generate novel insights, to see behind the surface banality of a thing and suggest a glimpse of what it might mean if looked at from a novel perspective. To do that, it helps to have a head full of other things – things you’ve seen, and experienced and read about or heard or thought through. All of these things you weave together with what you’re observing and the end result is seeing something new.

The trick, of course, is to possess the ability to show others what you’ve seen. Successful creatives communicate their visions. Think of someone like Martin Scorcese in film, Trent Parke in photography, John Coltrane in music. They each have a unique vision that ties together their work and makes it theirs, and they possess the skill to tell that vision to others. There’s two parts to the creative equation – 1) seeing, and 2) telling. In order to be successful creatively, you need to be good at both. Unfortunately, recently I’m having trouble with both. I used to be a fairly proficient dietrologist. Lately, not so much. I’m, as they say, stuck, seeing nothing new or interesting. I’m hoping that eventually changes. Who knows. If past experience is any indication, one day I’ll wake up and see compelling pictures everywhere.

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According to 19th-century art critic John Ruskin, the “greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do agree to the extent that seeing and telling seems a uniquely human thing to do, and it’s something really important to us, both as individuals and as a species. And specifically, image-making – a type of seeing and telling – is a necessary part of our emotional, psychological and intellectual make-up.

Literally, the earliest evidence we have for human culture are images, paintings of animals deep within caves that date to times before we’re sure humans even possessed language. The cave paintings of Pech MerleFont-de-GaumeRouffignac, Chauvet and Lascaux are thought to be more than 30,000 years old. Bisons, lions and other extinct creatures cover the cave walls. What’s interesting about these pre-historic cave drawings is their undeniable aesthetic quality. Whatever their purpose, it was more than just transmission of knowledge, as some anthropologists claim (i.e. information about the location and movement of prey animals etc); there exists a vision behind these images, a felt need to communicate something aesthetically, the same thing that motivated Boticelli or Jasper Johns…or Walker Evans. Many animals are depicted in vivid color, with a sense of perspective and anatomical detail requiring significant artistic skill. Picasso was awed by their aesthetic power. “We have invented nothing,” he remarked after a visit to Lascaux in 1940.

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The question is why the ability or desire – or both – comes and goes as it does. Part of it, for me, has been the exponential inundation we’ve experienced via digital media. Technologically compelling images are everywhere, and, as such, they no longer have any value because they have nothing beyond their surface glossiness. They say nothing by representing everything superficially, everything glossed over with the hyperreality of marketing. They’re meaningless visual trinkets mindlessly created and consumed, all alike in their technologically mandated perfection. They represent the antithesis of a unique vision, all surface, saying nothing.

I started Leicaphilia years ago because I thought there needed to be someone advocating for film photography before it was totally swallowed up by digital. In the years writing it I’ve come to see the issue in more nuanced terms. What I’ve been really criticizing is the conflation of excellent images with images that rely on technology for their visual interest. Maybe shooting film is a self-imposed means to marginalize the ability of technology to hijack the creative process for its own ends. But, let’s face it – shooting film is a pain in the ass. Mind you, I ‘love’ the process, but I’ve come to realize that you don’t get points for difficulty. As to its success or lack thereof, a photograph stands on its own. It doesn’t matter how you produced it. Or does it?

Josef Koudelka’s Wristwatch

Josef Koudelka, Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM

The view is in black and white, the grainy look of 1960’s era black and white film so typical of the journalistic photography of the time. The photo has the greyish cast of an overcast central European late-afternoon, what’s left of the day’s sun hidden somewhere behind a sky of low, scuttering clouds. Josef Koudelka, the Czech photographer taking the photo, has framed the photo horizontally in a 2:3 format, a function of the 35mm film used by the Exacta camera he was known to use throughout the ’60s. The photo is a view onto Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czechoslovakia on the afternoon of August 22, 1968. 5:01 PM to be precise. The photographer’s perspective seems to be a few floors up, seemingly in the middle of the Square itself, probably standing atop whatever monument graces the center of the Square.

Wenceslas Square, stretching out to a vanishing point, is empty, devoid of automobile or pedestrian traffic, although there are a few tiny, out-of-focus bystanders at the lower-left edge of the frame, some of them crouched together in what looks like commiseration of some sort. In the close foreground, a disembodied arm with wristwatch intrudes into the frame from the lower left, the watch face and the arm’s clenched fist positioned in the lower middle of the frame where it draws the viewer’s eye as the first plane of focus, but low enough that one’s glance wants to shift fore and aft, first the arm and wrist, then the Square behind, then the wrist again and the watch with its face on display. Presumably, the arm and fist and wristwatch belong to the photographer. The wristwatch says the time is 5:01.

Absent context, it’s unclear what this photo is asking of the viewer. The choice of black and white points to a documentary intent, although the view offered by Koudelka is banal, confusing, without an easily identified subject on which to focus. The camera’s optical focus is on the arm; the compositional focus seems to be both the Square and the watch, although, without further context, we’re not given any clues to make sense of which might have priority or what the relationship is, if any, between the two subject planes. While there’s a superficial inertia to the composition created by the compositional elements – no visible movement to be seen – upon closer viewing there’s a balanced tension radiating from the composition, a tension charged with potential energy that suggests something is about to happen, soon. The wristwatch, its minute hand in a wonky, off-axis position, connotes not stasis, but its opposite, an impending action about to shatter the delicate equilibrium of the captured moment. What it is that’s going to happen seems to be in the balance. The truth of the photo seems to be a function of the past, the present, and the future, whether it be more of what appears to be a temporary lull or rather of developing conflict and sinister atrocity. It’s as if the photographer, and us as viewers, are waiting for something to happen to help us finally make sense of what we see.

Determining anything more from within the four corners of the photo is futile. To understand what Koudelka is trying to tell us, we need context.

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On Wednesday, August 20, 1968, soldiers from the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, the Polish People’s Republic, the Hungarian People’s Republic and the Bulgarian People’s Republic invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and occupied the Czech capital of Prague. The invasion was led Soviet troops at the behest of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in response to the spontaneous Czechoslovak socio-political movement called the “Prague Spring,” wherein Czechoslovakia’s Communist leadership experimented with various political and social reforms deemed unacceptably liberal by Soviet standards.

Via a declaration by Czech leaders conveyed to the “People of Prague” by radio on the morning of August 21, both the Czech Army and Czech citizenry were ordered to stand down and not engage in any provocation or retaliation, as such would be counter-productive to the stated aims of the Prague Spring: “We call upon the people of Prague, in particular, the workers – Prevent any possible provocation! At this moment, defense by force is impossible! Our defense must be a dignified, prudent approach, unswerving loyalty to the process we began in January! In response, the Czech citizens who flooded the streets of Prague restricted their outrage to shouting slogans and peaceful resistance. Yet, as more residents crowded into the streets and surrounded the invader’s tanks and troop transports, Soviet soldiers fired into the crowd, killing a number of Czechs. Czechoslovak Communist Party leaders were arrested and removed to locations outside Prague and martial law was declared throughout the country, including a ban on public assembly. By that night, given limited knowledge of the Soviet dictated curfew, the occupying forces were driving their vehicles into the crowds and shooting random protestors who remained on the streets.

The next morning, August 22, Prague’s streets were empty. But as the day progressed, the news spread that there was to be a massive demonstration on Wenceslas Square at five o’clock. It was, in fact, a Soviet provocation, meant to provide a justification for the occupiers to crack down further. Warsaw Pact tanks and troop transports idled in the streets outside the Square, awaiting the arrival of what was expected to be massive crowds of Czech resisters. Czech Radio, still in the hands of Czech partisans, pleaded with its listeners to stay inside; the alternative would be a massacre. The question was – would the residents of Prague stay home?  

At 5:01 Koudelka took the photo. His wristwatch tells you as much.

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There are two aspects of ethics implicated in the practice of conflict photography: 1) the doing of it, i.e. can the practice itself be justified ethically, or is it, as critics claim, inherently voyeuristic and exploitative; and 2), if it can be justified ethically, is a justification dependent on the specifics of the practice i.e. are some ways of doing conflict photography ethically justified while others are not?

The ethical premise which justifies conflict photography as a practice is this: the photographer will be a passive observer of what’s happening in return for being able to document it.  This presupposes a stance of non-intervention on the part of the photographer, whose role as witness precludes active participation in what’s being witnessed. This is what allows the photographer to stand passively aside while a Viet Cong prisoner is summarily executed on a Saigon street, or as an emaciated child lies helpless in the dirt while a vulture hovers nearby, waiting for the inevitable.  The act of documenting is meant to serve a higher ethical purpose, that of educating others about what’s happening, with the understanding that the knowledge imparted by the photographer’s witness will motivate others to act.

Those others are us, the viewers. As such, we’re implicated ethically as well. The unsettling reality we’re confronted with is not simply the photographer’s ethical obligation but ours as viewers. Our response, however, is dependent to a large extent on what we’re given by the photographer. The photographer is the curator of what the viewer will see and how they will see it. The photographer must choose what to show and what not to show. This is where his power lies, it’s part of his obligation in the process, and it’s where the second ethical aspect of the practice of conflict photography is implicated. How a photographer ‘frames’ what he is presenting will constrain the potential range of viewer response. By ‘framing’, I mean both the technical specifics of the photo, but also what is chosen to be seen and what is chosen not to be seen, and, to my mind, what’s most important, the context within which the photo is presented. If the ultimate end of conflict photography practice is to activate an ethical response from the viewer, then the photographer’s responsibility is to present what’s being documented in a manner both factually and ethically true to the narrative the photographer is ‘documenting.’

Conflict photography, by definition, always has a didactic purpose. This is true, to some extent, of all photography. A photo isn’t simply a statement of fact; it is always, in some sense, an argument. As Susan Sontag notes in her monograph Regarding the Pain of Others, it is “both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality.” It’s only within a context that the photo can serve the purpose presupposed by the premise. A photo without context quickly floats free of any meaning imposed upon it by the photographer. If a photo isn’t given form by a narrative sequence, or description, or accompanying text, then it’s the viewer who will bring that context to the photo. And ultimately, if the viewer is left to impose meaning on the conflict photo without guidance from the photographer, the photographer has abdicated his/her ethical responsibility.

Given the didactic purpose of conflict photography, the issue of rhetorical strategy has always occupied a necessary role in the genre. Magnum Photos was founded with a moral perspective on injustice which was specific to its mission. Magnum photographer Abbas Attar, better known by his mononym ‘Abbas’, reflects the means to that end when he says “I am interested in the world, sure, but also in my vision of the world…I try to show my point of view.” As for the specific content of Magnum’s mission, Magnum member Philip Jones Griffiths epitomizes the didactic tendency of Magnum’s photography: “There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life.”

As the genre has progressed – from the ‘Heroic’ WW2 images of Capa, Chim and Rodgers to the ‘Ironic’ images of Larry Burrows’ Viet Nam era work, to 90’s era work of Giles Peress and Susan Meisalas  – conflict photographers’ rhetorical strategies have become more self-consciously evident, more an obvious feature of the work. This has been the consequence both of the imagery itself, the images “more dynamic,” the pictorial emphasis on the action of conflict itself, and, with the passing of the photo magazines like Life and Look, the narrative structures in which those images have been placed. Where Life era photographers were often constrained by the editorial prerogatives of military authority and the publishing magazine, more recent conflict photographers have the ability to publish extended photo monographs that highlight their unique ethical perspectives uncompromised by bureaucratic, social or military obstruction.

In spite of the stated ethical emphasis of recent conflict photography, much of it, when wrenched out of context, as it too often is, seems gratuitous, appealing to a viewer’s baser human motives. A glimpse of an image, usually of graphic violence and human suffering, shorn of the context the viewer would need to properly understand it, appeals to viewers’ baser motives and serves no real purpose but to titillate. Traditional conflict photography tropes that utilize images of atrocity are often counter-productive, exploiting those they mean to advocate for by re-victimizing them, while causing compassion fatigue for viewers. The “forensic aesthetic”, currently in vogue, where victim and violence remain outside the frame and the photographer documents the spaces associated with the conflict, is a response to such criticisms.

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I’ve long been an admirer of Josef Koudelka’s photography. A member of Magnum, he’s been producing exceptional photojournalistic work since the early 1960s, most notably his depictions of Roma (“Gypsy”) culture, which Magnum published in book form in 1975, and his documentation, at great personal risk, of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague in 1968. Koudelka brings a unique aesthetic to his documentary work, producing some of the most beautiful and sumptuous film photography of his era. While he considers himself a photojournalist, his works can be found in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among many others. It’s the tension between his aesthetics and his subject matter that gives Koudelka’s work its bite, but it also leaves him open to the standard criticisms of any documentary work that retains a strong imprint of the documentarian’s subjective eye.

Koudelka’s Wenceslas Square photo is one of his most reproduced. It’s often found in anthologies of his work, one of the iconic photos for which he is known. This has always confused me, because my exposure to it has been within the context of my appreciation of Koudelka as an artist, someone whose work I appreciated for its formal beauty and coherence. Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM, doesn’t possess the grand aesthetic beauty Koudelka is known for. It appears uncontrived, almost accidental in its form, more of a throw-away than most of his mannered work. To put it simply, it isn’t that good of a photo if one’s criterion is formal interest. Yet, it’s considered one of his iconic photos.

The reason, of course, is context, or the lack thereof. To understand and appreciate the photo the viewer must be privy to the historical, social and political context within which the photo operates. You’ve got to know the backstory, the specifics of the conflicting parties, the historical, social and political currents that are in the process of intersecting in Wenceslas Square in Prague on August 22, 1968, at 5:01 in the afternoon. If you have that context, the photo is now charged with meaning. It makes sense. You can understand what Josef Koudelka is trying to tell you.

Ostensibly, Koudelka’s subject is an “old style” subject, the heroic resistance of a nascent democratic movement with world-historical consequences. Much of Koudelka’s Prague Spring work retains that traditional didactic style, the style made famous by Capa and Chim and Rodgers. But the photo in question – the Wenceslas Square photo – has more in common with current forensic approaches. Koudelka has always been a cerebral photographer, and at some level, he meant this simple, uncontrived photo to possess a conceptual complexity that would require de-coding by the viewer, much like what’s required of current forensic approaches. Why else place that forearm and watch as a central pictorial element? I read the photo as Koudelka’s rejoinder to the ethical problems inherent in conflict photography. It’s conflict photography as meta-narrative, a conflict photo that comments on the practice of conflict photography itself.

 Superficially, the photo is a factual description – ‘this is what Wenceslas Square looks like at this time’. No coherent story is denoted, no Romantic trope of sacrifice or heroism. No encouragement of broader connotative issues. No good vs. bad, right vs. wrong. It leaves the didactic message, if any, embedded in the broader context within which the photo exists.

The photo itself is sui generis, there’s no falling back on previous tropes or personal signatures. It is screaming for context, a context that the photograph, standing on its own, can’t provide. Koudelka seems to be playing on this issue of context, his photo, standing by itself, a black box, indecipherable as to motive or allegiances, a screen onto which the viewer must project their passions, beliefs, and biases if they’re to make any sense of it.

The indecipherability is accentuated by the absence of action. It makes the viewer think, question. Whatever the photograph’s attraction, it isn’t dependent on titillation nor is it exploitative in any way. The photo suggests dynamic forces operating underneath the surface calm. What those forces are, and what message they reveal, waits for the context in which they operate. In this respect, it’s honest, deferring to the inherent limitations of conflict photography and, in effect, utilizing them to comment on the practice itself. It’s almost as if Koudelka is posing himself – and his viewers – a question.

Through all of this there’s a person behind the camera, the person with the arm and the watch, presumably the person of Koudelka who ‘takes’ the photo. Koudelka is reminding us that photos aren’t disembodied statements of fact; they are subjective views, the result of infinite choices made by the photographer – where to be, when to be there, what to include, what not to include. ‘Oh, and by the way, don’t forget I’m back here, staging all of this for you’, he seems to be saying.

Life Imitating Art, or Reality Imitating Images

The Real is No Longer Real” – Jean Baudrillard

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was interested in the essential falsity of the world we as moderns inhabit. Much of what we take for ‘reality’ isn’t the product of our direct experience of people and things but rather comes to us via images mediated by various media – advertising, movies, magazines, the internet. Our reality – what we consider real – is constructed from this image world. The reality we construct via all this imagery Baudrillard calls ‘hyperreality, ’ a composited reality created by other people to influence you for their own ends, whether it be how you should look and dress, what sort of car you should drive, what gadgets you need to live properly.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard claimed that in our modern media-saturated society, where we are constantly bombarded by images, all human experience is now essentially a simulation. Our image-based reality is like an infinitely detailed map existing in a one-to-one relationship with the real territory it describes. The problem is that we take these ‘maps’ of reality presented via images as more real than what actually exists. This is what Baudrillard calls “the death of the real”; all that exists for us are simulations of reality, the representations more important than the ‘real thing’. The massed collection of these simulations has resulted in the condition of ‘hyperreality’, where the distinction between the ‘real’ and simulations has collapsed.

One of Baudrillard’s core arguments is that our world is so thoroughly saturated with images that there’s no longer any way to access a ‘real-world’ that might precede this image world. The image world is our ‘real world, a world we can’t escape or opt out of. It’s now literally impossible to conceptualize a ‘reality’ that precedes and stands apart from the image reality. The causal direction between the real and the representation is now reversed; ‘reality’ is an effect of the image, rather than the image springing from a reality prior to and deeper than it. Instead of art imitating life, life now imitates art.

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We naively think of reality as being separate from the images that claim to represent it. Documentary photography – and traditional notions of photography in general – have considered the relationship of images to reality as follows: there exists reality, and then images are created that reflect that reality. But is this still true in the digital age, where photographers present bright orange trains running under aqua blue-green moonlit skies? In The Evil Demon of Images (1984) Baudrillard claims that that relationship has now become inverted: now it’s the image that comes first, preceding and creating the very reality it claims to reflect, a reversal of the traditional causal relationship between reality and the image.

If you believe Baudrillard, then it raises all sorts of issues re: photography. First, if our reality is already media created, can we speak in any meaningful sense of photography as being a means of documenting a reality that precedes the photograph, or is the phot then an image of an image world, something doubly removed from an inaccessible objective reality? Is it possible to ‘believe’ a photo accurately represents a prior state of affairs? What does it do for Barthe’s understanding of the referential nature of photography as a medium, its authenticity based upon its indexical reading? It also calls into question your rights and responsibilities as a photographer. Your role as an image-maker becomes really important. Baudrillard would say you’re contributing to the creation of realities. The question then becomes: what is your responsibility in that process?

Old Man Yelling at [Dark, Ominous] Clouds

Think of this as Part Two of my last post, Further Proof That the Apocalypse is Upon Us.

That’s me, to the right, said “Old Man’ of the title to this piece. No question, I’m old. According to at least one of my readers, (I presume) a millennial, I’m also clueless, at least to the extent I’m resistant to newer manifestations of ‘photography.’ In response to my last post, he submitted a reader’s comment dismissing me as “an old man yelling at clouds,” the proverbial addled old guy standing in his bathrobe yelling at the kids playing ball in the street, the smug implication being that the world has long ago passed me and my kind by, and I should wake up, take note of the fact and move the hell out of the way while a new generation advances our notions of creative possibilities.

Specifically, my previous post concerned my off-hand dismissal of the “photographs” of a guy who authored a piece wherein he extolled the virtues of current digital photography tech and used examples of his work to bolster his claim that current digital technologies make it difficult to not take a great photo. I metaphorically face-palmed at his claim and the “photos” illustrating it. While I didn’t come out and say it, you could infer that I found the illustrating photos to be bad, bad in a way that only someone profoundly unaware of their aesthetic incompetence could produce. And then, after taking a deeper dive into his website, it turns out he’s a relatively well-known “photographer,” having shot stuff for all sorts of ‘hip’ publications. Holy shit, I thought to myself, has it come to this, that these hyper-processed, computer-generated in-your-face graphic simulacra are now what the millennial generation consider to be ‘photography?’ Is this what we now hold out as excellence, what current ‘photographers’ are aspiring to? No thanks. If you know the history of the medium and the necessary role photography plays in the visual arts and the larger culture, if you knew the etymology of the definition ‘photography,’ if you’d read Barthes or Sontag, if you’ve ever developed a negative and wet printed it, you wouldn’t tell me that what this guy is doing is ‘photography,’ because it’s not.

So I wrote about it; there was something unsettling about the fact that the mass understanding of ‘photography’ could have arrived here, at this point; that we’d gotten here, at a place so far removed from a traditional understanding of the medium…and nobody really notices, probably because they’ve come of age in the digital era – an era wherein graphic novels, video games, photo apps and augmented realities are “the real”; because they’re so profoundly ignorant about photography and its history as a visual art, and have no real understanding of the radical shift in consciousness this all entails.

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“C’mon in. Buy What We’re Selling. What Have You Got to Lose?”

Already in the 1930’s, Martin Heidegger warned of mechanized technologies transforming modern man’s internal life. For Heidegger the mechanical typewriter was a harbinger of a larger problem: by veiling the essence of writing and script, the typewriter “withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without him experiencing the withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of his Being to his essence,” [italics mine] which is a convoluted Heideggerian way of saying that new technologies rob us of our creative powers without our even realizing it.

Obviously, we’re now infinitely advanced from the humble technological advances of the typewriter. Were he alive today Heidegger would go further, saying not only that we aren’t aware of our impoverishment by our technologies, but we’ve been duped into thinking that the very technologies that rob us of our creative autonomy are in fact enhancing it. We’re so mesmerized by the marketing hype produced around these technologies as a means to their replication that we’ve intellectually and emotionally refashioned our loss of autonomy as creative enhancement. It’s a textbook example of what the Existentialists called “Bad Faith,” “Stockholm Syndrome” with respect to technology.

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Above is a ‘creation’ of mine. I did it completely myself, if by ‘completely’ one means pushing a button or two and initiating an algorithm created and controlled by someone else to create the end result. Likewise with the self-portrait that leads off above. Twenty years ago I could have offered these ‘creations’ to you as evidence of my artistic skills, and you’d probably be impressed, although you certainly wouldn’t accept them as ‘photographs.’ But they are ‘photographs’ in the currently accepted sense of the term – they were generated by a camera and have some link, however tenuous, to the capture of light. (That’s me, standing in front of my bathroom mirror, the car a 71 Camaro I cycled past parked on a back road.) Now? Created with the push of a button, the rest done for me by a computer algorithm and AI, whatever link they once possessed to the real now completely severed. Anyone can do it. Welcome to ‘photography.’

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Why the old-man angst about inevitable technological advances? What’s at stake? it’s certainly not as simple as what I suspect digital millennials think is going on, that of resentment and inflexibility of those of us supposedly psychologically and emotionally wedded to outdated technologies and the concepts on which those traditional methods rest. It’s way more existential than that, something that’s been in the air since the inception of digital, something that forward thinkers have been warning was coming and is now upon us full-bore. It involves a fight for the real and photography as a means to document the real, recognition of the pernicious consequence of severing indexicality from photography, transforming the medium into a means of subjective expression with no link, however tenuous, to brute factuality. It’s about the ‘transformation” Heidegger sees occurring to us – to “Being’ -in this process, a transformation that’s two-fold: first, an increasing retreat of photographic consciousness from the objectively real into subjective virtual worlds, and second, the creation of those virtual worlds not by our own imaginations but imposed on us via the push of a button, the result of it all being a false consciousness confusing imaginative subjection for creative flourishing.

So, next time you smug technological sophisticates begin to feel all superior to us film era Luddites, take a step back and consider that some of us may have articulable philosophical and creative reasons for rejecting the more outre aspects of digital technologies, and those reasons may be grounded in legitimate concerns based on deep historical sympathies. In other words, we may know things, important things, you’ve never even thought about, and you may be wise to listen.