Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography

This Person Exists. Maybe.

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

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

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

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 You guys crack me up, unable as you are to see past the outdated conceptual blinders you wear.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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jean Baudrillard, Enjoying a Gitanes While Thinking Deeply

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

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

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

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A Photograph Taken with a Film Camera. These People Exist

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

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

What Barthes’ Camera Lucida Means in the Digital Era

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

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

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

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

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The Camera Obscura, Predecessor of the Photographic Camera

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Part One

The Studium of This Photo: Roland Barthes in 1980. The Punctum (For Me) of This Photo: Shortly After, Barthes Got Run Over by a Laundry Truck


” Color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black and white photograph. ” That’s a great quote, maybe my favorite thing Barthes has written. Funny I don’t remember having seen it before, but there it is on page 81 of Richard Howard’s translation of Camera Lucida published by Hill and Wang. I ran across it while re-reading the book. The quote stuck out for me because it’s so quotable, the sort of pithy bon mot that fits great in an essay about photography. And it’s by Barthes no less, so it’s got tons of “crit lit” street cred. You’d think others would have liked it and used it, and I’d have run across it numerous times in past readings, given I read a lot about photography. But no, I’ve never seen it before.

Which is further proof of what I’ve long suspected: All sorts of people – from academic ‘critical theorists’ to the pretentious no-hopers who congregate on photography websites – love to reference Barthes’ “seminal” work about photography, Camera Lucida, but few of them have actually read it. It’s the sort of book one must be conversant with when one is “serious” about photography, but in reality, nobody reads it. They just discuss it as if they had, with other serious people who haven’t read it either, repeating its fashionable jargon deliberately conceived to exclude those not in on their “discourse.”

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Some general background about Barthes: Barthes was/is a French literary theoristphilosopherlinguistcritic, and semiotician, a “post-modern” deconstructionist whose work has influenced structuralismsemioticssocial theorydesign theoryanthropology, and post-structuralism. Suffice it to say that he was/is the poster boy for the French Post-Modernist Intellectual, a quasi-Marxist true believer in a Nietzschean relativism that holds there is no truth, no argument superior to any other argument (which, if you think about it, is completely contradictory on its face). I’ve written about him before here, which should tell you more than enough of what you need to know about Barthes.

So, assuming you haven’t read it, let me give you the Cliff Notes on Barthes’ Camera Lucida. It’s simple, and it’s this. What makes photography unique is the fact that it faithfully records the fact that something has been. Something was there, actually existed, reflected actual light rays, those light rays imprinted themselves on a film media, and the end result is an artifact – the photo –  that possesses, in some significant sense, the essence, the being of that thing photographed. And this is the essence of photography as a representational medium.

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Wayne New Jersey, 1974. The Studium: Me, My Brother and My Dad. The Punctum: My Brother Looks Like Harry Shearer in Spinal Tap.

Barthes then goes on to analyze what makes some photography more arresting than others. This is where Barthes introduces the idea of the studium and punctum and the distinction between the two. Every photo has a studium. The studium is simply the subject of the photo – the thing, the person, the landscape etc. –  the thing that was there in front of the camera, the thing the photograph describes. One thing we know about this studium is that it existed at the time the photograph was taken. We know this because photography has this indexical relationship with the real. By its very nature, photography deals with real things.

What differentiates photos from each other for the viewer is the presence or absence of the punctum, which is the emotional significance of the photograph for the viewer. The punctum is the viewer’s subjective response – something not there but merely hinted at- that jumps out of the picture at you, that says something to you over and above what simple definitional reading of the picture would imply (“that’s a picture of my mother”), that takes you out of the four corners of the photograph and transports you to a world outside of the photograph. That’s the punctum.

To illustrate the distinction, Barthes discusses a photo of his mother, the “Winter Garden” photo, a photo he has of her as a child, standing with her brother at five years of age, assuming a certain self-conscious pose, her fingers of one hand held awkwardly in the other.  The punctum of the Winter Garden photo for Barthes is this: this photo leads him back to the realization that his Mother, now dead, existed, and she existed before Roland existed, and this photography contains some part of her. She stood in front of a camera, with her brother, wearing those clothes, and held her hand like that, light reflected off of her and stenciled itself onto the physical medium of the film. The photo is physical evidence of her presence, evidence stenciled directly off the real. To put it another way, the punctum of the Winter Garden photo for Barthes is his realization of the existential reality of this particular studium. Deep.

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The Studium: Semana Santa Easter Celebration in Valencia. The Punctum? Up to you.

The studium/punctum distinction is interesting, but it’s only marginally related to the book’s main point. You wouldn’t know it, however, by reading about the book in the usual echo-chamber.  The studium/punctum distinction is secondary to a much larger and more important point Barthes is making: that what constitutes photography is its indexical relationship with what is real, what’s actually out there, and this relationship is unique among every other communicative media Photographs, unique among other means of representation i.e. painting, writing or speaking, necessarily deal in the real and are evidence of the real. That’s the magic of itWhile someone can manipulate an analog photograph to a certain extent, the exception proves the basic rule: photography, in the words of Susan Sontag, is the stenciling off of the real. Nothing else is, and that’s the value of photography and why it holds a special status as a communicative medium.

Think of it this way: A painter can paint something and present it to the viewer. What he’s painted may represent something that exists/existed, or it may represent something that does not exist, never has existed, a figment of his imagination or something he hasn’t seen. While he can claim it’s an accurate representation of the real, we can never know for sure. Likewise, a writer, using language as his device of representation, can write something purporting to be the truth about something real – or he could be writing something fantastical, void of reality, something that’s never been. It’s up to him to tell us, but again, we can never be certain. We have to take his word for it, and as such, it has a compromised ability to constitute what we refer to as “evidence.”

A photograph, however, by its very nature, requires something to have been there, something existing as a physical thing in time and space, something that existed. This is the essence of photography for Barthes, and it’s basically the point of the book. Photography gives us a direct representation of the real.

Cogitate on that for a while, and think about what implications it might have for ‘post-analog’ photography…


Coming Soon, Part Two: What Barthes means in the Digital Era (hint: Not many people talk about it, although it should be fairly obvious)

Words and Photos


“Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cow path to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides – pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a groove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.””

          Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)


 

The Reciprocal Relationship Inherent in Visual Art (Or…Be Careful Who You Show Your Photos to)

Is This a “Good Photo?” I Think So…But It Means Something to Me in a Way it Wouldn’t for You.  That’s, in Large Part, What Makes it “Good” for Me. What Might Make it Good for You? Context Maybe?


I’ve spent most of my adult life puzzling over what “good” photography is, yet it’s only been in my later years that I think I have any real answer. There’s a reason for that, as I’ll discuss below.

Photography, an art form accessible to most everyone, seems especially susceptible to muddled standards of valuation. The average photo enthusiast, the type who congregates on photo-specific websites and forums, typically falls into the trap of confusing technical competency with artistic merit. As you mature photographically, if nothing else, you should learn at least one thing: whatever creates the perfect photo, it isn’t simply technical excellence. To the contrary, the pursuit of technical excellence often hijacks creativity by directing your creative energies into focusing on technical mastery at the expense of individual expression.

So, if we’re not simply speaking of technical excellence, then what?  Aesthetic impact, contextual appropriateness, personal response, or some undefined mixture of the above? And who gets to choose? We all do, but some choose better than others, because they have a more refined aesthetic sense. This statement, standing alone, seems circular, but it isn’t. As I’ve written elsewhere, the 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) get’s closest to the truth with his claim that a person of wide knowledge and experience has a better basis to make aesthetic judgments. She’s seen more, thought more, reflected more, in the process refining her judgment and allowing her to better “see” a work of art by possessing a larger and more varied experiential foundation she can use to draw out the nuances pregnant in the work. Through her experience she has given herself the means to draw latent meaning from someone else’s work, work which, depending on the artist’s competency, allows a range of meaning. It’s a reciprocal relationship, the “best” photos possessing a range of latent meanings, meanings brought to fruition by an informed, cultured viewer.

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A Simple Little Book by Dominique Pierre-Nina. It’s Full of  Beautiful Work.

Above is the cover of a small book of photographs, a gift sent me by Australian photographer – and Leicaphilia reader – Dominique Pierre-Nina. Dominique sent me the book as a Christmas present, a thoughtful gesture of thanks for the enjoyment he’s received from reading Leicaphilia. (I encourage you to do something similar). Dominique’s book “A Year with the Leica M3” consists of a written introduction and 38 B&W photographs. Sounds interesting, right? Some guy loves his M3 and wants to show others what he’s done with it. Given the parameters set by the author’s presentation, that’s the extent of what I expected, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead I found a holistic work of real effect, thought-provoking photos that work individually and collectively, clearly the product of someone who has learned the art of seeing the beauty in everyday things. The book is more than just a collection of individual photographs; Mr. Pierre-Nina has purposefully sequenced them (I assume) so that the impact of the work is a function both of the photographs as individual works and as one larger work created by the body of photographs sequenced and presented as a coherent whole.

Many of the photographs would work as stand-alone works, studies in form and content. While they do so, they benefit from being placed within the larger context. The context here is that chosen by Mr. Pierre-Nina. The context in which they’re been situated adds something to the work, something that’s not present in the individual photos themselves, no matter how interesting they are individually. Without context, you might no “see” their full content; with proper context, they transform from individual works to works engaged in cross-talk with other individual works, in doing so forming a larger coherent work, the book, the exhibition, whatever.

Two Sequential Pages – Left hand Page, Right hand Page. Ostensibly Nothing in Common…But They Work Together

It’s more than just content and context given by Mr.Pierre-Nina, however. It’s also about my receptivity to it. The Kantian critique above – the importance of the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic back-history that the photographer brings to the work – applies as well to the viewer. Visual art is always a two-way transaction between creator and viewer, its power the result of a reciprocal relationship between creator and viewer. The aesthetic value of any work will always be latent until recognized – better yet, discovered – by the awareness of the viewer. Mr. Pierre-Nina is lucky enough to have found an able viewer – in me. While I haven’t asked him, I’m certain he’s shown his book to others – family members, friends, a lover maybe –  and been met with the polite patronization all gifted artists are familiar with. Why? Because the reciprocal relation necessary to its proper appreciation has broken down on the viewer’s end. To put it bluntly, they’re incapable of appreciating the work because of their own deficiencies. The photographer has done his job – the failure lies with the viewer, who hasn’t done his/hers.

If, as I do, you agree with Kant, then both the photographer and the viewer have certain responsibilities in the mutual transaction of understanding and enjoying photographic presentations. Mr. Pierre-Nina can try to give you that context through words, or he could place them with a larger sequence where the sum of the work starts to explain what he sees as their meaning. In either event, assuming he’s done his part, you as the viewer need to bring to the interaction a basis of knowledge and an aesthetic sensitivity formed from that knowledge, to make them coherent. No matter how competent an artist Mr. Pierre-Nina might be (and a good part of that competency is presentation), you as viewer have the responsibility to draw the meaning from them.

Which leads us back to Mr. Pierre-Nina. I don’t think he truly understands his photography – in the sense that I don’t think he can articulate via words what it might mean, what it might suggest to an engaged viewer. I’ve come to that conclusion after having first read his explanation of the work and then looking at the work itself. This isn’t a criticism of him. It’s a reality of the reciprocal relationship that creates the meaning of a creative work. His explanation, reproduced here, might tell you something of what he thinks about his photos, and that’s helpful to a certain extent. But it isn’t the final word. What Mr. Pierre-Nina thinks isn’t the end of the matter. What he thinks of his work doesn’t do it justice; it’s an impoverished understanding of what is truly remarkable work. If anything, this is a compliment to Mr. Pierre-Nina, a man who possesses an admirable humbleness about his work when in fact the work is exceptional. Really.

Likewise with the photo that leads off the piece. Standing alone, it doesn’t say much. At best, you might agree that its “interesting”. It needs context to be more. That’s my role as the photographer, and I fail if I don’t give you the context to make sense of it. But you fail me if, as the viewer, you are unable to properly parse the latent meaning of what I’ve offered you, unable due to ignorance, inexperience, closed-mindedness, arrogance. What separates excellent work from simple pretty pictures can often be as much a result of what the viewer brings to the experience than does the photographer.

This should tell you something: Be careful who you show your work to.


Which leads me to my next subject – Immanuel Kant tells you How to Make Beautiful Photos of Ugly People – coming soon.

Writing About Photography

Is this a picture of a broken down hobby horse, or it it something else? Or is it both, or neither?

While there’s a lot of great photography, there are few, if any, thoughtful books about photography and what it means. Off the top of my head I can think of a few worth reading: Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, Errol Morris’ Believing is Seeing, maybe Barthes’ Camera Lucida if for no other reason then everyone seems to refer to it, many, I suspect, without having read it. Most of the rest is poorly written and even more poorly thought through, crammed full of “post-structuralist” academic jargon, jargon being the best evidence that the writer doesn’t have any real idea what they’re talking about. Frankly, you’ll learn more about photographs by reading Vincent van Gogh’s Letters to Theo or Naifeh and Smith’s incredible biography of him, Van Gogh: A Life, both which will give you insight into what personal vision is, how one develops it  and how easy it is to compromise it unless you steadfastly guard it.

For many of us, photography isn’t simply a technology for informing or recording. It is more about the aesthetic and emotional payoff for us as the photographer, being able to create something that communicates what we see and how we see it. Every good photo has something original in its approach,  going against the grain of common seeing, evidence of the idiosyncratic way a single person sees and thinks. Good photographers, ones who create meaningful, original work, can’t do it any other way: their way of seeing is necessarily as idiosyncratic as their mind and body, and to produce photos without that idiosyncracy would be dishonest to themselves and their audience. Apeing someone else’s style is for the neophyte or the creatively barren.

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A photograph is, to use a metaphor, a visual poem. We read a poem because we want to know how the poet “sees” the subject of the poem. We read it for what Barthes calls its punctum: that peculiar way of seeing, or writing (which in a poem is the same thing)—the poet’s style. Likewise, we read a novel or an essay not simply to learn something but to see through someone’s eyes, to follow the traces of their mind on the page as they come to terms with a theme or an idea or an experience. But it’s not a static one-way thing. It’s also about discovering what we think of what the poet thinks. Writing poetry is collaboration between poet and reader, both bringing their persons to the text.

So too with photography. A photograph operates as both a document and a creation. The level at which it gets interpreted depends on the viewer. Good photography is a collaborative effort, requiring a skilled and creative photographer and an intelligent and receptive viewer. Roland Barthes makes the distinction, in Camera Lucida, between two planes of the photograph: the studium, which is the explicit subject of the image, the information we learn from it; and the punctum, “that aspect (often a detail) of a photograph that holds our gaze without condescending to mere meaning or beauty.” The punctum exists in the head of the viewer; it may change from person to person, or it may change for the same viewer at different viewings. In my experience, a photo can mean different things to me at different times.

This, obviously, has implications for one’s ability to write “about” a photograph. If “what it means” changes even for the photographer – not even mentioning the role the viewer plays – then explaining it with language seems a fool’s errand at best. There is nothing more pretentious than photographers trying to “explain” their work. My advice for those of you who think you need to: the work speaks for itself. If you feel you need to explain, the work probably isn’t very good in the first place and your explanation will simply box you in and further diminish what little impact the work itself might have. Better to shut up and let your audience decide for themselves. What they think of it may differ from what you think. That’s OK. There’s room for both, by necessity.

“Be In The Now”

Me, NYC, December 2003. Photo by Jorge Alvarez

Above is a scan of a photo of me in NYC in 2003. During that year’s Christmas holidays I swapped my Paris flat for a similar walk-up apartment on W. 23rd St in Manhattan. A friend from Paris flew to NYC with me. We spent a week exploring the city, film Leicas in hand during the day, at night doing the normal things two guys temporarily unleashed on the town tend to do. If I remember correctly, it snowed like crazy for a day, and we spent that day walking lower Manhattan, reduced as it was to a small town, city sounds muffled by the snow, the usual pedestrian bustle gone, no cars or taxis running the streets. A magical NYC afternoon. I hadn’t thought much of it again till today, a day dedicated to cleaning up my workspace in anticipation of a new printer (I’ve just ordered a Canon Pro 100 PIXMA printer, having tossed an almost new Epson R3000 because of print head clogs. I will NEVER buy another Epson printer…”fool me once” and all). In so doing I found a box of old photos and decided to scan some of them, the one above included. It brings back a lot of really good memories – a great friend, NYC, a time in my life that meant something important to me.

I’m lucky never to have lost my childhood wonder of photography. It’s easy to forget how few people, historically speaking, have lived in an era where one had the ability to capture a moment in time via a photograph. Photography was only invented less than two centuries ago, and it’s only been with the introduction of the Kodak and the Leica 100 years ago where the technology advanced to the point that photography could be enjoyed by regular people. Yet, as a culture we seem completely oblivious to it all, as if it’s just a normal feature of everyday life. It’s not, and we as photographers, of all people, should never forget it.

My mother recently gave me an old photo of my Great Grandmother that had hung on my Aunt’s wall for years. My Aunt died and my mother inherited the picture which she was kind enough to give to me, knowing how much my Great Grandmother meant to me as a child. She lived with us until her death in 1970 at the age of 99, so she was more like a grandmother to me, very kind, a sweet old Dutch woman who used to give me coffee flavored sweets against the wishes of my mom. She also taught me how to tie my shoes. The photo was taken in 1896 in Amsterdam, at CJL Vermeulen’s studio on Heerenstraat 6 to be exact (all of this is written on a card glued to the back of the photo). She would have been 25 at the time. Obviously, I didn’t know her then, but I can still see in the photo the features of the woman I knew. That’s amazing, that a simple photograph has allowed me to see her as she was long before I was even born, gives me even now a window into a reality long past.

A few days after returning home from visiting my mom I had lunch with my ex-wife, a woman with whom I had lived in Amsterdam in 1996. She had no idea about the photo just given me by my mom. She gave me a photograph, of me, in Amsterdam, the one to the right. I remember exactly where she took it; I was standing on Beursstraat, a few hundred meters as the crow flies from where my Great Grandmother stood for her picture a hundred years before. Tell me that’s not cool. There’s a certain kismet about that coincidence, the universe playing a little joke on me, or maybe just a reminder that time can be a slippery thing, the present a stage for the past, the past a harbinger of the future.

 

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Me and my Grandfather, 1979

I admire Zen Buddhism, its simple austerity, emphasis on personal tranquility and its historical encouragement of education and art. Much like the Quakers (of whom I’m an erstwhile member), Zen Buddhism offers religious experience without dogma or institutional control. However, I don’t agree with their complete focus on living in the moment, the “now” at the expense of the past (or future). Everything is not “about the now.” It’s cute as a sound-bite, a pleasing soporific reminding us not to miss the moment. But it’s wrong if it minimizes or denies the profound role that past experience plays in shaping who we are at present. We are the products of our experience, our beings the sum total of the “then.” Consciousness of our past and awareness of the future is what makes us human. Cats and cattle can “live in the moment,” must live in the moment, because they’re not capable of the abstract thinking required to place oneself outside of the present.  The fact that we can is what separates us from them, it’s what makes us human. Without the past we’re unmoored, lost, without the future we’re incoherent. Living completely “in the now” is the tragedy of the Alzheimer sufferer, a spiritual and emotional life reduced to the level of brute animality. Beauty lies in the moment, yes, but the moment is evanescent, always slipping beyond our grasp. In the blink of an eye it’s a memory, and there’s no more potent means of keeping alive, reliving and refocusing the power of that moment than to memorialize it with a photo.

I’m not advocating living in the past. First and foremost, it’s important to live for the future. You need a point on the horizon to move toward. That’s what makes us human. You should always have something to wait for, plans not yet realized, goals not yet reached. At the same time you should be immersed in the past, reliving it, sharing it, learning from it. This is how you keep the past alive. My Great Grandmother and my Grandfather, both now long gone, aren’t truly gone until their memory dies. A photo can preserve that memory. That photo above keeps my Grandfather alive in a very real sense. I can picture him there, sitting at his table, remembering all his particulars. That’s truly remarkable, that I could do that after 40 years, and it’s a function of having that photo which brings it all back to me. That’s my history right there, that’s where I come from, who I am. I get to share it with you.

One more reason to take photos.

What Makes a Good Photograph? It Depends

Lincoln Tunnel, NYC

I’ve just returned home from a weekend trip to New York City, 18 hours there and back in a car with a 17 year old Czech girl, made to listen to an ear-bleeding mix of Justin Bieber and One Direction with some unlistenable Czech heavy metal thrown in as counterpoint. Occasionally I’d manage to commandeer the sound system long enough to attempt to educate her with examples of great classic rock and roll – The Who’s I Cant Explain, Rain by the Beatles, Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds etc – to which she’d listen politely and then switch back to some current overblown pop anthem.  If she’s incapable of hearing the simple brilliance of those songs, forget about schooling her in anything more esoteric, say John Coltrane’s Plays the Blues. Totally lost cause – not gonna happen.

We did have a great time in NYC, however. There for less than 36 hours, we walked half the city – Times Square to Central Park to the UN to Rockefeller Plaza Friday night, Saturday day starting at the Whitney Museum on the West Side to Washington Square to Soho, through Chinatown and Little Italy and the East Village to the Brooklyn Bridge, then the World Trade Center Memorial via Wall Street and then back up to the West Village to eat at John’s Pizza on Bleeker, my favorite place to eat in the entire universe. Sunday Morning back in the car at 5 AM, home to North Carolina. I made her listen to her music on her headphones on the trip home.

Nicki is our current international student, living with us for a year and attending high school here. She’s from Prague, smart, speaks English better than most American kids, nice kid, stunningly beautiful and completely oblivious of the fact. It was fun walking Manhattan with her. She’s a natural, having studied ballet from a young age, moving with an easy grace and elegance that’s impossible to ignore, made more so by the fact that she’s un-selfconsciously unaware of it. It was fascinating to watch other women watch her – well-dressed, rich and powerful women very obviously eyeing her jealously while trying to figure out what she’d be doing with an old guy like me – aging rock star with teenage girlfriend maybe? Rich old sugar daddy with young model? Dad with daughter? We have a lot of fun together, although she treats me with the casual disdain youth treat adults – no recognition of how cool I actually am, or rather, I think I am.

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Not NYC, but Close Enough

And she claims to love “photography”, although her definition of it is obviously different than mine. I’ve been trying to educate her about aesthetics and photography, inviting her to look at some of my photo books and hinting to her that a good photograph can be about more than something colorful or pretty. She seems completely uninterested in what I have to say about aesthetics, and, based on her lack of response to the photo books I’ve set in front of her, unimpressed by the photographers I revere.

How can one account for various tastes? Is it even possible to rank the aesthetic value of art? Do we have a basis for concluding that the Beatles are inherently better than Justin Bieber, or that Ray Metzker’s photography is qualitatively better than what’s popular on an Instagram feed?

Gottfried Leibniz, an 18th Century German philosopher, would say yes. He argued that there exists a definable, measurable, essence of aesthetics that makes one piece of art objectively better than another, citing canonical works like Michelangelo’s David or Mozart’s Lacrimosa as proof. Leibniz would say that there’s a reason these works have remained appreciated by successive generations – they’re inherently beautiful and aesthetically pleasing in a way few other works are. In this sense, Leibniz is a “Platonist,” an aesthetic theory  articulated by Plato wherein things are beautiful to the extent they mirror an eternal, timeless beauty of which individual things are a degraded manifestation.

Scottish Philosopher David Hume meanwhile, argued that beauty is subjective and there exists no ultimate criterion, no “Platonic form” to rank the relative merit of any artistic work. Consider the photography of Garry Winogrand, which offers a powerful aesthetic experience to some, others finding it shallow and banal. Hume would say that both opinions are correct, if by correct we mean legitimate for the person with the opinion.

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant saw the truth as something in between. For Kant, aesthetic judgments are neither wholly objective nor subjective. Rather, such judgments  involve a confluence of sensory, emotional and intellectual impressions all at once – and, as such, depend on the state of mind of the observer and thus can, and usually do, change over time. That’s why 17 y/o Nicki can find a photograph of a sunset “beautiful” while finding work I love – Ray Metzker for example – uninteresting or ugly, while my aesthetic sensibility can be precisely the opposite. They are both the result of our individual life experiences.

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A Favorite Ray Metzker Photo

I think that Kant thus gives us a way out of the either/or subjective/objective dilemma posed by Leibniz and Hume. If all judgments of beauty depend on the viewer’s sensory, emotional and intellectual history, then one’s aesthetic sense is always valid but can ripen and mature and as one matures is thus able to draw upon more varied and nuanced life experiences when responding aesthetically.  This is just another way of saying that all assessments of beauty are individual and valid as such (Hume), but that some standards of beauty are the product of more experience and mature understanding, which itself means that there is a riper aesthetic understanding that mature experience leads us to (Leibniz).

If, as Kant claims,  taste is a function of experience and knowledge, then this suggests we can make relative value judgments about individual taste. The more experience, the more knowledge one possesses, the subtler and more nuanced one’s aesthetic sense becomes. One’s tastes can mature and become…better. This is why I’ve advocated broad learning – reading literature, listening to music, viewing photographs, learning history – as opposed to the quick fix of a better camera, a new lens, or a street photography seminar by the usual suspects. It’s only in that way – by becoming a citizen of the world with broad sympathies and varied interests – that you’ll create photography that matters.

The Enjoyment of Photography

I enjoy writing this blog. I find it therapeutic, allowing me to formulate thoughts in real time about things that interest me. I’ll usually start with a broad idea which i’ll gradually refine as I write, the end result bearing little resemblance to what I had initially set out to do. Writing, for me, is a process, a means of thinking through things by forcing myself to articulate them. What I end up with often surprises me, but really, the doing of it itself is the real emotional payoff.

Photography is much the same way. I’ll start with one idea which invariably will morph into something else, or it will if I leave myself open to it, which is the key to any creative pursuit- leaving oneself open to wherever your interests take you, what the Ancients would call “following ones muse.”

Paradoxically, it’s as if the best things are drawn out of you by some force separate from your willing self, coming from somewhere deeper and richer than your conscious motivations. No wonder the ancient Greeks believed in one’s muse, a creative impulse incapable of being quantified or measured, immune to rational analysis. Your muse comes and goes on its own schedule, but you connect with it only if you acknowledge it, make the time for it, open yourself up to its possibilities.

It’s remarkable what ‘the Ancients’ can teach us, which is probably the reason great minds in every generation find themselves coming back to them and why I prattle on about them on a photography blog – they have things to say which are relevant to us as photographers, things more nebulous but no less important that the technical aspects of the craft.  Stay at the level of technical expertise and you’re a craftsman, an artisan; follow your muse and you become an artist, a creator.

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It often feels like I’m treading the same ground over and over, and maybe I am. No sooner am I done with one post than I’m starting to think of the next. Ultimately, if I look at it as a series of tasks I need to complete –  creating an ongoing stream of blog posts, no obvious end in sight – the whole process seems futile, like rolling a boulder up the hill only to start all over when it comes rolling back down (itself an Ancient Greek metaphor). it’s this sense of futility, of the never ending practical demands of our goal directed daily endeavors, that creates much of the frustration and emotional emptiness of life.

Aristotle makes a distinction that applies here: the difference between telic and atelic activities. Most of the things we do aim at a final goal: photos for an assignment; a paper for a graduate seminar;  walking the dog so he can get some exercise and stay healthy etc. These are what Artistotle calls telic activities, acts we engage in for the sake of a further goal.

Goals are obviously necessary for humans, but a life exclusively goal directed is often ultimately experienced as shallow and unfulfilling. That’s because, in pursuing goals, there are only two potential outcomes  – either I fail to complete them, in which case I’m unsuccessful and frustrated, or I do complete them, they’re finished  and I now need to create and work toward a new goal. Either way, these telic activities offer me no rest and contentment, no ability to enjoy the value of having done what I’ve done, no true fulfillment. Ironic then, that it’s the model of human activity offered us by most cultures and societies down through history, and it’s the ethic enshrined at the heart of capitalism and consumerism.

How can we disengage from this goal directed treadmill that constitutes a “successful” life? Aristotle, never a man willing to accept common opinion, believed that real “success” came via contentment, and true contentment is found not in the goal directed life but rather in Atelic activity.  Atelic activities don’t aim at a goal. You do them for the sake of doing them. The enjoyment is in the doing. I walk my dog (telic);  but I can also go for a walk with my dog (atelic), no goal in mind other than the walking. Such activities are never completed: in merely walking with my dog, our aim is not to go anywhere; our aim is to enjoy the walk wherever it takes us. Atelic activities are insulated against the cycle of completion and disappearance characteristic of the telic. They are an end in itself.

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A “Wet Plate” 5×7 of an Old Tree I Used to Play Under Back in the Day

I’ve been thinking for some time about this very issue and how it applies to my photography. Thinking back, a large part of what attracted me to photography was the process itself, the end result often secondary. It’s also why I still love to use mechanical film cameras and enjoy the ‘doing’ of film photography – bulk loading film, picking film developer combinations, the entire darkroom process from developing negatives to printing them, the whole process rich in tactile enjoyment in addition to intentionality. Digital photography has taken that enjoyment from me, the digital process being about pushing buttons where once there were processes one engaged with.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been thinking of dusting off my view camera, buying some sheet film and taking some pics. Better yet, going ‘artisanal’ and doing something unique. I’ve been doing an ongoing project, documenting a local landmark before it all gets torn down and turned into whatever it is that’ll make somebody a lot of money. The project lends itself well to a slow, steady approach. Old trees, old buildings, nostalgic decay that might work well with an alternative photographic process.

It used to be that if you wanted the look of wet plate or emulsion transfers you had to start with a wet  plate or you had to engage in the laborious process of image transfers, and when you were done you’d have a unique, one-of-a-kind image that was the product of both your aesthetic sense and your technical skills. Galleries and sophisticated collectors loved that sort of stuff. It certainly separated you from the herd, giving you an authenticity the guys shooting handheld cameras couldn’t touch, and it often made up for otherwise uninspired, pedestrian subjects. Look! Such and such really looks cool done that way, the emphasis being on the technique and not the subject.

But we also took these slow approaches because the processes themselves had value and gave an enjoyment by their doing, an enjoyment seemingly apart from the mastery of the act itself. Did we take the slow approach to experience the activity itself (atelic), or was it that the slow approach yielded results we wouldn’t have achieved another way (telic)? I suspect it might have been a bit of both, some photographers finding enjoyment in the processes themselves, others fascinated by the unique results uncommon processes produced. Today that distinction has broken down. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, with what can be done digitally, there’s no real reason to do it the slow way if the results are what matter. Applying filters in Lightroom, however, isn’t going to give you the experience of the view camera, or the darkroom, or the tactile experience of your M4 loaded with Tri-X. Is that good or bad? Depends, I suppose, on your reasons for being a photographer.

Seeing Both the Car Window and the Passing Landscape

In his book Mythologies, French Philosopher Roland Barthes writes about the difficulty one has, when travelling in a car, simultaneously seeing both the countryside and the car window. Our perceptual apparatus allows us to see both, but only one at a time. To see one is not to see the other. This might explain how Barthes died in excellent health at the relatively young age of 64 – run over by a laundry truck crossing the street in front of the Sorbonne while walking to one of his classes (true). Very appropriate end for a philosopher with his head in the clouds, but not the best. Heraclitus, the guy who said it wasn’t possible to step twice into the same river, died an even more philosophic death. When his doctors couldn’t cure him of  chronic illness, Heraclitus decided to bury himself in dung, thinking this would do the trick. After covering himself in manure and sitting around for a while, he couldn’t free himself and died of starvation, trapped in a pile of shit.  My wife predicts a similar end for me.

I’ve always been fascinated by photos through windows. You may have noticed. It’s also been an interest for others more notable – Frank, Koudelka,  Kratochival, Winogrand, Friedlander, Moriyama et al. There’s something compelling about the constructed reality produced by the confluence of the reflector and the reflected. These photos help educate naive viewers that photographs don’t mirror or objectively recreate a ‘reality out there’ but rather are their own reality. And, to my mind, these photos refute Barthes’ claim that we can’t see both simultaneously – we can, via a photograph, at least as a fusion of the two that creates its own new reality.

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Roland Barthes was born in 1915 in Cherbourg, on the Atlantic coast of France, and raised by his mother in Paris after his father died in WW1. As a teen Barthes developed tuberculosus, resulting in an extended stay in a sanatorium, thanks to which he missed WW2. It also allowed him time to develop a wide range of intellectual interests. From this enforced self-education, Barthes became an early theorist of Semiology – the science of signs and meanings – whereby he attempted to explain human activity by analyzing how signs (signifiers”) construct reality.

Barthes’s first book, Writing Degree Zero (1953), considered the ways in which we employ language to think, yet are constrained within the confines of language itself, language whose meanings are arbitrary, not fixed. For example, brides wear white for weddings in America, but in China, Korea, and other Asian countries white represents death, mourning, and bad luck, and is traditionally worn at funerals. Is one culture ‘wrong’ about what white means? No. The meaning of white is not set in stone but is merely an agreed convention. This is true of all meanings in all cultures. To understand a culture, we need to first understand how meanings are produced, circulated, consumed and understood by those within it. Why? Because these meanings create that culture’s experience of the world.

Barthes was appointed to the prestigious École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris in 1960. His next work (Elements of Semiology, 1965) looked at the primary elements of human existence – food, clothing, shelter – and how we talk about them. Semiology – the science of signs – breaks each act of communication into a signifier and the signified. The signifier is the word, gesture or object (a photograph, for example); the signified is what that word, gesture or photo means. To take an example,  a red rose can signify different things, depending on context: If I give one to a woman on Valentine’s Day it means “I love you;” if I am confronted with an image of four of them at the liquor store it’s a reminder I’d be wise to buy a bottle of Four Roses bourbon; if I see one on a t-shirt in Lancashire UK it probably means the wearer is a fan of the Lancashire Rugby team. And then there’s what Barthes calls an something’s “degree zero” of meaning: that is, its status as just a thing – in our rose example, just a piece of flora. Practically speaking however, it’s impossible to see anything this way, because as humans we seem compelled to read meanings into objects. A rose is never just a rose.

Likewise, using the same semiotic analysis, a photograph is never merely a photograph, just an innocent copy of something out there. It’s much more loaded than that. Like every other object of perception, we attach certain meanings to it, meanings dependent on the cultural context. Semiotics rejects the naive understanding of the photo as a transparent window through which we see a slice of reality, a faithful copy of a “thing out there.” While Barthes doesn’t write of it, I’m sure he’d chuckle at the story told by Picasso, now old and venerated, who, visited in his Paris studio by a vulgar nouveau-riche, was asked why he had painted his portrait of Dora Maar  in an abstract manner that clearly “didn’t look like her?” In reply, Picasso asked the man what his own wife looked like, and the man showed him a B&W photo of her he kept in his wallet, to which Picasso replied “so, she’s flat, without color and 2 inches square?”

Picasso’s point being that the “degree zero” of the painting or photo – its reality as a thing – is just a piece of canvas or paper with some markings on it, while what we read into it is what it represents, it’s “meaning.” Picasso was directing the man’s eyes from the signified to the sign itself,  in so doing demonstrating that pictures don’t inherently “represent reality” or anything else but rather that we read the reality into them.

Anyway, back to Barthes.

Starting in the early 70’s, Barthes applied his semiotics eye to mass culture – clothing, fashion, painting, iconography, typography…and photography. What he was doing now was, like Picasso in the instance above, examining the signifier itself, the painting, clothing, typography or photograph – the communicating object –  its feel and sensuality.  His interest was how signs create meanings, but it was also his attempt to alert us to more nefarious implications; as citizens of modern, capitalist culture, the self-interested workings of that culture via its scripted words and images can’t but influence what we understand as real.  In our hyper-capitalist culture, meanings constantly bombard us – via text but more and more via photographs that pretend to be neutral – with subtle but definable connotations; for Barthes, to get ourselves oriented in such a morass of meanings we must first consider the signifier itself as a filter (a “car-window”) that influences the way we see the “real” countryside beyond.

Of course, the implications of Barthes’ insights for us as photographers are fairly obvious. First, it opens up to us the fact that photographs aren’t just objective copies of something real ‘out there’ but are themselves constructed by the eye of the photographer, who is the curator of what gets seen by the viewer and the manner in which it gets seen, which then opens up the reality of photography as a creative medium – as Art – that so many would deny it. Second, it opens up the activity of the viewer as necessary to the photo’s meaning. Meaning, necessary in any coherent photograph, can be given both by the photographer but also by the viewer, and the two may not necessarily be the same.  Third, it should alert us to the power of images and their role in forming – and distorting – what we perceive. The dark side of such a remarkable technology is that it can,  in a capitalist consumer society (or in more malevolent social or political societies), be put to uses that might not serve our best interests, unless, of course, we can see through its seductive manipulations.

It’s this third implication that is the focus of Barthes’ analysis and what he’s warning us against. In doing so he’s reminding us that we, as recipients, can impose our own meanings on the texts and images we’re bombarded with. We have that power. Be critical of that photograph, Barthes is saying: It isn’t just a photo but rather an often devious means of making you see the world in a way that serve’s other’s purposes, a way that might not be your free choice and might distort your understanding. Only when you understand this will you be the master of your life’s meanings and not be mastered by a world of symbols deviously crafted to master you.

What Reality is Leica Constructing For Me With This Photo?