“There are photographers who are mere witnesses, who see things and scoop up events. And then there are those who say what they think in their photos – those are the artists….For them, the “I” is so cumbersome that they can’t separate themselves from it.” – Robert Delpire
Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography
Marcel Proust on Time
In theory, one is aware that the earth revolves, but in practice one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can live undisturbed. So it is with time in one’s life.” — Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove
Believing is Seeing
“The amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the idea and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the beautiful.” – Paul Valery
In the Phaedrus, written by Plato circa 370 BCE, Socrates discusses the Egyptian myth of the creation of writing. Socrates thought writing a bad thing because it weakened our powers of memory and thus altered our reality in a profound way, memory being the pre-condition of all culture. This explains why Socrates never wrote anything; his student Plato transcribed his dialogues and thus gave him to history.
For Socrates, writing allowed a pretense of understanding, not true understanding. What we read we really don’t understand in the way we do when we hear and speak: “For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.” What’s interesting for present purposes is not Socrates’ opinion about writing but his recognition that the transition from orality to writing would lead inexorably to new modes of thinking and thus, new realities. This is also the thesis of Cambridge social scientist Jack Goody, who in 1977 wrote The Domestication of the Savage Mind wherein he traces the long-term changes in human cognition and culture brought about by the development of writing. The mode of our communication shapes what we think.
David Levi Strauss’s recently published Photography and Belief, is about the photographic image and its relationship to what we believe to be true. According to Strauss, with the advent of digitization, we are in the midst of a second radical cultural transformation as profound as the development of writing- the move from a written culture to a culture of images. Strauss examines how digital technologies change how we look and how and what we trust by seeing.
Specifically, Strauss’s interest is the aura of believability that images provide. Photographic images have inordinate power to influence opinion, prompt action, create and direct desire. The question for Strauss is “Why?” Is their power based on an assumption of their truthfulness? If so, why do we assume images are true? As Wittgenstein noted almost a century ago already, such needn’t have been the case: “We regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relation to such pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without color or even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.”
Most would answer Wittgenstein’s question by pointing to the ‘indexical’ nature of photographs i.e. they are stenciled directly off of real things and more or less represent those things as they are. Of course, there are problems with this understanding as well. Behind the curtain of ‘indexicality’, photographs have been subject to various forms of manipulation. Questions about individual photography’s faithfulness to the real have been around since its inception, although digitization has made its manipulative capacity increasingly obvious to the lay public. For Strauss, however, the long-running debate about photography’s verisimilitude misses a bigger, more important point: what is the tsunami of images we’re deluged with doing to our understanding of truth itself?
Strauss is interested in how our new technologies ultimately undermine the connection between seeing and believing and how a shift in our relationship to images may come to threaten our very purchase of the real. Instead of discussing whether we should believe images, Strauss claims that the surfeit of images we now consume has created a new type of consciousness – a quasi-hallucinogenic “optical consciousness,” borrowing a phrase from Walter Benjamin – and we aren’t going to return to an earlier mode of thinking. We are, in effect, “all in” in this new world of images, where we encounter so many, so fast, our critical faculties have essentially been disabled.
The day of a single photo hanging on a wall, a subject for critique and evaluation, is gone, replaced by images that appear “in a flow” of digital presentation: “Images that appear on the screens of our devices go by in a streaming flow. Individual images are seldom apprehended separately, as a singular trace. Singular, still images operate very differently on the mind. The images in a flow are seldom dwelled on, so their individual effect is limited, creating instead a disproportionately generalized effect.” This new consciousness isn’t predicated on a choice we make about believing, or not believing, particular images; it’s, in effect, forced upon us by the volume and rapidity of the images that deluge us. We are losing the ability to ‘see’ particular images, and with that are losing a means of believing in the real. As Strauss notes, “we no longer believe in reality, but we believe in images.”
I’m Back, Sort of….
Well, I suppose it depends on your definition of “being back.” Am I going to start cranking out thrice-weekly thousand word posts about what Aristotle would have thought about photography? Probably not, although it’s an interesting question and I think it would have fascinated Aristotle (384-322 BCE), given all its implications for the form/matter conundrum that animated Greek philosophy from Plato onward i.e. what is real – the individual thing or the ‘form’ it embodies? Does something have to be ‘actual’ to be ‘real’? Frankly, I think photography would have blown Aristotle’s mind.
So, a short diversion: According to Aristotle, no maker of anything starts completely from scratch. He/she always starts with material from which he produces something else. The maker’s materials are shapeless in a relative sense. The maker then ‘informs’ his materials i.e. forms or shapes them in a certain way to create something of a higher order. For example, the poet forms a poem from words and the poem is of a higher order than the words themselves. The material has the potential to be shaped into a higher order thing of human construction, and the process of doing so is a process of realization wherein material moves from a state of potential to a state of actuality. The maker “brings out” the material’s potential and transforms it into something with a higher reality.
The question that photography poses for Aristotle is simple: What’s the material the photographer (the maker) is shaping when he/she photographs? The thing photographed or the underlying physical substrate that creates the physical thing called a photo? If it’s the thing photographed, does the photograph possess a higher being than its subject? And what of a digital photo on a hard drive? Does it exist in actuality or does it just have the potential to exist?
One thing Aristotle would agree with: the movement of becoming a better photographer – a better maker of photographs – is also the movement to a higher level of being. The photographer realizes himself in the process turning potential into actuality. The good photographer possesses a design for the photograph he attempts to make, an abstraction that he/she makes visible to himself and others via its making. The photo he constructs is the realization of a potential. Potential of what? Aristotle would say it is the actualization of the photographer’s potential and thus a movement to a greater level of being for the photographer.
This is why you love photography: because your photography reflects the greater being you achieve via it, and love and being always increase together.
So, I’m not going to be publishing as frequently as I’ve done before, at least not for the time being because, frankly, I’ve not given much thought to my photography in the last year or so. I’ve had other things on my mind. And I’ve pretty much tapped out my thoughts on the subject, until of course Thorsten Overgaard does something stupid, at which time I will mock him mercilessly. But, just when I think I’ve said everything I want to say about photography, I think of something else, so I’m fairly sure I’ll be posting more. Whether it’s worth reading is a different story.
And I’m going to sell my film cameras, as I never use them anymore. [Wanna buy a nice film camera? Contact me. Just don’t be the guy who haggles over everything and assumes the worst of the seller, because I won’t sell to you at any price.] It is what it is. I’ve got a freezer full of expired film – easily over a 1000 ft of various B&W stock [wanna buy some film?], and it just sits there while I snap away with my Leica M and MM. Which brings me full-circle: in 2013 I started the blog as a peon to film photography and its continued relevance (with a full dose of contempt for the crummy digital cameras Leica was then producing). Now I rarely shot film and I love my M and my MM. I’ve given up fighting the good fight, because it’s not the good fight anymore. Things move on, although Thorsten Overgaard will remain a really funny guy.
Significant Fact…or Insignificant Flicker?
“I capture reality but never pose it. But once captured, is it still reality?” – RIchard Kalvar, ‘Street Photographer‘
Having had looked at lots of it over the years, I’ve concluded there are three types of ‘Street Photography’: 1) photos of people on the street (go to any popular photo forum – and a lot of street specific websites – and you’ll see endless variations of this); 2) gimmicky photos of people in public spaces e.g people caught in awkward poses or fallen in the street etc; or 3) photos that attempt to say something about a person in the street, or something about the person’s relationship with someone else in the street, or or something about the person’s relationship with the built environment. (It helps as well if it also has a pleasing or interesting aesthetic i.e. it’s not completely dependent on its subject matter to generate interest). It’s only this latter type that holds any real interest…for me.
My problem with ‘street photography’ as it’s practiced by most is that it invariably falls into the first category – photos of people in the street that have no inherent interest beyond what they depict i.e. it’s just a picture of someone in the street. Below is my contribution (New York City, 2013): people in the street and not much more. While it may possess some marginal aesthetic interest, it doesn’t say anything. At most it relies on a gimmick, the juxtaposition of three people looking three different ways. So what. As a younger photographer, less aware of the subtleties that create real interest in a photo, I’d likely have picked it out and published it. Hey, look at my photo of people on the street!
New York City, 2013
Compare it with the photo below (Edinburgh, 2015). The two photos make for an enlightening juxtaposition. Same formal aesthetic – three people on the street similarly positioned. From a textbook perspective, the Edinburgh photo is a failure – bad framing, no faces. Yet, to me, the photo has a power the New York photo doesn’t, something about those rumpled clothes that talk about the lives of the people who wear them. You don’t need their faces to read into the photo a deflating reality about about the people shown; it’s there in their clothes, goods that promise so much while in the shop window but look like this once we’ve fallen for consumerism’s conjuring tricks.
New York City, 2013
A larger question is whether street photography can be ‘documentary.’ The legitimacy of ‘street photography’ is premised on the assumption that capturing a millisecond of arrested time in an image can reveal something true. Art critic Lincoln Kirsten thought this debatable. “The candid camera is the greatest liar in the photographic family, shaming the patient hand-retoucher as an innocent fibber. The candid camera with its great pretensions to accuracy, its promise of sensational truth, its visions of clipped disaster, presents an inversion of truth, a kind of accidental revelation which does far more to hide the real fact of what is going on than to explode it…It drugs the eye into believing it has witnessed a significant fact when it has only caught a flicker.” That kid above: did the camera catch something meaningful, or is that just a throwaway glance the camera insists is something more?
So, assuming we’re talking about interesting street photography of the third type, can we say that what’s being shown us is truthful, or is it trickery, an artificial reality created by the camera isolating in time something that requires a larger temporal context to be represented accurately?
“The shadow’s most striking feature is its confirmation that the photographer was there, a reality not generally evident in photographs. We take it for granted that photographs were made by someone, a person with a reason for making them, but that observer – who by extension is also us – is rarely acknowledged so overtly in the pictures themselves.
It’s safe to say that this photographer did not see his shadow. The mind has a stubborn tendency to see what it wants to see, and with a camera it tends to acknowledge only the concrete objects in front of the lens: the car, the kids, the mountain. It usually chooses to ignore the shadows and other less substantial elements that fall within the edges separating the picture from the rest of the world, no matter how undeniable the shadow may be.
…Only in photography could such a phenomenon exist (a painting depicting the painter’s shadow could only be made with intention, the very intentionality of which would certainly make it less interesting).” – Jeffrey Fraenkel, The Book of Shadows
Freud Says You’re Unhappy, and That’s Why You’re a Photographer
I’ve just got done with a marathon reading of Sigmund Freud. Well, maybe not “marathon” but an extended reading including The Future of an Illusion back to back with Civilization and its Discontents, two of his sociological works published in the late ’20s. Freud is a remarkable intellectual figure, so clearly full-of-shit about historical specifics yet endlessly thought-provoking in his larger worldview. As W.H. Auden wrote at Freud’s death, “if he often was wrong and, at times absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our different lives.”
Freud says that we differ from other animals in that we consider ourselves to have a purpose ( you won’t find your dog wondering what his purpose in life is). The purpose and intention of human life is pretty simple: we strive to be happy. This endeavor has both a positive and a negative aim. On the one hand, it aims at an absence of pain, on the other the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure. ‘Happiness’ relates more to the second aim. Unfortunately, the intention that we should be happy isn’t shared by the world we find ourselves in. We are threatened with unhappiness from three directions: from our body, which is doomed to inevitable decay and dissolution; from external forces of destruction over which we have no control; and finally, from our relationships with other people, all of them pursuing what they think will bring them their own happiness and often getting in the way of ours.
Clever animals we are, Freud says we’ve developed a number of ways of trying to be happy, or at least, fending off the inevitable unhappiness reality forces upon us. The first, and most obvious, is the unrestricted satisfaction of every need (e.g. you buy yourself a Lenny Kravitz Leica and enroll in a Thorsten von Overgaard seminar, thinking somehow that’s going to make you happy, because Leica and Mr. von Overgaard tell you it will. It doesn’t work, obviously, after you soon realize you’ve been conned into spending 40 large for an M240 with fake lizard skin covering and are spending an extra 3 grand to learn about ‘bokeh’ from a carnival barker who thinks he’s royalty).
Second, there is the happiness of quietude, i.e. voluntary isolation against the dreaded external world. You withdraw from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to seek a quiet space within ( e.g. you get yourself banned from the the photo forum you’ve compulsively visited because it’s nothing but a bunch of assholes all chasing their own ego-centric happiness, all talking past each other, and you’re better off not indulging such nonsense). Included in the pursuit of quietude is intoxication, introducing chemical substances into your system that alter the conditions of your sensibility (e.g. developing a fondness for bourbon neat.) Third, there is the attack against nature, attempting to subject her to the human will via science. We send people to outer space to learn its secrets or we embark on medical attempts to control and eradicate disease, all in the name of seeking our immortality as a means of continuing to pursue pleasure (e.g. I subject myself to the ravages of chemo because I’m being told that it’ll “cure” me in the end, irrespective of the fact that if cancer doesn’t get me soon, something surely will).
Finally, Freud sees our striving for beauty – our inborn aesthetic sense – as a defense against suffering in that, like quietude or intoxication, it seeks to master the internal sources of our needs by re-creating the world we perceive, building up in its stead another world in which the unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by a view that corresponds to one’s wishes. This is ultimately what our quest for happiness via an aesthetic outlook entails for Freud. Your attempts at developing a unique photographic vision are, for Freud, a result of attempting to remold reality in a more pleasing image. I do it by shooting stuff out of car windows. Thorsten von Overgaard seeks his bliss in bokeh. For Freud, your aesthetic strivings derive from the same cause as do your religious beliefs; they are both attempts to correct parts of reality unbearable to you by construction of a wish.
Unfortunately, for Freud, the program of becoming happy via seeking pleasure, whether via sex, or intoxication or knowledge is bound to failure. We will always find our efforts at happiness to be fleeting at best. This is because the satiation of our desires only makes us happy when it’s intermittent and experienced against a larger backdrop of deprivation. Unrelenting pleasure soon loses its appeal, as anyone who spent too long in bed with an overly available partner can attest. As for the means by which we seek our happiness, “there is no golden rule which applies to everyone: every man must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved.”
And yet, there is in Freud a certain admiration of, and humbleness, before man’s quest for happiness via the enjoyment of beauty that you don’t see in his analysis of other forms of human pleasure-seeking. The beautiful temporarily takes us outside ourselves, having no obvious use except as a tonic for what would otherwise be a life of chronic discontent. This, actually is much the same argument for aesthetics that Schopenhauer makes. And, unlike finding solace in religion, Freud doesn’t see the joy of the beautiful to be a delusion; beauty does exist, and we can access it to satiate our desire for pleasure. Beauty’s efficacy as a means of happiness is something, Freud admits, that ultimately isn’t explainable by psychoanalysis. “Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization cannot live without it.” This is because, unlike other forms of pleasure, there is no satiation in our perceptions of beauty. Unlike sex or drugs, accessing beauty continues to give pleasure no matter the amount we indulge in it. According to Freud, this path to happiness, humble though it is, may be the best we can ask for.
Wittgenstein on Photography
“We regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, the landscape, and so on) depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relationship to pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without color and even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein
The Individual Thing
What else, I should like to know, have art and artists ever done except to perceive the individual thing, isolate the object out of the welter of phenomena, elevate it, intensify it, inspire it and give it meaning?” —Thomas Mann
Luxembourg Gardens 2003
Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 2003 — 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Pinhole Negative Straight Scan
“The manner in which one waits for elements to fall into place is far more important than the assistive capability of the software in your camera […] Two truths, one created by a bunch of Adobe’s programmers to impress and allegedly to aid in creativity, the other is the truth of aggregated knowledge along with the quirks inherent in every human mind.” — Stephen Jenner
Creating Yourself With Your Photography
Let’s Call this “Self-Portrait, 1966″.
As you probably can tell by all the references I’ve recently made to German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1899-1976), I’ve had the misfortune of reading him at some length in the past few years. (Try reading Being and Time on your day off and you’ll better understand what I mean). I say ‘misfortune’ because he’s pretty much unreadable, obtuseness being part of his philosophical schtick, his assurance to you that he’s telling you something deep and profound if only you’re smart enough to understand.
Heidegger did say some important things, evident by his continued relevance in current academic discourse, even if, in addition to being unreadable, he was an odious fascist who embraced Nazism and flourished under it. Specifically, for our purposes, some interesting things to say about the visual artist and art, about the artist’s need for ‘authenticity’ and the process of self-definition creative pursuits offer us. [Remember: you as a photographer are a ‘visual artist’, so all of this applies to you].
Heidegger is considered an ‘Existentialist’, which, in addition to requiring you to sit in Parisian cafes and expound radical political theories, requires your belief that you don’t have any fixed nature but make yourself up as you go along i.e. there’s no such thing as ‘human nature’; you get to define yourself any way you want. For Heidegger, you are a ‘self-interpreting being’ who makes yourself what you are in the course of the activity of your life. To be human is to be an Artist of yourself.
Heidegger sees your ‘Art’ – the self-conscious practice of creating palpable expressions of your inner being i.e. you taking photos- as a part of the process of self-construction that constitutes your life. Heidegger is pointing to the immense importance of creative activities in the process of you being human. The process of creating ‘Art’ i.e. palpable things like novels or paintings or photographs – is distinct from, yet part of, that larger creative act that is your being. Think of your art as permanently fixed creative action, a temporal snapshot – a slice of life – you take from the larger evolving creative process that is your lived life.
Susan, Cape Cod. Me Looking at Her Looking at Me – A Perfect Visual Encapsulation of Heidegger’s Theory of Self
We aren’t alone in this process of creating ourselves. In Heidegger’s view, our being is also defined by the world into which we are “thrown.” Your identity is only possible in what Heidegger calls “shared forms of life” in a “public life world.” There’s no you without the context provided by others, the world you didn’t choose but rather are thrown into. If this is true it introduces a certain serendipity into your supposed ‘self-creation’; you are responsible for creating yourself, yes, but your ability to do so is circumscribed in some sense by the existential realities of others. Insofar as your palpable creations are concerned i.e. your photos, they are the creations of an interactive process that presupposes a third party, the recipient of your work – the viewer, the critic – as a necessary part of the process by which you create yourself. If your art is a formative exchange between you and your work, Heidegger also understands it as a formative exchange between your work and others, and this dynamic is as much a part of the artwork as is your relationship to the work.
Post-Heideggerian heavy thinkers like Merleau-Ponty, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur share this ‘dialectical’ concept of truth in art. Only through this dialogue with your work and with others through your work can you authentically express yourself. The ‘meaning’ of an artwork is the sum of dialogue of differing viewpoints brought to the exchange, both spoken and unspoken, between you, and its viewer. What others think about your work matters to you.
Philosophical speculation can be fascinating. Often, though, I find myself wondering whether a given philosopher’s thought mirrors reality rather than an elaborately spun intellectual puzzle. Is Heidegger correct? Are we really somehow defined by how others see us? Are we at the mercy of other’s understanding of what we’re doing? Does it really matter what others say of our self-expression? If so, it seems to compromise the very premise of Heidegger’s notion of art as self-construction. How is it ‘me creating myself through my life and my artistic decisions’ if my truth, my definition, is also dependent on your understanding? How could you possibly participate in my own self-definition? Seems a contradiction in terms.
I don’t buy it. If my photography is a form of ‘self-creation’ I shouldn’t need input into what I’m doing. I’m doing it for me, not you, and it needs to make sense to me and if it does it doesn’t matter to me if it makes sense to you. It’s why I’ve often resisted showing my work in public. I can’t remember ever getting a comment or critique that helped me understand what I was doing. It’s why photo competitions and portfolio critiques seem deflections of creative energy, and at worst, self-destructive. It’s the off-loading of creative responsibility on others, or, at the least, a refusal to take responsibility for your creative autonomy.
Critique my work all you want, it’s your right. I’m glad it’s out there and possibly a small piece in what helps you achieve your own self-definition. But don’t confuse your critique with something that’s going to aid me on my own creative path. You can’t know. You don’t have that power…unless I cede it to you, and if I cede it you, I’m abdicating my own responsibility for self-definition.
The bottom line: use your photography in a way that makes sense to you. Stop apeing others and create photos that have meaning for you. Forget the ‘shoulds’ that others always seem to want to impose on what is a uniquely personal and singular quest. Allow others to do the same. Each of us, in exercising our creative capacities is building a self. Build the self that works for you.
Walking the Dog
“I photograph to see what things look like photographed.” Garry Winogrand
One of the things I appreciate about photography is that it gives you permission to look. Most of the time I don’t. I’m usually operating on auto-pilot, oblivious to anything around me except something that’s outside normal expectations. I suspect we all live this way, conserving our limited attention for when evolution had bred in us a need – fight/flight, sex, food. What about our aesthetic sense – which evolution has clearly prioritized as a basic human need? How might we indulge a sense of beauty? Does being a photographer assist in some way? I think it does.
Garry Winogrand was onto something when he decided to photograph things to see what they looked like when photographed. He was one of the first photographers to recognize the camera’s potential to make us see things. It both gives us permission to look and creates new visual realities, showing us things we otherwise wouldn’t see. The nice thing about the digital age is I now always carry a camera with me, which allows me to always be looking at things in terms of what they might look like photographed. Back in the film era, that really wasn’t possible, unless you were a lunatic like Winogrand who left behind 6500 unprocessed rolls of film at his death. Today, all you need is your iPhone and some attention. Winogrand would have gone nuts with an iphone.
Think of photography as a means to discover things, a way of saying “Look at what I saw!’ Often times (not always) it’s not so much a way of documenting what is but rather discovering new ways things might look if you leave yourself open to it. And because it’s about leaving yourself open to seeing how things might look, everything is opened up to you as a subject. An afternoon walk with the dogs and an iPhone can become an exercise in seeing things. This is a profound gift digital photography gives us. It turns a routine walk into an aesthetic experience…if we let it. That’s pretty cool.
All photos taken with an iPhone 8 and processed in camera with Snapseed
What, Exactly, is the Point?
1978: Me the Brooding Art Photographer. What Did I think I was Doing?
Why do we take photographs? Why, for many of us, is the act of photographing so central to our lives and who we are? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. I’m not sure I have the answer, but I suspect it has something to do with the fleeting nature of time and a desire to arrest its flow.
I’ve been photographing ‘seriously’ since I was 12. By ‘serious’ I mean intentionally engaged in the practice of photography as something more than merely reflexively recording meaningful moments in time. Granted, much of the pleasure I’ve derived from my interest has been centered around my fascination with cameras. What started the whole thing was a 7th-grade teacher, Mr. Smith, showing me his plain prism Nikon F. I was hooked. From there I was lucky enough to purchase a succession of increasingly impressive cameras, culminating in a Leica in 1977 (for those of you not around then, a Leica was a quasi-mystical thing that cost 5x a normal camera if you could find one; it didn’t really do anything more than a Nikon F did, rather it marked you out as photographic cognoscenti. It appealed to snobs even then.)
I’ve always understood my interest in photography to serve a larger purpose, but I’m not sure I’d have been able to articulate what that purpose is/was. Maybe that’s the point of what great thinkers have noted about language and reality; the net of language misses much of what we experience. Maybe photography is a way of articulating things language can’t. Maybe it’s an inarticulate attempt to establish a sense of permanence amidst the relentless passage of time, a way of memorializing the fact that ‘this happened.’
Me 42 Years Later
A week or so ago I was told I had 6 months to live. Aside from the more existential questions that raises (e.g. “Are you fucking kidding me?”), it brought home to me the question of what I’d been doing photographically for the past 50 years. Maybe there was a purpose in it all. Interestingly enough, one of the first things my wife told me I needed to do in the next months was to put my entire photographic library in order so she would have access to it and some sense of what she was looking at. What she said made sense to me. It seems important I do that.
But Why? When I have such limited time, what purpose could devoting much of it to cataloging a photo collection as opposed to ‘living’ whatever remaining time I have? Wouldn’t my time be better served with a trip to Europe to say goodbye to dear friends, or traveling someplace I’d always wanted to see, or simply indulging whatever particular desires I might want to indulge…smoking, drinking, recreational heroin use (I must admit, I am seriously considering buying a Ducati Panagale V4 so as to enjoy outrunning hapless North Carolina Sheriff’s Deputies throughout the backroads of the state).
I’m of the belief that people only really ‘die’ when the last person who remembers them dies. You live on in the people who love you and carry your memory. My father, who died ten years ago, seems as alive to me now as he ever has, a large reason being the photographs I have of him. It’s something more than the mere photograph itself. It’s remembering the entire experience the photo conjures as me the photographer and my father as my subject. Photos support and enlarge his memory, helping keep him alive. It’s an invaluable gift photography gives us.
Back When I Thought I’d Live Forever
So, I’ve since been told that there’s a ‘chance’ I might be cured, or at least my life prolonged past the proverbial ‘six months.’ Hope springs eternal, as they say. A few rounds of chemo, a few surgeries and I’m as good as new. I’m now considering all the things I’ve yet to do after I get through with the medical issues. I’m still going to be putting my photography in order though, just in case.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 Merle, Font-de-Gaume, Rouffignac, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.