Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography

Life Imitating Art, or Reality Imitating Images

The Real is No Longer Real” – Jean Baudrillard

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

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

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

*************

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

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

Hits: 833

Old Man Yelling at [Dark, Ominous] Clouds

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

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

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

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

*************

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

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

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

*************

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

*************

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

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

Hits: 1428

Further Foveon Geekiness (With Some Deeper Thinking Included)

4.8 megapixels, from the SIGMA DP2x Foveon Sensor

I know. I know. I claim to despise the pixel-peeping insanity that passes for camera evaluation many other places. Nothing worse than 100% views of receding fenceposts or closeups of the family cat to critique a sensor’s “IQ” or “corners,” or, God forbid, an optic’s “bokeh.” It’s such a blinkered, limited understanding of photo tech and the priority it should be given in assessing the relative strengths and demerits of the photographic tool you chose. It’s the equivalent of judging the aesthetic value of a Redwood tree by examining its leaves as opposed to standing back and taking the larger view of the entire tree in context. The larger view is the instructive view, obviously, and will tell you why Redwoods are such incredibly amazing trees. Examining the leaf will…tell you about the leaf. And yet…here I am with another post about the intriguing quality of the images I’m getting from my latest photographic crush, the SIGMA Foveon sensor. Bear with me.

*************

2640×1760 (4.8 megs) DP2x, RAW conversion in SPP, tweaking in Lightroom

I’m currently reading (actually listening to on Audible) Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, written by David Epstein. It’s an interesting book, as far as books popularizing social science research can be, and I’m struck by a point he makes in refuting the currently popular notion that true excellence is only developed via long, intense, focused interest and practice in the specific skill you’re seeking to master (the “10,000 hour” rule, etc). He cites research into the various factors most likely to be seen in the education and development of exceptional musicians. The common denominator among them is not the early age at which they took up the instrument, the assistance of parents in facilitating opportunities for rigorous instruction, or the hours spent in learning that particular instrument as opposed to more generalized musical training but rather...did the musician like his instrument. Did he or she love the violin or piano or tuba or whatever; was there, early on, a bond that the nascent musician felt with the musical tool he’d chosen (or, too often, in the case of young children, that was chosen for them). That’s it. That’s what correlates most strongly with subsequent mastery of the instrument.

SIGMA DP2x, 2640×1760 (4.8 Megs) RAW @ 100 ISO, desaturated in SPP (Pretty Much What Came out of the Camera)

This is something we, as users of traditional Leica Barnack and M cameras, understand. It’s the importance of a felt, emotional connection with your creative tool, in our case, our camera. It matters. In theory, yes, you can be as exceptional an image maker using a Pentax K1000 as you can with a Leica M4. It’s just a light-tight box, right? But we all know it’s not that simple. Nothing is really “simple” when we seek to understand the resonances of our creative impulses, what nourishes them and what thwarts their expression. When we’re talking of creative expression necessarily mediated by tools – e.g. photography – emotional and psychological fit with that tool matters. A lot.

My Boy Buddy. DP2x, 100 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Silver Efex Pro

Of course, the more cynical (or stupid) among us will claim to be above such things. Don’t believe a word of it. They really don’t, and neither should you. A large part of what makes us avid enthusiasts is our interest in the tools themselves. Cameras are cool things from any number of perspectives – both their superficial and functional aesthetics of endless fascination apart from their technical specifications, but so too their tech specs, they being, at base, quantifications of qualities inherent in the camera’s output, and, when all is said and done, that’s what we all claim is important – the photograph.

*************

Sigma sd Quattro, 400 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Color Efex Pro I Wouldn’t Have Taken This Photo With a Leica

So, that’s a long-winded way of saying the truth of the matter: the equipment you use matters. It matters because, in creative endeavors, the tools you use to accomplish your ends are themselves an extension of you. Your camera isn’t something set apart from your body and mind, something distinct from your creative act. It’s an integral part of the creative act, the necessary pre-condition of the act itself. As such, it needs to be something that’s functional…but also its use itself needs to appeal to our aesthetic sense. It’s that aesthetic component of use that initially drew many of us to photography, and certainly, it’s behind why many of us retain an emotional allegiance to our film Leicas.

In addition to being necessary, it’s formative in the sense that the photos you create will, to a certain extent, be conditioned by the strengths and weaknesses of your instrument. Leica cameras became famous because they were small and unobtrusive and could be carried places larger cameras couldn’t. It certainly wasn’t because they had better image quality. For that, a view camera or a Speed Graphic. Photographers early on understood and utilized the Leica’s strengths, creating new genres of documentary photography – war photography, street photography, candid personal documentary. Meanwhile, “Fine Art” photographers necessarily used large-format view cameras so they could print large with maximum detail and subtlety.

With the digital age, some of these use distinctions are breaking down. Technology has become so good. Amateur level digital cameras are capable of routinely producing film era medium format quality. Unfortunately, our understanding of what constitutes a competent photo also seems to have shifted, more now involving technical excellence than creative vision, and this is the area where gear mania becomes counterproductive, wherein the enjoyment of the tool subsumes the larger creative act itself. Too many photographers chase technical excellence without any understanding or concern with creative excellence, which are two distinct things. Hence, we’re now inundated with banal, technically excellent photographs that digital era photographers confuse with creative excellence. It’s the triumph of the superficial, where excellence comes easily, over against the subtle and profound and visionary, where excellence is rare and always hard-won. It’s the difference between Kenny G and John Coltrane.

Technically Excellent? Not Really. Creatively Excellent? Yes. A Work of Art.

The key, I think, is to match your creative vision to the correct instrument as opposed to allowing your equipment to drive your output. And that has created my current intellectual conundrum. Truth be told, I really like my little Foveon DP2x. I find it endlessly fascinating that a camera little more the size of my iPhone, that can be bought for $200, 4.8 effective megapixels no less, can create such stunning photographs, photos that aren’t merely about details but seem to have a solidity to them that can’t be described but is most definitely there. And so, I’ve been out and about with it, taking the sort of static views you see reproduced here, potential photos I’m only seeing now because of the type of camera I have in my hands. So, the question is: is the DP2x dictating my vision to me, or am I dictating my vision to it? Does it even matter?

Hits: 1126

Sometimes….

….I just don’t feel it.

I am currently completely and utterly bereft of ideas. I’m experiencing the flipside of creative inspiration. I literally have nothing to say. I’m assuming it’s something that every creative person experiences – creative stagnation. I’ve currently got it bad. So, what more appropriate thing to do than write about it.

I’ve been sitting on the following thought for some time now, having had written it out and, like how I usually write, expected the rest to then write itself:


“The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” Rene Magritte

19th Century French Poet Stéphane Mallarmé (aka Étienne Mallarmé), said there were two kinds of languages: parol brute, which named things, and parole essentielle, which was language in the abstract, language that distanced us from things. Brute language aided in representing things; essential language created the fictive, self-referential realities of consciousness. For Mallarmé, parole essentielle was the language of all Art, for all Art was ultimately self-recognition, self-recovery, self-remembering, processes which were as mysterious as Being itself. It’s a distinction we as photographers intuitively understand, the distinction in photography between reportage and Art.


Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything to add to flesh out what I consider to be an essential point about creativity made by Mallarmé. Ironically, maybe the fact that I have nothing to say proves his point – creativity is ultimately self-referential i.e. it’s about what’s going on in your consciousness, not what’s going on around you. Thus, I agree with the poet Charles Simic: when the world or the people in it make no sense, the best you can do is keep quiet and listen to the silence of the night. Or, as Paul Ricoeur said, “Something must be for something to be said.”

But Art is also about experiences language can’t get at. Martin Heidegger would say that the truth of Being cannot be uttered – language can only hint at it. Writing is, at best, a rough translation of the wordless truth into words. Can visual representations like photography better get at the essential nature of things? Heidegger would say no, visual art can’t translate Being either, but it can get us closer than the written or spoken word. The gap between Seeing and Being is less than that of Saying and Being. In this, Heidegger is a Wittgensteinian….to a point. The labor of the visual artist – you, the photographer – is to point to what can’t be put into words. Notice, however, the act of pointing isn’t the truth itself.

With that in mind, below (and the one above) are a few photos I took while out on a bike ride the other day. They are images made during a fleeting moment when something I saw sparked a self-recognition, a self-remembering. Articulating it further wouldn’t be of much use even if I could, which I can’t without sliding into untruth. Truth matters. That’s the cool thing about photography: you get to point to truths you can’t put into words. But, as Mallarmé understands, there’s the truth with eyes open and then there’s the truth with eyes closed, and they’re often two distinct things.

 

Hits: 1005

Be Your Self (or… Learn the Difference Between Creativity and Emulation)

“The Self is the Way the Individual Structures Experience.” Erik Erickson

I’m amused by ‘photo critique’ forums, where people post photos and solicit comments from others. The assumption, I suppose, is that others will offer constructive criticism that I can use to improve my photos. If that’s the point, count me out. If I’m using photography as a medium for creative expression, why should I give a shit what someone else thinks of my work? It’s my work, the expression of my self; what could someone else instruct me about that? The futility of asking for aesthetic advice from other people seems to me self-evident: Allow other’s advice to color your self-expression and it’s no longer self-expression.  

This is an inherent problem in ‘Art Education.’ Most students don’t make the kinds of work they claim to admire. Rather, what they make is work that emulates successful work previously made by others, work that’s become recognized by the Academy as worthy. The irony, of course, is that the work students are taught to consider worthy and seek to emulate was itself most likely ignored or misunderstood or critically panned when made.

Strong, adventurous, challenging work is always unusual, mainly because so few people have enough confidence in the legitimacy of their own creative impulses to resist the practical influences that dumb-down real individual expression. And it’s usually only recognized with a good amount of hindsight, while the average and uninventive is too often mistaken at first glance as significant. Think of van Gogh, laboring away in painful anonymity, or Jackson Pollock, who “traded” paintings for food with his big-hearted Long Island grocer neighbor, after which the grocer would throw out the paintings as junk (can you imagine being that grocer’s heir?). Last time I was in Amsterdam I walked past the line for entrance to the van Gogh museum. It extended out the door and wound at least a half-mile down the street, tourists lined up in the thousands just to look at the paintings he couldn’t give away a century ago, while the bloated, mediocre history-piece paintings hung in fashionable salons during van Gogh’s lifetime are vanished into irrelevance, seen now as the derivative, uninspired crap they are.

Judging excellence via popularity is always a mistake – popularity usually being the product of the lowest common denominator (e.g. Kenny G. a better jazz saxophonist than Dexter Gordon? Rod McKuen a better poet than Fernando Pessoa? Thomas Kinkade a better painter than Edward Hopper?). It’s the dynamic that brings us the banalities of pop culture – Hollywood and syndicated television recycling the same trite formulas ad infinitum, Bill O’Riley History books and Dr. Phil pop psychology – the mistake of equating good with what comforts the sensibilities of the most common.

I have a rule that guides me in assessing whether I should pay attention to, or better yet, spend my money on, works of popular culture: the more a given work – a book, say, or a record album, or a movie – is breathlessly lauded via popular media, the less likely its worth my serious attention. I can think of very few ‘next great things’ that ultimately possessed any staying power. That’s not to say that I haven’t derived fleeting enjoyment from a Karl Ove Knausgaard book or a Vanilla Ice song [editor’s note: yes, Vanilla Ice. My Czech girl played me his “Ice, Ice Baby” song in the car the other day. Granted, it’s not mid-60’s Dylan goes electric brilliant, but that’s a great song when you get past the fact that it’s Vanilla Ice]; it’s just that I’ve learned the difference between transient emulation and true works of genius (genius meant in the sense the Ancients understood it, as a quality of work that transcends trends and fashions, reputation and fame, works that abolish time and place of origin).

The word genius is Latin in derivation. In Roman antiquity, it described the guardian spirit of a person or place, a spirit that linked the person or place to a particular fate. Like the Greek daimon, your genius was your unique singularity, the spirit that followed you from birth to death. It was your fate, your singular destiny. As such, it couldn’t be taught, and it couldn’t be identified to you by others. It could only be recognized by you, recognized and assented to. You would know it when you heard it. Surrender to it and it would take you where you were meant to go. Listening to others could only obscure its voice.

*************

Untitled, 2005, 30×40 acrylic on canvas

Above is a painting I did in 2005. I like it, but I’m not especially proud of it; it’s just something I did back then. Other people seem to like it. It hung in my office for years, and visitors would often comment on it. When I told them I’d painted it, they’d often get a look – part disbelief, incomprehension, admiration, dismissal – although almost everyone professed to like it. Mixed up in all of it were notions of class, education, taste, expectation. Complicating matters is that I don’t really think of myself as a painter; rather, I was a guy who painted for awhile until I tired of it and moved on. I had to do something with the paintings, so the better ones I hung as decoration.

People often mistake the painting for a Pollock. I wish. Granted it does look like something he might have done. And that, frankly, is the reason I don’t consider myself a painter, and that canvas nothing special. The larger issue is this: Does this painting reflect me? Or is it simply a well-crafted emulation of the creativity of others? That’s the difference between honest Art and wall decoration.

Untitled, 2005, 30×40 acrylic on canvas

Above is another of my paintings, done about the same time as the first one above. Nobody I know likes it. My wife hates it and refuses to have it hung in our house. God forbid that we hang it in our backyard cottage that we Airbnb. But …. I love it. It speaks to me. When I painted it I wasn’t attempting to do anything but create something unique to me. When I was done I said “Yup,” that’s good, just like that.” It wasn’t meant to be anything but my own. If people were to ask me what it means, I’d reply “damned if I know…but I like it.”  If people don’t like it, well, that’s their problem.

*************

There’s always the accomplished – those who claim a further competence – who are only too happy to critique your work, usually for a price, no less – the portfolio reviews by recognized or self-proclaimed “experts,” the photo workshops, the weekend seminars. I’ve never had a portfolio review or attended a seminar, but I have studied photography in institutional/academic settings, and I have never – not once – received criticism or advice that assisted me in any other than a marginal way; in fact, most of it, if it did anything, temporarily diverted me from the path I was on and should have been on. “Experts”, whether they be at your local camera club or they’re the Curator of Photography at the Met may, at most, be able to help you with the how, but they’ll never have a clue about the what, those things that resonate with you and that you’re capable of giving back distilled through your own unique consciousness.

If I could recommend one way to become a better photographer, it’d be to develop your own way of seeing and the rest will take care of itself. The simplest way of doing that is to think about what you want to say and not necessarily how to say it. In other words, have something to say and you’ll already have found the proper way to say it, the how being embedded in the what. This will have the added benefit of making your work your own and not derived or copied from someone else’s. Nobody but you can tell you how to do that. Speak out of your own experience; speak what you believe. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Dig up some of the earth you stand on, and show that.”

Hits: 1760

Can You Teach Creativity? Part Two

Studio Class, 1978, NYC. It Was About This Time I Decided I’d Rather Drive a Garbage Truck Than Photograph “Product”

[This is a follow-up to a previous post, wherein the claim was made that you can’t teach creativity…but you can teach “technique”.]

Can creativity be taught? Not if the Ancients – Plato and Aristotle – are to be believed. Plato believed that creative inspiration was a type of mania. Aristotle believed the same, considering creativity to be the product of an irrational rapture, what he termed ecstaticos. If they’re correct, then ordinary teaching methods can’t explain to a student what is, at base, irrational. The alternative is to try to teach inspiration by yourself being manic or ecstatic, in effect, attempting to infect the student with your own mania. Think of this as “the Dead Poets Society” theory of teaching creativity, after the god awful movie of the same name where Robin Williams is some eccentric high school instructor teaching his kids to write poetry because he’s crazy about it. In theory, this might work occasionally, but it’s unlikely such mania can be objectively transmitted. The best the teacher can do is give an example for the student to observe.

If creativity can’t be taught, can it be nurtured? Yes, in the sense that it can be taught to be effectively expressed using your chosen tools when it does appear. How is this taught? By teaching “craft,” i.e. competence of the fundamentals of one’s creative medium. Craft, what Aristotle called techne, is teachable because it is rule-based. The craft of photography, for example, would be teachable for Aristotle, because it is subject to a set of rules – it possesses a body of information that can be mastered via a theory, and it has a theory that could be written down and handed on to students that they could apply to the body of information. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of having to spend a year wading through Stroebel and Zakia’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes will know what Aristotle is talking about….and why it isn’t the teaching of creativity itself.

***********

Is There Anything “Creative” About This Photograph? Or is it Just a Product of “Technique”? Or is it both?

All of this is predicated on the assumption that technique is separate from creativity. But is that true? In my experience, maybe, maybe not. At least for me, the more competent I became with my tools, the greater the creative possibilities that opened up to me. The more I knew “how to do,” the more I felt I had the capacity to express, the more my desire and ability to express. The photo above is a good example. It was driven by certain creative impulses, but it was only possible given I had the tools to accomplish my creative purposes, creative purposes which were themselves intimately interwoven with the potential inherent in my tools. In this sense, the distinction between techne and empeiria noted in Part One, becomes problematic. Could I have expressed myself in this manner if I hadn’t mastered the technique that produced the work? No, at least to the extent I couldn’t have expressed the sentiment conveyed via the medium of photography. Uneducated in photographic craft, I’d be limited to some other means of expressing the sentiment, writing maybe, or speech. In that case I’d need to be proficient in that medium.

To that extent, the idea that craft is separate from art, a fundamental premise of aesthetics since Plato, accepted by the Renaissance and currently a tenet of Modernism, is a false dichotomy, certainly so in technologically dependant creative media like photography. Like all either/or propositions, it does violence to the much more subtle nuances invariably involved in the motivations and capacities of human pursuits, certainly those of creativity as a practical activity. Unfortunately, what’s come down to us in history from the Greeks is largely the product of the Idealist way of thinking – represented by Plato – wherein reality was seen in stark either/or terms, the real versus confusion or error, with no practical middle ground.

However there were Greeks – many thinkers apart from Idealists like Plato and Aristotle – who recognized a more nuanced nature of things. Pyrrhonism – a type of skepticism – believed that anything capable of human mastery could never be understood in its entirety but yet culture required we attempt to transmit what we do know. How such information transmittal worked, well, we didn’t know. Basically, as to all human knowledge, the Pyrrhonists believed the best we could do would be to stay open-minded yet neutral, what they referred to as isotheneia (a balance of arguments on both sides) and aphasia (the refusal to make definitive judgments). In the issue of the relationship of technique to creativity, the Pyrrhonics would say…it’s complicated, and either/or judgments would only further unnecessarily obfuscate attempts to teach and/or encourage creativity.

Call me a Pyrrhonist.

With that in mind, in Part Three, coming shortly, I’ll teach you what I did, and what you can do, to become a better photographer. It’s simple really.

Hits: 956

Can You Teach Creativity? Part One

 

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

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

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

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

*************

The Dance of the Muses on Helicon.

The Dance of the Muses 

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

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

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

*************

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

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

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

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

You can teach technique.  And, in fact, the Greeks believed that you must learn technique to avail yourself of what the Muse offered. No technique, no creative receptivity. Can’t have one without the other. So….

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

Hits: 1155

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

 

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

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

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

*************

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

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

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

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

*************

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

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

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

Hits: 764

Freud and Photography

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

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

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

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

************

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

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

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

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

Hits: 1367

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

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

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

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

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

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

*************

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

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

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

Hits: 893

Believing is Seeing

Edinburgh, May 1, 2015

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

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

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

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

*************

 “Street” Photography

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

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

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

 

*************

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

Hits: 729

A Day in Paris

Paris, August 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hits: 986

What Your Mother Has to Do With Photography

The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, written by Elissa Marder,  grows out of the author’s longstanding fascination with “the uncanny status of the mother in photography” (frankly, until I read this, I had no idea that mothers had any status in photography). Marder “examines the properties of the maternal function to show that the event of birth is radically unthinkable and often becomes expressed through uncontrollable repetitions that exceed the bounds of any subject,” the act of photographing being one means by which these repetitions are concretized.

Marder’s thesis is that The maternal body serves as an unacknowledged reference point for modern media technologies such as photography, which attempts to mimic its reproductive properties. To the extent that photography aims to usurp the maternal function, it is often deployed as a means of regulating or warding off anxieties that are provoked by the experience of loss that real separation from the mother invariably demands.

So, to summarize: the reason you like photography is because you’re neurotic, and you’re neurotic because your mother didn’t love you enough.

Let me know if you’d like a full review.

Hits: 845

Photography, Truth and Your Truth: What You Can Take Away From Sartre, Sontag, Barthes and Baudrillard

 

Photography has a unique relationship to “truth.” This is the point of much of the philosophical discourse that’s grown up around the medium. It’s, at bottom, what thinkers diverse as Wittgenstein, Satre, Sontag, Barthes, and Baudrillard were exploring. A painter is unlikely to ever experience the same philosophical angst because a painting is a creation in the way that photography is not. From a truth perspective, photos are different than paintings…or any other works of “Art” for that matter. While you can take a photograph that is a complete artifact, (actually, as semiotic philosopher Jean Baudrillard claims, in the digital age all photographs are complete artifacts) to the uneducated eye it can appear as an objective depiction of whatever was presumably in front of the camera’s lens. We naively assume it tells the truth (although this has become increasingly problematic in the digital age – witness the “deepfakes” discussed here and how seductive they are to the untrained eye, or more precisely, the unenlightened, naive viewer).

There’s also a more fundamental argument, over and above issues of process (i.e. is the truth value of digital different than that of analog?) taken up by Austrian-British Analytic Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, about the inherent truth value of photography itself. The naive view would be this: a camera is a machine that faithfully records what is in front of it and then displays just that. If this is so, then any problems with it “telling the truth” are the consequence of some sort of manipulation by the photographer. The more nuanced view, the view shared by those of us with experience and knowledge of the process, is that a camera is not an objective recording machine. It never truly objectively records what is in front of it, given both the decisions made before and the steps that lie between, tripping the shutter and the resulting image. What we get is, at most, someone’s version of the truth. Wittgenstein calls it a “glimpse” not a full view.

*************

Photographs don’t lie per se. To believe so would be to deny any truthfulness to photographs. Photographs do present a truth –  the photographer’s truth.  A photographer’s truth is what the photographer wants us to see. The issue is not whether that truth has any relation to the Truth, but rather how the viewer relates it to his truth (as I discussed here).

If photography presents the photographer’s truth, what is his responsibility, if any, to the viewer? To a large extent, a photographer’s responsibility will derive from his understanding of how the medium operates. If you’re a “documentary photographer” you believe the camera to be a tool that will faithfully record what is in front of it, and, as such, you’ll put it out that way and expect viewers to demand the same. If, however, you believe your work has a creative dimension, is your interpretation of reality and not a depiction, then it’s about being truthful to your intentions, which are also based on a certain understanding of what your camera does, the creative possibilities it affords you. While the photographer needs to understand and master his intent, he also needs to master the process he chooses to employ – whether a view camera, a digital camera, a film Leica or an iPhone – much like a painter has to understand and master how to put pigments to canvas. A requirement of an effective presentation is that it be competently made. But, and this is what the hacks don’t get, it’s not just about technical competency.**

*************

I love the photo above. It says so many things to me, stories about desire, age, what we dream about, how the everyday doings of life can blind us to the beauty around us. To say that it represents some objective truth – about a well-dressed older woman looking at a poster on the streets of Paris – would be to miss the whole truth I want it to convey to you. While the photograph is taken from the world, it is not identical with the world.  It is the product of my world, of what is embedded in my mind, my “truth.” All good photography is a viewpoint, and that is what we as viewers must engage with if we are to understand it.

The best photographs present a truth that challenges the viewer’s truth, gives the viewer a different way to see things.  My responsibility is to present you with a truth to challenge your own. This is how photography becomes Art.  If it sufficiently challenges you, its “Art,” even if the challenge results in you deciding it isn’t. Think of Gary Winogrand and his wonky, off-kilter photos; they’re “Art,” not because they adhere to some preconceived aesthetic, but because they force the viewer into Winogrand’s world. The creativity that creates Art is singular, and many people to this day think Winogrand is a joke. But Winogrand didn’t sit around looking at Cartier-Bresson’s photos, trying to ape his style; rather he discovered his own way of seeing things, his own truth, and he put it out there for others to see. He didn’t put it out there for others to critique, or to get advice on how to do it better. That’s for rule-bound hacks. “Fuck em,” was what he said. “That’s how I see.”

That’s where you should be going with your photography – not to please the rule-bound or appeal to the sentiments of others. And while technical competence is a necessary prerequisite, it’s not about that. Don’t confuse the two. It’s about presenting what you see in the manner you see it. Only then will your photography be true, and only then will you have said anything meaningful.

*************

My advice: Stop worrying what other people think.  Worry instead about what you want to say and how you want to say it. And stop obsessing about technical solutions to creative problems. All the expensive gear –  the M10 with the latest aspherical lens in the elephant skin bag – means nothing and will get you nowhere, no matter how technically competent you are, if you have nothing to say. If you have questions, go look at the usual suspects, the guys pimping themselves as “Leica Photographers,” with their simplistic conflation of technology with creativity, their aesthetic stuck at the level of technical competence, all show, little substance. They have nothing to teach you because they have nothing to say. Ignore them. Stay completely out of their orbit for fear of internalizing their banality. Better an old beater Leica with a $20 Industar in a paper bag….and a head full of ideas.


**This justifies the role of criticism. The critic is someone who considers if the work is done well, meaning done, both technically and according to the parameters of the context in which the artist places his work. Those parameters are different for different types of photography –  is it a document or an expression? – and this can make it hard for viewers who aren’t privy to the context to understand it.  The idea that “I could do that” originates from this contextual confusion, the mistake of conflating simple form with simple art.

Hits: 925

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Photography, Achilles and a Turtle

Ludwig Wittgenstein. He Resigned His Chair in Philosophy at Cambridge University to Become a Shepard.

The last few posts we’ve been discussing the “ontology” of photography – what, at base, photography is. For the thinkers I’ve already written of – Jean-Paul Sartre, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard – the important thing about photography, its claim on our imagination, is its relationship to what’s “real.” For Roland Barthes, whom we’ve discussed at length, photography was a memento mori, indexical evidence of what had been, and this is what gives it its uniqueness as a medium of representation. Similarly, for Sontag, photography was a “stenciling off of the real,” conclusive evidence proving the reality of the photo’s subject. Both Sontag and Barthes wrote prior to the digital age, Barthes meeting his maker via a  truck in Paris in 1980 (there’s an interesting recent French novel The Seventh Function of Language, by Laurent Binet, whose premise is that Barthes was murdered by other Semioticians), while Sontag did live into the digital age but never updated her thinking about photography (I met her in Paris in 2004, where she signed my copy of On Photography…which, you gotta admit, is pretty cool).

Sartre, Sontag, Barthes all saw photography as basically honest, allowing us access to the real, a function of its “indexicality.” They weren’t questioning the truth of photography itself. Baudrillard might be, but his issue was with the severing of indexicality, which is about a type of photography and not photography itself.

Now, I’d like to discuss an Austrian born “analytic” philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose criticism of photography is of a different type. Wittgenstein’s critique goes to photography’s roots, where even traditional indexical photography – the analog process where light stencils itself onto film – isn’t truthful. This is ironic because, for Wittgenstein, photography is a practical expression of his preferred means of perception, his motto being “Don’t think, look!”

*************

Wittgenstein (1889-1951) worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of languageFrom 1929 to 1947, he taught Philosophy of Language at Cambridge. While alive he published one book, the 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), one article and one book review. A second work, Philosophical Investigations, contradicting everything he had espoused in the Tractatus, was published posthumously in 1953.  Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein’s mentor – and subsequent protege – himself a philosopher of enduring significance, described him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius, ” and Wittgenstein is now considered a seminal figure in Western Philosophy. A survey of American university professors ranked the Investigations the most important philosophical work of the 20th-century. 

Once you get past the work’s complexity, Wittgenstein’s main point is simple – not everything we know can be put into words.  While most things can be said some things must be shown. In this, he agreed with Thoreau, who said that ” you can’t say more than you can see,” except that Wittgenstein goes further than Thoreau and believes you can see much more than you can say.  More can be shown than can be said, because, for Wittgenstein, to think was not to mentally verbalize but rather to picture.  

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” is the famous last sentence of the Tractatus. Unspoken is Wittgenstein’s premise the things about which we must be silent are actually the most important ( do you see what he did there?). We can’t verbally reason our way to these truths, as Western thought has tried to do since Socrates, but rather we need to look.

**************

Wittgenstein was Into Selfies Long Before it was a Thing

Given that, it shouldn’t surprise you that Wittgenstein was a photography buff. Apparently, he loved photography, annoying his friends by constantly taking pictures of them with cheap cameras.  But, in spite of his interest, photography represented its own conundrum for Wittgenstein. It was not the problem of indexicality as it had been for Barthes et al.  For him the problem was more fundamental, involving larger issues of visual representation and its capacity to reflect “the truth” of a thing.

Wittgenstein was doing something different than Baudrillard or the others I’ve previously discussed.  For Wittgenstein, it wasn’t that photography lied as a process, it was that what photography produced didn’t tell the whole truth.  Wittgenstein said of photography that it could only memorialize “what one glimpses.” A photograph was not a memorial, as Barthes and Sontag saw it, but rather at best a “probability.” The world of the photo could never be sufficiently complete in an existential sense; the glimpse it offered was too impoverished to present the truth.

Wittgenstein’s archive at the University of Cambridge includes the photograph below, a true “probability”. The woman in the photograph is a composite, created by Wittgenstein, overlaying four different photos of four different faces: his three sisters and himself.

In compositing the images, Wittgenstein was attempting to manipulate the photograph to transcend the partial nature of photographic truth, what he characterized as the difference between the “glimpse” and the long, studied look. To illustrate the difference, Wittgenstein notes what its like to watch someone without their knowing it: “Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone who thinks himself unobserved engaged in some quite simple everyday activity. Let’s imagine a theater, the curtain goes up and we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, seating himself, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a chapter from a biography with our own eyes—surely this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage. We should be seeing life itself.”

*************

Wittgenstein Would Say This Photo World is a Fiction

Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea (c. 490–430 BC) is best known for what’s called ‘Zeno’s Paradoxes,’ a set of philosophical problems formulated to prove that there is no such thing as change and that motion is an illusion. (If you think about it, that’s the same thing people who claim photography is truthful are saying, isn’t it?)

One of his paradoxes is of ‘Achilles and the Tortoise’. Achilles is in a footrace with a turtle. If  Achilles, who runs faster than the turtle, gives the turtle a head start (100 meters, let’s say), Zeno claims that Achilles can never catch the turtle, ever.  Why? Once the race starts, Achilles will run 100 meters, bringing him to the turtle’s starting point. However, during time Achilles is running the 100 meters, the turtle will run a further distance, say, 10 meters. Achilles will then have to run that distance, by which time the turtle will have run some distance again, etc. In theory, this should go on forever – whenever Achilles arrives somewhere the turtle has been the turtle is no longer there, and now Achilles has a further distance to go before he can reach the turtle, ad infinitum. Achilles can never reach the turtle.

Common sense tells us Zeno is wrong, even though, conceptually, he’s right. Wittgenstein would say that the belief in photography as true is grounded in the same conceptual mistake giving rise to Zeno’s Paradox: the claim that reducing reality to a static slice of time – a motionless state – can tell us anything about truth. Zeno’s philosophy presumed that motion, however actual to the senses, is logically, metaphysically, unreal. So too is the idea that photography could reveal to us a truth, the truth.  

Wittgenstein says that photography can’t give more than a probability of truth. Contrast the quick glimpse of someone when they know you’re watching to the close observation of them when they’re unaware of you. That’s the difference between the photo and the truth.   A photograph is a frozen moment, outside time, and thus a fiction. For Wittgenstein, photography can at best give a “snapshot…one of those insipid photographs of a piece of scenery which is interesting to the person who took it because he was there himself, experiencing something, but which a third party looks at with justifiable coldness.” To get at what’s true, your eyes must be open to the dynamism of reality as it flows via time. Don’t confuse the impoverished glimpse photography gives you with real seeing.

Hits: 941

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.

*************

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.”

*************

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.

*************

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. 

Hits: 725

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.

*************

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.

Hits: 1402

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.”

*************

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.

*************

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.

*************

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)

Hits: 1729