De-Constructed and De-Materialized

Valencia, 2005. Leica M4, 35mm VC, HP5 pushed to 1600 ISO

From a philosophical point of view, photography is a remarkable medium. It is ‘mimetic’ in the sense that it records visual reality. It is, in Roland Barthes’ words, a “trace of the real,” the optical stenciling of light. Barthes’ inspiration for Camera Lucida was a simple photograph of his mother when she was a young girl. This photo held such emotional and philosophical resonance for Barthes because he claimed it possessed a direct trace of her physical presence. It was a guarantor of her existence, proof of her materiality, something beyond mere symbolism, a concrete physical trace stenciled off her physical being.

Yet photos are also, like language, symbolic, one element in an abstract relationship of referent and symbol. As French Post-Structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida notes in Speech and Phenomena, photos are “a sign put in place of the thing itself, the present thing – ‘thing’ holding here for the sense as well as the referent. It represents the present in its absence; it takes the place of the present. When we cannot take hold of or show the thing, let us say the present, the being present, when the present does not present itself, then we signify, we go through the detour of signs. ” So, it is, in Barthes’ words, the direct trace of the real…while also being, in Derrida’s words, a “detour” to the real. It is necessarily both, never either….or at least until digital capture severed the link of indexicality. It’s this dichotomy that animates the history of the medium, and I would contend, its this intrinsic duality – simultaneously trace of, and symbol of – that has given photography its unique status in the visual arts. It is large enough to encompass both photojournalism and ‘Art’ or ‘Conceptual’ photography, both at the same time, the medium as purveyor of objective fact and subjective experience.

The photo at the top of the page can be considered as either document or expression, but its reality is that it will always be an admixture of both. It documents an event (in this instance Semana Santa in Valencia, Spain) but also can be de-contextualized as ‘Art,’ symbolic of something the ‘Artist’ (me) might be wanting to articulate. Read it as you may, it always will be both, never merely one or the other. Expression will always leach into documentation; traces of the real will be found in even the most abstract and conceptual photography. It’s the nature of photography to be both. And it’s up to you, the viewer, to accord the relative status of how each manifests itself when regarding a photo.


Untitled, 2019, Hanging in My Bathroom Photography Made Possible this Painting

It’s photography’s mimetic function that forever changed painting, a profound imagistic revolution predicated on photography’s unquestioned ability to reflect the real. Until the mid-19th century, Western painting had been representational; with the diffusion of photography as a visual medium, painting increasingly moved to non-representative subjective expression. German Art Theorist Peter Burger rightly notes that the advent of photography, with its “precise mechanical reproduction of reality,” commenced painting’s slow but inexorable transformation. Photography was so much better at doing what painting had heretofore been attempting to do that, to survive, painting had to radically alter its course; hence impressionism and ultimately abstraction completely untethered from the concept of mimesis.

I find it ironic that photography is now experiencing an imagistic revolution on par with that experienced by painting at the advent of photography. Where the advent of photography caused the de-contextualization of painting, digitization has caused the increasing de-materialization of photography. What we’re experiencing is a basic change in how we understand, use, transmit, exhibit and store photography. Superficially, digital photographs might not look different, but the underlying ethos and modes of photography have been permanently changed. Photography no longer partakes of the physical, either in its capture, its presentation, or its storage.

Just as painting reacted to the mimetic nature of photography by moving toward abstraction, photography has reacted to digitization by de-materializing, all the better to serve digital’s needs of instant replication and dissemination via new platforms of virtual receivership. Photos are no longer printed and viewed hanging in a gallery or pasted into a book but rather are virtually disseminated, shared, moved, and manipulated. Even film photography has largely conceded its materiality to virtualization. If you read this blog, you’ve seen many of my photographs, most taken with a film camera. You might even have a sense of a ‘style’ particular to me. Yet, none of you have seen my work hanging on a wall, and probably never will. That’s not how it’s done anymore. I’m not sure what to think of that, although I think it’s worth noting.

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9 thoughts on “De-Constructed and De-Materialized

  1. Rob Campbell

    The problem with seeing your work, my work or that of any other photographer on the wall, outwith a gallery, is that you then have to make a choice: will it be photography only on the domestic wall, or paintings? I don’t think they mix. Neither do I believe that a mix of colour and black/white works well. One devalues the other, as with the first example.

    Having said which, in my own home, I do have a mix of paint and photography, mostly because I inherited some good stuff that it would be sinful to hide, and I would no more sell it than the family silver, which does live in boxes because I have no energy to clean it, and my life has changed, the folks who would have appreciated stuff like that all gone. Not much fun being the last man standing of your generation. Can’t give it away to the next generation either: they all work their asses off and have even less inclination to adopt responsibility for generational memories. When I’m done and gone, they can do what they will with it, but something tells me they will end up as trapped as am I.

    I really do think that photography works best in a book, no double-page spreads. Unfortunately for me, whilst I have boxes of good prints, I have no book to my credit. Life sucks, sometimes.

    You see what you’ve started?


    1. Rob Campbell

      Forgot to add: I think that with motifs such as your penitants shot, getting blur makes the shot. Too much crispness would defeat the mood, the darkness and mystery. It’s one instance where contemporary technology could all too easily be employed to make the image look as if it had been made in good light, defeating what you, instead, have achieved. These guys don’t hang around: they are in motion, moving onwards to wherever faith leads them.

      I often wonder about the relativity between their head gear and the KKK. Ever a dark side?


  2. Keith Laban

    I’m otherwise occupied at the moment, but perhaps suffice to say I much admired Valencia 2005, a fine example of document and expression.

    So much I see lacks the former and is exists only because of the latter: style over substance.

    1. Rob Campbell

      Hmmm… you definitely were in a hurry!

      Style often is the substance; style is a powerful tool that can allow a much wider public interpretation of a single image than something too cold, clinically factual, representational and emotionally flat can do.

      Every single one of the photographers on my very short list of favourites is a supreme stylist in her/his own right. Removing their personal style – were it even possible – would reduce the images to document, something able to be done via the cellphone in the hands of a primary school kid. That is boring.

      Photography and we – I hope – have all moved light years past that simple starting point.

      Consider this:

      Anyway, what is substance? Almost none of the images that I see around me in my Internet trawls have what I think you may be thinking of as constituting substance. Of course, I avoid war photography as much as I do the perennial images of starving children from the four corners of the world. Those poor creatures were ever with us and so shall remain until the day arrives that we have no further need for food or drink. Our money is not the solution to their problem. It is as useless as is the constant parental bailing out of an offspring’s hopeless business plan. And the hard solution very similar.


          1. Keith Laban

            The negative connotations of the word ‘style’ , as I see them.

            Style – the gloss, often overshadowing the content.
            Style – temporary, fashionable.
            In the style of – copied, plagiarised.
            Styles – even more pigeonholes.

            It’s the word that I dislike, not necessarily other’s intentions in use.

  3. Keith Laban

    To continue…take for instance that other place, all too often what I see are images of mind numbing ‘substance’ overlaid with layers of so called ‘style’ in the hopes of producing something of worth.

    ‘Style’ (expression) alone cannot compensate for lack of ‘substance’ (document).

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