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Photography Theory in Historical Perspective

Photography Theory in Historical Perspective

by Hilde Van Gelder

ISBN: 9781405191975

Publisher Wiley-Blackwell

Published in Calendars/Photography

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Sample Chapter


Chapter One

Representation in Photography The Competition with Painting

From its very inception, photography came to be in a competitive relationship with painting. When in 1839 the photographic technique was made public, the differences in character and origin of the two modes of representation were soon emphasized. Photographic images, some argued, provide a perfect duplication of reality, an achievement painting would never be able to accomplish. Frequently, of course, such arguments were meant as a defense of photography, if not as a claim to its superiority, but others would also invoke this logic to indicate painting's more emphatic possibilities and its capacity to express a subjective point of view. Even if the optimism surrounding photography's supposed truthfulness to nature would quickly lose much of its persuasiveness, it has continued to persist to this day. Moreover, the measure to which photography and painting are capable of representing reality remains a hotly debated issue.

This chapter, which will examine this concern in greater depth, focuses on concepts and arguments frequently put forward in comparative studies of photography and painting that somehow relate to issues of representation. As much as possible our discussion will move from questions of objectivity toward more subjective aspects. The first section introduces the question of whether photography represents reality in a more objective and truthful way than painting, and, if so, how this is played out in particular contexts. Next, our argument develops a comparative analysis of straight and composed photographs, emphasizing the importance of staging and perspective choices made by the artists discussed and the relationship with these characteristics of paintings. This section also addresses the question of narration in photography. In the next section, we concentrate on the application of indexicality and iconicity as concepts in the debate on how photography and painting represent reality differently, either as causal trace or as stylized likeness. Many critics have deployed the concepts of aura and authenticity, which are the topics of discussion in the following section, to highlight the difference between photography and painting; whereas the former has been believed to lack aura or authenticity altogether, some critics have in fact relied on these terms to stress common features between the two media. In the fifth section we consider the tradition of hybrid overpainted photographs and the shift from black-and-white photography to color photography, notably as regards the role of color in discussions in comparative research. Finally, we zoom in on debates on blurredness and sharpness and their relation to the transparency of photographs. This consideration also underscores the interconnectedness of the various discussions presented in this chapter.

Photography, Objectivity, and Representation

Soon after its invention, photography was employed to record facts – which were often, but not always, facts of historical value. The camera's acclaimed veracity made it a principal tool not only for registering but also for visualizing a variety of events (Bann 2001). Besides its many scientific applications, photography also became a practice geared to producing portraits of famous and lesser-known individuals – either realistic or bearing a strong resemblance. It was argued that photographs offered immediacy and transparency of depiction in a way that traditional artistic forms of representation such as sculpture, painting, and the graphic arts could not possibly achieve (Bolter and Grusin 1999: 30). To some, most prominently among whom was the nineteenth-century poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, this was a highly negative development. Photography, wrote Baudelaire in a key text, is the offspring of a "revengeful God" who has allowed an industry to see the light of day, providing an imitative result so "identical to Nature" that it appears to be "the absolute of art" (1965 [1859]: 152).

Baudelaire was eager to reject photography altogether, arguing that it could not possibly succeed in creating true works of art because it could never meet the main asset valued so highly by French connoisseurs at the time: creative human genius. Since one automatically produces objective veracity through photography, Baudelaire claimed, taking photographs will always lack a subjective input or imagination, and such input is indispensable if one is to speak of a true work of art. In his view, creative imagination was exclusively associated with the realm of painting and painters. Others, contrary to Baudelaire, have highly valued the technique's presumed automatic truthfulness and hailed photography's introduction as no less than a welcome revolution.

Photography and its likeness to the model

In 1945 film critic Andr Bazin asserted that as even in antiquity people have sought to deceive death by making visual, artistic representations of the deceased. The Egyptians used mummies, and later on statues, in order "to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second, spiritual death" (1980 [1945]: 238). Very soon it was established that the photograph, due to its "quality of realism" (Friday 2005: 342), revolutionized this deeply rooted tendency and succeeded in more decisively satisfying our need for identity-substitutes. This argument has been put forward to underscore the supposedly essential differences between paintings and photographs and, subsequently, to identify photography as "a different kind of art" (Szarkowski 1975).

The photographic image, Bazin argues, "shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is a reproduction; it is the model" (1980 [1945]: 241 [original emphasis]). Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen have defined the psychological belief that photography works in a purely physiochemical way in terms of a "'mechanical' model" that "stresses the necessary and mechanical connections which exist between what we see in a photograph and what was in front of the camera" (1975: 149). These authors are highly skeptical of an ontologically determined definition of photography's essence as a basis for arguing in favor of photography, such as Bazin, or against it, such as Baudelaire. Snyder and Allen do not question the assumption of a necessary connection "between a photograph and its 'real life' original" (149), a connection that is obviously much stronger than in the case of a painting. But they question the actual importance of this knowledge for understanding photographs. Is the photograph, because it involves a technique of inscribing reality, forever tied to the obligation to depict "what is there" (148)? Is it obliged to "find" or "capture" situations, whereas the painter, supposedly, can freely create and invent them (148)?

What guarantees about the represented facts do photographs – conceived as purely mechanically produced images – actually offer to us? Or should we put much more emphasis on the photographer's contribution to, manipulation of, and control over the production process of photographic images? Already in 1975, when digital photography had still not yet entered the scene, Snyder and Allen identified commonplaces such as the view that "the physical objects themselves print their image," expressed by Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim (1974), as a "fanciful metaphor." They argue that the (analog) photographic image is a crafted object rather than a natural thing: "It is created out of natural material (light), and it is crafted in accordance with, or at least not in contravention of, 'natural laws'." It is therefore hardly surprising, Snyder and Allen continue, "that something in the camera's field will be represented in the image," but in their conclusion they stress that "how" something will be represented "is neither natural nor necessary" (1975: 151 [emphasis added]).

Defenders of photography's supposedly "essentially objective character" (Bazin 1980 [1945]: 241) have argued that photography succeeded in minimizing the "inescapable subjectivity" that the painter – regardless of his skill – could not dispense with (240). Bazin writes that compared with a painter's intervention in composing his work, the photographer's contribution to the genesis of his image is strongly limited due to the increased impact of the highly automated technology involved. This is why photographs, more than any other form of picture-making, possess a substantial "quality of credibility," according to Bazin (241). When reproducing objects, photographs thus add a dimension to comparable hand-crafted images. Although Bazin admits that the photograph's power might be irrational in this respect, he insists that it does "re-present" an object before us in such way that we are forced to accept its existence as real (241 [original emphasis]). This is a most basic assumption about photography, one that was expressed by British photographer Peter Henry Emerson about half a century earlier. In his 1889 pamphlet entitled Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, Emerson writes that "photographs are first and foremost pictures," in the sense that they are representations, and need to be understood and valued as such (as quoted by Snyder and Allen 1975: 144 [original emphasis]).

Canadian Jeff Wall's 8056 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, 9 a.m., 24 September 1996 (Figure 1.1), a large silver gelatin print, offers a fine example of that finding. The print displays a photographically depicted reality and informs its viewers about the spatiotemporal conditions of its taking. Apart from being slightly blurred, the image accurately captures a view one could have had of that particular part of Beverly Boulevard at that moment in time, when inspecting it through a surveillance camera, for example, which also usually display black-and-white images. Accuracy of representation has long been a painterly ambition. Especially after the discovery of perspective, Western painters have managed "to create the illusion of three-dimensional space within which things appeared to exist as our eyes in reality see them" (Bazin 1980 [1945]: 239). Perspective compositions made it possible to depict a well-chosen moment, as if taken straight from reality. Although perspective painting managed to achieve such reality effect in a perfect way, at least formally, Bazin argues that this mode of painting failed to make a tangible connection with the real-life situation it set out to depict.

Photography, according to Bazin, was able to fill that gap. As an image that seems maximally transparent in relation to the reality it represents, the photographic image appears to be reality's double, a return to "true realism" (Bazin, as quoted in Friday 2005: 342). This is why photography can depict moments characterized by a "dramatic expression" that psychically confirms a situation had truly happened (Bazin 1980 [1945]: 239). Although painting is also capable of suggesting dramatic movement, it remains fully detached from the moment represented because paintings can never serve as hard evidence of the fact that the depicted situation took place at all. It has been argued that photography, instead of announcing painting's demise, came to liberate the plastic arts "from their obsession with likeness" (240) or their struggle with "pseudorealism" (Friday 2005: 342).

Photography thus brought the "Classical system of representation," in the words of Craig Owens, to a culminating point (1992 [1982]: 89). As Owens writes, representation in painting was always defined in terms of "substitution" and "imitation" of reality at the same time (97). Photography would prove to excel in both modes. A photo may not only serve as a highly credible replacement or stand-in for someone or something now absent; it may also compensate for that absence to a certain extent. What is more, the photographic image is a strongly resembling copy of an object or situation as it was once physically present. It re-presents these objects in the sense that it creates the illusion that, in their eternal absence, it can make them feel as if present again, in a maximal tangible way.

This is not to say that photographs, as mere presentations of their objects, can be viewed as somehow coinciding with them. From a contemporary perspective, it is striking that Bazin, even in 1945 when he wrote his essay, could express his belief in a seemingly immediate relation between the photographic image and the object it depicted. Against his ontological readings, the philosopher Jonathan Friday has argued that Bazin's statement regarding the ontology of the photographic image should not be interpreted "to mean that he is concerned with the nature, or being, or distinctive identity of the photograph" (2005: 339). To Friday, Bazin's approach needs to be understood in phenomenological terms, as an attempt to grasp what photography is through investigating how it presents itself subjectively, to our perceiving and psychologically determined consciousness.

Historical brief: photography and ontology

Ever since photography's discovery, however, the idea has circulated that it is possible to objectively define the essence of photography as a signifier that stands in direct relation to the reality it represents. Sir John Frederick William Herschel probably introduced the word "photography" to the world in a paper entitled Note on the Art of Photography, or The Application of the Chemical Rays of Light to the Purpose of Pictorial Representation, which he presented to the British Royal Society on March 14, 1839. He also coined the terms "negative" and "positive" in this context. These made reference to the inventions by his compatriot, fellow-scientist friend, and true defender of positivist philosophy, William Henry Fox Talbot. In Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or the Process by Which Natural Objects May be Made to Delineate Themselves Without the Aid of the Artist's Pencil (1839), Talbot expressed his great belief in photography's proof-function and its inductive qualities. As such photography would help us to arrive at an understanding of the "true law of nature" (Talbot, as quoted in Armstrong 1998: 108).

Photography, according to Talbot, merited this highest esteem due to its quality of being the very imprint of nature. As he writes in the introductory remarks to his photographically illustrated book The Pencil of Nature (1844), photography allows for obtaining visual representations that are the result of "the mere action of Light upon sensitive paper" (as quoted in Armstrong 1998: 112). In Talbot's view, photography's scientific quality to materialize light and to be a material trace of the reality it depicts is its major difference from other modes of visual illustration. Photographs, he argues, "have been formed or depicted by optical and chemical means alone," whereas "plates of the ordinary kind ... owe their existence to the united skill of the Artist and the Engraver" (112, 113). The latter necessitates skillful human intervention, but photography by contrast is the beautiful result of "nature's painting" (114).

At this earliest moment in the history of photography, then, Talbot had already articulated the most elementary ontological definition of photography: It can be understood as "a process of recording, a technique of inscribing, in an emulsion of silver salts, a stable image generated by a ray of light" (Damisch 2003 [1978]: 87 [original emphasis]). "A photograph," the French semiotician Hubert Damisch asserted in 1978, "is this paradoxical image, without thickness or substance (and, in a way, entirely unreal), that we read without disclaiming the notion that it retains something of the reality from which it was somehow released through its physiochemical make-up" (88). Evidently, Damisch viewed Talbot's early assumption as one that needs to be argued with.

Yet, the assumption of photography's intrinsic interconnection with reality was highly influential throughout the twentieth century. Still as early as in 1966, the curator John Szarkowski claimed rather enigmatically: "Like an organism, photography was born whole" (1966: 11). To him, photography, from the very outset, was endowed with an essential nature, that is, with essential characteristics that we would further discover and understand as time went by. In the catalog essay of the 1981 exhibition he curated at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) under the title Before Photography, curator Peter Galassi offers an ambitious effort to "give substance to Szarkowski's conjecture" that the development of photography can be understood as being almost similar to that of an organism, and can be grasped through a taxonomic approach (Phillips 1989 [1982]: 40). Galassi traces photography's origins in relation to the history of Western painting while making a statement that has subsequently been heavily contested by his critics. He argues that photography, much more than being the offspring from a fruitful juncture of scientific, cultural, and economic determinations, is the final, perfected result of centuries-long pictorial efforts to depict the world in terms of the afore mentioned classical system of representation.

(Continues...)

Excerpted from "Photography Theory in Historical Perspective" by Hilde Van Gelder. Copyright © 0 by Hilde Van Gelder. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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