Assignment 4 – Essay

Other Than You.

By Shaun Mullins (512659)

Assignment 4, PH5SAO – The Self and The Other.

Word count without quotations and footnotes: 2563. 

Including quotations and footnotes Total: 3931.

Sources: Barthes, 2000; 1977; Kelly, Self Image, Personal is Political, 1979; Kuhn, Remembrance, The child I never was, 1991; Ritchin, 2010; Spence, Facing Up To Myself, 1978; Strauss, Photography and Belief, 1991; The Daguerreotype, Edgar Allan Poe, 1840; After You Dearest, reflections on the work of Francesca Woodman, 1998; Oxford English Dictionary 10th Ed. 2005; Google Images; Wikipedia.

Annette Kuhn as a child, by Harry Kuhn, circa, early 1950’s, exact date unknown.

Can a single image fairly represent ‘others’ or ‘self’?

To try to answer this question, I will first look at the image medium of photography and the photograph as an object, and then I will breakdown the idea of image, into its individual parts, and look at this question again.

For most of us, when we often take a photograph we believe that we are recording a moment and a truth, “This is what happened, this was how it was, this was who we were.” Our digital cameras reinforce this belief by instantly producing the picture that we only just saw in the viewfinder. So surely, this must be proof that the camera, ‘never lies’ and is capable of producing a single image that can fairly represent ‘others’ or ‘self’.

The myth.

The idea that the camera ‘never lies’ started at the very beginning of photography with the Daguerreotype, and the idea that a photograph was evidence to the truth was adopted for methods of identification and as accurate records of events. All language must fall short of conveying any just idea of the truth, and this will not appear so wonderful when we reflect that the source of vision itself has been, in this instance, the designer. Perhaps, if we imagine the distinctness with an object is reflected in a positively perfect mirror, we come as near the reality as by any other means, the Daguerreotyped plate is infinitely (we use the term advisedly) in infinitely more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands. (The Daguerreotype, Edgar Allan Poe, 1840.) (pp.38, Trachtenberg, 1980). However, these ideas were very quickly challenged as myths, photography had its limitations: At first, the time required for exposure was very long and unless objects remained perfectly still they either failed to be recorded or appeared as a blur on the paper. As the technology improved the photographers got more proficient and experimented with this new medium, and they learned how to manipulate their images. As photography became more main-stream, politicians recognised the potential of photography as a tool for their own agendas; both Stalin and Hitler recognised the potential of the photograph and used it to maximum effect.

Why as an object, is there a problem with a photograph to act as a single image to represent ‘self’ or ‘other’.

A photograph is a record of a moment captured and frozen in a split second of continuous and advancing time. The photograph presents this record merely as a rendition, but what the photograph renders does not exist beyond the image’s surface. Moreover, a photograph tells us nothing about the before or after the captured moment, nor of anything beyond the limits of its frame. The motivation for capturing the image is not always obvious, and again, the photograph cannot reveal this unless something in the image can point to this motivation. A photograph is nothing more than a rendition of whatever was in front of the lens at the moment the shutter opened. In itself it does not truly represent the object or objects that it has recorded: It is not made from the same materials, a photograph is either made up of illuminated pixels on a display screen, or light sensitive chemicals on celluloid film and paper. Unlike, what it is representing, the photograph is flat, rendering in two dimensions. There are also three new elements added before the photograph can be produced: light, mechanics and chemical/digital interpretation. The final image on the photograph is only the reflected light, and the shadows. The closer you examine a photograph the less information it provides, the photograph breaks down into nothing more than specs of colour or grey. You will get nowhere, for instance, by taking a magnifying glass to it to get a closer look: you will see only patches of light and dark, an unreadable mesh of grains. The image yields nothing to the sort of scrutiny; it simply disappears. (pp.395, Wells, 2003).

Defining an image.

In order to establish whether a single image can ever fairly represent others or self, we must first define image. Image, Noun. 1, a likeness of someone or something in the form of a picture or statue. 2, a picture seen on a television or computer screen, through a lens, or reflected in something. 3, a picture in the mind. 4, the impression that a person or thing presents to the public: ‘she tries to project an image of youth.’ 5, a person or thing that looks very similar to another: ‘Gwen was the image of Judy down to her red hair.’ 6, a word or phrase describing something in an imaginative way; a simile or metaphor. Verb. (Images, Imaging, Imaged) make or form an image of. – ORIGIN Latin imago. (Oxford, 2005).

Looking at these definitions one by one:

1, a likeness of someone or something in the form of a picture or statue: For this exercise I will concentrate on a picture. A picture, drawing or engraving produced by hand, will inevitably include some artistic element that may or may not be recognised by the sitter or others as enough to create an impression of representation. If, however, the artist is successful, the artist has managed to create a picture that acts as an icon, a picture with a code,…the drawing which, even when denoted, is a coded message. (pp.43, Barthes, 1977) This can provide the audience with familiarity with the sitter and can be argued, that a painting or hand drawn image can fairly represent a likeness of an ‘other’. This is because the picture is really a collage of facial expressions, blended over a period of different sittings. Probably the most famous example of a handmade portrait of ‘other’ is the Mona Lisa (1503/07-1517) by Leonardo da Vinci. The portrait was commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo, for his young wife Lisa Gheradini (maiden name). Leonardo kept working on the portrait right up until his death. Despite the beauty of this portrait, we are unable to say if this picture is a fair representative of Lisa Gheradini/del Giocondo, as we neither have her or any other portraits of her to compare. Moreover, Leonardo spent so much time working and re-working the portrait, it is very unlikely that the likeness is at all accurate. The best example of a self-portrait artist must be Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669). He produced more than twenty paintings and many more drawings of himself. However, there is a problem with classing his images as to, ‘fairly represent self’ and this is simply because these images were all created from a mirror reflection; so they are in fact, a reverse of his actual features.

Pictures can also be read in different ways and offer different messages to the reader. Annette Kuhn analysed a portrait of herself as a child, the picture in itself tells us only what we understand from our own learned experiences and culture. We recognise her skirt to have a Scottish tweet kilt like design and pattern, she wears a cardigan, we recognize ribbons in her hair and from her face and skin tone, to be European Caucasian. We recognise the bird as a popular pet, we are familiar with what a chair looks like, and the blurred pattern in the background suggests wallpaper; so we can surmise a domestic / homely scene. To Kuhn this picture evokes lived experiences and as such this photograph is acting as a signpost to her memories. For the rest of us however, this photograph behaves in a very different way, it is indexical to our learned knowledge. We must first have learned to recognise all these key elements to make any interpretation of the various shades of grey on the paper that makes up the photograph: …a photograph can be material for interpretation – evidence, in that sense: to be solved, like a riddle; read and decoded, like clues left behind at the scene of a crime. (pp.395/ Wells, 2003). The countenance suggests a happy and contented child. Evidence of this sort, though can conceal, even as it purports to reveal, what it is evidence of. A photograph can certainly throw you off the scent. (pp.395/ Wells, 2003). On the back of the photo her mother wrote, “Just back from Bournemouth.” Kuhn had crossed out “Bournemouth” and written “Broadstairs” and added a note, “but I suspect the photo is earlier than this.” New contentious meanings have now been added to this photo. Kuhn disagrees with her mother’s memory/statement of fact, and by adding these texts to the picture a multiple of new readings can be interpreted by both her and her family. One reading is that of a gift from a loving father who is claiming his stake to the family relationship through the authorship as photographer. Another reading is that of her mother’s denial of his relationship to Kuhn as her father and by pinning the moment into a time that her mother returned from convalescing in Bournemouth, she was writing herself into the picture.  This second reading Kuhn splits into two parts the second part of this reading Kuhn says, “…my own involvement as well as my father’s is negated, as the caption constitutes a central place for the writer herself in a scenario from which she is so clearly excluded: my mother thereby sets herself up as both enunciator of, and main character in, the family drama.” (pp.398, Wells, 2003). Kuhn demonstrates from her self-portrait how a photograph’s meaning can change over time and for this reason Roland Barthes describes a photograph as, ‘a message without a code’.

2, a picture seen on a television or computer screen, through a lens, or reflected in something: A moving picture as seen with sound comes close, for here we can see ourselves or others talk, stand, walk and behave. However, more often than not, we are conscious of the camera, and we act accordingly. This alters our behaviour and we often don’t recognise ourselves, “Is that really me?” Do I really talk like that? Do I act like that?” The video or film camera coldly captures what displays in front of it, but it doesn’t necessarily agree with our idea of fairly representing self or other. With the ease to manipulate the digital image, digital technology appears to push the photographic image into doubt. Concern is growing that this new technology is threatening the photograph as becoming considered unreliable.…after all that is happening in computer imaging can one safeguard the integrity of the photograph in its populist role as societal informant? (pp.72, Ritchin, 2010). Ritchin argues that as a society, it is becoming very urgent that we dismiss the popular idea of, the myth of the photograph’s automatic efficacy and reliability, particularly when the myth is soon to be punctured. In order to contemplate its future role in society and the impact of new technologies, it is necessary to at least acknowledge that photography is highly interpretive, ambiguous, culturally specific, and heavily dependent upon contextualisation by text and layout. (pp.72, Ritchin, 2010).

3, a picture in the mind. This is purely subjective and alas cannot be shared; we have ideas of ourselves and others in our ‘mind’s-eye’, these images are often idealised, seen through ‘rose-tinted glasses’ or can be quite the opposite, but just as exaggerated. What we hold as a memory is as much about what is forgotten as is remembered. A memory of my Grandfather is as much about impressions than actual pictures and these fade or are replaced until I am not really sure if the picture in my ‘mind’s eye’ is a fair representation or not. Another mental image that we may create is when we are in possession of prior knowledge of a person that we never actually met. Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) was a photographic artist based in New York who mainly produced self-portraits; her artistic career was tragically cut short when she took her own life, aged 22. Her work was introduced to the public by Abigail Solomon-Godeau and Rosalind Krauss in 1986. This latter fateful knowledge cannot help influencing the way we view her art. Because these are photographs, “evidence of a novel kind,” our projections are inevitable. As Roland Barthes and others have pointed out, paintings and drawings are iconic, while photographs are indexical; that is, they always point to something else. (pp.126, Strauss, 2005). Our knowledge of Woodman’s tragic history must influence our imagination as to what she was really like, and although her photographs are clearly a mixture of her artistic imagination and her personality, they do not provide any additional information and therefore, I would argue that a single image, seen without prior knowledge of Woodman, does not contain any information that points to something that provides an idea of ‘self’ or ‘other’ that can fairly represent her.

4, the impression that a person or thing presents to the public: To quote Roland Barthes, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. (pp.13, Barthes, 2000). The person that we present to the public alters depending on who the public are. The artist Jo Spence, began as a portrait photographer, but she writes that she realised: That a single image could not convey someone’s essence. (Spare Rib, March, 1978). Spence claims that for much of her life she was ashamed of the way she looked and so she started to think about her own image and of the women she had photographed, homing in on their comments of dissatisfaction regarding their own looks. Spence formed a group of feminists called Face, and discussed how they saw themselves and how they saw each other; there appeared to be a credibility gap between the two points of view. Spence now looked at how the media influenced their ideas about themselves and she became aware of ‘the look’ that she believed the media had created for women. The full faced come-on, a full frontal attack…. “It’s your face that represents you. And your eyes say, I’m available”…. It only recently occurred to me that all my early photographs were about, ‘come-on’…. We are supposed to spend all our time, energy and money on trying to look perfect. (Spare Rib, March, 1978). Spence points out that maintaining ‘the look’ is a constant and impossible battle, we are constantly changing…. “The mirror image shown to working women is totally static. It represents an ageless, classless view of people with different lifestyles and values.” (Spare Rib, March, 1978). The problem Spence identifies with using less glamorous/dead pan images for women is that such photographs have been used for negative messages. ….pictures of women labelled as ‘problems’ were often used by charities, “These aren’t ‘idealised’: they are very ‘realistic’. But they are always linked to some sort of ‘abnormality’ or ‘deviance’. So nobody in their right minds preserves pictures of themselves looking like that because of the connotations of ‘failure’. (Spare Rib, March, 1978). Spence suggested that for women to take back control of their self-image they need to shift back popular perceptions to a point where it is understood that everything a woman does has validity: – not just the perfect moment…”In this way we can then start to rethink some of the syndromes or stereotypes that have been thrust upon us. I think we are the slaves of our own idea of that we ought to look like, and by implication behave like.” (Spare Rib, March, 1978). Spence felt that she only began to face up to her own issues of self when she looked through a collection of photos that her boyfriend, Terry, had taken of her. “I feel sure some of them could have been used to raise money for charities! I have also realised now that what I look like at home is different to what I look like out of doors; I have a public and a private face….But I also know that the first person I meet changes the way I look. The photos here don’t show any interaction all the time……Like therapy, it happens step by step slowly uncovering the layers of fear and repression. It’s even harder to get other people – friends and family – to understand that their conceptions of us are stereotyped. (Spare Rib, March, 1978). Spence called this exercise photo-therapy and by including Terry’s collection of pictures in the family album she felt that she could force her family into seeing her in a new way. However, she did not see these photographs as an end in themselves but just as a means to try to understand what she projected of herself.

In her essay, Self-image, Personal is Political, (1979) Angela Kelly critically discusses Spence’s essay, Facing Up To Myself, (1978) Kelly points out that the photographs Spence used, which had been taken from her family album, would be nothing more them a set of banal pictures without the text to accompany them. Clearly for Spence’s images to fairly represent, as self or other, there must be more than one photograph, and they must include text to anchor meaning to the image in order to project her ‘essence’. Moreover, a familiarity with Spence is needed to recognise this representation that she is trying to project. This may be possible to achieve with her family but unlikely with strangers. Furthermore, we are not told if her attempts to re-educate her family into ‘seeing her in a new way’ through her boyfriend’s pictures was successful.

5, a person or thing that looks very similar to another: A person or thing that looks very similar to another, takes recognition, a part of our memory, a belief, we believe this person resembles that person. An opportunity arises where belief and truth can be split. For a single image to fairly represent the self or other, it would be fair to assume that the image must hold some element of truth and belief, but what if the image holds belief but lacks truth?

David Levi Strauss writes in his essay, Photography and Belief, (1991) that when in conversation with a friend, he discovered that they had both kept a found photographic portrait of a stranger that they had ‘adopted’ for a relative. Strauss’ friend had found a picture of a pretty lady that he carried around and would show it to people, telling them that the picture was of his mother.  Strauss found a picture of a boy who resembled Strauss’ father (pictured in his family album). Strauss had had a brother that had died before Strauss was born; so he ‘adopted’ the picture for an image of his unseen brother. Strauss writes that: belief derives from the Anglo-Saxon word geliefan, means “to hold dear” The Sanskrit root for this word, Lubh, means “to desire, love.” Belief involves the “assent of the mind to a statement, or to the truth of a fact beyond observation, on the testimony of another, or to a fact or truth on the evidence of consciousness” (Oxford English Dictionary). In relation to photography, this assent is influenced, but not exhausted, by the photograph’s relation to “objective reality.” It is also influenced and determined by its place in the complex web of subjectivities that determines how we negotiate the world. (pp.73, Strauss, 2005). From Strauss’ experience, he suggests that the relationship between photographs and belief can become especially complicated when connected with identity. Sometimes, the photograph doesn’t need to prove anything on its own; it corroborates and confirms what we already know. (pp.74, Strauss, 2005). He continues: Many of us possess certain photographs the accretion believability over time. These may be photographs of family members or loved ones, autobiographical images, or other photographs that come to act as talismans, triggering certain emotions or states and warding off others. The relation of these photographs to belief is often not bound by their objective veracity. (pp.74, Strauss, 2005).

6, a word or phrase describing something in an imaginative way: Arguably this is not a reliable method to represent a single image. The word or phrase will only act as anchorage to our imagination / mind’s eye. The words and phrases are not images in themselves, but act as codes to trigger our imagination. In other words, the word or phrase acts as a signifier, a ‘symbolic message’. When it comes to the ‘symbolic message’, the linguistic message no longer guides identification but interpretation…An advertisement (for d’Arcy preserves) shows a few fruits around a ladder; the caption (‘as if from your own garden’) banishes one possible signified (parsimony, the paucity of the harvest) because of its un-pleasantness and orientates the reading towards a more flattering signified (the natural and personal character of fruit from a private garden). (pp.39-40, Barthes, 1977).

Strauss implies that photographs offer no identity of their own, the identity that a photograph represents is simply attached to it and can be removed and replaced; he cautions that a picture should not always be taken at face value: People use photographs to construct identities, investing them with “believability.” Of course, advertisers and news-picture editors do the same thing, mimicking the private use of photographs in order to manufacture desire for products and to manufacture public consent. This has caused a great deal of confusion. The first question must always be: Who is using this photograph, and to what end? (pp.74, Strauss, 2005). If a photograph cannot hold an identity of its own and that any identity can be attached to it, it clearly cannot singularly be a reliable representative without additional information, such as text. This can then act as an anchor to hold and protect its meaning. However, for a single image to permanently retain its meaning, it must have both duplicates of itself holding the same attached text, plus very similar images repeating and reinforcing this text. Thus creating a common familiarity and identification, an example is a picture of Adolf Hitler that cannot now be miss-identified, thanks to the prolific distribution of his image and for many similar images of him, all with his name attached to them.

In conclusion.

There does not appear to be any evidence that a single image can ever fairly represent ‘other’ or ‘self’.  An image is as Barthes terms, ‘a message without a code’ this message can be coded anyway we choose and recoded for new meanings. Images are subject to a linguistic and cultural code and these can differ between readers and alter over time.  Because images have no independent means to anchor their meaning, not only can the intended message be changed but it can also be subverted, for these reasons an image cannot hold an identity, the identity must always be supplied as a separate piece of text, that can be true or false, removed, changed and lost.

Photo Op, 2005, Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips.

Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin, and Nikola Yezov walking along the banks of the Moscow-Volga Canal, in April, 1937, by F. Kislov. Nikola Yezkov to right of Stalin at the Moscow Canal was later removed from the photograph after his assassination during Stalin’s purges Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images & AFP/GettyImages.

Mona Lisa, 1503/07-1517, by Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre Museum, Paris.

Self-portrait, oil on canvas by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1659, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Photo Therapy: Infantilization, 1984, Jo Spence

Untitled, Rome, 1977-78, Francesca Woodman.

Bibliography

Books

Barthes. R, (2000) Camera Lucida, London: Vintage Classics:

Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text, London: Fontana Press.

Pocket Oxford English Dictionary, 10th edition, (2005) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ritchin, F. (2010) In Our Own Image, (3rd Ed.) New York: Aperture.

Strauss. D.L. (2005) Between The Eyes, Essays on Photography and Politics, New York: Aperture.

Trachtenberg, A. (ed.) (1980) Classic Essays on Photography, New Haven, Conn.: Leete’s Island Books.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader, Abingdon: Routledge.

Websites

Spence, J. (March 1978) Facing Up to Myself, Spare Rib – https://journalarchives.jisc.ac.uk/home (accessed 26/10/2020).

Wikipedia.

Google Images.

Published by shauncn512659

Hi, I am an OCA student studying for an Art degree in Photography , my student number is 512659. My e-mail is: shaun512659@oca.ac.uk

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