Stephen Edwards, Photography A Very Short Introduction, 2006, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN: 978-0-19-280164-7 (Kindle Edition). In my opinion, this is a very good book and a very important book to read for any photographer.
Documentary is said to provide its viewers with direct access to truth. In his pioneering book on the subject, William Stott stated: ‘The heart of documentary is not form or style or medium, but always content.’…this is an argument rooted in the idea of the mechanical arts and the related conception of a detached observer…..The site of its circulation matters just as much. In Practice, the truth content of images is always open to dispute and can be challenged by contending interests. (p.26-7).
Edwards discusses the book The Photographer’s Eye: The Photographer’s Eye isolates five properties that Szarkowski felt characterised the medium: ‘The Thing Itself’; ‘The Detail’; ‘The Frame’; ‘Time’; and ‘Vantage Point’. The issue for him was not to follow established conventions of art, but to make choices based on the way the photographic apparatus transformed an existing scene into a unique type of picture…In this sense, photographs isolate and focus attention on ‘details’. (p.59).
Photography really attained its current status in contemporary art when artists ditched any attempt to produce a unique medium-specific art of photography and began to trade on its actual uses, in particular on the photograph as a seemingly literal carrier of information. What came to matter….was the role photography played in everyday life; its ubiquity and its ability to record events, people and things; its role in the increasingly prominent consciousness industries. (p.61).
The continued exploration of everyday life in photography usually retains the rhetoric of the document to reveal the overlooked and the ordinary. The focus here is on those things, activities, or places that usually draw little attention: say, a simple gesture, the space under the bed, the debris of a meal, or a section of carpet. Sometimes these things attain a strange beauty, at others their very ordinariness is stressed; in some instances, the seemingly trivial details of life take on a transcendent or quasi-spiritual quality, in others the photographer keeps things down-to-earth. (p.63).
In pornography, like so many other forms of photography, the viewer is induced to look through the surface of the paper or the screen and imagine themselves in the full presence of another person: we might recognise the fiction, but nevertheless…Much of the power of photography derives from this kind of compelling illusion. What needs accounting for is the peculiar form of the photographic image, which appears not to be an image at all; rather, it seems like a direct re-presentation of lived reality. Photography’s effect, for good or ill, derive from this constitutive condition. (p.69).
The idea that photography represents an unmediated, faithful re-presentation of things has been hanging around the medium for a long time. as we have seen, some of the earliest conceptions of the process were based on this sense of automatic recording. As Talbot put it, in photography: ‘it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture makes ITSELF’. Because the camera was thought to require only minimal human intervention to generate images, the resulting pictures were deemed impartial and free of subjective intention. (p.69).
Andre Bazin, 1945, The Ontology of the Photographic Image: Bazin claimed that photography (and cinema) satisfied the basic human desire for illusion and realism….In Bazin’s account, the absence, or minimal involvement, of the photographer resulted in a picture independent of subjective volition…Bazin thought photographs to be objective, faithful copies of things. Looking at a photograph, he suggested, we are ‘forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced’. He claimed: “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of space and time that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discoloured, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image might be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model which it is the reproduction; it is the model.”….The photograph and the object it represents, according to Bazin, share a ‘common being, after the fashion of a finger-print’. (p.69-70).
Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs‘, written between 1897 and c. 1910. In this text, Peirce drew attention to three components of signs: these are often characterised as ‘iconic signs’, ‘indexical signs’, and ‘symbolic signs’, though strictly speaking, these are not distinct types of sign at all, but features shared by signs. (p.80).
Iconic signs share some qualitative characteristic with the object represent; icons in some way or other, resemble the object they stand for…Painting and drawings can convey meaning through visual resemblance between the sign and the object depicted…As Peirce put it, a diagram is an icon ‘even though there be no sensuous resemblance between it and its object, but only an analogy between the relation of the parts of each’. One key characteristic of icon signs, according to Peirce, is that they can operate even in the absence of the object in question: a drawing does not need to depict an actual chair for us to recognise it as an image of a chair. (p81).
Indexical signs – which entail some direct relationship to the object at issue. Peirce suggests that while indices do not necessarily resemble the objects they refer to, they bear a casual connection to those objects and would not have the character they do if their object was absent or did not exist. A footprint, for instance, was caused by the human presence that we take it to signify; a mooing sound calls to mind a particular kind of animal…(p.81).
Symbolic signs – convey meaning by convention and consensus; operating, according to him, ‘by virtue of the law’. Red, amber, and green lights, for example, are conventional signs employed to control traffic flow, Symbolic signs play the central role in human communication: as Peirce suggested, words and sentences are conventional signs and therefore, symbols. Both written and spoken words convey meaning through conventional use and not through any intrinsic relation to their referents. (p.82).
Many commentators have suggested, on the basis of Pierce’s account, that photographs are indexical signs. This is not quit right: his distinctions are meant as abstract categories to help us see how signs work, rather than exclusive types. Any actual sign, photography in this instance, will combine these features. The iconic dimension of photographs ought to be readily apparent, since photographs look like the thing they depict; under particular circumstances, photographs also produce symbolic meanings (a photograph of an assassinated political leader carried on a demonstration can symbolise a struggle for justice); and because photographs are the direct result of light bouncing off depicted objects, they bear an indexical relation to the thing pictured. (p.82).
What is particular, and peculiar, about photographs is the conjuncture of resemblance of resemblance and trace – the iconic and indexical component of the sign coincide to a remarkable degree. The resemblance of a photograph to its subject – the image – is a direct and physical result of that subject and could not exist without it. Photographs point to the objects that called them into being and show us those things. As such, photographs bear witness to the events and things they depict. (p.83).
This conjunction of index and icon in photographic signs – and related media such as film and video – has important implications for how we understand the kinds of pictures that can be produced….The arrangement of things as they appear prior to the exposure being made is sometimes called the ‘pro-filming event’. This condition results in the principle of recognition in photographs, which allows these images to function as documents….In this sense, then, the very process of photography, the chemical and optical trace of objects, or the conjunction of iconic and indexical signs, lends support to the common-sense view of photographs as literal or objective copies (and to Brazin’s theoretical articulation of the view). Even if we do not fully understand the process involved, when we look at photographs we realise that the image before us is tied to the things it represents. Truth claims attached to photographs largely turn on this recognition. (p.83-84).
Does the image depict what the caption claims it represents? What evidence is there to prove it was taken in a particular place, or at a certain time?….There is often very little internal evidence in photographs to substantiate the claims made for their content. In many cases, we have to rely on the photographer’s, or editor’s trustworthiness (or authority) Whenever an issue is contentious, photographic evidence is likely to be disputed by rival interest groups, political factions, or whatever. Evidence is never simply in the photograph. (p.86-87).
At the heart of any criticism of photographic realism is the idea that the apparatus embodies conventions and assumptions about picturing. While the consequences of the staged, manipulated, or mocked-up image are readily apparent, recognising the deep conventions underpinning the apparatus can be less straightforward. However, these conventions are no less important for a serious understanding of photographs; if anything, the relative invisibility of these determining assumptions makes them more worthy of attention and more insidious in their effects. (p.88).
In 1859, Oliver Wendall Holmes went further and described photography as ‘a mirror with a memory’: his metaphor implies that the photograph is a reflection, but one that has been fixed or frozen in time. In some ways, this is a strong analogy: photographs do seem similar to reflections in a mirror….However, the comparison is, ultimately, misleading. One problem is that we need to consider: in what sense is the thing we see in the mirror an image at all?…Firstly, the bounding edge or ‘limit frame’ marks the reflection off from the surrounding area…Secondly, viewers know from their spatial position that the things reflected (including the self looking) are located this side of its surface…Thirdly mirrors invert the objects they reflect…Camera images are of a different order. (p.88-89).
In contrast to human vision, linear perspective creates a geometric box-like space. The powerful analogy between camera and eye has effect of naturalising photographs and rendering it difficult for us to see them as pictures. Photographs are not reproductions of vision; rather, they present information to vision. (p.101).
Looking at pictures is, in this sense, akin to dreaming or drifting consciousness experienced in a moment of reverie. Advertising and pornography clearly play off this odd condition somewhere between waking reality and dream or fantasy. Photographs – their glossy surface and high key colour only adds to this – can seem more real than reality: uncannily like the world we know, yet more perfect, ordered, and coherent. One reason for this is that the system of perspective, by encompassing the viewer into the visual field, makes him or her appear to be the singular recipient of the information presented. Perspective images address each viewer in exactly the same way and yet, at the moment we look at them, everything appears designed ‘especially for you’ (this has been characterised as an individual effect). The image seems to address us as unique individuals, but it does this for every single viewer. It is a space that seems particularly amenable to fantasy or ideology. The proviso is that no one ideology – not even ‘individualism’ – spans the period of the Western picture…A perspective or point of view suggests (if only negatively) the possibility of other places from which to look, or the difference between here and there. (p101-2).
The idea of a ‘reality effect’ was developed to describe the ideological effect of a system of representation (film) that is sometimes confused with a literal copy of reality. In one sense the reality effect corresponds to Alberti’s window. Documentary photography particularly trades on this effect, as do photography’s fantasy forms. What we see is a highly conventionalised image, but one that seems to copy reality: either because it shares some characteristics with the object or events depicted, or because it has been naturalised over time. (p.103).
Frame: The frame plays a central role in photography, perhaps even more than it does in painting. It may be helpful at this point to distinguish between the ‘object-frame’ and the ‘limit-frame’ The ‘object-frame’ might be ornately carved and covered with gold leaf, or a plain metal or wooden construction. In photography the masked white edge of a print is also a frame of this kind. The object-frame calls attention to the picture, isolates it from the wall, and offers some protection…In contrast, the ‘limit-frame’ demarcates the compositional edge of the picture. Limit-frames are compositional devices separating inside from outside; picture from pro-filmic event. (p.104).
Whereas paintings are built up, photographs are extracted from a visual field. The best way to think about the limit-frame in photography is a kind of exclusion in space. This ‘cut’ extracts a portion of space, while suggesting that it is a fragment of a much larger field of view…This restriction has provided the basis for images of a startling novel type…Consciously and unconsciously, 20th-century photographers have made use of these possibilities by pushing the subjects up to the edge, leaving a central void (‘deframing’), or slicing through a person so that only part of the figure appeared within the frame….two different bodies might be aligned and space compressed so that foreign objects appear to sprout from the body (sometimes called ‘false attachments’). (p.105).
The frame, whether used conventionally or not, is a rhetorical device that makes connections where none necessarily exist. Photographic meaning are often built from these connections, and play a very prominent part in the lexicon of street photography. Doisneau’s Helicopters, Tuileries Gardens of 1972 is a good example….The effect is to prompt the viewer to transfer the values of one thing to the other…With the choice of the frame, the photographer actively makes the picture rather than simply recording pre-existing things. (p.108).
Robert Doisneau, 1972, Helicopters.
Robert Doisneau, c.1960, Tuileries Gardens.
Robert Doisneau, 1944, Love and Barbed Wire.
Roland Barthes suggested that the caption ‘anchored’ the image:that is to say, that the caption or headline tied the image down to a preferred interpretation. (p.108).
The exhibition From the Picture Press, curated at MoMa by Szarkowski in 1973, is revealing in this regard. This exhibition consisted of press photographs stripped of their captions and removed from the newspaper layout. Presented in this form, the images seemed strangely ambiguous and formally peculiar….Photography, according to him, was an art of details and fragments and not an art of storytelling…his exhibition did have the virtue of demonstrating the semantic vagueness of photographs not pinned down by caption and text. It reveals, once again, that meaning is not simply in the image. (p.109).
One way to envisage the difference between ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ in photography turns on this relation to language and narrative. In the main, documentary is a closed form, designed to produce preferred interpretations. As such, images are usually combined with some form of anchoring text that steers the viewer/reader in a particular direction. Photographic art, in contrast, typically abjures words, or employs elliptical text, in order to leave the image open to associations and interpretations. For art, vagueness or ambiguity are often the preferred modes. Advertising can be seen as an intermediate form that offers a certain amount of semantic play and open connotation, but with the aim of transferring the associations generated to the commodity being promoted. (p.110).
Referring to images on popular social networks and on ‘Stock Image’ websites, such as Bill Gates’ ‘Corbis‘ and ‘Getty Images“: Culture seems increasingly colonised by an advertiser’s vision of a retouched world…Photography now looks less like a copy or trace than a total fabrication, or a ‘reality effect’ that purveys a fictive world. In the past the predominant model of photography was drawn from documentary, now advertising and its cognate publicity forms have assumed the central role. These profoundly ideological images demand serious attention, but some problems are likely to result if we view the whole photographic field through these fantastic pictures. Attention to the fictive constitution of photographs is important because the common-sense conception tends to see only the objects and people depicted in the image and overlooks both the interventions of the photographer and the specific character of the photographic apparatus. The resulting conflation of photograph with pro-filmic event leaves the viewer open to propaganda of all kinds. Focusing on cultural construction of meaning in photographs can help us resist this effect. (p.113-4).
The artist Jeff Wall provided a good formulation for this conundrum when he said that there are two prominent myths about photography: the myth that it tells the truth and the myth that it doesn’t…While photographs are copies of their pro-filmic moment, they are never unmediated copies of it…Photography is, then always a doubled or paradoxical form: the image is a transcription of a bit of the world and, at the same time, a picture shaped by the determinants of the apparatus and the choices made by the photographer. (p117).
Time and Place: …Pierce suggested that indexical signs are linked to a definite time and place. In this sense, because of the close correspondence between the indexical and the iconic element, photographs depict a fraction of time. Even the constructed photograph represents a definite moment. the events in the photograph happened, and the image stands as testimony to their occurrence…As Roland Barthes, in a highly influential account, argued: ‘The type of consciousness the photograph involves is indeed truly unprecedented, since it establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing (which any copy could provoke) but an awareness of its ‘having-been-there‘. (p.117-8).
There is though an important consequence of Barthes’s influential account of the experiential time in photography that is rarely noted: his account isolates the present from the past. So, he writes of one photograph “I shudder over a catastrophe which has already occurred.’ This perspective has the effect of creating a safe distance between himself and the depicted events, but at the cost of blocking the image from entering into our time…’The photograph does not call up the past’ and id does not ‘restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest to what I see existed’. According to him, the photograph ‘is without future‘. For Barthes, the photograph acts as a reminder of the passing of things. (p.118-9).
Despite the influence of this argument, this melancholic concept is open to dispute. If photographs encapsulate the peculiar temporal paradox of here-now and there-then, by definition, this condition must work both ways round: as much as the image conveys something of death, reminding us of the unstoppable passage of time, it simultaneously brings a moment from the past to life for us, ‘blasting’ it up in the present, as Benjamin would have said. Benjamin is important in this context because, in contrast to Barthes, he was committed making the past active in the present. Benjamin was concerned to recapture the past from the ‘Victors’ who normally define history. For him nothing in the past had truly disappeared forever; its traces could be rediscovered and put to use. (p.119).
A photograph likeness seems to have the effect of bridging distance and heightening the effect of memory, reminding us of those who are absent….The photograph seems to testify that particular people existed or that things actually happened and to recall us to the moments. In this sense, Barthes argument for consigning photographs to the past is counter-intuitive. Memory is, after all a trace or impression of the past that takes place in the present….In our amnesic culture, Barthes refusal to allow the past into the present seems strangely complicit with society’s current drive to forget. (p.120).
Photographs provoke acts of memory recalling us to things, places, and people, They establish connections across time and space, inducing chains of associations. (p.121).
Photographs act as prompts or provocations for stories and reminiscences. Acts of memorisation spin off from these powerful points of association…The classical site for this kind of storytelling as memory is the family album, which became commonplace during the 1860’s but is now as likely to exist as packets or envelopes held together by an elastic band, or a number of computer files. (p.122).
Photographic images play as significant a role in shaping public memory as they do in family memory. These images often allow us to make sense of an event and to fix a particular image of it. The photographs that take on this role often articulate some shared experience or need. Nevertheless, this does not mean all collective remembering is necessarily productive of social coherence. Photographs can call up different perspectives on the past for the distinct groups involved in those events…The memories elaborated on the basis of photographs are productive of social division and conflict just as easily as social coherence. Which photographs stick often depend on how the crystallise a particular view of events. Even some of the most iconic documentary pictures taken during wars or periods of economic depression are frequently dismissed as tendentious by one camp or another….There is no doubt that memory is an active process, constructing the past in the present, selecting and re-shaping it according to current preoccupations. Neither is it disputable that photographs sometimes displace memory or substitute for it. (p.125).
Brecht wrote that a documentary image of a munitions factory didn’t reveal much about actual conditions of production inside its walls. We would learn more, Brecht thought, from ‘something artificial, invented’, or ‘constructed’. Brecht’s incredibly perceptive point suggests that mere fidelity to appearance does not necessarily help in understanding complex modern reality; in fact, a montage construction may show us more than a picture of this kind. The question of knowledge – of what we can learn from photographs – doesn’t turn on the kind of objective conception often advanced; it rather hinges on the information revealed. Digitally manipulated images can be used to mislead (as can chemical images), but this kind of intervention can just as easily allow us to see and understand more. (p.137).
The photograph is an aid to vision and what matters is what it can be used to see, not its supposed status as a literal copy, and certainly not its adherence to one particular visual tradition. The fundamental question at stake in these debates is not simply lodged in a technical; it is fundamentally an issue of social relations and of the ways in which the apparatus is actually employed. Perhaps stripped of this simple version of realism, photography might emerge with a stronger; more sustainable conception or representation and evidence. (p.138).