Sunday, October 30, 2011

Postmodernism

What I found especially interesting about this week's readings was that the idea of postmodernism is fundamentally one of opening up and dissolving categories that existed previously.  While reading the Jencks article The Post-Modern Agenda, I couldn't help but think of readings I have done on gender theory which essentially claim that the binary gender system is not an accurate way of describing individual people and their identities, and that in fact, it has never been so.  It has never really even existed, but rather is a social construct.  



Interestingly, this idea was called to mind again in the following passage from Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism and Consumer Society regarding individualism and personal identity:

Not only is the bourgeois individual subject a thing of the past, it is also a myth: it never really existed in the first place; there have never been autonomous subjects of this type.  Rather, this construct is merely a philosophical and cultural mystification which sought to persuade people that they ‘had’ individual subjects and possessed this unique personal identity.

I do not feel that postmodernism and expansive gender theory are the same thing, but I was struck by how many parallels I found throughout the reading.  In fact, there is a book by Carol Queen called “PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions about Gender and Sexuality” that I read many years ago.  Now, having a better context of postmodernism, I understand these ideas within a larger cultural context.


Jencks states:

The agenda of post-modern architects- and by extension post-modern writers, urbanists, and artists- is to challenge monolithic elitism, to bridge the gaps that divide high and low cultures, elite and mass, specialist and non-professional, or most generally put- one discourse and interpretive community from another.  

He continues to articulate an idea of double-coding:

Double-coding, to put it abstractly, is a strategy of affirming and denying the existing power structures at the same time, inscribing and challenging differing tastes and opposite forms of discourse.  This double-voiced discourse has its own peculiar laws and beauties and it constitutes the fundamental agenda of the post-modern movement.

He continues to expand the idea of post-modernism into a world view, making the following point which I found to be interesting, since I have yet to think of postmodernism as something so contemporary:

One might say, without exaggerating, that the most significant post-modern movement of all is electronic democracy, information-age pluralism, and the emergent self-organisational movements of the last fifteen years, whether these are national, ethnic, regional, or transnational.

He gives a summary of the term post-modern and its seven main stages, which I found interesting:

1.     Prehistory, 1870s to 1950s
2.     Postmodern seen as Modern in decline, 1950s to 1970s
3.     Post-modern as the counter-culture of the 1960s
4.     Post-Modern as pluralist politics and eclectic style, 1970s and early 1980s
5.     Post-Modern Classicism, a public language, 1979 to the present
6.     Critical reactions to the conditions of Postmodernity, 1980 to the present
7.     Critical summaries of the Post-Modern paradigm, 1988 to the present

After listing the seven stages, he notes:

One might pause to underline the heterogeneity of these seven stages, or meanings, since so often the phrase is used without self-consciousness, as if everyone were referring to the same thing.

I was especially intrigued by a few passages towards the end of the article:

Nature or God has a predisposition to produce us.  If the strong force of the atom were just slightly stronger there would be an explosive consumption of all protons, if the nuclear force were slightly weaker, there would be no chain reaction in the sun, and if the ratios of the four fundamental forces were slightly different, we would not be here to know anything about these extraordinary gifts, these un-asked for perfect balances.

He then refers to statements made by Paul Davies and John Gribbon:

These apparent ‘coincidences’ and many more like them, have convinced some scientists that the structure of the universe we perceive is remarkably sensitive to even the most minute changes in the fundamental parameters of nature.  It is as though the elaborate order of the cosmos were a result of highly delicate fine-tuning.  In particular, the existence of life, and hence intelligent observers, is especially sensitive to the high-precision ‘adjustment’ of our physical circumstances.

Jencks, continuing:

The fact that the universe shows this kind of non-teleological teleology (a predisposition to produce something like us, if not exactly us) and the fact that it exhibits extraordinary creativity and real novelty, is unbelievable- most of all to a modernist brought up on a steady diet of mechanism, determinism, and materialism.

I apologize for quoting so much, but these last few passages really caught my attention and expanded my thinking about postmodernism and its vast interconnectedness with everything else.  The idea of postmodern religion was also called to mind, which I found fascinating as an idea.


In conclusion on the Jencks piece, one more big quote:

No longer in the post-industrial society is matter, the ‘solid, messy, and hard’ stuff, the most important, no longer is the economy fundamentally extractive, like mining, and based on physical objects, like jewellery; no longer are things just limited to one person, and have to be fought over in a zero-sum game (things are either yours or mine); no longer is the basic economic datum, like fossil fuel, consumed in use.  Ideas and information, which weigh nothing and occupy no space, are not subject to finite ownership.  Like experience itself- eros- they particularly enjoy being communicated and shared.  They are not consumed in use, but double in power by use- a positive-sum game if ever there were one.  Since the post-modern age is the information era, since knowledge is power and since it is the quality and organization of information that matter, it is crucially important that free communication be safeguarded and a good education provided for everyone.

What I took away from this entire piece is that the categories, across the board, and broadening and widening, but not completely disconnecting from the categories that pre-existed.  Rather, they are building upon, and expanding, these categories in pursuit of something more well-rounded, complicated, hard to categorize, and ultimately, more universally true.  

The Douglas Crimp piece Appropriating Appropriation was also very interesting.   It is interesting that he differentiates between appropriating style versus the thing itself, or material, as he illustrates by discussing the architecture of Michael Graves and Frank Gehry.   Continuing that thought into the art realm, he discusses Robert Mapplethorpe and Sherrie Levine.  I had quite different relationships to the work of the two.  I found Mapplethorpe to be a huge inspiration early on, both for his subject matter and the beautiful ways in which he rendered it.  I had always focused on the originality and brave nature of his work, and to see it presented within the context of appropriation provided a new viewpoint for me, though one that seems accurate and researched.


Robert Mapplethorpe photo

Robert Mapplethorpe photo

When I first encountered Sherrie Levine’s work, quite frankly, I thought it was a little ridiculous it was in a major museum.  I see now a little more clearly that I was viewing it through a lens of original creativity and placing value on individual style, where as Levine was not interested in these ideas at all and did not attempt to create work that spoke to them.  Rather, she was making broader statements about how artists function within a culture of appropriation and was not attempting to make anything unique in material, but was attempting to use appropriation as a social commentary on appropriation itself.  

Sherrie Levine, "Untitled (After Edward Weston)," 1981

After reading all of the articles from this week, I am left with the question of what it means to be an artist attempting to articulate a personal vision within an image-saturated, idea-focused world.  Is there such a thing anymore?  I certainly hope so because it is where my interest and passion lies.
           

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Death of the author and institutional authorship



Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” was interesting, though at times I didn’t fully follow what he was trying to articulate.  He summed it up nicely in his last sentence, stating “We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”  I was intrigued by his description of how the author loses himself the minute he begins writing, and though it was an interesting thought regarding “men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs.”  I wonder how this differs for the photographer.  In some sense, there is also a death of the photographer, as his images function separate from who he is as a person, but I don’t feel that someone’s work can ever be separated from who they are as a person.  The latter informs the former, and many artists use their work to decipher who they are as people. 

Barthes “Image Music Text” was also interesting.  Throughout the entire article, I felt that Barthes was leaving out artistic photography and focusing purely on photojournalism, though perhaps his points are translatable to any kind of image making and showing.  He wrote:

The photograph is not an isolated structure: it is in communication with at least one other structure, namely the text- title, caption, or article- accompanying every press photograph… These two structures are co-operative but, since their units are heterogeneous, necessarily remain separate from one another.

I was also interested in his distinction between modifying an image prior to its exposure versus modifying it after, and his this former kind of modification is concealed and forgotten about due to the realistic nature of photography. 

To be fully exact, the first three (trick effects, pose, objects) should be distinguished from the last three (photogenia, aestheticism, syntax), since in the former the connotation is produced by a modification of the reality itself, of, that is, the denoted message (such preparation is obviously not peculiar to the photograph… the photograph allows the photographer to conceal elusively the preparation to which he subjects the scene to be recorded. 

His comment about how tricks within photography intervene in its meaning, or readability as authentic, was also interesting. 

They utilize the special credibility of plane of denotation- this, as was seen, being simply its exceptional power of denotation- in order to pass off as merely denoted a message which is in reality heavily connoted; in no other treatment does connotation assume so completely the ‘objective’ mask of denotation.  

This calls to mind photographs by Matthew Brady, whose photographs were read as being simply evidence of war, but some of them were in fact quite staged and shot from a particular point of view.



The six effects Barthes writes about are as follows:

1.     Trick effects
2.     Pose
3.     Objects
4.     Photogenia
5.     Aeestheticism
6.     Syntax

I also found his description of the role reversal between text and image to be interesting.  Previously, an image was used to illustrate the text, but now, text is used to further explain the image.

Formerly, the image illustrated the text (made it clearer); today, the text loads the image, burdening it with a culture, a moral, an imagination.  Formerly, there was reduction from text to image; today, there is amplification from the one to the other. 

Susan Sontag’s “On Plato’s Cave,” was definitely my favorite reading.  I was interested in her point that “photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.” 

She continues, saying, “Photographs are really experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”  She continues to state other uses of photography, including that “the camera record incriminates” and “the camera record justifies.”  But, she continues to disprove the factuality of the photography by saying “the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.” 

The idea of truth in photography is more complicated than the idea of truth in other forms of representation, precisely because it is viewed, or has been viewed in the past, as a true document or representation of something as it actually was.  The viewer knows that what they are looking at was present in front of the camera (though that is arguably changed now with the prevalence of digital technology), and because of that knowledge/assumption, the subjective or interpretive aspects of the photograph go unnoticed or unexamined. 

Sontag writes:

In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to the other, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects.  Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.

I was also drawn to her description of living through and for photography- the idea of staging events simply so that they could be photographed, and not considering the event complete until it had been recorded.  It is also interesting how photographs serve both as a way to reduce anxiety in those travelling or otherwise  unsure what to make of a moment and as proof of a life lived. 

For the first time in history, large numbers of people regularly travel out of their habitual environments for short periods of time.  It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along.  Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. 

This idea is fascinating for me since it seeps so strongly into my own life.  I record everything through a photograph, and through writing, as if it will disappear or have never happened if I don’t somehow document it.  I often wonder if this is a result of simply having a bad memory or if I am actually missing out on some intense experience of living free of the desire to record.  Or, if I’m not living in the moment because I’m thinking of how the moment will be documented and preserved.  I think Sontag makes an argument for the latter.

Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an experience of participation.

I was also drawn to her line, “photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention.”  This seems more relevant to photographs of horror or war, as opposed to staged portraits or still life images, for example, but perhaps its applicable regardless of the subject matter.



I can’t help but think of Annie Leibovitz whenever I read Susan Sontag, which perhaps is an argument against Barthes thesis in Death of the Author.  But, this idea calls to mind the images that Annie took of Susan when she was sick in the hospital on her deathbed.  Annie chose to photograph this event- perhaps to remember it, perhaps because as Sontag argued in regards to tourists in front of awe-inspiring things, she did not know of an appropriate reaction, and perhaps simply to make meaning out of something to horrible to otherwise understand- as opposed to choosing to simply experience it.  Perhaps in this way, even the most intimate photographs are an act of non-intervention. 

Annie Leibovitz's "A Photographer's Life" contains some of the most intimate images of hers that I have ever seen, especially those of Susan.


I was also drawn to this passage:

Although the camera is an observation station, the act of photographing is more than passive observing.  Like sexual voyeurism, it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening.  To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a ‘good picture’), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing- including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune
 
I also enjoyed her take on the common idea of “camera as phallus,” when she says “in fact, using a camera is not a very good way of getting at someone sexually.”  Though I know she was making many serious points, this sentence made me smile.

She continues:

The camera as phallus is, at most, a flimsy variant of the inescapable metaphor that everyone unselfconsciously employs.  However hazy our awareness of this fantasy, it is named without subtlety whenever we talk about “loading” and “aiming” a camera, about “shooting” a film.

I also liked her notion that “when we are afraid, we shoot.  But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.” 

In regards to the effect of traumatic photographs on us as a culture, Sontag argues that the abundance of images of horror do not actually raise concern and consciousness, but rather they make us more immune to it, “making the horrible seem more ordinary- making it appear familiar, remote (‘it’s only a photograph’).”

Sontag’s account of the first time she was affected by such photographs is quite moving:

When I looked at those photographs, something broke.  Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.

After exploring the ways in which we take and use photographs, and how they function in our culture, she ends by writing, aptly, “today everything exists to end in a photograph.”

 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Barthes, Perloff, Critical Terms for Art History, and Blow Up

I have a terrible memory.  I am sure this is one reason I was originally drawn to photography.  I wanted to not only make sense of my world by capturing it visually and then trying to find meaning in the representation, but also to hold on to the things and people I loved.  When I was a child I photographed my things as well as the people I cared about- favorite teachers, classmates- in an effort to hold on to them and have them with me all of the time.  But what of that?  How much of these people or memories am I really holding on to?  How much of the self can a photograph truly represent?  Am I re-writing my own memories, my own truths, as Boltanski will later say that he has done about his own childhood?

Starting with the readings...

In Critical Terms for Art History, I was intrigued by the description of Hippolyte Bayard's portrait of himself as a drowned man.  I can't imagine how frustrated he must have been to have been left out of the history of the invention of photography in the way he was, and for all of the credit to have gone to Daguerre.  It is fascinating that his response was to make this kind of image.


But, moving on, it leads into a discussion about the "body in relation to the image," which is related to all of our readings this week.  The article speaks to "the desire for the image to render up the body and therefore the self in its fullness and truth."  What is the connection between the self and the body?  It is a slippery construct, one that we in our current culture seem to have forgotten completely.  Representations of the body are assumed to capture or portray the self. 

The article states, "the photographic portrait seems to reaffirm the body's never-ending 'thereness,' its refusal to disappear, its infinite capacity to render up the self in some incontrovertably 'real' way," continuing on to say, "we tend to interpret and experience others through their appearance."  Interestingly, regarding self-portraits, the article states, "the self-portrait image points to a fundamental aspect of our desire to make and look at visual representations." 

I thought of the self-portrait work I have done of both myself alone and myself with others.  I was always trying to get at an understanding of myself through a representation of my physical body, and more specifically, how that physical body related to others, whether through a representation of desire/compassion/intimacy, as in "Fighter," or through a comparison of difference, as in the image of me and my mother. 

Fighter (self-portrait with Corinne), 2005

Self-portrait with mom, 2005

The last quote in the article that struck me is as follows:

The individual photograph paradoxically points to a telescoping series of unfulfilled desires: our desire for, desire to know, desire to have, desire to make.  

I am thinking a lot about the role of desire in my work, as well as the desire to image or look at certain things, so this quote struck a chord with me. 

 In Marjorie Perloff's piece "What has occurres only once," I was interested in how she juxtaposed Barthe's views on how a photograph functions versus Boltanski's views.  Beginning by describing relatively commonplace photographs, she writes, "their appeal, therefore, can only be to someone personally involved with their subjects, someone for whom they reveal the 'that-has-been' that is, for Barthes, the essence or noeme of photography."

Quoting Barthes, she writes, "In Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there."  But what does that mean?  And what significance would the thing itself have if we did not ascribe our cultural code to it?  It is interesting how Boltanski played with these questions, counting on our cultural code of understanding to call into question what images mean and how we interpret them depending on the knowledge we are given.  When shown a group of people and told that half of them are murderers and half are victims, we immediately try to figure out who is who.  But what are we basing this upon?  Boltanski ultimately proves it is an impossible and futile task, implying that there are limits to how much of "the self" a photograph can truly capture when it is stripped of context or authentic information. 

Again quoting Barthes, Perloff writes, "I was struggling among images partially true and therefore totally false."  Continuing in her own words, she writes "Barthes understands only too well that the punctum of this photograph is his alone, for no one else would read the snapshot quite as he does.  The 'emanation of the referent,' which is for him the essence of the photograph, is thus a wholly personal connection."

I was interested in how the knowledge we are given about a photograph affects our interpretation of it.  Perloff writes, quoting Boltanski, "what especially interested me was the property granted to photography of furnishing the evidence of the real: a scene that has been photographed is experienced as being true.  If someone exhibits the photograph of an old lady and the viewer tells himself, today, she must be dead, he experiences an emotion which is not only of an aesthetic order." 

Again quoting Boltanski: "photography lies, that it doesn't speak the truth but rather the cultural code."  To paraphrase Boltanski, he also speaks about how even today, modern photographers only photograph happy things- children running in fields, smiling faces- and is re-creating images he has already seen before.  This is an interesting idea to me- are we creating true memories or memories we think we should be having?

I had a friend who did an interesting project called "my real family album" where she photographed her daughter as she was growing up- not in an idealized, happy, traditional photo album way of capturing only smiling faces and big events- but by capturing all of the little moments that really make up one's life.  I wonder, in this way, is she getting closer to capturing a truth about experience and the self?  Do more images of genuine moments get closer to truly knowing someone?  Or are we still experiencing an edit (perhaps a subconscious or nontraditional edit) of experience?

In this vein, I enjoyed this quote:

"For whereas Barthes posits that what he calls 'the impossible science of the unique being' depends on a given spectator's particular reading of an 'ordinary' photograph, Boltanski enlarges the artist's role: it is the artist who creates those images 'imprecise enough to be as communal as possible'- images each viewer can interpret differently."

This called to mind a Diane Arbus quote:  

"There are an awful lot of people in the world and it's going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them... It was my teacher Lisette Model who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it will be."

I was also interested in Boltanski's investigation of identity through objects, having photographed all of the possessions of a college student after he passed.  "Photographed against a neutral background, these objects take on equal value: the pope's photograph, a folded shirt, a suit jacket on a hanger, a set of pamphlets, a toothbrush.  The question the inventory poses is whether we can know someone through his or her things...  Is there, in other words, such a thing as identity?" 

I will end with Michelangelo Antonioni's film "Blow Up," which was an odd film to me, but perhaps that is because of the cultural context in which it was made. 

A scene from "Blow Up"

It called to mind issues of photography as a form of proof- of showing something real- which is illustrated in the photographer's efforts of enlarging his photographs to an almost unreadable size and scale in an attempt to "prove" that a man was murdered by showing his corpse.  The resulting photographs are ultimately taken from his studio, again reinforcing the notion that photography can prove something true about real life.  It was an entertaining film, but I must be accustomed to the speed at which things move in our society today, because it felt like a very slow telling of a somewhat vague story.  But perhaps that is the whole point. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011


“The Family of Man has been created in a passionate spirit of devoted love and faith in man.” 

This was my favorite sentence in Edward Steichen’s introduction to The Family of Man, originally a pivotal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in NY and now a book and canonical reference point in the history of photography.  I also enjoyed Steichen’s idea that “the art of photography is a dynamic process of giving form to ideas and of explaining man to man,” continuing to call it a “mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.” 

It is interesting to me that the show included work from both amateur and professional photographers.  I can’t even fathom the process of editing a show out of two million photographs, edited down to 10,000, then to 503. 

I also enjoyed re-reading the introduction to The Photographer’s Eye by John Szarkowski. 

His point about the relative independence of photographic practice, as opposed to painting, was interesting. 

Since its earliest days, photography has been practiced by thousands who shared no common tradition or training, who were disciplined and united by no academy or guild, who considered their medium variously as a science, an art, a trade, or an entertainment, and who were often unaware of each other’s work.

I wonder what Szarkowski thinks of modern day photography, when photographers are almost obsessively aware of the work of other photographers, and where every person is surrounded by a flood of images all the time.  I don’t know if there is even the possibility of working without the influence of the history of the medium and its current practitioners. 

I also enjoyed his point about how, as photography became accessible, it began to document things or previously thought of as unimportant. 

            Painting was difficult, expensive, and precious, and it recorded what was known to be important.  Photography was easy, cheap, and ubiquitous, and it recorded anything: shop windows and sod houses and family pets and steam engines and unimportant people.  And once made objective and permanent, immortalized in a picture, these trivial things took on importance.  By the end of the century, for the first time in history, even the poor man knew what his ancestors looked like.

I liked these sentiment and idea, as most of the portrait photography I am inspired by focuses on “unimportant people.” 

Szarkowski’s point about the difference between the thing itself and a photo of it is an important one, though an issue that is still not fully understood.  He writes, “the subject and the picture were not the same thing, though they would afterwards seem so.”  I was also intrigued by the issue of believing the camera saw the truth, while human eyes saw only an illusion.  His ending point, that “the nineteenth century began by believing that what was reasonable was true and it would end up by believing that what it saw a photograph of was true,” is especially interesting and relevant today. 

In regards to detail, Szarkowski writes, “the compelling clarity with which a photograph recorded the trivial suggested that the subject had never before been properly seen, that it was in fact perhaps not trivial, but filled with undiscovered meaning.  If photographs could not be read as stories, they could be read as symbols.”  He continues to say, “the function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, it was to make it real.

In writing about the frame, he notes that photography introduces the idea of selective editing and meaning-making by where one chooses to draw the frame.  In this way, what you choose to leave out of the frame is as important as what you include, and you can make a selection of the world around you in a way that only ever existed in your photograph, never in real life. 

The central act of photography, the act of choosing and eliminating, forces a concentration on the picture edge- the line that separates in from out- and on the shapes that are created by it. 

His examination of time was also interesting, saying “there is in fact no such thing as an instantaneous photograph” and that “photography alludes to the past and the future only in so far as they exist in the present.” 

His account of how the time necessary for making a photograph often resulted in images never seen before, such as men made blurry or ghost-like as a result of motion” was interesting as well.  Now, we take things for granted, and nobody would be surprised at such an image.  The idea of these images being new makes me think of spirit photography and the ways in which it must have been significantly more believable a century ago than it is today. 

Szarkowksi made two points in the last section of his essay that were especially poignant.  The first regarded the idea of seeing photographically, a concept difficult for us to understand because we have never known a world without photographic representation. 

At first the public had talked a great deal about what it called photographic distortion…  [but] it was not long before men began to think photographically, and thus to see for themselves things that it had previously taken the photograph to reveal to their astonished and protesting eyes. 

Secondly, he addressed the idea of gifts from photography itself, which I found especially relevant. 

For the artist photographer, much of his own sense of reality (where his picture starts) and much of his sense of craft or structure (where his picture is completed) are anonymous and untraceable gifts from photography itself. 

Because Szarkwoski played such a monumental role in how we currently view photography, it is interesting to read his ideas on the subject. 

In the essay about the MoMA’s collection, I was especially taken with the sentiment of the “spirit of photography… which delights in the inexhaustibly various guises in which a single idea will reveal itself.” 

Also, in acknowledging all of the staff who helped in maintaining the collection and working with the photographs, the author states “I am confident that each of these has considered himself enriched and rewarded by intimate contact with what is surely one of the richest and most puzzling of the arts.”  The idea of photography being puzzling and ever-changing is fascinating, especially as it relates to the reluctance of curators to take it seriously before relatively recently.  It is pointed out that with a collection of objects such as roman coins or impressionist paintings, the amount in existence is finite, and the curator’s job is therefore theoretically able to be complete at some point.  However, with photographs, they are being constantly created and the medium itself is changing rapidly, making it both exciting and risky to be a curator of photographs. 

The example of aerial photography being a new way of reading the world, and having within it an inherent code that could be read, was interesting as well.  Throughout all of our readings thus far, the theme of how photography has changed the fundamental way we see the world has continued to present itself.  Similarly, the writing about Edward Weston’s portrait of his son illustrates that through photography, we see the torso of a boy in a way that we had never seen it before.  We are seeing something in immense detail that we thought we were already familiar with, but in reality, have never seen in this way before.  Also with the Walker Evans photograph of the studio window, it is pointed out that the photograph of the studio window is not the same as the window itself.  Framed within a photograph and therefore given importance, it requires interpretation, which directly references Szarkowski’s ideas about the difference between an image of a thing and the thing itself. 

Lastly, in the writing about documentary photography, this theme continues to run through the article, especially in the case of Lewis Hine and his photographs of children in factories or the men building the Empire State Building.  Hine created the former with a political undercurrent, but in the latter, he was interested simply in seeing something that had never been seen before- and documented these men factually. 

These spectacular pictures are not melodramatic; they were not taken for sensation.  They are a straightforward record of a job that happened to be dangerous. 

I was also interested in the idea that even in the most documentary photography, perhaps with a political intent, the aesthetics are still incredibly important.

It is because I enjoy looking that I go on looking until the pity and shame are impressed upon me unforgettably. 

This is an idea that I deal with regularly in my work, the idea of beautifully representing something that might otherwise be challenging to look at or simply ignored, seducing the viewer with aesthetics and having the political intent creep in as a secondary fact, once it is too late and they have already been seduced by the image. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Crary and Solnit

The Crary writing was interesting in how it separated the problems of visual representation from the problems of how an observer sees. 

Crary writes, "problems of vision then, as now, were fundamentally questions about the body and the operation of social power."  I found this to be a very interesting idea, that you can't separate ways of seeing from our own relationships to our bodies, to time and space, and to the world around us and the mechanisms through which we perceive it.

Illustrating this idea, Crary writes, "vision and its effects are always inseparable from the possibilities of an observing subject who is both the historical product and the site of certain practices, techniques, institutions, and procedures of subjectification."

I also like the distinction he makes between a spectator and an observer, tracing each word to its Latin root. 

Unlike ‘spectare,’ the Latin root for ‘spectator,’ the root for ‘observe’ does not literally mean ‘to look at.’  Spectator also carries specific connotations, especially in the context of nineteenth-century culture, that I prefer to avoid- namely, of one who is a passive onlooker at a spectacle, as at an art gallery or theater.  In a sense more pertinent to my study, ‘observare’ means ‘to conform one’s actions, to comply with,’ as in observing rules, odes, regulations, and practices.  Though obviously one who sees, an observer is more importantly one who sees within a prescribed set of possibilities, one who is embedded in a system of conventions and limitations.

This last sentence is especially critical to understanding Crary’s ideas about vision and perception.  I also found it interesting that he argued that how we categorize history and our own technological advances shapes how we see our modern world, whether “the shape of the present seems ‘natural’ or whether its historically fabricated and densely sedimented makeup is made evident.”

I enjoyed reading Crary’s thoughts on the stereoscope, and it put it into a context I had not overly considered before.  Perhaps this is because, as he makes evident, it does not feel like a new or revolutionary way of seeing for me, with my 21st century eyes that are arguably inundated with all kinds of “real” or 3D imagery.  

Crary writes, “in devising the stereoscope, Wheatstone aimed to simulate the actual presence of a physical object or scene, not to discover another way to exhibit a print or drawing.”  This is an important point regarding the motives behind developing the stereoscope.

Illustrating the importance of social circumstances to ways of seeing, Crary writes, “No other form of representation in the nineteenth century had so conflated the real with the optical.  We will never really know what the stereoscope looked like to a nineteenth century viewer or recover a stance from which is could seem an equivalent for a ‘natural vision.’”

I was also intrigued by his point about how stereoscopes are the most effective when they show scenes crammed full of things, such as rooms full of objects, as opposed to a landscape, for example, and how this use translated both into pornographic images and was also being explored simultaneously (though not, he argues, as a result of the stereoscope) through painting.  

In regards to their function, he writes, “the content of the images is far less important than the inexhaustible routine of moving from one card to the next and producing the same effect, repeatedly, mechanically.”  He goes on to explain why the stereoscope ultimately fell out of popularity, which he argues was not simple because of its association with pornography or erotic imagery.

“Even though they provided access to ‘the real,’ they make no claim that the real is anything other than a mechanical production.”  This could be contrasted to realistic landscape painting, which was often blindly accepted as “the real” and did not draw attention to its own falseness or two dimensionality.  

Crary goes on to write, “the ‘concealment of production’ did not fully occur.  Clearly the stereoscope was dependent on a physical engagement with the apparatus that became increasingly unacceptable, and the composite, synthetic nature of the stereoscope image could never be fully effaced.”

The Solnit article was fascinating to me, and like Crary’s writing, references a time that a modern observer could no longer imagine, when places were effectively far away and impossible to reach, and one experienced most of their life without ever going further than a day’s walk from home, whether physically or through imagery.  She explains how the invention of the railroad shortened the time it took to travel between places and effectively shrunk the world, making it more accessible.  She then went on to explain how photography effectively did the same thing through the use of capturing images, making it possible for people to own an object of an image of a loved one (“the youthful face of a beloved… could be possessed like an object”), for example, or to see a landscape that they would never be able to see otherwise.  

Solnit writes, “places connected by railroads were, for all practical purposes, several times closer to each other than they had ever been… the world began to shrink, and local differences to dissipate.”

Writing about the effect that technology has on our world, she wrote, “what distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or local.”  Judging on how drastically the invention of faster travel and photography affected the people in the nineteenth century, I can only imagine the social and psychological implications of our current society, where the entire world (or at least my perception of the entire world) is truly connected, almost all of the time, to a point that there is no longer such a thing as solitude or true, adventurous travel for most people in the modern world.  

One sentence that I found especially poignant was Solnit’s comparison of photography to the railroad, saying, “[photography] transport[ed] experience as the railroad transported matter.”  She did point out, however, that in contrast to the industrial nature of the railroad, photography was largely an artisan’s technology, but the effect it would have on the general public was no less intense.

I also enjoyed her point about photography being a paradoxical invention, simultaneously moving forward while always looking back: “photography may have been its most paradoxical invention; a technological breakthrough for holding onto the past, a technology always rushing forward, always looking back.”

Her point about one of the first images to be made, where all that remained in focus was the street and a bootblack and a pair of boots, was fascinating, and alluded to how photography has never really been a true document or truth, but rather is limited by technological constraints and always a subjective interpretation of any scene, not to be taken as a fact.  Writing of the bootblack and the boots, she writes, “it is eerie to look at them apparently alone, but really surrounded by scores who vanished into speed.”  Continuing in this vein, she brings it back to Muybridge: “the bustling nineteenth century had to come to a halt for the camera, until Muybridge and his motion studies.”  

One of the most fascinating points of the article is how, through the annihilation of time and space, new technologies took a person out of their present, out of their experience, out of nature, or out of their own body.  Solnit writes, “the railroad, the photograph, the telegraph, were technologies for being elsewhere in time and space, for pushing away the here and now.”  I wonder what she has to say about the internet, where we each believe we are having social experiences while actually isolated in our own homes?

Continuing, she says, “those carried along on technology’s currents were less connected to local places, to the earth itself, to the limitations of the body and biology, to the malleability of memory and imagination… It was as though they sacrificed the near to gain the far.”

She also pointed out how people missed these connections, and they attempted to find them again, “as though what had been lost as direct experience could be, just as Holmes dreamed, recovered as imagery.”

Lastly, tying these ideas into Muybridge’s motion studies, she writes:

In the spring of 1872 a man photographed a horse.  With the motion studies that resulted it was as though he were returning bodies themselves to those who craved them- not bodies as they might daily be experiences, bodies as sensations of gravity, fatigue, strength, pleasure, but bodies become weightless images, bodies dissected and reconstructed by light and machine and fantasy.

Again writing of Muybridge’s photographs of people, Solnit makes a very interesting and poignant point: “those gestures- a gymnast turning a somersault in mid air, a nude pouring water- were unfamiliar and eerie stopped because they showed what had always been present but never seen.”  

She returns to the idea of losing something natural through technology, writing, “what they had lost was solid; what they gained was made out of air… Muybridge was a doorway, a pivot between the old world and ours, and to follow him is to follow the choices that got us here.”