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.”


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