The second question for discussion this week was about further questions of artifice and representation, and whether ‘photographs are so unlike other sorts of pictures that they require unique methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation’. This takes one back to the well-known article of 1975 ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’ by Allen and Snyder asking whether there is anything peculiarly ‘photographic’ about photography. (Allen and Snyder 1975)
Allen and Snyder’s article is written by two sparky people who give the impression they enjoyed writing it. However, it is quite hard to work out what the take-away is. Once you have discounted the visual model, then the mechanical mode, then deconstructed Dennis Stock’s image of James Dean, what is left? Perhaps only: ‘We can also ask what it [a photograph] means, who made it, for whom was it made, and why it was made in the way it was made.’ (Allen and Snyder 1975: 169) That, and acknowledging that looking at a photograph is an experience, not an intellectual exercise.
The pitch that photography is special and different, and that it requires unique evaluative tools, strikes me as yesterday’s argument. Does it matter? Photography is now long established as a contemporary artistic practice and various forms of it almost swamp our daily life. Photography’s field is far wider than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, encompassing video and multi-media, it is considered much more ephemeral and a huge proportion of it today (on social media) is much more casual. And since Allen and Snyder wrote, photography has also embraced fiction (typified by the work of Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson), something that began in the experiments of conceptual art in the 1960s. In fact, you could say that today fiction in photography has long been normalized and the photograph freed from being chained to truth by representation.
I can think of only two things that may – only may – distinguish the photograph. The first is that all photographs are and always will be deeply and essentially ambiguous. That is the source of their power and it derives from the tension between representation and reality. We know we are seeing a representation, but a part of us still sees it as real. We can never be sure how much is a representation we have made up ourselves and how much is ‘real’, meaning a direct indexical trace of what was there. We can never be sure we are reading the photograph accurately, and yet a part of us always thinks we are. It is neatly phrased in a remark attributed to Jeff Wall: there are two myths about photography, the myth that it tells the truth and the myth that it doesn’t.
This was one of the points of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of portraits from 1999 using wax models created by Madame Tussaud’s. They challenged the notion that we can understand a person’s inner character merely by looking at a photographic representation of them. As Sugimoto has himself said of these works, ‘If this photograph now appears lifelike to you, you should reconsider what it means to be alive here and now.’ (Sugimoto 2020) We are not our photographs.
The second aspect is that whatever is seen is altered by the act of being photographed and presented as art. This is an often-made point that, for me, is related to the selectivity the photographer has employed and the context in which the image is presented. This is also expressed in Stephen Shore’s remark that ‘Pictures exist on a mental level that may be coincident with the depictive level – what the picture is showing – but does not mirror it.’ (Shore 2007: 97) The classic example here is William Eggleston’s 1970 image of a child’s tricycle, Untitled (Memphis). Just a rather battered child’s trike? No. Anything but. The same is true of Shore’s 1975 image of an LA gas station. Both images changed the way we look at the world by depicting things in a way they had not been seen before.
A third aspect, possibly, is suggested by Hans Belting: ‘photography reproduces the gaze that we cast upon the world.’ (Belting 2011: 154) Viewing a photograph is an exchange of gazes – ours and the photographer’s (and, depending on the image, that which gazes back at us). Photography for Belting is a medium between two gazes; ‘We see the world with the gaze of another, a past gaze, but we trust that it could also be our present gaze.’ (Belting 2011: 154) The argument, in essence, is that all images are symbols and therefore it’s all in the mind.
So, two criteria possibly unique to photography and a third for consideration. How does this relate to my practice? The honest answer is that I don’t yet know. I am certainly aware of ambiguity and consider it very important. Changing how we think of something through the way it is represented photographically sounds rather like magic and I would like to explore this idea a lot more. Hans Belting’s notion of rooting photography in an exchange of gazes is intriguing, not least because it neatly sidesteps the whole of the reality-representation debate, but I have not yet worked out whether the idea really stands up and can have a practical expression.
ALLEN, Neil Walsh and Joel SNYDER. 1975. ‘Photography, Vision, and Representation’. Critical Inquiry 2(1), [online], 143–69. Available at: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/stable/1342806.
BELTING, Hans and Thomas DUNLAP. 2014. An Anthropology of Images : Picture, Medium, Body. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. London: Phaidon Press.
SUGIMOTO, Hiroshi. 2020. ‘Portraits’. [online]. Available at: https://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/new-page-50 [accessed 12 Feb 2020].