PHO702 Week 6: A Sea of Images

Two things in particular stood out for me this week. First is the degree to which our images put out a view of the world – an ideology, in fact – whether we are aware of it or not. And second, that in a largely visual culture now almost drowning in images, it is easy to forget that what we may take to be real, solid, permanent very often isn’t at all. What is required here is what Andy Grundberg identified in his review of the 1988 exhibition ‘Odyssey: the Art of Photography at National Geographic’ (Grundberg 1998): ‘Rather than approach the Geographic archive as a resource that required decoding and a context, they apparently settled for connoisseurship. … what is required is a critical point of view.’ (Grundberg 1998).

So what arises is the question of objectification in images, intentional or otherwise. While this was certainly the case in the long-gone glory days of National Geographic and its coverage of tribal cultures around the world, in fairness National Geographic never claimed to offer more than ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’. Like Life magazine, National Geographic was a very successful piece of popular culture, and perhaps it still is though much of its output is now online. National Geographic offered a window on the world to many people who had no other and it also offered a host of science-based articles on animal behaviour, biology, archaeology and so on. It is easy to be overly critical of the National Geographic approach. In the magazine’s heyday, many of its readers would have been aware of a very different reality – war, famine and chaos – around the world offered to them nightly on TV news, so perhaps they saw through the dream too but enjoyed it all the same.

Nevertheless, the need for contextualization and decoding remains and is important. (They are, to begin with, a foundational approach to dealing with advertising.) Examples are the objects of popular culture decoded with striking insight by Roland Barthes in Mythologies. (Barthes 2009) This approach has been wittily updated by Peter Conrad in his BBC Radio 4 series 21st Century Mythologies (Conrad 2014). The upshot is that is it easy to see the surface and miss the deeper picture, whether it is the story and power dynamics behind the Nando’s Chicken franchise or the Shard (Conrad) or behind wrestling spectacles or steak frites (Barthes). Many practitioners do try to contextualize their work, too. Stephen Shore has talked widely about his practice (Shaw 2018), as has Richard Misrach (Harris 2015). The essays and reviews of Robert Adams can all be read as contextualizations of his landscape practice (Adams 1981) which then emerges in bodies of work such as Los Angeles Spring. (Adams 1986)

However, the message of the week is that the sheer number of images in our world makes contextualization and decoding both harder and more important than it used to be. In the words of Jean Baudrillard, ‘We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.’ (Baudrillard, 1994: 79). In Simulcra and Simulation, Baudrillard suggested that the modern world’s multiplication of signs, symbols and images leads us to take representations for reality, or even representations of representations for reality. (Baudrillard 1994) Baudrillard went on to say that ‘Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland … The imaginary of Disneyland is neither true nor false, it is a deterrence machine set up to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp.’ (Baudrillard 1994: 12-13) – statements that have stuck because, I suspect, they are both absurd and strangely true at the same time.

A final point. Images can also show us what we cannot normally see, often because something happens too quickly for our ordinary vision. In this regard images can heighten our reality – the hyper-real. This is a problem in the Baudrillardian sense because we can only actually see a representation of what happened – for example, a bullet passing through an object in a millisecond. However, this is also a source of art and freedom. At their best, images which catch these things freeze a moment from the flow of time and offer it to us as something that was there – a fleeting combination of elements – but which normally we simply would not notice. An example is this tableau by Alex Webb, a moment when everything came together, then fell apart. (Webb 2020)

WEBB, Alex. 1986. Bombardopolis, Haiti
WEBB, Alex. 1986. Bombardopolis, Haiti.

I shall be covering my work in progress and how this week’s idea impact it in a following post.

ADAMS, Robert. 1981. Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. Millertown, N.Y. : New York: Aperture .

ADAMS, Robert. 1986. Los Angeles Spring. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

BARTHES, Roland and Annette LAVERS. 2009. Mythologies. Revised ed. London: Vintage.

BAUDRILLARD, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

CONRAD, Peter. 2014. 21st Century Mythologies. [radio broadcast]. BBC Radio 4, 2014.

GRUNDBERG, Andy. 1998. ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’. [online] Available at: [accessed 04 Mar 2020]

HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. [online]. Available at: [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2018. ‘How to See: The Photographer with Stephen Shore’. [online]. Available at: [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

WEBB, Alex. 2020. ‘Magnum Photos Photographer Portfolio’. 2020 [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 Mar 2020].