PHO702 Week 2: Authentication and Representation

The question in the main discussion forum this week was what Roland Barthes may have meant when he said in Camera Lucida: ‘In the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation’ (Barthes 1980: 89) – and how this might affect both my own practice and that of others.

I think Roland Barthes may be saying that the evidential force of a photograph is often taken to be greater than whatever it depicts. Thus the fact of being shown a photograph of himself at an event he had forgotten all about is more forceful than the fact that he was there: ‘And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where)’ (Barthes 2000: 85). But, crucially, Barthes qualifies this by saying that the ‘testimony’ of the ‘evidential force’ of a photograph is not in fact about the object depicted but about time (Barthes 2000: 89).

We can and do make common-sense assumptions about photographs being directly representational, but even so the reality-appearance debate is on very shaky ground. It has been demonstrated that false memories can be implanted in people by showing them doctored photographs of them doing things they have never in fact done (Wade 2002). And the apparent ‘reality’ of a photograph might be a simulacrum: how real is Disneyland? Perhaps reality is only a shifting mental construction. Probably we should bear in mind that an ambiguous experience can become solidified into certainty when our belief system kicks in. We believe what we want to believe.

So when we look at a photograph perhaps we first check whether it conforms to our sense of reality. If it does we may think the image shows something real, authentic, even if it actually doesn’t (like the venerable Loch Ness hoax). And if the image doesn’t conform to our sense of reality we may say that it is fictional. It doesn’t ‘authenticate’ our ideas about either reality or ourselves – like the fantastically brilliant ‘centaur’ image by Joel-Peter Witkin in Figure 1.

Joel-Peter Witkin. 2007. Night in a Small Town
Fig. 1: Joel-Peter Witkin 2007. Night in a Small Town

However, a child would probably think quite differently about the centaur image and why should their reaction be invalid? Magical realism is central to myths and human creativity of every kind.

This leads on to Roger Scruton’s insistence that a photograph is a photograph because it is involved in a causal chain of direct representation that can only be broken at the price of the image no longer being a photograph at all: ‘The history of the art of photography is the history of successive attempts to break the causal chain by which the photographer is imprisoned, to impose a human intention between subject and appearance’ (Scruton 1981: 594-5). Scruton maintains this is what painters do but his argument privileges figurative art above all else. I presume Scruton would have said that Joel-Peter Witkin’s work was really a painting pretending to be a photograph. But it manifestly is a photograph. Oh well.

It’s been suggested that Barthes may have said that the ‘testimony’ of the ‘evidential force’ of a photograph is not about the object depicted but about time because he could not account for the sheer emotional impact certain photographs had on him. This makes what Barthes says more personal than general, and throws his original statement into doubt, but at least it allows him to present the photograph not as Scruton’s cold objective form but as felt experience. It’s not about theory, and not particularly about representation per se. A photograph is where the what-has-been hits the here-and-now. Maybe our ideas about authenticity arise from that clash.

In this, Barthes and Sontag agree: ‘All photographs are momento mori … all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’ (Sontag 2008: 15).

To be honest I don’t really know where this leaves my practice. One can riff on these ideas all day but they seem completely detached from my daily life. The danger here, apart from insanity by theory, is paralysis by analysis.  What I need to do is drop the generic – the photographs anyone else could have taken – and concentrate on the images only I could have taken, good or bad – but at least they may be reasonably authentic in a personal sense and from a consistent point of view.

In this light, here is an image I made over the assessment period. Yes it is a bit forlorn but it’s an authentic assessment of how I was feeling at the time. By that stage, in late December, I had had enough of Christmas.

Mark Crean. 2019. Christmas Reindeer.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2019. A Night in the Suburbs.

 

References

BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.

SCRUTON, Roger. 1981. ‘Photography and Representation’. Critical Inquiry 7(3), 577–603 [online]. Available at: https://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/stable/1343119 [accessed 03 February 2020].

SONTAG, Susan. 2008. On Photography. London: Penguin.

WADE, Kimberley A., Maryanne GARRY, J. Don READ and D. Stephen LINDSAY. 2002. ‘A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Lies: Using False Photographs to Create False Childhood Memories’. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 9(3), 597–603.

Figures

Figure 1. Joel-Peter Witkin. 2007. Night in a Small Town.
Figure 2. Mark CREAN. 2019. A Night in the Suburbs. Collection of the author.

PHO702 Week 1: Photography – the Shape-shifter

Week 1 has posed a lot of different questions, too many to address in a single entry in a research journal. Some of the questions are complex and lack any one answer. In fact they may not have any answer at all.

To cut to the chase, my understanding is that the current focus of the module is the intention of my practice, but in order to get a fuller idea of that I need to have a better idea of the nature of the photographic image itself.

John Szarkowski’s five characteristics of the photographic image strike me as practical and helpful though Frame, Detail and even the Thing Itself are not necessarily exclusive to photography (Szarkowski 1980).

Stephen Shore’s interpretation of similar ideas – his three levels of the physical, depictive and mental and his four tools – are equally practical and helpful, but again not all of them are exclusive to photography (Shore 2007). Both Shore and Szarkowski reference framing techniques in Japanese painting and printing, for example.

To this one might add two things. First there is Ming Thein’s proposal of the four things that make an image work effectively, something not to be overlooked by a working photographer (Thein 2014). Second, there is Mary Price’s observation that ‘The use of a photograph determines its meaning’ (Price 1994). In other words, context is all.

While all of these ideas contribute to an understanding of the characteristics of a photographic image, however, none of them tell us what a photograph actually is and in my view all of them struggle not only with the ontology but with distinctly separating the photograph from other media in which images are presented.

It seems to me that if detail, framing and ‘the Thing Itself’ are only questionably exclusive to photography, we are left with only two distinct qualities of the photographic image: time, and indexicality (photography as a trace of reality ‘out there’). Neither is straightforward.

Time in the sense Barthes uses it as ‘not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing … but an awareness of its having-been-there’ is in constant conflict with the present and the context in which the photograph is viewed (Barthes 1977: 44).  It is problematic, too, because we cannot be sure what was really there to begin with. What is time anyway? Like water, it cannot be grasped.

Reality ‘out there’ is not something the modern world is any longer comfortable with. Reality is taken to be a mental construction and post-modernism has blown up the notion that there is any one ‘true’ reality to which to appeal. In fact some artists like Wall and Crewdson have gone so far as to construct entirely artificial ‘realities’ for their photographic practice. ‘The world must be staged so that it will deliver images that explain it’ (Belting 2014: 164).

A third category might be the photographic print itself to which Shore pays attention (Shore 2007). However, images taken with a camera can be presented in many media now and photography is not limited to the print alone as once perhaps it was, so the print is a very shaky category these days.

As for the ontology of the photograph, perhaps this cannot be ascertained. Geoffrey Batchen looks at the question and then slides away from it, citing Derrida that the search for essences means ‘the establishment of an origin as the basis of a hierarchy that always wants to privilege the first or purest terms over all subsequent ones’ – though ruefully admitting that origin stories are ‘a historical necessity’ because, presumably, we cannot help but look for them (Batchen 2013: 58-9). And in the search for the El Dorado of ultimate meaning in the practice of Cindy Sherman, for example, many critics have been braving the jungles of theory for several decades now and are no nearer their goal.

The best approach to these questions I have found is that of Hans Belting in his fascinating book An Anthropology of Images (Belting 2014). Belting reminds us that images are first created in the mind. The form in which the image may appear is secondary and is heavily influenced by culture and technology. In fact in Belting’s view, ‘Photography constitutes a short episode in the old history of representation. But even so, the world changed in our eyes when it began to be photographed. “The world after photography,” as the American conceptual artist Robert Smithson calls it, turns into a kind of museum of itself’ (Belting 2014: 147).

Belting’s long view from the Palaeolithic to today connects the photographic image to all the images and all the arts in human history. There is no need for exceptionalism – that photography is somehow special and different – and no need to become gloomy and think photography is ‘over’. What was photography in the first place? Photography changes all the time and the technology changes too. The analogue print was, perhaps, a passing phase but the images taken with cameras will continue to come even if perhaps they are closer to the reality-distrusting conceptual art on display in What is a Photograph? (Squiers 2013) than to the landscapes of, say, Adams or O’Sullivan. Belting again:

When an image finds its way into this technological medium, it is a symbolic product of the imagination that has already come a long distance. To force the issue, one might say that what is at issue is the journey of the image to the photograph. From this perspective, photography, the quintessential modern medium, operates like a mirror in which images of the world appear. Human perception has repeatedly accommodated itself to new pictorial technologies, but in keeping with its nature it transcends such medial boundaries. Like perception, images too are inherently intermedial (Belting 2014: 145).

This has been a long post on some very complex topics (for me, at least) that I barely understand. It will take a long time for me to work out how these ideas influence my practice. I have no instant answers, though Belting is very close to answers that works for me.

I will end it by saying that I am open to offering my work in any medium – images being in Belting’s view ‘inherently intermedial’ – but I am most at home with classic photography because at present that is all I know. And I do not want to lose the emotional connection with my practice that much conceptual art seems to lack. It strikes me as emotionally sterile.

I am also aware that culture has changed a great deal since many of the writers cited here were at work. Notions of ‘the real’ may have had far more force 30-50 years ago than they do today, in our world of digital simulacra. Television news has replaced stills photography as the index of the now and may have pushed stills photography towards the after-event, ‘Late Photography’, addressed by David Campany (Campany 2003).

The rise of digital imaging is likely to change everything over again. For example, it seems fairly clearly that traditional photography as an art form has largely retreated to museums and art galleries. And it could be argued that most (but crucially not all) of the photography on social media – by far the bulk of all the world’s images now – is not really photography at all. The photograph on social media is not there for itself but simply as carrier for other information that can be summarized as ‘I have a human need to communicate’ or ‘I would like to sell you something’. Once that message has been received, the photograph can be discarded. It was always ephemeral and was never the point.

However, I said ‘most’ – but not all. My impression is that there is also a flourishing, semi-underground and highly creative practice among young people online. See, for example, the zine scene on Instagram. In time their work will perhaps become mainstream, and it will invigorate us all.

References

BARTHES, Roland and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

BATCHEN, Geoffrey. 2013. ‘Photography: An Art of the Real’. In Carol SQUIERS. What Is a Photograph? Munich: DelMonico, 47-62.

BELTING, Hans and Thomas DUNLAP. 2014. An Anthropology of Images : Picture, Medium, Body. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

CAMPANY, David. 2003. ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the Problems of Late Photography’. In David GREEN (ed.). Where Is the Photograph? Brighton: Photoforum [online]. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [accessed 19 Jan 2020].

PRICE, Mary. 1994. The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space. Stanford (Calif.): Stanford University Press.

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. (r.) London: Phaidon Press.

SQUIERS, Carol. 2013. What Is a Photograph? Munich: DelMonico.

SZARKOWSKI, John. 1980. ‘Introduction’. In John SZARKOWSKI (ed.). The Photographer’s Eye. London: Secker and Warburg, 6–11.

THEIN, Ming. 2014. ‘The Four Things’. Ming Thein [online]. Available at: https://blog.mingthein.com/2014/09/17/the-four-things/ [accessed 30 Jan 2020].

PHO702: Human Choices and My Practice

John Berger’s statement about ‘human choices’ (Trachtenberg 1980: 292) – ‘A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen’ – is qualified later in the same essay by another and potentially more interesting statement about the message of a photograph: ‘The degree to which I believe this is worth looking at can be judged by all that I am willingly not showing because it is contained within it’ (Trachtenberg 1980: 294).

My practice – and so my current project Oxford at Night – is now quite heavily concerned with that second statement in the light of studying three photographers in particular over the assessment period. I can probably explain this best with an image from my work-in-progress portfolio submitted in PHO701 (Crean 2019) and comparing it to some of the ideas in the work of Thomas Struth.

CREAN, M. 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford
Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford.

In the first place, this image is taken (unadventurously) straight-on, a framing that Struth began with perhaps under the influence of the Bechers but then moved beyond with beneficial results. More importantly there is this statement from Struth: ‘I always enjoy and pay a lot of attention to the context and atmosphere which certain groups of buildings create … architecture and the space it creates have to read in relationship to the human body and mental condition’ (Struth 2012: 51).

In other words, buildings are something we relate to and live among. They influence how we think and feel (or thought and felt in the case of old buildings) and therefore as assemblages they become social and political statements. Struth again: ‘Just as it is not possible to take photographs “objectively”, and any approach is innately subjective, it is also innately political. Unpolitical practicality doesn’t exist’ (Struth 2010: 151).

So for my practice I need to dial down the ‘pretty picture’ effect or a straining for the sublime and start looking much more carefully at the kind of statements – political, social, psychological – that groups of buildings make. A large part of that is looking at different framing choices and focal lengths. This is not simply for effect or variety. Richard Sennett has pointed out that as Struth has progressed in his work, he has used off-centre framing and choice of subject to introduce an awareness of the past, present and future (Struth 2012: 60). This can be seen by contrasting the formal and straight-on approach of his early monochrome images from Germany or New York with, for example, this image:

STRUTH, T. 1995. Jiangha Lu, Wuchan
Fig. 2: Thomas Struth 1995. Jianghan Lu, Wuchan.

In Figure 2 there is the past (a street market), the present (current buildings, what the camera recorded) and a possible future (new development).

Finally, Struth’s images are never what they seem. That is their power. This has been well expressed by James Lingwood: ‘ … there is a double subject in Struth’s work: the specific places and the people pictured but also the mental spaces, the ideologies which shape these places and are in turn shaped by them. Beneath or beyond the immediate subject of the photograph … there is always an underlying enquiry’ (Struth 2010: 169).

The enquiry, I suspect, is that what ties together much of Struth’s various projects – architecture, the ‘Paradise’ series on vegetation, the museum series, the family portraits and more recently his images of science laboratories – is the power of the human network, whether latent or overt, and its resilience (or not) in the face of the overwhelming power of science and technology. These are all points well made by reviewers or in documentary interviews with Struth (Hodgson 2011, Bloomberg TV 2017). Cities are networks, of course. Perhaps I should try harder to see Oxford as one and start to express that in my own practice.

The second photographer who is causing me to re-evaluate my practice is Stephen Shore. Shore has spoken widely of several things that resonate with me. There is ‘conscious attention’, ‘attentionality’, ‘the presence of attention’ (Shore 2018). This heightened awareness and conscious seeing is the difference between the way we naturally see and the perhaps more formal and distanced way we may choose to make photographs, a distinction which Shore likens to the difference between speaking and writing (Shore 2018).

In other words, no matter how monumental or sublime a photograph may be, it will still need to be filled with the kind of detail and conscious attention Shore is talking about. This is something I need to pay much more attention to.

These ideas are taken further in Shore’s excellent book The Nature of Photographs (Shore 2007). He outlines the photographer’s four tools: flatness (i.e. depth of field effects), frame, time and focus. But the tools lead to the same place: the mental level of an image and the relationship between this and the depictive level.

The mental level begins with the photographer: ‘The mental level’s genesis is in the photographer’s mental organization of the photograph’ (Shore 2007: 117). However, this is not going to be communicated fully unless the photographer is also aware of how we ‘read’ an image visually and construct a 3D illusion from a 2D original: ‘Pictures exist on a mental level that may be coincident with the depictive level – what the picture is showing – but does not mirror it. The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level’ (Shore 2007: 97).

So, using these ideas, here is an image from my work in progress portfolio which I think works quite well:

CREAN, M. 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford.

I had a mental image immediately I saw this: the 1942 painting ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper. My ‘mental map’ helped me to frame the image as long diner windows, crop it slightly to give a more noir cinematic look, ensure there was enough detail of the building and street to convey the impression of being outside at night and looking in – and then quite simply wait until the customers inside the diner had moved into what struck me as an appropriate position. This, I hope, goes some way towards meeting Shore’s criteria for conscious attention and the relationship between mental and depictive levels.

Even so, I need to hold the mental and the depictive levels in my mind more forcefully in future before pressing the shutter.

The third photographer I have been paying a lot of attention to is Todd Hido, a specialist in night photography. During PHO701 I often tried to channel his look and failed. This image, for example, doesn’t come off at all, but having spent more time with Hido I think I can see why.

CREAN, M. 2019. In East Oxford
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2019. In East Oxford.

First, Hido is interested in narrative and is carefully selective about what starts off a story: ‘Most of the time, I am interested in a certain light in a window – that’s what catches my attention. …  I’ve always looked at people’s houses and wondered what goes on in there.  … I’m making a picture of a place that’s actually about people. … I recognized that this was not about the house. This was about psychology and relationships’ (Hido 2014: 19). Hido is careful with angles, framing and leading lines. He does not often shoot straight-on and is no slave to the rule of thirds. These are all things my own photograph has failed to accommodate but which Figure 5 below has accommodated.

Second, Hido (like Stephen Shore) brings ‘attentionality’ to the details. The image in Figure 5 is not any old house but in John Berger’s terms a human choice being exercised: ‘The way people present themselves to the world says a lot about what’s happening inside their home. … These pictures pay attention to what is visible and hint at what is not visible, the subtle psychology of the space. … I find myself drawn to places that reveal more of a story’ (Hido 2014: 25). The viewer is asked to pay attention and the image itself offers the details that will allow a story to form. This is where I need to be going.

HIDO, T. 2001. From House Hunting.
Fig. 5: Todd Hido 2001. Hayward, CA / House Hunting.

Third, Hido is interesting on how he processes and prints his images: ‘I photograph like a documentarian, but I print like a painter … the interpretation comes in making the print’ (Hido 2014: 53). Colour casts may be added or subtracted. More or less use is made of flare, reflections, smudges from ice or rain on windscreens. By contrast, I have so far processed my images straight, with few changes and nothing major by way of re-interpretation. Perhaps I should start experimenting.

Hido reiterates all these points in his YouTube videos (Christie’s 2017, Van Vliet 2018) so they must be important to him.

Finally, here is an image from my work-in-progress portfolio that I think works quite well, but not well enough:

CREAN, M. 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford.

In the light of all the foregoing what I would say here is this: The image shows a strong and apposite contrast but it would be more expressive if it were not straight-on, used a wider angle for more context, if the lighting to the rear of the image was reduced in post to enhance the illusion of depth of field, and if there were people in the image. I might have had to wait to a while, but the right people in this image would have added both dynamism and (the point of the image) social comment. The Devil is always in the many small decisions that make or break an image.

To sum up what these three photographers have inspired in me:

  1. The psychology of space, which leads to the politics, social conditions and aesthetics of the space. This is the double subject: the contrast and mingling of the mental and the depictive.
  2. ‘Attentionality’: detail, framing, understanding the difference between the daily vernacular of the way we see and the often very different way we make photographs.
  3. Post-processing and printing are really important, painterly approach or not. The photographer in post influences how the viewer reads the image and creates the illusion of a 3D image and story in the mind.

So, my hopes for the coming term.

  1. The three points above are keys to concentrate on and in that sense are ‘where I am going’.
  2. I am considering revising my project and may change it to Oxford in daytime as well as at night. Months of unusually wet weather and consequent flooding and damage/disruption in the Thames Valley now are seriously limiting opportunities for night photography.
  3. People may be present by their absence in much of the foregoing work but I would prefer it if people were more central and present by their presence in mine. Better people skills in my practice will remain a goal and a challenge. In fact I keep thinking about Daido Moriyama … If I could blend Thomas Struth, Stephen Shore, Todd Hido and Daido Moriyama into one then I think I might be on to something.

The question asked is ‘Outline your plans for further development within the module PHO702 – where are you going next?’ I would like a much sharper and more nuanced understanding of modern photographic practice. I would like to know – because I am practising it – where I fit in to this wide river. And I would like to incorporate the ideas discussed above in order to become a ‘better’ photographer. Or, as Stephen Shaw puts it, ‘To make all my decisions conscious, I started filling the pictures with attention’ (Shore, 2018).

References

BEZZOLA, Tobia. 2019. ‘Vanishing Point: Thomas Struth’. Photo London Fair interview [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbzm9dGYiUE&list=PL7DCG-GMmk0RMJw2yWeBJOreQhbgay6pD&index=5&t=12s [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

Bloomberg TV. 2017. ‘Thomas Struth: A Life in Photography’. Brilliant Ideas Ep. 51 [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoOP6DSY3O4 [accessed 20 Jan 2020].

CHRISTIE’S. 2017. ‘Todd Hido: Studio Visit’. Christie’s documentary [online]. Available at: http://www.christies.com/features/Todd-Hido-Studio-Visit-8191-3.aspx [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

CREAN, Mark. 2019. ‘Oxford at Night’. Work in progress portfolio [online]. Available at: https://markcrean.myportfolio.com/oxford-at-night [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

HIDO, Todd. 2016. Intimate Distance : Twenty-Five Years of Photographs, a Chronological Album. New York, NY: Aperture.

HIDO, Todd and Greg HALPERN. 2014. Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

HODGSON, Francis. 2011. ‘Thomas Struth: An Objective Photographer?’ Financial Times 8 Jul. Available at: https://www.ft.com/video/634f1212-a5ba-3859-a61c-618d87ed6e9a [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2018. ‘How to See: the Photographer with Stephen Shore’. MOMA documentary [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T029CTSO0IE&list=PL7DCG-GMmk0RMJw2yWeBJOreQhbgay6pD&index=1 [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. (r.) London: Phaidon Press.

SHORE, Stephen, David CAMPANY, Marta DAHO, Sandra S. PHILIPS and Horacio FERNANDEZ. 2014. Stephen Shore: Survey. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

STRUTH, Thomas, Anette KRUSZYNSKI, Tobia BEZZOLA and James LINGWOOD. 2010. Thomas Struth : Photographs 1978-2010. Mosel: Schirmer.

STRUTH, Thomas and Richard SENNETT. 2012. Thomas Struth : Unconscious Places. München: Schirmer/Mosel.

TRACHTENBERG, Alan. 1980. Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, Conn: Leete’s Island Books.

VAN VLIET, Masha. 2018. ‘In Conversation with … Todd Hido: Bright Black World’. REFLEX Amsterdam documentary [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGxQ71WXxNk [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2019. In Radcliffe Square, Oxford. Collection of the author.
Figure 2. Thomas STRUTH. 1995. Jianghan Lu, Wuchan. From: Thomas Struth and Richard Sennett. 2012. Thomas Struth : Unconscious Places. München: Schirmer/Mosel.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2019. A late-night diner in East Oxford. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2019. In East Oxford. Collection of the author.
Figure 5. Todd HIDO, 2001. Hayward, CA / House Hunting. From: Todd Hido. 2016. Intimate Distance : Twenty-Five Years of Photographs, a Chronological Album. New York, NY: Aperture.
Figure 6. Mark CREAN. 2019. By the History Faculty, Oxford. Collection of the author.