What We Talk about When We Talk about Photography | Aveek Sen | Wednesday, 07.03.2012

Theory versus Instinct

Thank you Prateek, David, Ray, Martin and Stuart for your varied responses. With each I am tempted to take the blog in a different direction; but that might take promiscuity a little too far!

The question of ‘theory’ comes up, in different ways, in the responses of both David and Stuart, and I found David’s notion of the blurring of lines between theory and literature, especially in the way Phillips reads Freud and Winnicott, particularly alluring and useful. I have always found Barthes’s Lover’s Discourse and Incidents more inspiring than Camera Lucida, for photographers as well as writers on photography – and inspiring in a more oblique, tangential way. (They could be read as Barthes’s great ballads of sexual dependency.) Also, I find as a writer (and curator), Camera Lucida’s focus on the single image less interesting than the way the other two books weave moments and fragments together into, not a single or linear narrative, but something richer and stranger. With this art of sequencing, it is possible to take photography beyond the (rather overworked) “decisive moment”, towards a fuller experience of time’s breaks and flows. Yet, in being potentially inspiring for photographers, these books don’t become photographic ‘theory’. They remain pieces of imaginative, reflective and elegiac writing that might work their way into the mind’s eye and, more crucially, the “eye’s mind” (Bridget Riley’s phrase) through the acts of reading and reflection, neither of which is essentially an academic or theory-driven activity that is somehow inimical to the photographer’s Venus-fly-trap ‘instinct’ for capture.

According to my original plan, I wanted to discuss today a short story that is, to my mind, the most inclusive ‘theory’ of photography that I have read so far. But I want to postpone that for the next instalment, for the sake of two, more immediate, issues that I wish to put before you. Both arise from the responses to this blog and from my recent, and first, experience of curating, and thus presenting to the public, an artist’s photographic work.

I woke up this morning with a line from John Donne (promiscuity at its wittiest) going round and round in my head like a dream residue: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love…” I want to steal this line and turn it into what the photographer might say to the writer: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me shoot…” Or what the viewer of photography might say to the writer: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me look…

I say this because I have noticed an almost knee-jerk resistance to words in a significant proportion of “photography people” all over the world. It is as if, with the admission of photography into the world of “art”, it, more than any other medium, needs specially to be protected from the pernicious and paralysing effect of words, because words “murder to dissect”. The two photographers I have worked with closely as a writer are both deeply inspired by literature, especially poetry and fiction. And whenever I have had public conversations with them about their work and about their sources of inspiration, and one of them has mentioned Calvino and Sebald, or the other Dostoevsky and Cioran, large sections of the public have found it obscurely objectionable that into the paradise of something as ‘spontaneous’, ‘instinctive’ and ‘immediate’ as photography, the serpent of thought, language and – dread word! – theory has been let in. It is as if photography, as an essentially counter-intellectual activity, has to be shielded from the meddlesomeness of the critical, compulsively articulate mind. I do not see this resistance in any of the other arts, and the whole thing puzzles me and interests me. After all, even what we call ‘instinct’ is not just a momentary, unthinking eruption of creative action, but the convergence of several faculties, each with its own, slow history of nourishment and growth. It might all happen in a fraction of a second, but into that fraction of a second dovetails an entire lifetime of discipline, learning, reflection and inspiration.

And this resistance to words – someone put it to me once as “all this Conceptualist stuff” – goes hand in hand with an enduring, and often rather monomaniacal, interest in the photographer’s “process” – in most cases process understood in a narrowly material, technological, mechanical sense, concerning type of camera, lenses, shutter speed, exposure, nature of film, etc. Art reviewers, for instance, feel that photographers are particularly accountable to their viewers in declaring how they have made their work, more than, say, writers, painters or sculptors are. In interviews or in the questionnaires they email to photographers, curators or gallerists, most of the questions are about this aspect of process rather than about what the work is saying or showing, the product, the finished images. Nor is there much interest in the other kind of process – what kinds of living, thinking, reading, listening or viewing have gone into the work and shaped its form and substance. And, further, this interest in process – in how the work is physically made – is expressed for the sake of “demystifying” art: it’s not that big a deal to make a photographic image, so why turn it into such a complex mystery, or so the argument goes in favour of demystification. Again, it is photography, seen as the most democratic of aesthetic media, that is considered to be particularly committed to accessibility, to disclosing and declaring the secrets of its trade – and these secrets are seen more often as technical ones, matters of skill, rather than emanating from an inner life of creativity, influence and thought.

I think these twinned syndromes have something to do with the ‘Theory versus Instinct’ motif that has emerged in this blog. They may also have to do with how we segregate what we consider to be academic and theoretical from what we value as the immediate and the creative, how we try to protect experience from words – a form of segregation that needs to be revisited and thought through again in the light of photography.


I want to include in each instalment a poem and a film clip that have helped me respond to, and think about, photography in some way, most often indirectly and mysteriously, and have therefore become part of my homespun ‘theory’ of photography even if they haven’t mentioned photography at all. Here are the first two. To some the poem will be disappointingly familiar. But it touches upon so many of the unresolved debates in photography (and its relationship with writing of various kinds).

And the film clip: