Photography and Photographs
My first post will be quite long but I will make up for it with shorter subsequent posts. I’m hoping they will add up to an essay on a single theme: the relation between photography in general and photographs in particular, although this may change in response to comments and contributions as we go.
I begin with some thoughts about how Still Searching has developed since it launched last year, and what this might say about the 'Online Discourse on Photography’, as it is subtitled. Back in January 2012 I was invited to be a co-blogger for the first two contributors, Bernd Stiegler and Aveek Sen. Since then I have watched with interest. The discussions have ranged far and wide but I note a polarization between thinking about ‘photography’, which most contributors seem to feel is too complex and contradictory to be a unified field (without quite giving up on the term all together) and considerations of ‘photographs’ (this or that image or specific project). The general and the particular. This is not unusual. The split has haunted photography at least since it became a fully mass medium and modern artistic medium in the 1920s. However, despite Sophie Berrebi’s recent posts there has been much more discussion of photography than of photographs. (And unsurprisingly, the writer mentioned very frequently across the blog is Vilém Flusser, more on whom in a while.)
As a student I once worked in an arts bookshop where, one Sunday afternoon, the writer Susan Sontag was due to give a talk. She got the time wrong and arrived four hours early. So she pulled up a chair we began a conversation. I admired her writing, especially her early essays, and told her so. When I said I was studying film and photography she asked if I’d read her book On Photography. I think she could tell from my face I wasn’t a fan of that one.
I didn’t mind to the book’s suspicious, denunciatory tone. In fact I thought it summarized pretty well the inevitable distrust that was typical of advanced thinking about the medium by the mid-1970s. At the onset of 'media studies' and the rapid expansion of consumer culture, photography was bound to be characterized as unavoidably cruel, voyeuristic and distracting on a grand scale. On Photography remains a bestseller and undergraduate entry point, partly because of its powerful prose, partly because our first critical engagement with ‘photography’ (as opposed to ‘photographs’) usually involves becoming aware of the manipulative banalities of the mass media and the family album. The book delivers sobering news in magisterial, if stentorian sentences. When done well there’s a place for that, and On Photography has occupied it for longer than anything else.
Of course I didn’t say this to Sontag. What I did say was that I didn’t like the lack of illustrations in the book. She said it was like that for economic reasons: the cost of clearing rights and printing images made it impossible to include images. I replied that it was easier to write a book on photography if it didn’t have photographs in it. Otherwise it might have to be called On Photographs and that may demand a different kind of writing.
When photographs are discussed in their absence, under the name ‘photography’ let’s say, the writer is more likely to take liberties with them than if they were there on the page/screen. The writer is also more likely to generalize. Sontag conceded this was a valid criticism and that at the time she found it difficult to write about photographs. Her honesty surprised me. In her book she did at least call for taking particular images seriously, what she called an 'erotics of the photograph', but it was something she knew she could not supply. That would come with the other bestseller of the era, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida.
That was a long time ago but I am reminded of that conversation regularly. So much of the writing and thinking we encounter today is split between an engagement with photographs and photography (or ‘the photographic’). More broadly there is a split between writing about images in particular and ‘the image’ in general. I presume there can be no photography without photographs, and no photographs without photography. When we pick up a camera or look at a specific image we always invoke, however provisionally, some wider sense of photography (in fact we are doing this the instant we recognize an image or object as being in some way or other photographic). And when we think about photography in general we are informed by the sum of our particular encounters. Maybe that’s all photography in general really is. Not an abstract a priori, but an accumulation, partly shared, partly subjective.
In a lecture in 2002 Sontag remarked: “I have passions and interests I’ve never been able to get into my work.” That’s quite humbling. We cannot assume we will be capable of writing about all things that interest us, any more than assume we will be capable of photographing all the things or in all the ways that interest us. We are conditioned not just by our interests but by our competence (I can't write about novels, films or pieces of music, all of which matter to me more than photographs, and far more than ‘photography’). Perhaps those who write about particular photographs have passions and interests in photography more generally but are not so able to express them. And might it be that those who are able to write about photography in general have passions and interests in particular images they cannot express?
Nevertheless it is clear that certain writing, certain arguments, certain lines of thought, certain theories about photography, and even certain photographic practices require the absence of photographs in the particular. Sontag’s On Photography is an example, as is Vilém Flusser’s now widely read treatise Towards a Philosophy of Photography.
Promisingly, Flusser’s book does have a chapter with the eminently singular title ‘The Photograph’, but then he begins: “Photographs are ubiquitous, in albums, magazines, books, shop windows, on billboards, carrier-bags, cans” and he carries on in this overarching manner, never touching the ground. The writings of Sontag and Flusser are full of jaw-dropping generalizations but readers are encouraged to accept them in good faith because they aim to address photography as a generalized, jaw-dropping cultural condition. It’s the sheer amount of photography in the world that concerns them. Sontag wrote of ‘The Image-World’, Flusser of ‘The Photographic Universe’. It’s worth recalling how Sontag opens her book:
In Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963), two sluggish lumpen-peasants are lured into joining the King’s Army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich. But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of Monuments, Department Stores, Mammals, Wonders of Nature, Methods of Transport, Works of Art, and other classified treasures from around the globe. Godard’s gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image. Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.
I recall that Bice, the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s suggestive short story ‘Adventure of a Photographer’ (1958), comes to much the same conclusion:
Perhaps true, total photography, he thought, is a pile of fragments of private images, against the creased background of massacres and coronations.
But the question remains as to what happens when photography is generalized into ‘total photography’. For a start it always comes out badly. No account of photography in general is positive (just as analyses of ‘the art world’ are always chilling). But what is lost in this way of thinking?
Reading the first English translation of Flusser’s book it seemed to me obvious he was above all a critical stylist and provocateur, a hilarious and gifted rhetorician enjoying wild hyperbole to make his central point: photographic technology is ideologically preprogrammed to produce a consensus complicit with the dominant capitalist/technocratic order that produced it, and there is nothing any individual can do with a camera to sidestep or surmount this. Photography is photography in general and there are no exceptions to the rule. It sounds manic when I put it like this, but there you are. It’s also tautological: all mediums have their preprogrammed conditions and limitations. That’s what a medium is (do correct me if I’m wrong). The point then is just how preprogrammed and what space there is within the given conditions. I, like you, was born into language I didn’t create. Sometimes I bump up against its limiting fixity and feel constrained by it; sometimes I am able to shape it. Perhaps photography is much the same.
The fans of Flusser’s take on photography are multiplying like rabbits but they seem to have missed the humour and the high style of his darkly comic parable (maybe it’s because they’ve read nothing else by him). I imagine these same fans also read Orwell’s novel 1984 completely straight, somehow preferring the cold comfort of the totality he imagines to the greater challenge of heeding his warning and acting upon it in our world. If we are in a position to describe totalities, then they really aren’t quite that total. Yet. “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”, declared Raymond Williams.
Like Sontag’s book, Flusser’s book includes no images. In the afterword to a recent reissue, Hubertus von Amelunxen notes: “one should not be surprised that there are no descriptions of photographic images nor are there any photographs included by way of illustration. Flusser is not concerned here with the history of photography, but rather with presenting a way of thinking about history post-photography.” For Flusser the flood of photographic images replaces language, logic, argument, even conscious progress. He’s not really alert to the thorough intertwining of image and language, which is the nature of most of our photographic culture and should really be our chief object of study. I see no evidence of the replacement of language by photography, only new modes of interrelation. I am puzzled as to why photography today is so rarely thought/taught as a matter of image and text (although for a brief time it was).
Looking back we can see that writings about the ‘flood’ of photographs in society tend to be more prevalent when the flood surges. The advent of halftone printing in the 1880s; the huge growth of the illustrated press in the 1920s and 30s; the 1960s boom in television ownership; the early 1980s boom in commercial/advertising imagery; the 1990s arrival of the internet. All these moments prompted commentaries expressing and exaggerating the tendency towards image proliferation that we have all felt and either succumbed to, worried about or attempted to resist. One can sense a baton being passed from Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin across the Second World War to (political differences aside) André Malraux, Marshall McLuhan, Guy Debord, Susan Sontag, Jean Baudrillard and Vilém Flusser. So before we parrot the old cliché, it is worth remembering that we’ve had nearly a century of ‘too many photographs’. Moreover let’s not forget that it is in the nature of any image to be ‘too much’, to be somewhat wild and excessive. Photographs do not carry meanings the way trucks carry coal. Individual images have the potential to flood us too. As the photographer Lee Friedlander puts it:
I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.
Perhaps it’s this potential of any photograph stir up pleasures and terrors that is so often displaced onto the abstract idea of ‘photography in general’.