Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Reflections on Photography

This is copy-pasta of an assignment I had to write out – so it will be trite and boring to some (sorry Joerg) who are used to Barthes and Benjamin and tired of them being constantly referred to, but college classes still must teach them – and I still must respond. It’s probably a good exercise to make such thoughts public and have any conversations that may follow.

“Whereas it is commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what is involved in the act of walking, we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person steps out. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.” -Benjamin

This is a statement that I feel a strong closeness to – it seems to describe the feeling that I have when I look upon a contact sheet for the first time. Often when photographing, I have a paradoxical experience – I am both more in the moment and less. The result may reflect either of these things. If the image comes out clear and strong, I will notice many things that I could never have noticed in that split second I decided to click the shutter (I am talking about when I am curating moments from life, here, not drawn out studio sessions). If it comes out hazy, out of focus, suffering from expired emulsion, any of the possible side effects, I will see less – but it may represent a mood that I am in then, or may be in sometime. My mind has much power, though, over what I make of an image, what I find in it, and I know that I can rationalize its existence. If I want it to be, it means everything to me, I fill it with metaphor and meaning. If I dislike the image I can file it away with little thought, never worry about what it may say about me. It’s hard to say which, then, is more important, the image itself, and its supposed power, or my minds power to shape it – perhaps a combination of the two, or they’re never really separate.

“Since the photograph is pure contingency and can be nothing else (it is always SOMETHING that is represented) [...] it immediately yields up those ‘details’ which constitute the very raw material of ethnological knowledge.” -Barthes

I do have a bit of a problem with this statement. I think it is slightly dishonest, or perhaps, too quick to name the photograph as representational. I know that for a photograph to exist, light must be used to make an image. However, I’m not sure that what is on the paper, or monitor, or wall – what have you – is actually contingent on whatever thing is supposedly being represented. Not only is there the control of the artist, but perhaps it is only representational because of our need for things to be representational. From a certain distance, a photograph is only grain, or pixels. What can it be said to represent at that point? An underexposed photograph may be entirely black – is it still an image of the thing in front of the camera? Likewise for an overexposed photograph. What about a photo composite? Or even a retouched portrait – we say they are images of the things represented, but do they have all that much in common with them? Sartre seems to understand this, when he questions the photograph of his friend, Peter. Is it of Peter, who is in Berlin? Peter who was in Paris? Neither Peter? A photograph is a Being-In-Itself, according to Sartre, it is not a Being-For-Itself, with existential thrown-ness (Hegel) – it does not decide its existence, its thought. So it’s theoretically representative, but of things that do not exist? May not exist? A confused man may see a photograph and ask where anyone finds people that small – thinking it to be actual size. We only see them as being representational because we understand the language of photography already, we understand that it’s not a life size representation, that it is “fake” in this way – and hence not a one-to-one representation. Somehow this strangeness allows it, at times, to be more real – just as some people will tell you that a painting has captured the subject, that it is the “real them” while a photograph “doesn’t look like me at all” – something Barthes is familiar with – I guess he understands this, I know on some level he does, but I’m still skeptical about every photograph representing something. It seems too absolute.

posted by Ian Aleksander Adams at 1:47 am  

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