Sunday, January 23, 2011

Recently, a few students have asked me to participate in individual research papers dealing with varying theoretical topics. Their questions were exciting and thoughtful, I wanted to share some of them along with my candid and honest answers.

Francesca Woodman

- How do you interpret Lacan's Mirror Stage and Three Orders Theories in terms of Photography?

It is fascinating to discuss Lacan’s theories in terms of photography. Since photography’s inception, no one has been able to pin down exactly what photography is or does. The medium’s nature itself forces fragmentation of experience, memory, and permanence.

As William Ivins Jr. describes in his text Prints and Visual Communication, 1953, Harvard Press: "at any given moment the accepted report of an event is of greater importance than the event, for what we think about and act upon is the symbolic report and not the concrete event itself." Concluding that: "The nineteenth century began by believing that what was reasonable was true and it would end up by believing that what it saw a photograph of was true."

We see Ivins’ speculation played out every evening in courtroom and tabloid dramas. But how does the viewer actually digest photographs? Does the 2011 layman, even believe the photograph, or have we all just conceded that photography is at best an illustration, painted with pixels.

The argument over whether or not Photography is real or true has been discussed into the ground. Surely no discerning viewer or maker believes the implied veracity of the image. So what does the photograph then show? Not the truth, but a truth. The photograph is fragmented in purpose and interpretation.

The photograph imparts information, but that information is not stable. It changes and morphs in front of our very eyes. Consider the physics; the human brain can detect movement at a rate close to 1/60th of a second, thus when you make an exposure at 1/8000th you have captured something physically impossible for one to have experienced. The same can be said if you photograph something at roughly 1/30th of a second, the photographer has slammed two realities into each other. Compound that with our vision, if you had to compare the way we see with a lens, it would be about 50mm based on a 35mm negative. Again, meaning that if you shoot at 18mm, you could not have ever experienced that perspective.

How do we then decipher this information? If we know the camera sees differently than we do, why is that they are still able to match our memories? Much like photography, memory is not stable. Memory changes and modifies with experience, in fact each time we “remember” something, we are destroying it. We project all of our current knowledge and feelings into the memory, making it match our current reality. So then, do photographs create the memory? Does the memory create the photograph? Perhaps even further, do the images represent the camera’s memory, and we’re just trying to reassemble the pieces?

Eadweard Muybridge

Despite the appearance of resemblance between the image and it’s referent, the iconic sign is, nonetheless, like other sign systems, completely arbitrary, conventional, and unmotivated - Umberto Eco

If this so, why is it that photographs still have power, and still conjure emotion? Is it possible that photographs can physically change to align with our experience? People, objects and places can rearrange themselves in front of our eyes? Can we organize the fragments, and align them to match what we think we remember?

Yes. The easiest example is one any lovelorn 14 year old can explain. View a picture of a boyfriend/girlfriend while you are in the relationship. The figure in the picture will glow with charm, love, and beauty. After the relationship dissolves, revisit the image. The photograph now shows a disfigured monster leading you to question your sanity and standards.

Even better, as a student, how many times during critique do you hear someone sound oblivious to the fact that there is a tree growing out of someone’s head? The maker in question probably stared at the picture for many hours, and never saw this. The reason being he or she was able to decide how they wanted the image to look, and miraculously, it appeared that way.

There is a theory/story/myth that often gets repeated about Columbus and his three ships arriving to the new world (though it is more likely attributed to Captain Cook in regards to landing on the Australian coast.) The story describes how the indigenous peoples literally could not see the ships anchored off their coasts. Not because of a trick or light or other anomaly, but because they had no knowledge of European schooners, or that they had even existed. It wasn’t until the shaman noticed the rippling of the water, that he began to scan the horizon and consider the possibility of what was out there. Only when he stopped expecting, and started looking was he able to see.

To paraphrase Duane Michals, humans seek confirmation, not revelation.

So I make myself the measure of photographic ‘knowledge.’ What does my body know of Photography? I observed that a photograph can be the object of three practices (or three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look. The operator is the photographer. The spectator is ourselves, all of who glance through collections of photographs in magazines, newspapers, in books, albums, archives…And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which I should like to call the Spectrum of the photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to ‘spectacle’ and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there is every photograph: the return of the dead. – Roland Barthes

Eddie Adams

- Most people take a photograph at face value. Basically, they see a photograph and they don’t question it. This certainly makes it easier for a photographer now that his work isn’t constantly questioned. But as with the famous Vietnam War era photograph showing the execution of the prisoner convicted of killing civilians...Does the danger of sending the wrong, potential damaging message, outweigh the benefit of being basically given the benefit of the doubt? [sic]

I think we have reached an age where the veracity of the medium is challenged by reflex. The phrase “It looks ‘shopped” has become such a part of our vernacular that people freely spout it without knowing the actual program. That being said, I don’t know if it’s accurate to assume people ever truly believed the medium. I think manipulation is much easier at the moment, but that’s not to say it wasn’t possible and used constantly since the medium’s discovery. I think one only needs to look as far as Hippoylte Bayard’s “Self Portrait as a Drowned Man” created in 1840 to see evidence of this. The image depicts a corpse propped up, when in reality it’s a self portrait of the photographer. What is amazing about this, is that photography had been patented less than a year when Bayard created it (He was known to be producing photographs before Daguerre’s fame, but lacks the recognition.) So consider that Bayard, deliberately told a lie and masked it as the truth, photography would never be the same.

Hippolyte Bayard

I ask you the question, is a photograph more acceptable as truth if looks most similar to reality? How can you compare the carefully choreographed images of Jeff Wall with something like an AES F creation? Both fictitious, both staged, but one certainly looks more real, and is thus judged as so. Does the old adage still hold water, are the best lies 95% true?

Jeff Wall


What is interesting is that, to an extent, none of this matters. People don’t need facts to form opinions nor do they require evidence to prove things. The suspension of disbelief. We are capable of staring at an image and simultaneously doubt and believe it. It’s the same reason why we enjoy television shows, or 3rd grade plays…the audience doesn’t actually think a 9 year old in a cardboard hat is Lincoln, but after only a scant few moments, the child transforms.

The dangers and wonders of this are vast. Photography never tells the truth, but it can tell a truth; a truth that people already believe. Photographic propaganda is still a real and effective tool. Think about the Spanish-American war in 1898, which was basically fabricated by William Randolph Hearst and other newspaper publishers. The media often faked and exaggerated images and passed them off as truth. In the early stages of the war, Hearst sent photographers down to document the carnage, of course when they arrived there was only peace. Understandably they wired back to Hearst:

"Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return."

To which Hearst's replied:

"Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."


- When you boil a photo down to it’s most basic, it is really just a random bunch of dots on a piece of paper. Yea it has the amazing ability to move people so much that they are left breathless or spurred to action. What is the cause of this? [sic]

Well when you break down any object in the universe, at the atomic level we are all just billions and billions of matter particles. What is interesting though is that the photographic print seems to defy normal human perception. Without the use of magnifiers, in life, when we get closer to something, the more clear it becomes. It photography there is a breaking point, if you get too close, the dots are all you see and the larger picture disappears. Very similar to a Chuck Close painting, the forest is often obscured by the trees.

Humans have magnificent abilities to order and arrange information into recognizable objects. This is called simulacrum or visual matrixing, the way we can look at clouds and see bunnies.

Once again proving that we see what we want to see, and only look at a small portion of the information and then fill in the rest with what we wish. Please research the phenomena of Persistence of Vision as physical proof of this.

Chuck Close

- How big a role do you think Photography has played in changing the course of human events? How has photography influenced social and political reform, environmental issues or in science? [sic]

Photography articulates the unarticulatable. It has no age, sex, language, or race…photography is the perfect amorphous gray blob. It has no beginning or end, nor is it black or white. Photography can be and IS everything, it serves every purpose. For these reasons, it is a fantastic vehicle to inspire change, emotion, information, and action.

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