Should a “peculiar” nature of photography exist, does it influence how we view and subsequently interpret photographs?
In their 1975 article “Photography, Vision and Representation”, Snyder and Allen question whether photography is so different from other forms of visual art, with particular reference to painting, as to require its own unique methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation.
Certainly photography is unique in having the ability, once the correct camera and lenses have been chosen and appropriate settings made, to record a scene “as is”, an ability that is not available to painting where everything is dependent upon the knowledge and skill of the artist – assuming that he or she wishes to record the scene faithfully and not be “creative”.
“Most people, if asked, would no doubt say that, whereas the painter can paint whatever he wants, the photographer must depict “what is there.”” (Snyder and Allen, 1975, p. 148).
Arnheim suggests that the “mechanical” nature of photography confers upon photographs “an authenticity from which painting is barred from birth”: “All I have said derives ultimately from the fundamental peculiarity of the photographic medium: the physical objects themselves print their image by means of the optical and chemical action of light”. (Arnheim as cited in Snyder and Allen, 1975, p. 146).
Cavell suggests that the photographic process: “does not so much defeat the act of painting as escape it altogether: by automatism, by removing the human agent from the act of reproduction.” (Cavell as cited in Snyder and Allen, 1975, p. 145).
An interesting view is being put forward by Cavell, but it is a point of view with which I cannot agree.
A camera will always record exactly what is presented before the lens. What is presented and how is a matter of choice on the part of the photographer. A brush will only ever paint what is present in front of the artist as it is perceived by the artist.
Price seems to write in support of Cavell: “We speak of taking photographs rather than making them, because the marks of their construction are not immediately visible” (Price, 2015, p. 123).
But what might these “marks” be, and how visible are they?
In real-terms, the very act of taking a photograph leads to a distorted reality: the overall mood of an image can be influenced by choices concerning lighting or whether to shoot in colour or black and white, the choice of perspective can determine, as Snyder and Allen suggest, whether the same subject dominates or is dominated by its environment. Choices over which film to use or how to post-process digital images can lead to artefacts which may add an aesthetic quality to an image but may also detract from fidelity: a colour-cast or graininess which is peculiar to a particular brand of film or post-processing method.
There are, then, restrictions to how accurately a photograph can capture “reality” which arise from the photographic process.
All this, then, leads to a question which I feel is often overlooked: how real do we want photographs to be?
Snyder and Allen inform us that there are two discrete schools of thought: the “scientific division”, and the “art division” (Snyder and Allen, 1975, p. 144).
Price et al discuss important movements with origins contemporaneous with the formative years of photography: “straight photography” (akin to naturalism or realism), and pictorialism (Price et al, 2015, pp. 15 – 17).
I think how real we wish the images we make (as photographers) and view (as an audience) is very much context dependent.
Photojournalism is a genre where integrity is paramount and today we might place this type of photography into the “straight photography” camp.
Some genres of photography, on the other hand, lend themselves more readily to images which are not just manipulated but constructed purely for artistic purposes, fine art, for example, which might fit the pictorialist ideology.
In order for audiences to maintain faith in the photographic establishment, it is of vital importance for photographers to appreciate their intended audience and supply the kind of images that the audience expects – being clear as to whether the context demands the provision of images with a high level of authenticity, or with a high level or creativity.
So then, are there any characteristics of photography which make it deserving of unique methods of interpretation, standards of evaluation all of its own?
Arguably not, because surely the rules of interpretation are universal across all forms of art. Whilst that may be the case in terms of visual appearance, what of the technical nature of photographs.
Other forms of art have their own technical terms, for example, paintings imprimatura and grisaille terminology. And so exists terminology to describe, in standard terms, the way photographs are taken in the same way that we might analyse the brush strokes of an artist in order to understand the techniques he or she applied in the painting of a piece of art.
Whilst a unique system of interpretation may not be necessary, several attempts have been made to develop a universal method of evaluation: semiotics, for example, has been and continues to be applied equally well to the analysis of photographs as it has and does to paintings.
Pierce introduced the philosophical system of semiotics in his book “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” (1910), a discourse on the theory of language and reasoning. This system has since been utilised widely in attempts to establish the nature of photography and photographs.
Barthes, Sontag, and Snyder and Allen have all referred to terminology introduced by Pierce in his system of semiotics in their attempts to qualify how photography “exists”, such terminology as: icon – the resemblance a photograph has to its subject, index – trace evidence of the existence of a subject once photographed, and symbol – an agreed, standardised point of reference which can be used as a basis upon which to form discussions that are inclusive (e.g. a car is a car because that is what we are taught, and it is universally accepted that a “car” will have a chassis, four wheels, an engine, etc.).
“Panzani” Advert used by Barthes to explore the “rhetoric of the image”
Moving on, my photographic practice is currently split into two areas. Firstly, the commercial photography where images might be sold to food retailers and caterers. This is an area where a relatively high degree of reality is expected on the part of clients and the final audience. Images which are created can quite often be a new take on already established idea – letting the client and the final audience see something old in a new way. The purpose of such work is to highlight the appeal of food or drink and establish in customers a desire to purchase.
This is in contrast to my second area of work, that which is related to my project. Here images are created to have aesthetic appeal whilst conveying a message associated with our relationship with food. These images are “constructed”, in real life the images do not exist – whilst individually the subjects are tangible objects, they are brought together and arranged in an appealing manner purely for the purposes of making the image.
For these two areas, the context is different – requiring different things – and so the intent is different. The output in each case, however, is true to the intent.
Morris, 2016. Oatcakes
Morris, 2016. Tomato Soup
It is this dichotomy, being able to produce images that are true to the real world on one hand, whilst creating images which are only representations of the real world on the other – the difference between a found image and a made image – that is the “peculiar” nature of photography.
What photography and painting share is that whether reality or fiction is portrayed comes down to choice on the part of the artist. This choice is very much dependent upon context, i.e. who will view the work, when, where and why. Where they differ is that in photography it is in the nature of photographic equipment to reproduce images with a high degree of fidelity to the original, in painting the degree of fidelity to the original is down to the ability of the painter in the use of brushes and paint.
Price, D. (2015) ‘Surveyors and Surveyed’, in WELLS, L. (ed) Photography – A Critical Introduction, Oxon: Routledge, 123
Price, D. et al (2015) ‘Thinking about Photography’, in WELLS, L. (ed) Photography – A Critical Introduction, Oxon: Routledge, 15-17
Snyder, J. and Allen, N. (1975) ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’, Critical Inquiry, vol 2, No. 1 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 143-169 [Online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342806 (Accessed 03 February 2017)