- THE CONSEQUENCES OF PICTURES (Part One)
THE CONSEQUENCES OF PICTURES (Part One)
“Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” Henry David Thoreau, Walden or Life in the Woods, 1854
This essay is a consequence. It was written less to defend a position about photographing, but more accurately to define and present some thoughts about the activity and the results of photographing. It was written therefore primarily as a response to the doing of something. Although in the process, photography as a picture-making technology is the point of reference, it is not ‘about’ photography in any broad sense. It is thinking about the result of using the technology in a particular manner, namely personal. It is an introspective essay. It seeks clarification not resolution. It is not directly about the purpose of doing it, as this perhaps suggests predetermining meaning? Something is done to justify something. It could be argued that a photograph proves an existential me, “I am here”. However, that purpose is not the preserve of photography. Speaking and writing prove everyday that one is seen and heard, besides of course ones’ physical presence. It is what this particular form of looking at the world, for the author, provides. Looking as the writer John Berger said is like a ‘prayer’. This form of prayer is not religious in tone, that is, to thank someone, nor to ask for forgiveness or to ask for anything, it is to be in silent and solitary wonder. Raymond Tallis suggests the term, in relationship to vision, as “a thinking gaze”. How is it he muses, that as individuals we can even look beyond ourselves to be puzzled by what surrounds us, whether on the ground or light years away? From the organic stuff of our bodies, a mind recognises itself as being here and of thinking.
As Tallis ponders, “Tickled up neurons don’t explain how I see something outside those neurons, outside my brain, outside my head, as something outside myself, as ‘over there”. So this is, an ‘over there’ reflection about looking and some of the differences in opinion that a type of looking – photographic – has engendered. One actually experiences and is aware of nature’s light in a manifest way. It is this idea that permeates the essay. In recording or documenting the world photographically ‘straight’, – that is, without extravagated artifice – can the only discussion of our surroundings merely be, what things look like? Photographs describe differently from language, spoken or written. It is as many critics on the subject have written, a referent or a trace of something that make a photograph exist. Something was there, without which there is no photographic picture. It is therefore what this form of description elicits?
It would be pretentious to declare this a discussion of photographic picture-making as philosophy. In the moments of doing there is only absorption, a captivation of vision. Plays of light, intriguing juxtapositions and ephemeral moments, act as manifestations of strange pleasures. Nevertheless the questions or responses from the activity are generally to be found in a philosophic context rather than any other, although not exclusively. The American author Robert Fulghum has written about ‘Window Gazing’. His notion that this activity –looking out of windows – as a ‘feature of solitude’, is more than a cursory glaze at things. He writes; The window panes serve as mirrors, reflecting your image as a window gazer. There you are . . . . looking out through yourself . . . .” This idea can relate also to photographing and is identical to John Szarkowski’s 1978 Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960. The solitary photographer coupled as mind and machine, looks at the world through themselves, with ‘private concerns’ rather than public. The central thesis being that; “In metaphorical terms, the photograph is seen either as a mirror – a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window – through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality”. The two positions inevitably coalesce.
The fact however that a photographer may attempt to evoke certain ideas does not imply that, like the poet for example, that things can be equal in effect. Language has grammatical structures, photographs do not. You cannot photograph incorrectly, only badly perhaps, depending upon the context. The question of what photographic detail can allude to, is not an answer of visual semiotics, that is, denotation and connotation. These structural critiques presume a production of meaning/s, objective and/or subjective. So if not meaning what else?
Interestingly Fulghum suggests that ‘window gazing’ is best when accompanied by music, as the ‘provocations of solitude’ are enhanced, through the absence of a directed outcome. One becomes aware of things, like the rain or the smell outside. This typifies the idea of reverie. Perhaps this is why Walter Pater’s idea that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music”, became so influential? As an abstract medium music did not actually exist. There were no representations, just sound with no external references required for it to be produced. A state of reverie, the time permitted to muse or daydream. Could both the activity of photographing and the photograph produced, provide such conditions? David Bate has written that descriptive photographs are “contemplation without meaning”. Although he is not removing the idea of meaning but the idea of any specific message. One should recognise affect over communication, or effectively, perhaps connotations only? To suggest meaninglessness, appears at once both impossible if often desirable. Meaning will mean explanation and the use of words to achieve it, or else how would we know? We succumb to language and that of course is of itself, not natural, but cultural. We arrive then at cultural determinism and as a consequence, we leave the picture behind us. Or rather we leave ‘looking’ at the picture behind us. Any thought that the mute picture will remain so, is denied. John Berger’s iconic 1960s television programme and continually persuasive book, Ways of Seeing, makes that clear in the title. Seeing was an analysis of what is being looked at.
Looking then ‘accepts’ the primary presence of something, whereas ‘seeing’ implies an understanding of how something is being looked at, that is, not naturally but through ‘habit and convention’. Two examples that demonstrate the differences are the 1973 book Looking at Photographs by John Szarkowski, and chapter six, Looking at Photographs in Victor Burgin’s book, Thinking Photography of 1978. The difference, in essence, was a question mark after the idea of an ‘innocent eye’, that Szarkowski could be accused of. This idea which Burgin refers to as an ‘Edenic fiction’, and art critics like Ernst Gombrich refer to ‘as a myth’, cite a naïve realists view of the world as misplaced. We come to it with all of our cultural baggage. The point however is not that we have baggage in the form of habits and conventions, but what are the attributes and value of that baggage? This is not so much a discussion betwixt looking and seeing, individuals view things differently and argue accordingly. For critics like Berger and Burgin, it was contextualised as a politics of seeing. Pictures were a part of capital, ownership and power, not as it were, empty vessels. The critique of the picture was a critique of the culture that produced it. Never a culture of individuals, but always of class structure and economic relationships. Differences between the two critics however, was Berger’s own claim of pleasurable scepticism. This included also what he said or wrote, as he described himself as an “impertinent conspirator”. His was not criticism as ideology but of intellectual curiosity, “free of institutions”.