Informing Contexts; Reflections on Week 2 ‘The Index and the Icon’; 3rd February – 9th February, 2018

In this week’s module we covered authenticity and the question of how much of an image is artifice, how much is ‘real’. We were asked to examine Barthes’s statement that ‘In the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation‘. We also had a number of texts to consider, several of which I’ve found has taken some time to properly assimilate. Th appearance of this CRJ has been delayed for this reason, my apologies if it seems heavy going in places. It does however have a reasonable impact on my project.

While I agree with Roland Barthes that an image created through a photographic process will have the ability to be treated by the viewer as authentic, and this effect may be stronger that the photographer intended. Even with the ease at which hidden digital manipulation can now alter an image I suspect in general this will stay true.

It’s an important aspect of my project, particularly as I’m trying to convey something of the reality of my collaborator’s working life as well as personality through the inclusion of part of their working environment. The more posed my images look, the less conviction my images will give. That my medium lends itself for my images to be treated as likely to be authentic/real is helpful in attaining that goal.

Thus, even though the photograph may potentially have been produced with a high degree of fabrication. Our treatment of the image is similar to that we see of the world with our own eyesight, especially if classed as comparable to an instantaneous glance. Thus it gains a degree of authenticity that is, at least initially, independent of our understanding of how the photograph was produced. The same is certainly not true for an oil painting.

In their 1975 article Snyder and Allen questioned whether photography is ‘peculiar’ in that it is different to other forms of making a picture. Pointing out that most commentators and practitioners have felt this was the case, at least since the early 1900’s when Stieglitz moved from promoting pictorialism to a form of photography based on what the Anglo-American writer, Charles Henry Caffin, described ‘…will record facts, but not as facts’. Later on Snyder & Allen observe that if a theorist has defined photography has an automatic process that doesn’t involve the manipulation, inventiveness and imagination integral to ‘Art’, then it is logical for the theorist to define it as different.

In response to this they make the observation that the way someone like Edward Steichen or Walker Evans composed their photographs of Brooklyn Bridge was probably not that different to the way someone like Constable, or Turner approached their paintings. Their point being that often the “creative task of the artist is to decide just what the subject is”, and thus in creative hands photography is not conducted differently to other means of representing a subject.

Edward Steichen –   Brooklyn Bridge , 1903

Edward Steichen – Brooklyn Bridge, 1903

J.M.W. Turner  Sunset and Dark Clouds over the Sea , c1845 ( From The Whalers Sketchbook) – Tate Britain, London

J.M.W. Turner Sunset and Dark Clouds over the Sea, c1845 (From The Whalers Sketchbook) – Tate Britain, London

While agreeing with their view it needs also to be recognized that many images are created with little artistic intent or creative purpose. The most ubiquitous use of photography has always been to simply to record a scene. However, even in the early days of photography when technical options were much more limited it was perhaps never been quite as simple as that. Creative elements soon appeared, from the treatment of light & shadow to composition. As in Fox Talbot’s ‘Haystack’ (1844) and Edouard Baldus’s ‘Cloister of Saint-Trophime, Arles (1851). While the last image involved creating a print from multiple negatives and manual re-touching, it also shows creative manipulation appeared at an early stage of photography’s path.

William Henry Fox Talbot –  The Haystack  c1841 –  The Met, salted print from paper negative

William Henry Fox Talbot – The Haystack c1841 – The Met, salted print from paper negative

Scruton argues photography is not representational. Providing an analysis of representational causality he argues that by it’s visually representative nature the photograph tends to automatically define itself as ‘real’. Or at least it does in terms of the visual reproduction of the scene in front of it. While I’m happy to support that we see most photographs automatically as real, I’m not convinced by Scruton’s argument, detailed though it is.

Barthes feels that in his view photographs can be split into two groups, those that prompt no more than general interest and those that have something that stands out or intrigues him. Or as Barthes puts it, “the punctum” is a way to describe the presence of a certain aspect or detail in a particular image that raises it in the eye of the viewer, giving it ‘grace’. He also says that this ‘punctum’ is missing in what he calls ‘unary’ photographs. Most journalistic and all pornographic photographs are placed by Barthes in this group. I feel this is a little dismissive of what makes, at least journalistic images, ‘interesting’, but it is an interesting observation. I wonder if  what I see as ‘ordinary’ in an image is Barthes’s ‘unary’, but maybe little risky to assume anyone’s view of an image is the same a one’s own. I’m wary of over-classification, particularly when whole genres are involved.

Victor Burgin talks about visually consuming the photograph, an act of looking. Like Jacques Lacan’s use of ‘gaze’ he interprets this act in a psychoanalytic way. Personally I find this approach questionable. Can you really pigeon-hole artistic appreciation to a male/fetishist reaction? But Freudian psychoanalysis is not something I know much about.

I’m happy to agree with Lev Manovich that those, like Mitchell, who argue pre-digital photography (i.e. film) is different, are wrong. Manovich feels digital photography is simply a continuation of analogue reproduction and even has the ability to reinforce it. While earnestly agreeing I’d have to also point out that digital is at least as capable as analogue of producing blurred and distorted imagery, digital imagery doesn’t have to be in pixel-perfect HD.

Compared to other art forms, excepting the non-camera and abstract forms of photography, the photograph is fundamentally different. By the nature of optics the scene, however framed, is imposed. However, while we can talk about art photography as separate from photography I feel this distinction is questionable when the camera is in the hands of an exceptional photographer, like Bill Brandt or Richard Avedon, who were able to both record and create with exactly the same set of photographic tools.

I suspect that with the present ubiquity of digital photography the difference is perhaps much less marked than it was. David Bate makes the point that “photographic interventions in art are multiple and diverse, eclectic even, and art is unthinkable now without them”. Bate also talks about one response to the 21st century’s heterogenous use of digital manipulation is to refer to the digital photograph as ‘post-photographic’, merely a form of ‘data space’. This distinction I’m unsure about.

The images I capture for my project should involve little post-processing, digital manipulation. My main involvement is before the picture is taken; finding the right frame for my subject within their working environment, encouraging/directing them to bring something of their personality out within the image. This is a little tricky when you’ve only just met this person for the first time, as was true so far for the majority of my shoots. Then there also the technical aspects of appropriate lighting, exposure compensation, depth of field chosen etc. Of course these aspects are really a bit more than simply capturing an image acceptable quality, you’re also trying to use the colour, light and shade to it’s most effective in bringing that person to life within your 2-D image.

Stephen Shore talked about ‘levels’ within an image, that “the print provides a physical framework for the visual parameters of the photographic image”. He felt it was our mental perceptions that changed this “piece of paper into a seductive illusion or a moment of beauty and truth”.

This phrase for me describes the nature of a great photograph. I only wish my own images were a little nearer to that goal.


Other than doing a lot of reading I attended a short evening course in the week on the use of studio equipment by Gabriel Nita at Stratford Workshops. This was in preparation for a session on advanced studio work at the next MA four-day workshop that will be taking place at Falmouth University’s Penryn campus next week. Gabriel was very good, no photography but lots of hands-on experience wit his studio equipment, with a very informative hand-out to boot. Covered a lot of ground in quite a small time. Much better than the other studio workshops I’ve been on, which were much more about giving you the opportunity to shoot with their equipment than actually understanding how and what to set up.


References quoted

Barthes, R “Camera Lucida”(1980) translated by Richard Howard(1981), London, Random House/Penguins’ Vintage Books’

Elkins, J (Ed) “Photography as Theory” (2013) London, Routledge

Hacking, J (Ed) “Photography – The Whole Story” (2012) London, Thames & Hudson

Marien, MW “Photography: A Cultural History” (2014) London, Lawrence King Publishing

Scruton, R “Photography and Representation” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 577-603, Chicago,The University of Chicago Press

Szarkowski, J “The Photographer’s Eye” (1980) London, Secker and Warburg

Bates, D “Art Photography” (2015) london, Tate Publishing

Shore, S “The Nature of Photographs” (2007) 2nd edition London, Phaidon Press