Informing Contexts - Photography, Photographies
So in this weeks study we considered the nature of the photographic image including the works, by Szarkowski, Shore and the 2014 What is a Photograph exhibition curated by Carol Squires.
The Photographers Eye was written by John Szarkowski in 1966 and his view was that a photographic object comes about as a process, i.e. the photographer is choosing the part of real life he wants to transform into a photograph. For me his views must be put into the context of the pre digital time when this was considered and written. For example the taking of photographs was a lot slower and deliberate during this time, compared to the more liquid, ephemeral era of smart phone and digital photography that exists today.
He identified five properties of photography that would be present, the thing itself, the detail, the frame, the time and the vantage point. It is fair to say that these properties do still exist in many images today but we should consider if there are more properties in our digital age and if some of the five are now less relevant.
The thing itself is not necessarily the subject but the tangible sense of the reality being captured and for me this immediately throws into questions the concerns that exist in terms of the authenticity of photographs. As Richard Avedon stated ‘all photographs are accurate none of them is truth’ and the reality of what is now photographed has never been so open to manipulation and editing. I would also argue that the emersion of the more experimental types of photography on show at What Is a Photograph and the abstract nature of this images could also suggest a lack of reality of ‘the thing itself’.
This is perhaps echoed further by Szarowski second element, which is the detail . He recognises that as the image is literally a moment being captured then you are only getting a fragment and discreet details of an event. His negative view of the 19th century montages of Robinson and Oscar Rejlander, citing them as merely pretentious failures, does give us an insight to how he would have viewed the editing powers of Photoshop and the abundance of filters and smart phone apps today. Whilst I believe detail is very much an important part of an image we must accept that the relevance of it for certain genres of photography is less so. For example Fine Art Photography focuses on the imaginative and aesthetic quality of an image compared to Documentary Photography that is rooted in capturing the the reality of life, people and events.
I do consider Szarkowski’s third characteristic to be as relevant today and that is the frame. As photographers we all compose our images within a four sided rectangle and the removal either at the time of shooting or later cropping of what is surrounding the image makes a huge difference to what is being recorded and what the image is saying. Henry Cartier-Bresson was frequently frustrated by how his images were cropped once in circulation thus giving them new meanings and context. His frustration led to many of his images being framed with thick black lines to denote this was how he intended the image to be seen.
The fourth element of an image is time and again we can refer to Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ as well as Emile Dermenghem’s ‘the privileged instant’ as that point when everything is captured in that split second of time. However this moment can literally become blurred when we consider the use of long exposures by the likes of Alexey Titarenko or the multiple exposure of Stephaine Jung and Pep Ventosa that can capture a long duration of time and movement within a single image. When we consider the use of smart phones as cameras we must also consider this one stage further with the ability to capture a ‘live’ image where the subject can literally move as it is viewed.
The fifth and final property identified was the vantage point and I do think this holds very true in today’s image making. The position, angle and proximity that the photographer is to the subject all plays an important part in how the image is captured and how it is viewed. I see this in some of my macro photography work where I am able to capture and share a world of nature that many people would never see if it wasn’t for the power of close up photography. My image below of a three drops of water colliding illustrates this. Without my vantage point, the naked eye may just see a splash of water.
Stephen Shore’s work has spanned over 50 years and his text The Nature of Photographs looked to identify the common qualities that all photographic prints have. Whilst the text was first published in 1998, before smart phones and digital photography were common place, Shore has continued to produce work both with his smart phone and medium format camera. Shore uses his text to identify characteristics that make up a photograph but is more aligned to the photograph being the object itself.
He points to the three levels with which photographs are constructed in terms of physical, depictive and mental. It is the connectivity of these levels with the photographer in a state of heightened awareness that he takes the image. For many photographers this is that point where we see the world through a camera lens, almost sensing every moment as a potential image. However as Shore suggests ‘photographing something that is already spectacular is not such a leap as turning something ordinary into a photographic possibility.’ This view perhaps gives some further context to his work which does come with mixed views. His best known work American Surfaces in 1972 produced a banal and standardised view of America. Shore even admits in an interview that some consider his work boring.
In terms of the physical level Shore is referencing the quality of how the image is produced and ultimately viewed, very much as a flat object with borders. I was interested to see that in later years he has continued to take images now on his smartphone and share them via social media and yet he recognised the limitations this gave in terms of reproducing these images in print and opted for a medium format camera in my instances. The physical side of an image also brings into mind that the context with which an image is seen and viewed is very important and can change depending on the location. Once launched into the world an image becomes independant and the context of how and when it is viewed will effect its meaning.
The depictive level picks up the four ways of how a camera sees is transformed into a photograph and shares some common features with Szarkowskis. These are flatness, frame, time and focus. I was struck by Shores reference to the flatness of an image as the 3D view of the world is spread flat into the image, and I wonder if some of this relates to the type of images he makes. From the banal shots of America through to his more later work, there does appear a stillness in his images and an almost lack of a decisive moment, almost as if nothing is going on. Looking through Shore’s work I suspect he would wait for people to walk out of shot whereas Cartier Bresson would wait for them to emerge into view. As Roland Barthes talks about in Camera Lucida in respect of the photographs ‘punctum’ I am left with the question where is this in many of Shores images. However perhaps its the bland, emptiness that ironically becomes the part of the image that pricks us.
The final level is the mental image that is constructed when you see the image. The photograph is a physical (or possibly digital now) object and therefore not the real world. I would suggest that this mental image will be heavily influenced by how the photographer has constructed the image using the other levels but it is still subject to many preconceptions that the viewer has, how it is viewed and the context with which it is seen.
Alec Soth’s makes the point ‘the best photographs always inspire curiosity rather than satisfy it’. As a photographer I do tend to focus on single images rather than bodies of work and whilst the subject matters can change I do like to be creative in both my taking of the images as well as the editing and enjoy the response when someone asks ‘how did you do that?’ For me the viewer who is made curious by the image will look at it for longer and therefore remember it.
As highlighted in my earlier post ‘Artistic Intent’ I am interested in a range of photography, not least Experimental Photography and I was therefore particularly keen to read and learn about the What Is A Photograph exhibition that ran in at the ICP, New York in 2014. The Exhibition did not set our to necessarily answer the question but was posing it. Whilst Szarowski and Shore had focused to an extent on the physicality of the photograph this exhibition was clearly aimed at pushing this boundary beyond the actual object of the image.
The work exhibited appears fascinating and would have aggitated a discussion at the time. I note there was a degree of scepticism from the critics and whilst some of this may be related to the actual quality of the work it does appear a large proportion of the experimental work was based on analogue techniques or non camera photography. Whilst this is an important aspect of experimental photography, by exclusively focusing on this area, the exhibition implies we need to look back to the past rather than encouraging future development of photography.
My own personal experimental techniques currently remain fixed in the digital age as I use in camera and post editing techniques to create aesthetic and abstract images, The exhibition brought to mind a similar gathering that took place in Barcelona in 2020, Exp20 which brought together over 200 experimental photographers . The key difference being that this was a celebration of all forms of experimentation including both analogue and digitally based images.
In conclusion I do recognise that photography is a very broad church and to define it too simply does run the risk that a number of genres and styles could be excluded. In its very simple form I come back to the fact photography means drawing with light and therefore it is the creation and recording of a moment that has been exposed to light. Whether this image has been created by a chemical reaction to light sensitive paper or the change of colour to pixels on a sensor a photograph is a devise or platform for it to be viewed. The majority of my work is currently stored on my computer and floats around various social media sites with very little physical evidence of its existence. As my practice evolves I am sure more of my work may be printed off and framed but for now I would say photography for me is wrapped up in emotions. This will be from the excitement of taking the image, through to the reaction and memory that I and the viewer get when it is seen.
My photographic practice continues to develop and as my body of work builds up so I can see a Fine Art element starting to emerge more and more. I have previously spoken about the beauty in images and creating the wow factor and this comes back to the development of an aesthetic in my work. In addition to my initial research project I have now developed a further fourteen images that are the foundations for this module. Due to current lockdown limitations my only current outlet for the presentation of these images is via my social media and website. However further images are taken I intend to create a video gallery to increase awareness and context of this as a body of work rather than as standalone images.
1) Stephen Shore - Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975, 1975
2) Steve Rabone - Collide 2021
3) Steve Rabone - The Edge 2021
Szarkowski, J. and New, A. (2009). The photographer’s eye.
Shore, S. (2007). The nature of photographs. London: Phaidon.
What Is a Photograph (2016). What Is a Photograph? [online] International Center of Photography. Available at: https://www.icp.org/exhibitions/what-is-a-photograph.
Richard Avedon and Nicole Wisnik, “An Interview with Richard Avedon,” Egoiste, September 1984
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Whose “Decisive Moment” Shaped Modern Photography. (2019). The New York Times. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives/henri-cartier-bresson-photography.
Shore, S. (2018). Stephen Shore | HOW TO SEE the photographer with Stephen Shore. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://youtu.be/T029CTSO0IE [Accessed 28 Jan. 2021].
Barthes, R. (1988). Camera lucida : reflections on photography. New York: The Noonday Press.
www.aaronschuman.com. (n.d.). “Sleeping by the Mississippi”, An Interview with Alec Soth. [online] Available at: https://www.aaronschuman.com/sothinterview.html [Accessed 28 Jan. 2021].
EXP. 21. (n.d.). What? [online] Available at: https://en.experimentalphotofestival.com/que-somos [Accessed 28 Jan. 2021].