Photography:A Critical Introduction Thinking About Photography
What is this lecture about? • Debates and key writings on photography. • Changing ideas about photography. • Some history considered alongside art history, theory, and cultural history. • Divided into four sections: • Aesthetics and Technologies • Contemporary Debates • Photography and Social History • Histories of Photography
Part 1: Aesthetics and Technologies • Photography was hailed as a great technological invention • Became the subject of debates concerning its aesthetic status and social uses • “New machinery is normally presented as the agent of social change, not as the outcome of a desire for such change.”
Particular cultures invest in and develop new machines and technologies in order to satisfy social change: • Photography is one such example
Why did photography become an active field of research during the 1800s? • Expanding middle-class demand for portraiture outstripped available painted means
Once a technology exists, it may become adapted and introduced into social use in a variety of both foreseen and unforeseen ways!
Art or Technology? • The fight to certify photography as a fine art has been among the medium’s dominant philosophical preoccupations since its inception. • Photography’s legitimacy as an art form was challenged by artists and critics who seized upon the mechanical and chemical aspects of the photographic process as proof that photography was, at best, a craft. • Often called “a handmaiden to the arts.”
Photographers responded in two main ways: • Accepted that photography was something different from art and sought to discover what the intrinsic properties of the medium were. • Pointed out that photography was more than a mechanical form of image-making, that it could be worked on and contrived so as to produced pictures which in some ways resembled paintings.
To prove that photography was indeed an art, photographers at first imitated the paintings of the time. • Blurring of images to achieve a painterly softness of line for example. Julia Margaret Cameron
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 79) is recognized as a pioneer of photography and one of the great portrait photographers of all time. • Cameron's sophisticated use of lighting, selective focus and literary allusion resulted in a powerful portrayal of Victorian womanhood.
In the other camp, photographers were interested in photography’s ability to provide apparently accurate records of the visual world. • Referred to as “straight photography.” Paul Strand
Straight photography refers to photography that attempts to depict a scene as realistically and objectively as permitted by the medium, forsaking the use of manipulation both pre-exposure (e.g., filters, lens coatings, soft focus) and post-exposure (e.g., unusual developing and printing methods).
The power of the photograph was demonstrated in 1872 with what was referred to as documentary photography.
Born in Keeseville, New York, on April 4, 1843, William Henry Jackson was a self-taught artist who, at the age of 15, was working as a retoucher in a photographer's studio. • He was successful in this pursuit and later moved to a more prosperous studio in Rutland, Vermont. He honed his artist's skills with the retouching work, but also learned a great deal about the young art of photography, a skill that would stand him in good stead later in life.
During the summer of 1869, Jackson began photographing the construction along the new Union Pacific Railroad. • His work came to the attention of Ferdinand Hayden who was organizing a geologic survey to explore the mysterious lands known as Yellowstone, and he was asked to accompany the expedition. • As a result, William Henry Jackson became the first photographer to successfully capture the wonders of Yellowstone on film. • Jackson's photographs were an important factor in convincing Congress to establish Yellowstone as the first national park in the U.S. in 1872.
Photography and the Modern: • Photography was a major carrier and shaper of modernism. • Modernism is a cultural movement that generally includes the progressive art and architecture, music, literature, and design which emerged in the decades before 1914. • It was a movement of artists and designers who rebelled against late 19th century academic and historicist traditions, and embraced the new economic, social and political aspects of the emerging modern world.
Photography included access to visual information about the past and detail over and above that normally noted by the human eye. • During the 1920s and 1930s, the putative political power of photography and its status as the most important modern form of communication were at their height.
The Postmodern: • It is an important, and much contested philosophical term, which emerged in the mid 1980s. • New forms of social organization emerged. • In the early 1980s, the role of the photograph underwent a fundamental change. Although the Pop Art and Conceptual Art of the 1960s and 1970s had begun to make use of photograph in artistic expression, it was in the 1980s that it was moulded into a postmodernist tool thus breaking new ground for visual artists.
The objectivity of the photograph and its weight as evidence were no longer regarded as a fact. The meaning of a work and its interpretation was increasingly often bound up with the context in which it was shown and how it was displayed. • Young visual artists in particular were fascinated by the way the photograph destroyed the traditional status of art and artist associated with modernism: a photograph could be copied endlessly, and its size and presentation could be altered.
Photography has always been caught up in new technologies and played a central part in the making of the modern world • People have a loss of confidence in the medium because of the ease with which images are altered and presented as accurate records
Part 2: Contemporary Debates • All discussions of photographs rest upon some notion of the nature of the photograph and how it acquires meaning. • Two strands of theoretical discussion have featured in recent debates about photography: • Theoretical approaches premised on the relationship of the image to reality. • The importance of the interpretation of the image by focusing upon the reading, rather than the taking, of photographic representations.
Modern Western philosophy, from the eighteenth century onwards has been a positivist approach to research in the sciences and the social sciences and photography has been centrally implicated as a recording tool.
Photography Theory: • Difficulty in establishing photographic theory • Lies at the cusp of the scientific, the social scientific, and the humanities • As such, contemporary debates are divergent • Up until 1980’s, photographic theory within education had been taken to refer to technologies and techniques such as optics, colour temperature, optimum developer heat, etc. • In essence, theory related to the craft of photography
Victor Burgin (1982): • Argued that photography theory must be interdisciplinary. • Only photography criticism existed. • Warns against confusing photographic theory with a general theory of culture.
Critical Reflections on Realism; • A number of critics have focused on the realist properties of the image. • Susan Sontag wrote a book called “On Photography.” • Discussed photographs as traces of reality and interrogated photography in terms of the extent to which the image reproduces reality. • A series of interconnected essays. • Emphasized the idea of the photograph as a means of freezing a moment in time.
Her book is an attempt at a sweeping critique of everything photographic. • Her interests range widely from detailed analyses of individual photographers to why people fear having their photographs taken; from historical development in photographic equipment to why people take pictures of any and everything: tourist to scientist, artist to technician, surveillance photography to medical examinations. • The debate about whether photography is an art or a tool weaves its way in and out of the various essays.
Sontag’s discussion veers between the reasons for taking photographs and the uses to which they are put. • “To collect photographs is to collect the world.” • Sontag sees that photography, leveling everything, also beautifies. Let the subject be what it will - pollution, death, war … photography will tend to make it look aesthetically pleasing. • “The image is fundamental to the cultural impact of the camera.”
Mary Price (1994): • In her book, “The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space,” argues that the meaning of the photographic image is primarily determined through associated verbal description and the context in which the photograph is used. • No single meaning of a photograph.
Theory, Criticism, Practice: • What has all this got to do with making photographs? • 19th century desire for empirical evidence • Criteria for what makes a good photograph • Key point is that theoretical assumptions founded in varying academic fields, from the scientific to the philosophic and the aesthetic intersect to inform both the making and the interpretation of visual imagery
Photography criticism similar to other fields of the arts, evaluating work in relation to established traditions and practices • At worst, criticism masks personal opinion with the overall aim of impressing readers
1936 • Working for Farm Security Administration • Stopped on road to investigate group of people employed to pick peas • This photo, one of many, became the most reproduced image in the history of photography.
A number of differing approaches may be used to analyze photographs, each model reflects its own particular concerns and priorities: • Viewed primarily as social or historical evidence • Investigated in relation to the intentions of the photographer and the particular context of its making • Related to politics and ideology • Assessed through reference to process and technique • Considered in terms of aesthetics and traditions of representation in art • Discussed in relation to class, race, and gender • Analyzed through reference to psychoanalysis • Decoded as a semiotic text
The Photograph as Testament: • Why is it this image which has become so famous? • Compelling presence of the woman • Central position of the mother • Absence of the father • Direction of the look • Direction of the children • All add to emotional and sentimental register • Woman viewed as a symbol
The Photographer’s Account: • Was not interested in name or history • Took a series of shoots • Implied that the pictures might help her so she helped the photographer • 50 years later said she did not receive a single penny.
Genre and Usage: • FSA was documentary but released photos for other uses • Lange had no control over usage of photo and not control over if it was retouched • One principle of documentary aesthetic was that no photograph should be retouched
Image in Context: • FSA project a response to economic crisis of 1929 and depression of the 1930s • Aimed to document and record the position of the poor • Photographers favoured works that stressed the depiction of human destitution and distress and were clearly political
Image-Text: • Titled Migrant Mother • Title and organization of photo are key elements of its appeal • Same picture captioned in 1965 read Seasonal Farm Labourer’s Family, not as powerful
Aesthetics and Art History: • Concerned with composition, subject-matter, and organization of pictorial elements and techniques. • Many of Lange’s prints were poor • Many art historians commented that image is related to many paintings of the Madonna and Child in Western Art
As Gendered Image: • Number of feminist photohistorians have looked at the FSA in terms of participation of women photographers and the gendering of the image
Reading the Photograph: • In 1960s and 1970s, images were read as cultural, psychoanalytic and ideological signs • Centers on the female body, the body that is socially constructed through the gaze • Children turned heads (shame or shyness?) • Arm up to indicated tentative thought
Image as Icon: • Image entered Western consciousness • Part of iconic power is from multiple appearances over the years and in other forms
Part 3: Photography and Social History • Popular photography is increasingly used as social-historical evidence. • Visual anthropology. • Photographs are commonly used as evidence and used to investigate the past. • Photography was used throughout the 19th century in the service of political and industrial change.
Landscape photography used for civil and military mapping purposes. • Many ways in which photographs can be read and understood and we often rarely see photographs in their original state: • Advertising for example • Context influences our perception • Artistic nude versus one in questionable magazine