Informing contexts has brought some order to the chaos of imagery that now exists in the world. From the early days when the image was considered “An automatic reproduction by the action of light” (Niepce, 1839) photographers have explored this automatic reproduction and writers have attempted to sort and categorise the results.
Photographs took on a use whether it be to classify criminals by cranial structure (Cesare Lombroso 1876), the mug shot (Bertillon 1900), portraits to leave a trace of fame, landscapes to order the use of land, life stories, advertising, protest and now in every pore of modern society. If it has not been photographed then does it exist? If it has been photographed did it exist?
“The use of a photograph determines its meaning”. (Price 1994). For all of us trying to be photographers this is so important. I can take an image of an aesthetically pleasing landscape to give people a feeling of what it would be like to be there. Presented in this way they could project on to it some of their, hopefully, enjoyable emotions. Someone else could take the same image and use it to show how land has been glorified to celebrate capitalism and fails to show the exploitation of the workers. Such manipulation is possible for every image.
“An image is a sight that has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved – for a few moments or a few centuries.” (Berger 1972) When the photograph exists it will be the context in to which it is placed that will determine its meaning.
As we consider informing the context of our work it is worth remembering “The photograph is a message. Considered overall this message is formed by a source of emission, a channel of transmission and a point of reception.” (Barthes 1997) When I create a photograph as soon as I let it out in to the world it is then at the mercy of emission, channels of transmission and points of reception. There is little I can do to control it.
Although Szarkowski (1966) states “The first thing that the photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual” the photographer quickly learns that interpretation and meaning will arise out of context and, indeed, often ‘out of context.’ The world is now awash with fake news backed up by images purporting an actual that is anything but.
“There are no unicorns in the photograph, and if one occurs, disbelief is imperative. The explanation will not occur in the world of fact and object but in the world of mind and deception. The photograph will be an arranged fake, intentionally designed for the gullible viewer.” Price (1994) Back in 1994 it was more obvious when a fake occurred, although some were taken in by images of the Loch Ness Monster. The manipulability of images has now moved on to such an extent that if we did see a unicorn in an image we might begin to believe they do actually exist.
“Photography’s plausibility has always rested on its uniqueness of its indexical relation to the world it images, a relation that is regarded as fundamental to its operation as a system of representation. For this reason, a photograph of something has long been held to be a proof of that thing’s being, even if not of its truth.” (Batchen 2002)
“At what moment did photography shift from an occasional, isolated and individual fantasy, to a demonstrably widespread, social imperative?” (Batchen 2002). My answer would be it has happened with the arrival of the internet, digital imagery and the explosion of social media. Within that explosion “sometimes the vernacular images we take, have interest to
friends and family, but sometimes, only to ourselves, the author” (Manovich 2026). This may be so true for us as photographers also. We are our own audience who then need to understand its contextual situation before we can then take it to a wider audience. Alternatively somebody else may do that for us once our image is out there and we may or may not like the results.
“We are entering a time where it will be no longer possible to
tell any original from its simulations, thing and sign, nature and culture, human and machine, all of these hitherto dependable entities appear to be collapsing in on each other.” (Batchen 1997). Our challenge then is going to be to contextualise what we produce and be clear about how we wish it to be consumed to inform or have meaning in the world. In reality we may have very little control.
The world as we try to understand it now requires us to understand that “it is not the person ignorant of writing, but ignorant of photography, as somebody said, who will be the illiterate of the future” (Moholy-Nash) There is an irony to this finishing statement as photography itself is contextualised and given academic credence not with images but by the pen of Sontag, Barthes, Beauregard and other writers who seek to explain to us what it is all about.
Big thanks to Steph for a feast of perspectives on how to contextualise our work and to enable it to inform in the way we intend.
Barthes, R. (1997) The Photographic Image in Image, Music, Text London Fontana
Batchen, G, (1997) Burning with Desire. Massachusetts. MIT Press.
Batchen, G. (2002) Each Wild Idea. Writing, Photography, History. Cambridge MIT Press.
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London Penguin.
Manovitch, L. (2016). [online] Instagram and the contemporary image. Available at http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/instagram-and-contemporary-image (accessed 8th April 2020)
Moholy-Nagy in Benjamin, W & Jennings, B & Levin, T. (2008) The work of art in its technical reproducibility and other writings on new media. Cambridge Harvard University Press
Neipce, J. (1839) ‘Memoire on the Heliograph’ in Trachtenberg, A (1980) Classic Essays on Photography New Haven Leet’s Island Books
Price, M. (1994) The Photograph. A Strange Confined Space. California. Stanford University Press.
Szarkowski, J. (1966) The Photographers Eye. New York. Museum of Modern Art.