By Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Arts Blog
We are very aware these days of our submersion in the image; that much of our cultural meaning and awareness originates in the consumption of, production of, and of our being represented by images. The burning questions and controversies around the latest development in A.I.-related productions, or re-productions, or pastiches and parodies of the “real”, seem to take this image-world for granted, or at least it has forced a recognition of the limitations that we consider apt for it. Not too long ago, the invention of photography is now coming up to its second centennial, there were fusses on what actually photography was meant to be: does it function as an art? Is it the technical extension of perception? If it is not an art, what are we being gifted by this capability to fix an image? It is accepted now that photography can function as an art (museum space, exhibitions, online), and that the photograph can exhibit powerful displays of humanity; photography also displays much else besides and aids across contemporary industries. Photography is also an activity, a way of seeing and reacting to space and time, and has had a decisive effect on altering our perception and informing modern consciousness.
In an anthology of “classical” essays on photography (which ranges from the pioneers, Daguerre, Niepce, and Fox Talbot, to cultural critics of images, such as John Berger reminding us that an image is not just an objective fix of reality), the editor says ‘a common lament among photographers … is that the medium lacks a critical tradition’, as opposed to the critical traditions we find in painting and Literature where these medium’s cultural use and evolution are discussed and debated. One of the reasons why this is so is because photography has had a confused history with its relation to painting, not just whether it should be understood as an artistic practice or not, but whether it should be taking cues from painting as it did during the latter half of the nineteenth century: those strange portraits where serious faces look back at you from an artificial room decorated in Grecian amphoras and columns, or how it later tried to resemble Impressionism. It is not entirely obvious how to compose a photo, at least in the beginning, without the aid of referring to painting, that other visually composed experience. It is further confused because it is also not entirely obvious what social and existential effects the ability to reproduce reality by fixing its image will have, or mean, whether it is used for artistic, political, or scientific purposes.
In 1839, Astronomer and Physicist, Francois Arago, appealed to the French Commission of the Chamber of Deputies to grant Daguerre and the son of Niepce an annual and life pension for their invention of the process which fixes images obtained in the camera obscura (the commission complied). Arago speaks about the ‘extraordinary advantage … derived from so exact and rapid a means of reproduction … to copy, for example, the millions of hieroglyphs which cover even the exterior of the great monuments … would require decades of time and legions of draughtsmen. By daguerreotype, one person would suffice’; he praises the ‘unimaginable precision of detail’ which can be used in service of the artist, and reminds the audience that it does not require any knowledge of drawing or any special dexterity ‘when, step by step, a few simple prescribed rules are followed’. This process will bring reality closer with unheard-of speed of execution, will optimise our storage of knowledge, and anyone can utilize it. From Arago’s address onwards, the daguerreotype flourished and captivated the curious middle classes of Europe and America; photographic societies were formed, professionalism began, the portraiture business was no longer exclusive to the moneyed (portraiture being one of photography’s lasting performances); Edgar Allan Poe exalted the daguerreotype, seeing in it the magical potentiality of modernity, and doctor Oliver Holmes delighted in the fact that, finally, humanity has been able to separate the form from the object, form from matter.
The poet Baudelaire voiced a different opinion, imitating a generalised spokesman for a “realistic” art, he writes: ‘I believe that art is, and can only be, the exact reproduction of nature. Thus, if an industrial process could give us a result identical to nature, that would be absolute art’. He goes on: ‘but if once it [photography] be allowed to impinge on the sphere of the intangible and the imaginary, on anything that has value solely because man adds something to it from his soul, then woe betide us!’. “Realism”, Baudelaire is reminding us, is not only about fixing an exact reproduction of time and space; it is a flux of time, emotion, and uncertainty. It must have been a strange experience for the budding photographers of the nineteenth century, being used to visual representation only through painting which the finest painters made their own. It is no wonder that the confusion began on how to take a “proper” photograph, and of what subject – how to compose nature, or reality, in spite of “style”. Since the camera seemingly offered an unlimited scope in terms of angle, light, and scene, it is no wonder the “professionals” were quick to ally themselves with the then vogue of the “realistic”, finding they had the device which would do exactly that, and, in fact, even “better” than an artist could – by allying with painting standards, an “artistic” photograph could be judged. Amateur photographers and those curious about the new medium, i.e. unconcerned with whether photography was an art or whether it should follow rules of composition, allowed photography to expand on its own right, as a medium of interest in itself – something similar to the above enthusiasm of Holmes: “taking the form from matter”.
It is with Baudelaire that we begin to detect what photography will mean to humanity under modernity. Baudelaire was concerned with the direction of art: ‘can it legitimately be supposed that a people whose eyes get used to accepting the results of a material science as products of the beautiful will not … diminish its capacity for judging those things that are most ethereal and immaterial?’ We should, moving away from the question of art, ask: what about our capacity for judging reality away from the image of reality? Why do some moments, now, stand out as “fit for a picture”, what does the ability to “collect” fragments of the world mean? With the camera, the world now very easily appears as a fragmentary experience. Humanity now faces a reality that can be broken up and composed at will, a sort of triumph over its flow – or at least an image of a triumph, which has the quality of “objectivity”. The camera, then, is the characteristic appendage of a fragmentary modernity. It details desire and traces of events, but never a unity, and in the end, justifies the travelling; it miniaturises the world. The inhuman metropolis is transformed into the photographer’s playground, full of fit subjects. The photographer, and I have in mind someone like the great French Photographer Cartier-Bresson, will say something like: “I prowled the streets, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determine to trap life – to preserve life in the act of living’.
The conceit here is that the photograph is impersonal and so has a way of revelation, hence it taking over the ideological and journalistic fronts. Of course, the photographer must have the kind of eye to see where this ‘life in the act of living’ is taking place. The annoying response is: everywhere life abounds: you could not make it down your street without using up the roll, getting tired by all this life as it flits by so wantonly. Life in the act of living is really an aesthetic selection on the part of the photographer. It is with the camera that, despite the early fusses over whether you should “touch up” your images afterward and whether you understand the processes in the darkroom, modernity learned to look and think photographically – the vogue of the modernist photographers was that you should already have the image in your head before you take the photo; you just have to have the right eye to see it and the lens to capture it, and then there will appear an honest expression of life. This appears to be one of the main conclusions of the camera and the “photographic” mind: now the act of seeing can be one that can capture life honestly, instead of being tossed here and there with the inexplicable experience of the flow of time, you can cut off a little, freeze a moment and look at it time and time again. It is no wonder that the Surrealists ingratiated themselves with the medium. The photograph has something of the innocent about it: it appears that it cannot but tell the truth of a perception, of a moment. It acts to transcend the flow of time and leave a trace. It was, for the Surrealists, another form of automatism wherein a picture taken creates a past and reveals something hidden. This kind of fun is also a kind of distrust of reality (reality is not showing you everything); reality, for the photographer, now, is a web of hidden secrets and beauties, and potentially significant sights revealing and reflecting the self. The Surrealist camera-man had his antecedents in the nineteenth-century Flaneur, who flowed through the city relishing the continuous experience, it is only now with the camera that the Flaneur has become prey to discontinuous visions which the camera makes explicit. Most people who take photos, perhaps daily as the ease of picture-taking is obvious to all, although not participating in any kind of surrealist method, understand reality can be fragmented and meaningful and fun in those fragments.
And now we come back down to everyday living. We speak about our image-life and the images we see and then we speak about our life as lived experience, two very separate things – perhaps they are more intertwined, sometimes more in tune than not. Susan Sontag in one of her essays about photography (perhaps one of the first to begin a kind of “criticism” of photography) remarks that the great nineteenth century French writer Balzac had a terror of having his portrait taken, as he felt something akin to it stealing one of his “layers” of existence. Formally, or informally, a side of life becomes a series of portraits, whether asked for or not; Balzac’s horror holds some weight: there are times when an unexpected photo is existential theft. There is not much to be done, if you feel like Balzac, about the forced portraiture of our age – the formal ones feel very formal: the effect of formal portraiture is quite explicit when you look at your old yearbooks from school: some children love it, others shy away as if threatened, others accept their lot; it is the orders of the camera operator: Show those teeth, junior! – some of these reactions follow one through life. With the camera it is possible to bring out features of someone that they themselves could never see otherwise, that feel unreal to the person photographed, flattering or not. The amateur photographer begins by “training” themselves to see features in people that they find of interest, of worth, revealing – to say that the portrait discloses, discontinues, a feature of someone that is, in a way, in constant flux, shows that it reveals less than the truth of that person at that time, but rather an aestheticised version that no one can deny, that we have to, reluctantly or not, claim as ourselves.
Could there be some masking of the melancholic with this idea of fun? In the home, amongst the photo-albums that still abound despite the internet, or too with social media which reminds you to look at yourself from a year ago, you get the concentration of a life-lived. Not only of those now passed away, but the effect of time on oneself. This fateful progression speaks through those stamps of time no longer existent but contained in the frame. And these photos are imbued with something else that if one were to cut up, distort, montage-ify, it would seem a great act of disrespect and lunacy. In the portrait we see who a person thinks they are (how they would like to be observed), and who the photographer thinks they are; a cross between documentation and aesthetics. Through the photograph, the images we create, we survey ourselves constantly, document our phases, select and choose from time what we think we are, holding onto these moments despite knowing time will take it all away, and that, perhaps, we are not truly anywhere to be seen.
There is an exceedingly beautiful close-up of a cabbage leaf taken in 1931 by the photographer Edward Weston. I happened to see a very similar image on the side of a Co-op food shop. At first glance, Weston’s photo could be other than what it is, like a model mountain ridge, or even a lavish gown thrown over a table – luckily, we have the caption. Of course, it isn’t as ambiguous on the Co-op, but they do wish to highlight an aesthetic, a beauty of form in the cabbage leaf. Painting has done much to expand our perception of what is beautiful, or what is complex and interesting, but it is with the realism of the camera that this expansion of perception flowered. The quickness of the camera to capture a slice of time, even from the beginning, meant a new surfeit of images, a new exploration in the realm of seeing. Once photography loosened its strange relationship with painting and struck out a new way into image creation, all kinds of perception became available: bird’s eye, close-ups, telescopic, microscopic etc. – humanity began to see, in the realism of a photograph what the world supposedly really is, but, perhaps unbeknownst to photographers and searchers of the beautiful and interesting, it has drawbacks.
Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ speaks about the ‘desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction’. Benjamin evokes something he calls the ‘aura’ of things, the ‘distance’ of reality from us which is essential to its uniqueness, which lent a sense of unity to things. This ‘bringing things closer’, symptomatic of the increased speed of mass society, allows for greater analysis of reality – this was shown when in the late nineteenth century Eadweard Muybridge compiled photos of motion (a man walking, a horse galloping), this entirely new way of seeing such automatisms of the body seemed entirely alien to someone walking to go see these photos. It is the same with film, it can highlight the extraordinary breadth of camera angles, close-ups etc., showing such automatisms of the body, of habit, that remain unconscious to us in the everyday flow of life. On the other side of this ‘greater analysis’, and ‘bringing closer’, we also find remoteness, loneliness, and alienation. Instant access to the ‘real’ through images has a feeling of depletion and separation from reality. It has been held an obvious truth, despite all that images offer us in the way of ‘true documentation’, that all this image-consumption is not vitalising, it even appears hateful at times (the bombardment of ads and frank lies).
Image-surfeit has reached a point where things we may think would have been a grand occasion – the first photo of a sun-set for example, have now entered a new phase. This is not to say that a photo, especially if it’s for a private store of memories with their associations, becomes hackneyed, but there is a sense that if you are taking a photo to take a photo then it is probably in search of something “new”, an odd angle, or some kind of experimentation with the image. Things that are measurements of time, such as a holiday sunset can go on “reels” as a passing footnote to an experience. There is, also, the parody – the ripping out of context and placing in other orders: Dadaist photo-montage, or Terry Gilliam’s work in those Monty Python interludes, are some examples. With the accessibility of the image now instant, and the ability to manipulate in whatever order, the image can keep entertaining new contexts, and they can be re-captioned: satirical, or fake news. We are, most of the time, very adept now at understanding all these things which if explained seem quite complex, image and meaning-wise; it amounts to meeting a reality, visually, that multiplies endlessly. It is undeniable despite any reservations about “truth”, that the photograph has the potential to possess the strongest emotions, something we cannot let go, a nostalgic groping for our own lives.
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Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Fraser include Art Brut, Thoughts on Science Fiction and Kraftwerk.
You can also find Carl Kruse on Stage 32 and Kruse on Medium and his photos on Carl Kruse Fstoppers.