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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Roland Barthes

This essay is a classic semiotic text where Roland Barthes analyses an advertising image and uses it as a means of teasing out how different messages are conveyed by a system of signs. The ad he uses is the Panzani advert, within which he finds a rich layering of meanings.

Barthes commences by remarking that the word image stems from a Latin term meaning ‘imitation’ and then poses the central question of his essay – can images truly function of conveyers of meaning given that they are essentially imitations (or direct analogical representations) of something else. Do they really constitute a language, and if they do, how does meaning work within this language? He uses an advertising image to analyze these questions, as advertising images clearly have intended meanings. The image used is the Panzani ad which is reproduced below.

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After finding aspects of Stuart Hall’s text difficult to grasp in parts I turned to a chapter from Photography: A Critical Introduction (edited by Liz Wells) to try and get a better handle on the relevance of psyschoanalytic theory to photography criticism. It explains Freud’s take on voyeurism and fetishism clearly and concisely.

Representations of the human body have become a central part of photographic practice and consequent critical discussion since the 1980s. Numerous issues have driven this – body politics, feminist challenges to the representation of the female body, the AIDS crisis, censorship struggles and the foregrounding of issues around gender and sexuality. Henning’s piece discusses how the human body is represented photographically, both in a historical and a contemporary context.

She commences with a description of some historical attemps to use photography to read the human body. Physiognomy and phrenology were employed from the mid 19th century onwards as a means of classifying people according to social and racial types, with photography acting as the key enabler of this. While these ideas have long been discredited, both John Tagg and Allan Sekula have pointed out that they continue to be used as a form of social control by way of photographic police archives. The implicit racism of these 19th Century ideas were later made explicit via Nazism, with its insistence on the moral superiority of certain races and classes. (more…)

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This entry discusses an extract from the book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. In it, Stuart Hall examines stereotyping and how this practice is employed to construct negative representations of people and groups.

We routinely make sense of the world using types – broad categories of things with common characteristics. This allows us to categorise things in a meaningful way, and in turn draw conclusions and extrapolate information about something based on previous experience of things of the same, or similar, type. This is commonly done with people and is not by definition negative. For example, we assign certain traits to roles such as parent, businessperson, pensioner and so on. Stereotypes on the other hand, while classifying people in a similar manner, reduce the person to those simplified and exaggerated characteristics, admit no possibility of change, and insist that these characteristic are natural. Any complexity is ignored and denied, and it is implied that everything that is necessary to know about the person can be known by referring to the traits of the stereotype. In essence a stereotype declares “this is what you are, and this is all you are”.

Stereotyping also deploys a strategy of splitting – where those who do not fit society’s norms are excluded, and their exclusion is copper-fastened by fitting them to a set of stereotypes deemed unacceptable – the ‘Other’. This denies the possibility of any meaningful discourse about them or with them, and ensures their continued exclusion.  This proves most effective when gross inequalities of power allow the dominant group to employ the strategy without challenge. (more…)

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In this article Levi-Strauss writes about the relationship between aesthetics and politics in social documentary photography and essentially mounts a defence of the role of the aesthetic within this genre.

He starts by observing that the right in America have always recognised the subversive, and deeply political role, of the aesthetic in art and this explains their hostility to it. On the other hand, left-wing critics and theorists (Rosler et al.) have made ubiquitous a view that denies a central role for aesthetics in genres such as documentary. An example of this in mainstream writing would be Ingrid Sichy’s criticism of Sebastiao Salgado, which upbraids him on numerous fronts, but in particular accuses him of being more interested in the aesthetics of his images than in the plight of his subjects.

Levi-Strauss identifies the roots of this viewpoint to be the writings of Walter Benjamin in the 1930s but denies that Benjamin’s criticisms are applicable to contemporary photographers such as Salgado. His basis for this is that Benjamin had in mind a particular movement (New Objectivity) which explicitly presented poverty and political struggle as objects of “comfortable contemplation”, whereas Salgado’s work shows real solidarity with his subjects and aims to confront viewers with the reality of hunger, tragedy and suffering. (more…)

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Martha Rosler is a visual artist whose writings on photography theory have been widely influential over the last two decades. In this essay, her concern is with how documentary photography can continue to function in the postmoden world.

The traditional practice of social documentary photography as a means of helping underprivileged, dispossessed or marginalised groups has become deeply problematic for a number of reasons. Chief among these is that photography’s status as a unique medium for offering direct insight into truthful reality has been destroyed – by the widespread use of digital manipulation on the one hand, and by the postmodern tendency to question and analyse the motives of the photographer (and dissect the possible multiple meanings of the work they produce) on the other.

The role of the documentarian as the privileged outsider shedding light on those underprivileged communities fortunate to benefit from the attention of his/her lens is no longer tenable. At the same time, the idea that marginalised communities should document their own struggles without the interference of “outside” agents is also fraught with difficulty, not least of which is the impossibility of defining what “outside” actually means in many contexts. (more…)

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Cover Image of Criticizing Photographs by Terry BarrettTerry Barrett’s book Criticizing Photographs is a general introduction to photography theory with an emphasis on criticism – it aims to show the reader why criticism is important, how to understand photography criticism, and how to read photographs critically.

This is a pretty good introduction to the area of photography criticism. I’m not going to attempt a summary of an entire book but suffice to say Barrett is big on classification. He starts by classifying the act of criticism into four activities: describing, interpreting, evaluating and theorizing. He then takes each of these activities in turn and analyzes what is involved in each, using plenty of examples. This approach may well be too simplistic for some, but for those of us just starting to grapple with this stuff it provides a useful map of the terrain.

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Susan Sontag’s On Photography is a text that every photography theory student grapples with at one point or another. I read it myself a good year before starting this course but if there was ever a case of something you read going in one eye and out the other this was it. Second time around it’s a bit more accessible but the sheer density of ideas in it makes it a challenging read. “The Image World” is the last essay in the book and sums up many of the ideas that went before.

In spite of the claims of science and humanism that an objective non-image based understanding of reality is now possible, our culture has become more and more dependent on images, rather than less, and this can be attributed to the influence of photography. Photography and the “Image World” that it creates, has unique and peculiar properties that make it radically different to other forms of image-making, and Sontag’s essay explores the ramifications of this.

Photography can provide knowledge independent of experience and can capture, classify and store the information in a way that provides possibilities for control not feasible under earlier forms of information storage. It is an incomparable tool for predicting, analysing and controlling behavior because it is closer to the real, in fact it is a “trace, something directly stenciled off the real”. Like Barthes, in Camera Lucida, Sontag sees photographs, and the reality they depict, as inextricably linked. A photograph is an “extension of the subject” and a “potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it”. This echoes pre-Christian attitudes towards the image: photography has rekindled “something like the primitive status of images”.

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