Posts Tagged ‘photography’

from The Photography Reader, edited by Liz Wells

Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is a classic text of the realist school of Photography theory. I’ve been reading extracts from it as published in The Photography Reader (ed. Liz Wells). This post covers parts 1, 2,4 and 5 of the original text.

Barthes commences by describing how a photograph of Napoleon’s brother caused him to start questioning what is the essence of photography’s uniqueness, and to what extent photography has a ‘genius’ of it’s own. He rejects the idea of trying to understand photography in terms of classification systems on the grounds that those systems can just as easily be applied to other forms of visual representation and hence can’t possibly get to the heart of photography’s uniqueness.

His first insight is that a photography captures a unique event that can never re-occur. Furthermore, each photograph is intrinsically bound to this event, or referent (or vice versa): the referent cannot be photographed again, the photograph cannot be retaken in order to point to a different referent. This strongly emphasizes the realist view that the photograph is the referent, and it is pointless to speak of the photograph as some sort of entity with its own life, unshackled from the referent.

He claims that there is no particular reason to choose a particular moment or event as referent (as any other might just as easily have been chosen) and hence photography is unclassifiable, has no meaning in itself. Books on photography, whether technical, historical or sociological, infuriate him for this reason, and because they tell him to shun the sort of ‘Amateur Photography’ that he enjoys – the sort of photography that is all about the referent and nothing else, such as family pictures.


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from Documentary Now! Contemporary Strategies in Photography, Film and the VisDocumentary Now!ual Arts

In this essay Maartje van den Heuvel examines the engagement of documentary photography with the art world and argues that we should consider this in the context of an increased visual literacy in our society, with documentary increasingly being used to hold a mirror to this visual culture.

Documentary photography has undergone radical changes in the last two decades as it has become increasingly appropriated into the art world.  Many people have questioned whether this signifies a new path for documentary and to what extent it can still function effectively in this new domain. Maartje van den Heuvel asserts that while these questions are continually under discussion, it is unwise to attempt to analyze this as an isloated phenomenon, but rather we should be considering it in the wider context of an ever-increasing visual literacy among our artists and our society as a whole.

She explains that our culture is becoming increasingly visual with an associated increase in visual literacy among viewers, consumers, image-makers and artists. Visually literate artists use visual means to analyze, reflect upon, and dissect all aspects of this visual culture and doumentary photography is but one aspect to be considered in this way. Contemporary artists who work in documentary photography are therefore often better understood as artists using the medium and conventions of documentary photography to examine documentary photography itself, along with it’s role in society and culture, rather than as documentary photographers pushing their work into the realms of art. The essay examines the work of documentary photographers with this in mind, and seeks to demonstrate that this signifies a general increase in visual literacy.


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