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Posts Tagged ‘realism’

Graham Harman is an interesting character. He’s a leading figure in contemporary philosophy and holds a professorship at the American University in Cairo, yet earlier in life had a stint working as a sports writer in Chicago. It seems an unlikely trajectory, but for Harman it makes perfect sense, as his work insists on grappling with the real stuff of the world rather than retreating entirely into the mysteries of abstract thought. This might sound slightly dull but in fact it is anything but. Harman manages to mystify this real stuff, so much so that after spending some time reading him, I can’t look at my toaster in quite the same way anymore. Based on my somewhat cursory exposure to his work, I’m going to try and quickly sketch out some of his basic ideas. I can’t possibly do them justice but I’m going to try anyway because I think they lead to an interesting new way of thinking about these photographs I am doing. Apologies in advance to any students of philosophy reading this. It might be best if you stop here. (more…)

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This is a picture of Daniel Johnston playing in Vicar Street earlier this year. I have already posted a shot from this gig on the blog but was never entirely happy with it. The stage was too bright and crowd was too dark – a common problem. I went back to look again at the negatives from that night when a friend of mine asked me to make him a print. I wanted to see if I could do something better with them so, with the help of David Monahan, I started experimenting with scanning them in and digitally combining the negatives to get the perfect shot. (more…)

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In this essay, written in 1995, Lev Manovich explores the ramifications of digital technology and photography. He asks if such a thing as digital photography really exists, and to what extent this really differs from traditional photographic practice.

Manovich starts by referring to a range of digital innovations that have transformed the practice of image production and manipulation, innovations that would lead most people to the conclusion that the fundamental nature of the photograph has radically changed.  The aim of his essay is to question whether this is really the case, and to expose a number of paradoxes at the heart of digital photography that become apparent when we attempt such questioning. His position is that it does not – that, in fact, digital photography does not exist.

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John Szarkowski’s book The Photographers Eye was based on an exhibition of the same name held at the Musuem Of Modern Art in New Work in 1964. It featured the work of Friedlander, Evans, Strand and many others, and attempted to give an overview of the fundamental challenges and opportunities of the photographic medium. In the introduction to the book, he offers a brief historical overview of photography in terms of how it has evolved and how he sees it as a unique artistic medium.

Szarkowski begins by stating a core tenet of his outlook on photography which is that it is fundamentally different from other picture-making processes in that it is based on selection rather than synthesis – the photographer takes elements of the real world for his picture, whereas the painter makes the elements of his picture from scratch. This immediately posed a new creative dilemma – how can this process be used to create meaningful pictures and valid art? This question would not be answered by means of recourse to existing theories of visual art, but instead tackled by a rag-bag consortium of commercial photographers, amateur enthusiasts and casual snap-shooters, who may not have been consciously trying to answer it at all, but nevertheless have managed to evolve an aesthetic practice that defines what photography is. (more…)

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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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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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