An Uncertain World.
A painter has a million ways of making a mark. The photographer has few controls; principally viewpoint, framing, depth of focus, exposure.
Modernism embraced these limitations, celebrating photography as a discreet, medium. Each photograph was an honest moment, a slice of life. The medium’s lack of plasticity was it’s strength.
It wasn’t just another type of mark; photography had it’s own idiosyncratic characteristics. It froze time, recorded a myriad of incidental details, captured the thing itself. Its very un-selectivity was a guarantee of authenticity. The photographer didn’t begin with a blank canvas, he began with the world.
The earliest known surviving photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827. The image, which depicted the view from an upstairs window, revealed the documentary power of the new medium, an accurate recreation of the visible world. But it also showed the difference between photographic and human vision. The eight hour exposure produced shadows on both sides of the building and no living things registered.
As photographic materials became more sensitive to light, shutter speeds fell from hours to minutes to fractions of a second. New pictorial effects appeared-smears, blurs, double exposures, horses hooves in unlikely configurations.(1) Light dissolved ethereally through leaves and around faces-the effect of halation, a reflecting and scattering of light through the emulsion. Depending on the shutter speed, a wave breaking onto rock could dissolve into gentle mists or hang in a suspended frozen sheet. Different lenses (which facilitated changes in viewpoint), altered the perspective between foreground and background. It was as if the way things looked was contingent on who or what was doing the seeing. The camera’s eye was increasingly fluid, variable, distinct from human vision.
A hundred and fifty years later, digital photography atomised Niepce’s world and remade it. The new technology mimicked traditional controls but also vastly increased them; software could now ‘alter’ the shutter speed, change perspective and depth of field and exercise massive and precise control over each minute picture element- pixel hue, saturation and luminance. Moreover it was now possible to manipulate separately shot elements and montage them seamlessly together.
At the dawn of photography, the painter Delaroche had famously declared, from today painting is dead. Instead, painting was freed from the need to conjure up photographic representations. With the development of digital imaging, the medium’s propensity for straight documentary recording had been -at least potentially- fatally wounded.
But the camera has never been an altogether reliable witness, photographs have always been made as much as taken, constructed, not just grabbed. The medium is far more aggressive and intrusive than generally assumed; the camera always has a point of view.
The problem is bigger than this. We perceive the world with senses (including 3D vision) which feed complex real-time streams of information into the brain. Photographs discard four senses completely and reduce the fifth to a flat, one-eyed, frozen miniature. The Grand Canyon is twenty miles across, a snapshot of it less than 20 cm. Waves are neither mist nor suspended sheets. The real seashore has salty air and the texture of sand.
Photographs work because they are fundamentally evocative; re-presentations partnered with memory. A picture of tree blossom conjures up a long gone spring morning, one captured iconic sunrise can join together a hundred half-remembered dawns.
Lost in translation
Although photographs appear to directly re-present the world (unlike language - a referring system), they too have to be translated. The fact a small flat coloured rectangle is readily accepted as a representation of the world is testament to the complexity of brains, not the brilliance of the medium. How many species recognise themselves in a snapshot?
The phonemes which form the words which make up this sentence are decoded to make meaning. Language consists of an arbitrary system of signs. Arbitrary because there is no permanent, universal relationship between sign and signified. This is why children learn alphabets and the United Nations employs translators.
As long as an image appears to be a piece of the world-rather than the words of a foreign language-we merely gaze. When signifier and signified are envisaged as identical, there’s nothing to interpret. But if signs and signifiers are seen as separate, their relationship will be investigated, the link decoded. It’s the difference between an image of a dog and the word dog. The word is not the animal. Neither is the image, but because the photograph re-presents the animal the semiotic distance is concealed. For an english speaker, however, there’s an obvious distance between perro and dog (perro = spanish for dog). Translation makes the separation of sign and signifier apparent.
Semiotics- investigating how meaning is created and communicated-uses the terms denotation and connotation to explain this process. Denotation is the explicit, direct meaning (an image of a rose) Connotation is what is suggested, implied, evoked
( love). There is no logical or permanent link between sign and signified. A rose could be associated with hate in the same way that a dog can be perro (or chien or hund).
Because photography is so good at mimetic representation, photographs tend to be viewed rather than read-as if what they are of must always be what they are about. Connotation is mistaken for denotation. Roland Barthes the French literary critic, literary and social theorist, philosopher and semiotician came to the conclusion that denotation is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so; under this illusion, it is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations.
The particular problem for camera-based work is that as long as sign and signifier are seen as equivalent, there's nothing to do. But a degree of distance between sign and signifier, disrupts the gaze. Now there is not only a piece of the world but also a text.
Photographs can be complex, enigmatic, difficult, they can’t be taken for granted. That they make sense to us at all is a triumph of the brain, not a feature of the medium. The camera is not just an eye. But then neither of course is the eye.
(1) Eadweard Muybridge 1830 – 8 May 1904 was an English photographer known for his pioneering work on animal locomotion. Between 1878 and 1884, Muybridge perfected a method of photographing galloping horses , proving that all four hooves are off the ground simultaneously.