Notes from a paper given in 2015 at Plymouth College of Art | video to follow
In this paper I wish to present a number of arguments that challenge our received ideas of what photography and photographs are and are becoming. I will begin with a consideration of the increasing disappearance and mutation of what is a camera. By this I mean the sense in which the term camera as an object, as device, directly connected to photographic image making may no longer be a relevant or indeed significant relationship. Camera functions are located within virtually all smart phones, tablets and computers. Yet we do not primarily consider these devices to be cameras in their own right. Similarly, if we examine the cameras themselves from manufacturers such as Canon or Nikon it is clear that many of these no longer function as devices with which we can only make photographs. Cameras are now also devices for viewing photographs and for connecting photographs to a wider network.
I will also consider what photographs once did and what they now do. I will ask how this change in their function may not be necessarily obvious – to the extent that we may still be asking the same old questions about what is essentially a new subject. Rather than simply trying to find modified or renewed answers, I therefore suggest that we may need to formulate new questions in order to understand what photography has become.
“The decisive moment” is a term used to define certain types of photographs. French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson believed “The Decisive Moment” was the split second of genius and inspiration that a photographer had to capture a specific moment. It is a point in time when all the formal compositional elements of the picture come together. He wrote: the photographer ‘composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action’ (Cartier-Bresson, 1999: 33). It was Cartier-Bresson’s term ‘the decisive moment’ that summarised a new way of seeing, capturing and understanding the events of the world around us.
My inversion of the word ‘decisive’ to ‘indecisive’ in my talk’s title is not necessarily to invoke a sense of indecision, of hesitancy. Instead, I use it to suggest uncertainty as to when a specific instant may occur. Most importantly, I use it to highlight that there is something happening ‘before’ and ‘after’ any single moment. Roland Barthes suggested a photograph presents an illogical conjunction of the here and the formally. In this sense the ‘former’ past is presented ‘here’ to us on the surface of the photograph. The here and now time of photograph is, of course, actually any time at all. While we often restrict our understanding of photographs to what appears to be a backward looking perspective. I believe there is importance and value in considering how photographs are understood in the future. A future time is a time when an image will be looked at again. It is with this anticipation of the future time, when the photograph will be looked at, that an image is usually created in the first instance. As I stated in the introduction, the integration of technology that enables viewing of images within the devices that capture them, means the future moment of looking at photographs is often very close to the instant when the image was taken. I believe the complex relationship with time that photography is currently under-researched in terms of the anticipatory nature of the digital images we take. Any sense of photographic time should take into account equally a timeline of past, present and future images.
Media theorist Lev Manovich has suggested that time is spatialised over the surface of the screen. His suggestion is that we experience modernist represented time as a ‘homogenous event’ even when it is expressed as spread out and distributed. In its cinematic form, time is invariably represented as a component of narrative structure in the same way that dialogue and plot are devices used to ‘tell a story’.
Philosopher Gilles Deleuze conceptualised what he called the ‘time-image’ – an image which breaks from the classical, Hollywood, understanding of time. Deleuze’s understanding of time emerges through Henri Bergson’s account of clock-time in which moments are broken up into discrete instances – the ticking of the clock, the successive decisive moments of our photographs: tick-tock, click, click, click.
For Bergson and subsequently for Deleuze, drawing on Bergson, time is not understood as discrete, contained instances. Rather time flows, such that the present is penetrated by both past and future in the sensations of memories (about the past) and desire (relating to the potential future). We may experience something of time’s elasticity when the day feels as though it is running slowly, when we are bored, compared perhaps with how fast time passes when we are experiencing some form of enjoyment. For Bergson, reality is characterised by different experiences of time that take place in the mind. Time should not therefore be understood as a fixed stable phenomena but a personal, variable, flexible experience.
Images – or more specifically in keeping with the emphasis of my paper, photographs – are ways of slicing through time. With the development of photography in the 19th and 20th Century, perception of the world became dominated by instant and privileged views. Bergson summarizes the photographic instance:
“Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially . . . We take snapshots, as it were, of the passing reality, and, as these are characteristic of the reality, we have only to string them on a becoming . . . Perception, intellection, language so proceed in general. Whether we would think becoming, or express it, or even perceive it, we hardly do anything else that set going a kind of cinematograph inside us.”
Through photography, moments become the defining characteristics of perception. Appreciating the moment (arrival, departures, moments to remember etc.) is taken for being perception itself. As Damian Sutton has stated:
“Time and space are understood only through reflexive experience: to appreciate the now in which we live. This stringing together of moments is just as much a false perception of experience as cinema is a false illusion of movement.”
Bergson suggested that reality is constructed and goes on through the indivisible realm of durée. However, our minds fragment this experience in order to make it feel more manageable. Since we cannot ever cease the flow of durée we make an attempt to arrest it, by breaking it down into moments and order – our perception is therefore at odds with how Bergson suggests reality actually is.
I argue as we cut or slice through time with our photographic images, we not only create photographic moments in which time is interrupted and experienced in a fragmentary way, but also, through the multiple instances of photographic mediums, we are situated not only ‘with’ media but also ‘in’ media. Photography is becoming less momentary or instantaneous. That is not to suggest we are not taking quick, grabbed, spontaneous images – we are, and lots of them. What I am suggesting is that our indecisive moments usually result in a prolonging of our sense of time – an elongation of the temporal. We take more images not because these are all decided upon at the moment we take them. We take more images precisely because we are indecisive, because there is always another moment to fragment and to break down. It is this extending of the temporal register connected to photography contributes toward a different understanding of photography and to perception itself. Perception has with the age of the networked image become more closely connected to being ‘with’ and ‘in’ or precisely our being ‘within’ media.
This shift from ‘decisive moment’ toward an expanded and anticipated moment of post-productivity has created a new photographic event. I suggest such a modification of our conception of photography focuses our attention away from any clearly false sense of photographic truth, toward the deliberate creation of ‘future memories’ and with it the networked image.
I should qualify a term here – my use of the term ‘post-production’ does not exclusively suggest the use of Photoshop or Lightroom software to change, alter or modify an image. I also use it to indicate a transformative process in which the digital photograph becomes part of the network of other images. Therefore uploading, tagging and sharing are a significant part of my understanding of the term post-production.
I shall now attempt to outline something of what I see as some of the instances of photography.
The first instance:
In the first instance of photography I argue we are, or at least as visual scholars we should be, increasingly aware that the photographs we take are little more than the ‘tribute bands’ of other images. Whenever we take a photograph we are all perfecting skills of ‘photographic karaoke.’
A simple Google image search reveals the extent to which our photographic image ideas are far from unique and original. They exist long before we even have them. In fact, it may be useful to remind ourselves that the ideas for our images – their social and cultural context pre-exist any visual conception. These ideas are in essence projected onto the world we see and we occasionally create or make images translated from these ideas. We may think we are ‘finding images’ out there, that in someway we be able to materialise the ‘artistic genius’ that has laid dormant in ourselves during so many previous photo shoots. In fact we are just following the instructions to re-create the already seen.
Paul Frosh suggests images are now produced on an industrial scale, their future use is often speculative and their form is usually bland, repetitive and designed to be ‘overlooked.’ Together, they form what he describes as the wallpaper of visual culture. While Frosh’s analysis is largely centred on the ‘stock image,’ he has also more recently looked at other culturally significant forms such as the selfie. In summary, it is the repeated duplication of visual tropes that dominates digital photographic production.
What should we think about this? What questions can we begin to ask about this first instance of what has been termed ubiquitous photography, photography that is everywhere? If we return to the question of how perception is formed and if, as Bergson and Deleuze suggest, all life is image. Then we have every right to be alarmed at the homogenisation of image as life. We should be all the more ready to critique of the general trend to produce so many interchangeable images.
Furthermore, we should examine closely what these specific representations actually say about ourselves. In terms of the ‘selfie,’ such images are less about indexicality – about the impression of reality on the surface of the image – and are more closely connected to ‘action enacted’ by the photographer. Photographs like the selfie have become conversational – used in applications like Instagram, Whatsapp and Snapchat – they state something of the proximities of being both here and there within a culture of mobility.
As Frosh points out the selfie goes beyond this complex to declare something which is not just “see this, here, now” but also “see me showing you me.” Building on Frosh I see the instances of oft repeated images as gestures toward mediation – the articulation of a language from within it, while proposing to be outside of it.
The second instance:
Post-photography or photography after photography suggests a sense of how photographs are made after the conditions of taking a photograph – in the conventional sense – are created. This may be simply in the review process on the back of the digital camera screen or on a mobile phone camera. It may also be in the more complex engagement with post-production tasks using computer-based software.
The photograph, as reviewed, is only decided upon after the decisive moment has passed. This may not be seen as dramatically different from Cartier-Bresson’s selection from a contact sheet perhaps. But I argue that the re-assurance an instant review process gives, undermines the sense there being any perceived decisive moment. There are merely many moments, which we can later decide upon. This disconnection from what we might term as historically conventional or analogue photographic time to ‘real-time’ viewing changes the emphasis of photography, such that the camera mutates from an apparatus of recording to being just as importantly a device for playback.
Beyond reviewing images on a recording device we are now presented with a choice of how what we have taken will be finally seen. In the past the chemical process of negative to print or of film to slideshow was predetermined. While there was opportunity to manipulate, modify and improve our photographs in this process it was most usually a procedure reserved for professionals, artists and very keen amateurs. Even then, beyond the print stage there were only a few options of destinations for photographs – the photographic album being the most obvious one. Today we have an expanded post-production process, one much more readily accessible to anyone with a reasonable computer or even on their smart mobile device.
The destination of photographs may be the Internet or our TV screens or as I stated earlier in the form of utterances across mobile application conversations. Critical in the conception of the second instance of photography is the hybrid nature of the digital image – it can be used multiple times, it can be incorporated into other mediums such as video or with other images.
The destination of images is also strongly connected to a sense of sharing and sociability. Images are created to attract ‘likes,’ to gather followers, to engage conversations with friends, to convey a sense of activity or location and elicit responses from others. It is the anticipation of these forms that is one of the key drivers of image making. The reviewing of imagery allows us to create images we believe will work for us. In this sense we create images with a view to knowing or at least hoping what responses they may achieve. We gravitate toward what we know has succeeded before.
Photography is in this sense an agent or as Gomez-Cruz & Meyer stated is a “socio-technical network,” containing multiple agents that grow daily. They go on to assert the iPhone (or any mobile device) as being significant since it enrols different actors – professional and amateur photographers, media, software companies, social networks and general users. In addition mobility – the cornerstone of mobile phones and their cameras – also offer connectivity.
The third instance:
“It’s not what we do, it’s what we’re photographed doing that matters” – says ‘M’ in the film Casino Royale, when she discovers her agent James Bond has been photographed by CCTV breaking into a foreign embassy and shooting a terrorist. In The Independent (14 May 04), Terence Blacker observed that the fascination of cruelty is now so pervasive that we hardly notice it’s there. He believes there is a direct line from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to millions of home computers across the western world. Pictures not at all dissimilar to the shocking images from Abu Ghraib are available as a form of home entertainment:
“If you tap the words ‘torture’, ‘rape’ or ‘slave’ into a search engine, you will not be led to human rights organizations or academic reports, but to thousand upon thousand of websites specialising in recreational sadism. All this is mind-bogglingly profitable, because it taps into the age’s most compelling vices and weaknesses: cruelty, voyeurism, boredom. The problem is consumers are never satisfied by what they’re offered.”
What ever we do, what ever occupies us, from the meals we eat, the clothes we buy, the planes we travel on or the random moments we experience, these are all now transformed through the labour of image making. We are, it would seem, blessed with enough surplus time, to record the limited time we have to be alive. But most worryingly in this trend is the seemingly insatiable desire to not only photograph the good and the funny but also to make images of the bad and the ugly. To save the world of shock to the same folder on the same drive as the world of big eyed cats, sunsets and selfies.
The Fourth Instance
Having come through a linguistic and semiotic account of photography in my own education, I do at times find myself bewildered by the sense in which, at that time during the eighties, I did not examine more deeply my own uncertainties about some of the things I was being taught. Actually, perhaps I should re-examine that process because some of the things I was being taught – in the strictly post-structural, post-modernist sense and through Freudian psychoanalysis were very much challenging the order of the Sausserian model of structural linguistics and the construction of the signifier and signified. It’s just the theoretical framework hadn’t been fully constructed at that time so questioning the question didn’t appear to be appropriate.
It is then, with some relief and also with a degree of anxiousness that I have come to understand and embrace ideas associated with non-representational theories, with affect and what I feel is most appropriate an understanding of the figural.
I use the term figural to identify a concept that describes a mutation of representational practice apparent in contemporary society. The figural cannot be expressed through linguistic or semiotic frameworks nor can it be understood through aesthetic theories. It is a concept that allows for the understanding of the transformation of discourse. This not only results in a loosening of a relationship between signifier and signified but also exposes a dialectical relationship of different approaches. The figural is of course more than these simple oppositions; it also expresses something of the temporal and spatial disjunctions we encounter in the form of the image, today.
Photography should no longer be understood as the relatively simple process of writing with light. It should no longer be reduced to this procedural account of what it is. Photography is detaching itself from any representational understanding into becoming a diversity not just of practice but also of thinking. The world is has never been ‘out there’ waiting to be photographed. Instead, the ‘world as photograph’ is what we imagine to be out there. In this simple reversal there is much can be revealed about the mediated life we live. Perhaps more importantly, who controls and in whose interest is the labour we invest in creating the ‘world as photograph?’