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The Photography Reader

Liz Wells, editor.

Part 1: Reflections on Photography

Mitchell w.j.t –  Benjamin and the political economy of the photograph.

  • Walter Benjamin provide the most developed expression of Marxist theory. Both Marxist and capitalist sides.
  • He hails the invention of photography as “the first truly revolutionary means of production” a medium that was invented “simultaneously with the rise of production.”
  • Is it an instrument of “contemplative materialism, a purely ideological apparatus, whose monocular vision ratifies the metaphysical centering on the subject in bourgeois humanism, as Marcel Pleynet contends.”
  • He can absorb the dispute between the scientific and ideological views in the same way that Marx absorbed the debate between idealism and empiricism.

(Mitchell w.j.t, 1986, Benjamin and the political economy of the photograph, University of Chicago.)

Wright, Morris –            In our image.

  • There is a history of darkness in the making of images. At Peche Merle, in the recesses of caves, the torchlit of worship and magic, images of matchless power were painted on the walls and ceilings. Man’s faculty for image making matched his need for images.
  • The multifaced aspect of reality has been commonplace since cubism, but we continue to see what we will, rather than what is there.
  • The photographic likeness gratifies the viewer in a manner that lay too deep for words. Words, indeed, appeared to be superfluous.

(Wright, Morris, 1981, In our image, University of New Mexico.)

Wollen, Peter –            Fire and Ice

  • The lover of photography is fascinated both by the instant and by the past.
  • Barthes’ aesthetic is governed by a prejudice against linear time and especially against narrative, the privaliged form of linear time, which he regarded with high-modernist scorn and disdain.
  • The documentary would imply the narrative, is anything going to happen to interrupt this? What was it like just before and what’s the result going to be?

(Wollen, Peter, 1984, Fire and Ice, in Other than itself, Cornerhouse.)

Part 2:                        Photographic seeing


  • Vertov is right, the task of the camera is not to imitate the human eye, but to record what the human eye normally does not.
  • Bazin argues that photography was at its most authentic when intervention on the part of the filmmaker was mininmised.
  • Barthes and others proposed, ‘the death of the author’, arguing that meaning emerged through symbolic convention, and that the image-maker was merely an agent for recirculation of conventional imagery.
  • Burgin – employs semiotic and psychoanalytic modals in order to produce a representation of the image and the position offered to the viewer in terms of ideology and subjectivity.

Part 3:                        Codes and Rhetoric

Burgin, Victor –             Looking at Photographs.

  • “although photographs may be shown in art galleries.. most photographs are not seen by deliberate choice… Films readily present themselves to critical attention as objects, photographs are received rather as an environment.”
  • “work in semiotics showed that there is no language of photography, no single signifying system.. There is rather a heterogeneous complex of codes upon which photography may draw.”
  • “Marxism and psychoanalysis have most informed semiotics in its moves to grasp the determinations of history and the subject in the production of meaning.”
  • “In its structuralist phase, semiotics viewed the text as the objective site of more or less determinate meanings produced on the basis of what significant systems were empirically identifiable as operate within the text.”
  • “this general symbolic order is the site of determinations through which human becomes a social human being, a self positioned in a network of relations to ‘others’.”
  • “which it rejects any absolute discontinuity between speaker and codes, also evicts the family figure of the artist as autonomous ego, transcending his or her own history and unconscious.”
  • “Though the agency of the frame the world is organised into a coherence which it actually lacks, into a parade of tableaux, a succession of ‘decisive moments’.”
  • Jacques Lacan: between its sixth and eighteenth month, the infant, which experiences its body as fragmented, uncentred, projects its potential unity, in the form of an ideal self, upon other bodies and upon its own reflection in a mirror; at this stage the child does not distinguish between itself and others, it is the other.(separation will come later through the knowledge of sexual difference, opening up the world of language, the symbolic order) The idea of a unified body necessary to the concept of self-identity has been formed, but only through a rejection of reality (difference).(The mirror phase as formative of the function of the I 1968)
  • “Two points in respect of the mirror stage of child development have been of particular interest to semiotic theory; first, the observed correlation between the formation of identity and the formation of images. Second, the fact that the child’s recognition of itself in the ‘imaginary order’.”
  • “Even in the presence of such obviousness another obviousness asserts itself – the very natural casualness of the scene presented to us disarms such analysis, an excessive response. But excess production is generally on the side of ideology.”
  • Film theory: “we can identify four types of look: the look of the camera as it photographs, the look of the viewer as they look at the photograph, the intradiegetic looks exchanged between people/objects, and the look the actor my direct towards the camera.”
  • “the frontal gaze… is a gaze commonly received when we look at ourselves in a mirror, we are invested with narcissistic identification. The dominant alternative is voyeurism.”
  • “photographs are deployed so that we do not look at them for long… as alienation intrudes into our captivation by the image we can, by averting our gaze or turning a page, reinvest our looking with authority. Scopophiia, sexually based pleasure in looking.”
  • “good composition therefore be no more or less than a set of devices for prolonging our imaginary command of the point of view, our self-assertion.”
  • “Composition is therefore a means of prolonging the imaginary force, the real power to please.”
  • “film as ‘wish fulfilling machines’ (Baudry, the apparatus) film has been compared with hypnosis. Spectacle desire.”
  • “work in semiotics has shown that a photograph is not to be reduced to pure form, nor window on the world, nor is it the gangway to the presence of an author.”

(Burgin, Victor, 1977, Looking at Photographs, screen education.)

Christian Metz –             Photography and fetish

  • photography is a mirror, more faithful than any other actual mirror, in which we witness at every age.
  • Freud has remarkably analysed in his famous study, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. The funeral rites which exist in all societies have a double, dialectically articulated signification; a remembering of the dead, but a remembering as well that they are dead.
  • Fetish – Freud’s conception, it is the equivalent of the penis, as the primordial displacement of the look aimed at replacing an absence by a presence… fetish always combines a double and contradictory function, on the side of metaphor (phallus) and on the side of metogmy, the wording off of the ordinary, permanent anxiety. E.g clothes at a strip show.
  • It is possible to consider psychoanalysis as the founding myth of our emotional modernity.

(Metz, Christian, 1985, Photography and fetish, MIT press.)

Part 4                        Photography and the Postmodern


  • While structualism sees truth as being behind or within a text, post-structualism stresses the interaction of reader and text as productivity.
  • Post-structualism.
  • 1. Jacque Derrida, concepts, by implication, the erasure of alternative referencing possibilities. Here emphasis is upon the play of meaning, its lack of fixity.
  • 2. Baudrillard, the postmodern dislocated any direct relation between the signifier and the real. Images were seen as central to consumer culture, but involved reference and discursive relations, rather than representation. The emphasis of the signifier.
  • 3. Third postmodern philosophy challenged the legitimising myths and narratives of the modern era. This included historical investigations by Faoucault and Jameson. Faucault excavated the contexts of power in which knowledges are asserted and assumed. Jameson, postmodernism is not a rupture of modern, but as a logical consequence of the relation between industry and consumerism. Marxism.
  • “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real…” Baudrillard, 1983, Simulations, New York.
  • One complication in arriving at any neat definition of postmodernism is that it means different things in different artistic media. The term first gained wide currency in the field of architecture.

Andy Grundburg –             The crisis of the real

  • It means an attack on modernism, an undercutting of its basic assumptions about the role of art in culture and about the role of the artist in relation to his or her art.
  • This undercutting function has come to be known as ‘deconstruction’ by Jacque Derrida. Behind it lies a theory about the way we perceive the world that is both rooted in, and reaction to structuralism.
  • Structualism is a theory of language and knowledge based on Saussure’s ‘Course in Genera!’. It is allied with the theory of semiotics, or signs, pioneered by Pierce.
  • What they have in common is the belief that things in the world, do not wear their meanings on their sleaves, Structualism provides a method that allows us to penentrate the deeper structure.
  • Structualism holds that the signifier is wholly arbitrary, a convention of social practice rather than universal law. It holds the obvious meaning is irrelevant, instead it finds t territory within the structure of things.
  • “Copernicus was followed by Marx, who claimed that the true significamce of social processes went on behind backs of individual agents, and after Marx Freud argued that the real meanings of our words and actions were quite imperceptible to the conscious mind. Structualism is the modern inheritor of this belief that reality, and our experience of it, are discontinuous with each other.” Eagleton P167.
  • Poststructualism with Derrida says that it only tells us what our perceptions are, not about conditions of the world.
  • The inability to have a pure, unblemished meaning or experience at all, is exactly the premise of art we’ll call postmodernist.
  • It is a crisis which photography and all other forms of art face in the late twentieth century.
  • Postmodernist art is oppositional in two ways, as counter to modernist tradition and counter to ruling mythologies, which normally led to the creation of modernism in the first place.
  • This self-conscious awareness of being in a camera-based and camera bound culture is an essential feature of contemporary photography that is postmodernist.
  • Prince implies the exhaustion of the image universe; it suggests that a photographer can find more than enough images already existing.
  • “for the heavenly fire no longer strikes depraved cities it is rather the lens which cuts through ordinary reality like a laser, putting it to death.” Baudrillard, simulations.
  • There is no place in the postmodern world for a belief in the authenticity of experience, in the sanctity of the individual artistic vision, in genius or originality.
  • What postmodern art finally tells us is that things have been used up, that we are at the end of the line, that we are all prisoners of what we see… and it takes no great imagination to see that photography, as the nearly indiscriminate producer of images, is in large part responsible for them.

(Grundburg, Andy, 1999, The crisis of the real.)

Steve Edwards –            Snapshots of history.

  • For in our age the mass media saturates all experience. We live in, and through, the network of signs. Information swirls around us in a vast process of exchange, no longer coming to rest on an object. It is clear to Lyotard and others, that information is the principle force of production. They claim our world is that of simulacrum – the exact copy of a world that never existed.
  • What Saussare did was to point out that language is arbitrary, having no necessary connection to which it is assumed to refer.
  • This formal and autonomous system necessitated, at the level of abstraction at least, the privileging of Langue (system) of Parole (words).
  • Saussurian sign is best understood on the modals of the commodity which represses the modals of its production in order to present itself as pure and unmediated exchange.

Part 6                                    Documentary and Photojournalism

Martin Rosler –             In around and after thoughts

  • Manipulated photographs draws information together to make a point, just as journalists draw upon notes and interviews in order to weave a story.
  • The foundamental issues are ethicial, relating primarily not to questions of naturalistic accuracy, but to seriousness of purpose, detail and depth of research, and to integrity of story-telling.
  • Photographs give us an unearned sense of familiarity with and knowledge about the world (sontag 1979)
  • Riss, Jacob – The Making of a American – we used to go in the small hours of the morning to the worst tenements, and the sightrs I saw there gripped my heart until I felt that  I must tell of them, or burst, or turn anarchist.
  • It did not percive those wrongs as fundamental to the social system that tolertated them – the assumption that they were tolerated rather than bred marks a basic fallacy of social work. Reformers like Riis and Margaret Sanger strongly appealed to the worry that the ravages of poverty, crime, immorality, prostitution, disease, radicalism, would threaten the health and security of polite society as well as by sympathy for the poor, and their appeals were often meant to awaken the self-interest of the privileged.
  • The war on poverty has been called off. Utopia has been abandoned, and liberalism itself has been deserted. There is no organised national left, only a right. There is not even drunkeness, only substance abuse.
  • The expose, the compassion and outrage, of documentaryfueled by the dedications to reform has shaded over into combinations of exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psycholgism and metaphysics, trophy hunting – and careerism.
  • The liberal documentary assuages any stirrings of conscience in its viewers the way scratching relieves an itch simultaneously reassures them about their relative wealth and social position.
  • Liberal documentary blames neither the victims not their wilful oppessors.
  • Documentary, us we know it, comes (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful.
  • As sixties radical chic has given way to eighties pugnacious self-interest, one displays one’s toughness in enduring a visual assault without a flinch, in jeering, or cheering.

John Berger –                         Photographs of Agony.

  • Many people would argue that such photographs remind us shockingly of the reality, the lived reality, behind the abstractions of political theory, casualty statistics ir news bulletins.
  • We are filled with either despair or indignation. Despair takes on some of the other suffering to no purpose. Indignation demands action.
  • The truth is that any response to that photographed moment is bound to be felt as inadequate.
  • What we are shown horrifies us. The next step should be for us to comfort our own lack of political freedom. In the political systems as they exist, we have no logical opportunity of effectively influencing the conduct of wars waged in our name.

Edmundo Desnoes –             Cuba made me so.

  • They are not reality, they form part of the language of culture.
  • A face whose tissues are healthy but whose expression reveals an interior corruption.
  • It is an instantaneous truth that has already ceased to exist.

Part 7:                                     The Photographic Gaze


  • Discussing classic Hollywood narrative cinema Laura Mulvey drew upon psychoanalysis to argue that images of women on screen are constructed for the gratification of the male spectator.
  • Freud’s discussion on voyeurism is premised on his proposition that scopophiilia, the desire to look, is a primary human instinct.
  • In patriarchal cultures the male i/eye is central within discourse and woman is ‘other’, in psychoanalytic terms she is complexly constructed as simultaneously the object of desire and a source of fears and insecurities.

McGrath, Roberta –            Feminism, photography and psychoanalysis

  • Sexual difference, masculinity and femininity, is not biologically determined but socially, psychologically and culturally constructed.
  • In the relationship, in the gap between artist and object, a gap which neither an art nor a technological history can bridge. This is the place of production: both material work carried out in the darkroom and work carried out in that other dark space, the unconscious.
  • The photograph allows the voyeur to look without fear of retribution.
  • “she does not look, pretends she is not being looked at, and yet in the same moment we know very well that she knows.”
  • The condition for the photograph is precisely the absence of the real object.

Lutz, Catherine and Jane Collins, The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes

  • The gaze – whether from the photographer, the institution, the reader, or the person photographed – are ambiguous, charged with feeling and power, and are central to the stories (several and conflicting) that the photo could be said to tell.
  • The reader is “invited to dream in the ideological space of the photograph”. (Tagg 1988)
  • The look into the camera acknowledges the photographer and possibly the reader. Film theorists have disagreed about what this look does, some arguing that it short circuits the voyeurism identified as an important component of most photography:  there can be no peeping if the subject meets our gaze, or it implies a more open voyeurism.
  • The camera gaze can also establish at least the illusion of intimacy and communication… view the frontal shot as a device for cutting across language barriers and allowing for intercultural communication.
  • The photographed person is still subjected to an unreturnable gaze, not candid, and influenced by the photographer. (Tagg 1988.)
  • Those who are culturally defined by the west as weak – women, children, colour, poor, tribal rather than modern, those without technology, are more likely to face the camera.
  • It is also part of frontality’s work as ‘code of social infiority’ (Tagg 1988).
  • Off frame – it might portray either a dreamy, vacant, absent-minded person or forward looking future-oriented, and determined one.
  • Photographs now considered iconic representations of the Vietnam war do not include American soilders. The Buddhist monk, the napalmed girl… each of these images, frequently reproduced, erases American involvement.
  • In Lacan’s terms, the Other’s look could threaten a sense of self-coherence so in this historical moment the Westerner – whose presence in the picture makes it possible to see ourselves being seen by the Other, withdraws.
  • For many, self-knowledge is a central life goal; the injunction to ‘know thyself’ is taken seriously. The mirror most directly suggests the possibility of self-awareness.
  • The myth is that history and change are primarily characteristic of the West and that historical self-awareness was brought to the rest of the world with ‘discovery’ and colinisation.
  • In other pictures, the native holds the camera. This violates the prerogative of the Western surveyor to control the camera as well as other means of knowledge. From an early point in the history of photography; its users recognised that the camera was a form of power.
  • Rabinow (1986) suggests we denaturalise the images of difference in the magazine in part because those images and the institution which has produced them have historically articulated too easily with the shifting interests and positions of the state.

Part 8:             Image and Identity

  • Subjectivity develops and changes as a consequence of myriad encounters within the world of experience, including response to ways in which ideas, people and places are represented to us.

Bell, In Our Glory

  • All colonised and subjugated people who, by way of resistence creates an oppositional subculture within the framework of domination, recognise that the field of representation (how we see ourselves, how we see us) is a site of ongoing struggle.
  • You are there, it says, because I am looking at you. Fictively dramatising the way a photograph can have a living presence.
  • A friend and I lay out the snapshots of his boyhood, to see when he began to lose a certain openness, to shut down, close himself away. Through those images he hopes to find a way back.

Martin and Spence, Photo-Therapy

  • “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim; he, or she has become a threat.” James Baldwin.
  • What we have unmasked through the re-enactment and mapping out of these gazes is a validation of our anger and discontent at our inability to come to terms with these fragmented selves constructed out of the needs, views, attributions of others and our powerlessness in relation to them.
  • Photo-therapy re-invents and asserts ourselves by becoming the subject rather than the object of our own histories.
  • The images in circulation in a particular culture act to mould and set limits upon how each of us will see ourselves and others. Although we are never fixed, they do shape.
  • They are a major constituent of the dominant culture as well as being used continually to construct official histories.

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