Wednesday, July 26, 2006

On Photography

I wonder what Susan Sontag's essay, On Photography would look like had she written it today. I first read her essay in Graduate School at University Of Illinois at Chicago. I was a Studio Arts Major. Each quarter, the MFA candidates had to take Graduate Seminar, which was a discussion about art issues. The instructor was always a visiting somebody from the Chicago art world - critics, artists, authors - always thought provoking, always challenging. But the quarter we read Sontag was the quarter our instructor was a critic with definate Communist leanings. All the critical writings he assigned were by Communist critics - Sontag being the best known. Karl Marx began as an art critic, by the way. In this class, I began to understand how our philosophies, our external influences, affect how we see and the choices we make visually.

Recently, I replaced a film camera with my first digital camera. I went for a 35 m SLR, which operates exactly like a film camera, only it's digital. But I'm still learning the camera, and the technical aspects make me clumsy. This is frustrating for me because I was a pretty good photographer before; I had a point of view. I'm a better painter, because it is more where my heart is. But I'm a pretty good photographer.

Digital photography bombards us with images. The internet creates a world of constant information, and we cannot find respite from the invasion of information and imagery. Everything we read, and see, we take as probably true - because it's on the internet. The anonymous nature of the digital age startles me at times. I tell you I am a 57 year old grandmother, and you take that as true. (It is.) But I could have told you all that I am a 27 year old Fashion Model, and tall - who would know the difference?

The opening line of Sontag's essay says: "Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato's cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth." Mere images of the truth. Sontag's point is that photographic images do not have the gravitas of older, more "artisanal" (read hand made) images. The sheer volume of imagery clamouring for our attention renders them less important. The sheer volume of imagery creates a grand sense that "we can hold the world in our head."

Photographs are portable. They are easily reproduced. They exist on the information highway with ready access by anyone. They can be manipulated in the darkroom. Really clever photographers can manipulate in camera. They can be photo-shopped, edited online. They can be emailed. They can be printed, and kept in an album, or in a wallet. Photographs can be sent by telephone. They are everywhere.

The camera also serves to distance the photographer from what he or she is photographing. There it is, a physical barrier between self and subject. The photographer has the captured memory, the physical "evidence" of the experience - but is this the same as the experience itself?

"A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what's in the picture. " The written word, and the painted image, are always an interpretation of reality, or even a fictional creation. But somehow we assign truth to film in a way we don't to other media.

Yet Ansel Adams would spend hours cleaning up the area he was about to photograph, just to give the illusion of it being pristine. We take this image as truth, but it is his truth. He created it. "In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are."

Why is this on my mind now? Several reasons. One reason is highly political. I see images purporting to be the truth, and I am well aware of how images can be manipulated to support anything. One image is making the rounds completely out of context, and is being presented as a current image. Others, I just don't know if they are true or not as presented in the current context. They are horrific images, and they carry weight. They convict before all facts are available. We see them, and think, well they are so horrible they MUST be true. But are they?

The other reasons are highly personal, and to a degree, selfish. I travel. And I will be traveling soon, first to Australia, then to Bhutan. And I am going with my camera. My desire to document place is normal, but I don't want to have my camera stand between me and my experience. And more, I want my abilities to get up to the level of my point of view. And they aren't yet. The idea of framing, of selection - and with the digital camera, you can delete what doesn't work right away! - all this enters into this. My Australia trip is five weeks away, and I am obsessing about my photographs before the fact. And so I think, and I read, and I go out and take images that I am not willing to show anyone yet.

Where is our truth?


Musings from Myopia said...

DivaJood, this post is exceptionally thought-provoking. I share some of your ideas and thoughts, but you have gone deeper. Thank you.

BZ said...

Great post. I have cooled off. Sorry I sorta sbapped.

betmo said...

i really like this post. it is illuminating and should make everyone stop and take a minute before jumping in. excellent as usual.

The Fat Lady Sings said...

Beautifully put. And yes – we are who we portray ourselves to be - but I don't equate verisimilitude with truth. What Ansell Adams photographed, what Georgia O'Keeffe saw when she painted a flower - all this is truth. Subjective truth; but then isn't everything rendered through any artists eye subjective? You will come home from your journeys armed with examples of your own, individual truths. You will hopefully share all of that with us. How we view it - what we glean from those images will be highly personal, completely subjective to us; and yet part of your truth as well. You know the saying – all cats are grey in the dark? Well – every human being sees color differently. Where you see red – I may see orange. That doesn’t change the truth of the matter – the color still exists; only it exists separately for each of us. That’s why I loved working in live theater as opposed to film. The sensual experience differed from person to person. Since no one performance was an exact replica of another – it became possible to create, from scratch - living, breathing art each and every time. It’s the nature of the beast, my dear. We only believe what we want to believe – truth out or no.

Fran aka Redondowriter said...

Your new camera sounds wonderful and I know you'll use it to record your memories in Australia and Bhutan. We all see the world, whether through a camera lens or not, through our own memories and perceptions. But, I "see" whatever photos you provide me not as you saw the image, but how I "see it." Ansel Adams taught at Chadwick in the early 1940s and I have many of his photos of the school in the archives. What a master he was, but I did not know he cleaned up areas he was filming in nature.

robin andrea said...

This is so interesting, divajood. How true that there is a surfeit of images, especially with the ease of digital photography and the internet. Can an image tell the truth? I don't really expect it to anymore. I have photoshopped images. I have taken George Bush and Bill Clinton and pasted them into a photograph of my backyard. I have enhanced light and contrast, I have airbrushed out blemishes from the faces of people I love. There is no absolute truth in any photo, except for what it may reveal about the artist.

DivaJood said...

Myopia, thank you - I'm currently obsessed with the power of photographs.

BZ, as a new dad, how sleep-deprived are you? My daughter and son-in-law went nearly four months before they got a decent night after Beanie was born. I'm just sayin. :-)

Betmo, I think human nature is what it is. We always tend to submit to things we give power to. Images hold great power.

TFLS, Yes, yes, yes. Subjective truth. There is nothing wrong with subjective truth, and artists have a high position in heaven. Truth is not necessarily fact, though. I prefer oil paint to photography, because the smell, the texture of paint, the activity of painting are all more engaging FOR ME, as the artist.

Fran, a fried of mine went to Chadwick back then, I will have to ask her if she encountered Adams there. What a small world this is, really.

Robin Andrea, it depends on what truth is - always. Subjective truth is individual and personal. I rarely tell people what my art is about - other than "paint."