What is a Photograph – Part 2 & 3

Following on from Niépce’s work, which created the first use of light sensitive chemicals to fix an image created with a camera obscura, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre created the Daguerreotype which created a means of recording a scene and fixing it in a way had previously required skill in the use of the hand with pencil or brush. It then enabled anyone with the ability to operate the camera (and money with which to purchase or instruct its use) to have the object of the photograph, often still life, indexical for scientists or portrait for the well off, given the long exposure time and expense required, captured and fixed as a mirror image, taking our 3D world and turning it in to a 2D image. Such was the relative ease and detail achieved that, “the painter Paul Delaroche lamented that ‘from this day, painting is dead’.” (Delaroche cited in Clarke 1997)

This was during a time when, “nature was shifting from being seen as all-powerful and controlling human action, to something that could come, at least partly, under the control of human culture.” (Batchen 1997,) and this is what the photograph achieves. In a mechanical sense by using shutters in order to control light which hits the light sensitive film or causes an electrical charge on a digital sensor, allowing the user to create a photograph, the, “thing itself… the ability to convincingly record what is the front of the lens,” (Szarkowski 1966) for the human to use. This transformation gives, “every subject… significance by being transformed,” (Clarke, 1997) turning the subject, however banal not only in to a, ‘thing,’ a photograph, but in to something of significance, however much the value.

The value which we put to a photograph is, ‘always dependent upon the context within which we ‘read’ it, (Clarke 1997). From the record breaking monetary value of an Andreas Gursky minimalistic landscape or the social value of an image of an innocent falling from the World Trade Centre on 11th September 2001 or the personal value of the picture of an ultrasound scan of your yet to be born child. The photograph, this, “device with which we seek to order and construct the world around us,” (Clarke 1997) is one where the cultural significance we bring to it is constantly changing its value and also its meaning to the spectator.

Until the next post, thank you for reading….

What is a photograph Part 3

The photograph is a record of a, ‘moment’ one that captures and allows us to pluck it, ‘from the flow of time’, (Bazin,1980) to preserve it away from that flow.

In this manner, an image which draws Roland Barthes is that of the condemned Lewis Payne awaiting his execution. He is most certainly dead, but we are able to see him and his existence is there for us to view, as an original held in the Library of Congress or electronically virtually anywhere in the world. No one alive is able to tell us first hand what he looked like, the conditions he was in, possibly even what he was wondering just prior to his execution, yet this document, the photograph, allows us to see, to feel, to wonder at that moment in time, almost 150 years ago.

This moment fixed, with the Daguerreotype, was captured to produce a unique item. But Fox Talbots’s invention of the positive negative allowed us to control the nature element even more, creating our own copies of that fixed moment as often as we wanted so that, developing through to the 1920’s and 30’s so that ‘things could exist in many locations simultaneously, often in places they would not otherwise be.” (Benjamin 1999). This use of an image, particularly in print and the access it allowed to all, (if not initially to create, but certainly to view), during the period of modernity, with its development of the use of photography, moves us on from the nature element to help define the graphe and it is in this less literal sense that what a photograph is can really be found.

A photograph uses the 5 characteristics Szarkowski describes in, ‘The Photographer’s Eye.’ The thing itself, the detail, the frame, time, and vantage point, (Szarkowski 1966). It uses these and the previously described, ‘nature’ to create the text of an image, but when analysing a photograph and therefore exploring what it is, both the photo and graphe are not, “separate, but together opposing aspects of nature and culture, embedded within the identity of photography when it was conceived and should both be embraced as integral to the medium.”(Batchen 1997).

In my next post we will look more in to the, ‘graphe,’ but until then, thank you for taking the time to read….

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What is a Photograph – Part 2 & 3

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