What is a Photograph – Part 4

What is a Photograph – Part 4

The, ‘graphe’ forms the identity of the photograph beyond its physical existence and having enabled us to read it’s framed truth it also exists as something else. It is where the photograph sits within history, its social and cultural loading that arguably gives it its fuller definition. It is a medium in which we can explore and question history, social change and our own and other’s cultures and cultural bias. From propaganda to documentary and journalistic photography, the use of the photograph has been catalyst important for calling in to question and questioning. Within the frame of the photograph we find a, ‘truth or proof,’ one that we can read dependant on what we the spectator bring to it.

This truth allows us to gain a level of knowledge from the photograph, however it can in itself be a lie as we are now all too aware. Not only with the photograph’s use in propaganda, but with digital manipulation, something not entirely new given the Victorians cut and paste images. What is in the frame of a photograph does not tell us what is without.

Many photographs are therefore a false truth, indeed an illusion, from those mis-truths which we are now more aware of in advertising, through to the full illusion of the pornographic image which offers the reader a false access to another’s body through a paper or electronic surface that so they can imagine themselves in the presence of someone else they may never know or have an intimate relationship with.

It is through this truth and questioning with what the viewer bring to the image that the photograph communicates. Charles Sander Peirce argued that, “all communication takes place through the medium of signs, (Edwards, 2006). As photographs are a visual communication they are in themselves signs and it is those signs themselves and how they communicate that we shall look at in my next post, the last in this series about these thoughts on what the photograph is….

What is a Photograph – Part 4

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….

What is a Photograph – Part 2 & 3

What is a photograph – Part 1

…… we’ve added a blogging service, but don’t want you to lose out on the content to date!

What is a photograph – Part 1

The photograph is, without doubt much more than the,’thing’ defined in the dictionary. I adore the works of a number of people who have spent many more hours than I cogitating on this very things.

As I enter the world of this blog, a communication tool in itself I thought exploring what the photograph is, based on my experience and the works of those I admire for their insight in to the answer to the question in the title would be a fitting start.

Amongst the wide range of literature on the subject there are many answers. To enable us to answer within the scope of this blog we shall look at a select number of relevant views.

A photograph is, ‘at its most basic level, a picture, likeness or facsimile obtained by photography.’ (Clarke, 1997).

Taking a further step back in defining an answer to the question above, we look at the actual word, ‘Photograph,’ which comes from the Greek for light, ‘Phos’ (Photo) and ‘Graphe’ which translates to writing or drawing. Understanding the two parts of the word forms a good basis on which to answer the question, ‘what is a photograph?’

This breakdown of the word forms the initial basis on which we can seek to understand the photograph. We have the light, an element of nature and the thing that all photographers use in order to create the graphe, the visual language, writing and drawing, the human element which, with the use of a variety of devices, we seek on the most literal level to use to make a record of what we see.

Writing can take many forms from a narrative to a documentary record or a poem or even one’s diary. We can find examples mirroring this in photography with storytelling, documentary record, art and snapshots. But as with all writing, the text on the page is just a collection of symbols used to represent what the writer is attempting to get across. In this way the photograph is a visual language, one that we will explore in a later post.

Until the next post…..

What is a photograph – Part 1