Forgetting photography

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The question 'Where is the photograph?' presupposes that we have lost sight of photography or that photography is somehow lost; that it has lost a direction perhaps or that we do not find it where it should be; that it has been misplaced; that it remains somewhere, unclaimed, in some lost property office of culture.

Olivier Richon

In 1865, the photographer James Mudd presented a paper entitled 'A Photographer's Dream' at the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (Photographic Section). Mudd tells the story of a photographer who falls asleep and wakes in the 29th century. This fable represents a parody of, what Mudd saw as, the dire state of photography in the mid-19th century. His goal was to see photography valued as one of the fine arts (his particular passion was for picturesque landscapes), but photographers obsessed with chemical processes and optical devices undermined this ambition. In his 'dream' he was conducted through a swanky new Manchester to the 'Grand Focus Photographic Society'. But, whereas he had expected to find photography transformed into art, he encountered just more of the same. The participants in the Society came up with one mad scheme after another: a camera, called a pointer, wound up and sent in search of views; steam proposed to raise photography to new heights; and so on. Mudd was aghast to find that photography had not really changed in all this time; still no one seemed interested in art. In fact, it turned out that there had been little opportunity for progress; he learned that, in the intervening years, photography had been lost and had only recently been 'discovered'. This simple tale proposes a period of more than 1,000 years of modern history without photographs. It is a remarkably interesting idea.

William Bornefeld's science-fiction novel Time and Light is set in a post-apocalyptic society called Fullerton, where photographs are forbidden. In place of the seductions of images, the inhabitants of Fullerton have the 'pill' (half anti-depressant, half sexual stimulant). But, during a scientific expedition to the (allegedly) irradiated world beyond the domed city, the central character, Dr Noreen, discovers 12 ancient photographs from the 20th century. Even during his medical training Dr Noreen's contact with pictures had been restricted to a few diagrams. But when he encounters an > ancient archival facility and takes a packet of images (oddly enough, S all by well-known photographers; including one by the author) he IS becomes obsessed with these illicit pictures and flouts the iconophobic rule that predominates among the last surviving humans - which Bornefeld calls, in a bad photographic joke, 'The Family of Man' - spending hours absorbed in contemplating an image of peppers by Edward Weston, or Robert Capa's picture of a Spanish Republican soldier depicted at the moment of his death. Noreen is rash enough to show his images to two other citizens: gradually his promising career and social progress disintegrate around him. Ultimately, Noreen's search for more photographs leads him to challenge the norms and protocols that govern Fullerton: the ruling bureaucrats respond with the ultimate iconophobic gesture and surgically destroy his vision.

It is difficult for us to imagine these imageless future times. The rapid spread of phone technology for making photographs has only exacerbated this situation: we all now live our lives in the presence of pictures. Dr Noreen's world, in which photographs are prohibited, seems particularly odd because they do so much work in our society that it is hard to imagine the ruling powers voluntarily renouncing them. However, it seems helpful to begin this short introduction with Mudd and Bornefeld, and to contemplate a world without photographs. So let's leap forward into the imageless future.

In Mudd's future, if not Bornefeld's, drawings could substitute for camera-generated images, but drawing is a slow, and highly skilled, process. One key impetus behind the invention of photography in the 1830s was the desire to escape from the restrictions imposed by handcrafted images. What is more, in the absence of photographic reproduction techniques, if drawings are to be issued in significant numbers they will need to be hand engraved onto a metal plate or wooden block. Two key consequences result from this laborious technique: both would significantly limit the number of images in circulation. r m t

Firstly, hand-drawn images are expensive to produce, because they p require skill and time. When picture production involves the |

expenditure of effort, time, and money, images are likely to be 1

restricted to the illustration of significant things. Photography, in y contrast, excels at depicting everyday life and casual appearances. Consequently, throughout its history, the hand-made image has been, invariably, reserved for prestigious projects: images of the powerful and the famous, world historical events, subjects deemed elevating or worthy of attention by official culture. Imagine, for instance, the magazines currently on display in any newsagent deprived of their photographs. Many of these publications depend for their appeal on their pictures, and a good percentage would, undoubtedly, cease to exist without them. Would gardening, DIY, or fashion magazines, or those weird lads' mags, have half the appeal without their images? Would anyone go to the time and expense of reproducing this stuff in the absence of cameras? The people in Mudd's future would find very few illustrated books, magazines, and newspapers available to them; even for those who could afford them, images of their family and friends would be limited to a few formal portraits. Secondly, whereas photography is more-or-less instantaneous, even the most rapid sketch requires time to execute. Moving subjects can only be reproduced as an artist's impression. (It took photography to establish the way a running horse plants its feet.)

In a number of pioneering texts written during the 1920s and 1930s, the German critic Walter Benjamin argued that photography should be thought of as a technology of the 'optical unconscious'. Benjamin's analogy was with psychoanalysis, which allegedly brought the murky realms of the unconscious into view: he believed photography did something similar for the aspects of our world that eluded standard vision. He had in mind the ability of the camera to extend human observation beyond its normal parameters. All manner of instruments are regularly employed to enhance vision: eye-glasses, magnifying glasses, simple microscopes, and telescopes

> to name just a few. Some of these instruments are straightforward il

S to use and we are readily familiar with their results. These optical

IS devices are, though, designed to be used individually and communicating their findings can be difficult. What an observer sees in a simple microscope or telescope can be recorded in a drawing, but doing so requires a great deal of skill and patience: the objects of study often move or metamorphose, and the focus of attention has to be repeatedly shifted from the eyepiece to the paper. (There are plenty of examples in which what the observer recorded did not exist.)

The camera is particularly suited for combination with optical devices because the instrument can be substituted for the regular lens and rapid modern shutters and films allow for an almost instantaneous arrest of motion. In this way, images otherwise invisible to the eye can be revealed. Some complex instruments -scanning microscopes, ultrasound scanners, and so forth - require a photographic image (or video/computer screen) to manifest their results: there is nothing to see in the absence of photographic film or screen. Images from inaccessible places are also made available by photographers (not many of us are likely to explore the depths of the ocean). Satellite photographs of the Earth and its weather systems, or images of distant planets, are only possible from a point of view that is literally 'out of this world'. The ability to make pictures at a fraction of a second (or in film to slow down motion and freeze frame) brings things that we could otherwise never observe into focus: we are able to discern whether the ball crossed the line or to capture a humming bird in flight. Infrared photography allows us to see in the dark, while telescopic photography enables observers to record dangerous events at a safe distance (or to spy and pry). If we add the microcameras that enable medics to see inside the body without the need for invasive surgery to this list, the stakes are raised once more. Much of our world would be invisible to those in the imageless future cities of Manchester and Fullerton.

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It is difficult to grasp just how much would be lost to us under s g these circumstances. Most of all, I suspect, the inhabitants of p the future would miss out on pictures of simple appearances: |

the look of a volcano erupting, or a close-up of a dragonfly's 1

wings; the pattern made by a drop of water, or the record of a y daft outfit worn at a party. The world would seem much less knowable in the absence of these images: our familiarity with tropical islands and deserts, anacondas and aardvarks, stems, in the main, from lens-based imagery. (Perhaps zoological and botanical gardens would undergo a spectacular revival in the photo-less millennia.)

Much of our familiarity with our world comes through photographic visualization as a surrogate for first-hand experience of places, objects, creatures, and events. Photographs have made many things seem ordinary, bringing distant places or unusual things closer to us, but, at the same time, our reliance on them has been at the cost of making much of our experience seem secondhand. It is startling to think how much of our knowledge comes through the medium of photography: how many of us have actually seen a polar ice flow or a refugee camp? Yet we are able to describe the appearance of both. In this sense, we relate to our world through the 'second nature' of technology. Photography occupies a central role in that process. An iconophobic future might make some important gains by dispensing with the mediation of cameras, but the costs would be immense. Images associated with the optical unconscious have played a fundamental role in demystifying our world; without them enchantment would have a greater grip on our understanding.

As we have already observed, in Mudd's future dependence on drawings would mean the everyday images of friends and relatives, pets and prized possessions, would be likely to disappear: there would be no envelopes stuffed with pictures from high days and holidays. These things are completely absent from Noreen's Fullerton. In these imageless societies, it is likely that many people > would leave no visual trace of their lives. This was the condition for S most of the world's inhabitants before photography (early IS photographers often dreamed of a photograph of Shakespeare), and after its loss, or eradication, most people would return to what the critic Siegfried Kracaeur called, in another context, 'imageless oblivion'. However, this situation would, once again, allow the prestige of pictures to devolve to the rich and powerful. (For the poor and the powerless, the ability to avoid the official gaze has some definite advantages.)

The modern state employs photographs (and other related lens-based media) in myriad ways, and, at least, in Bornefeld's full version of 'imageless oblivion' its operations would be considerably hampered by their absence. In addition to political 'spin' and promotion, images of this kind are used for disseminating public information; traffic control; recording forensic evidence and presenting that evidence in court; surveillance in banks, city streets, or on demonstrations; for staking out a criminal suspect and recording his or her contacts. Perhaps, most of all, photographs are employed to produce records of individuals. All manner of official documents demand portraits of their holders, including passports, driving licences, library cards, and so forth. In many parts of the world people are obliged to carry identity cards (British citizens may soon be required to join them). Imagine how much easier it would be to take on a different identity before - or after - photography. Charles Dickens gave a great description of the trouble it took to identify individuals in a period before their likenesses could be photographically produced. For example, jailers were required to scrutinize each prisoner and memorize his or her appearance. The police began using photography seriously in the 1870s. With the emergence of fingerprinting, and subsequently DNA testing, photography occupies a less central place in identification. But, while these other technologies allow identity to be confirmed, photographs make it much easier to spot an individual. In Noreen's future, the police can keep tabs on everyone because there are so J few remaining people; in contrast, Mudd's millennia without s

photographs must offer lots of possibilities for becoming invisible, p for moving city and starting over. S

There are some phenomena in our society that are, to a large y extent, the products of photography and could not survive in these future worlds, or at least could not do so in their present form. Two examples will have to make the point. Celebrity is one of those phenomena that could hardly exist without the camera. Fame predates photography, but celebrity developed with the image technology of industrial capitalism. In the 1860s British dealers regularly ordered 10,000 photographs of prominent celebrities. The revival of the popularity of the British royal family dates from roughly the moment around the middle of the 19th century when they began to promote themselves as homely bourgeois citizens. Photography played an important role in this process. The first photograph of a member of the British royal family to be shown in public appeared in 1857; within a few days of its issue, in 1860, 60,000 sets of Mayall's photographic Royal Album had been ordered. From the point at which image and text could be produced in mass editions (the late 19th century), a symbiosis took place between popular journalism and celebrity: the publicity-hungry could then keep themselves in the public eye, while the media traded on this visibility. The modern tabloid press feeds on celebrity pictures, even if these days they show considerably less reverence for their subjects. Increasingly, paparazzi work has become more prying and voyeuristic, but this

1. The Sunday People, 29 July 2001

logic is implicit in the celebrity image. To be famous in Fullerton, you actually have to produce something, or do something, even if only the bad poetry-cum-rock-and-roll of chief poet Kafahvey.

Advertising - unquestionably one of the central roles for photography in capitalist society - presents a different case, since commodities can be hyped with words or drawings. The rise of modern commodity culture, once again, though, seems to have developed in tandem with photographic reproducibility. In part, this is to do with the ability to disseminate images through the mass media. But the characteristic of the photographic image clearly has something to do with the power of advertising: the celebration of commodities seems to thrive on the kind of high-resolution, high-key, glossy image provided by photographs. With no celebrities staring from the tabloids and limited advertising, the imageless future has some things to recommend it! 5

Noreen trained as a medical doctor with a few diagrams and the p experience of the dissecting table, but modern medicine would be | severely hampered without its images. Medical training combines 3 dissection with study from photographs (or photographically y reproduced illustrations). It can be easier to identify a particular pathological condition from an abstracted image than from the contingent forms it actually takes. Photographs make available an archive of diseases unfamiliar to the individual doctor or nurse. No doubt, in the absence of photographs, memory would find other ruses for recording these things, but picturing them is highly convenient. While the X-ray is not strictly a photographic technology, it becomes visible when recorded on photographic film, and all manner of surgical procedures now depend on introducing microcameras, endoscopes, and the like into the body.

If the restraints on commercial culture and surveillance might seem beneficial effects resulting from the restriction on photography, the consequences of the imageless society for medicine seem altogether less desirable.

2. An image of the interior of the body. Gastroscope (endoscope) view of a healthy stomach

The inhabitants of this future would, no doubt, miss some types of photograph much more than others: some of these pictures seem indispensable, others burdensome. Overall, in their absence the world would seem less busy and probably more alien.

At this point, let's put the time machine into reverse gear and travel back to the mid-19th century: the point at which photography was beginning to colonize the image culture of capitalist society. In 1864, Dr Hugh Diamond - editor of The Photographic Journal, and pioneer photographer of mental illness - wrote the report on the International Exhibition of 1862. In this assessment of the state of photography, he claimed there was 'scarce a branch of art, of science, of economics, or indeed of human interest in its widest application, in which the applications of this art [photography] have not been made useful'. In medical science, he said, it was used in 'morbid anatomy of malformation and disease generally' as well as recording 'the progress of cases and illustration of surgical treatment'. It was employed in ethnological science and natural history where 'no other mode of delineation' could compare with it, and it provided an essential service in 'giving a permanent form to the enlarged images of the microscope'. 'The archaeologist and antiquary, the virtuoso and historian' all used photographs, while for 'the architect and engineer it supersedes and far surpasses in many cases drawings made by hand'. Photography had an important place in law: reproducing documents and 'pursuing the criminal'. For manufacturers, it 'depicted designs, patterns or workmanship'. And lastly, Diamond claimed, 'more ambitious still, as if the globe were too narrow a sphere for its resources, it travels J into space, seeking and taking records of the phases of other worlds, s

and of that great body, the sun ... .'. When he claimed that p photography ventured into space, he meant this metaphorically by | being attached to the lens of a telescope: now cameras are fixed to 3 space probes and beam back startling images of Saturn's rings. y Mid-19th-century photographers and their champions often wrote lists like this in a celebratory vein (in part, we suspect, because their professional status was not that secure), but they were not wrong in observing the rapid spread of their images through society. Since Diamond's day, the uses of photography have only proliferated. As the critic and curator John Szarkowski noted in 1976, there are now more photographs than there are bricks. Each one of them, he said, was unique. Accounting for this number of images and their uses is not an easy task.

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