Week 1 Activity: Informing Contexts?

Szarkowski once wrote

“The history of photography had been less a journey than a growth. Its movement has not been linear and consecutive but centrifugal. Photography, and our understanding of it, has spread from a centre; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like an organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies.”

(Gaiger and Wood, 2003)

Szarkowski argued that within the arts, photography was becoming the recorder of real-world elements (effectively it was thought the camera could not lie – a view now long since abolished) and that painting made these elements from scratch. This notion led to a split within the artistic direction of the time, with some seeing photography as selective and painting as synthesis – i.e. reality versus perceived reality.

This argument, around what made valid art and where photography sits within this, was furthered by Berger, who, in his film Ways of Seeing (1972) he states:

“a large part of seeing depends on habit and convention”

(Berger, 1972)

Berger argued that photography was a medium of seeing the world in a way not obtainable through just looking. Photography brings a sense of time and perception that the eye can be drawn into.

Szarkowski adds to the argument that, like a centrifuge, photography is ever expanding. Its origins opening up wolds of imagery not possible over the many centuries of visual art history.

It is such a perception that I choose to explore this week.

From To The Photographers Eye, Szarkowski gives us a broadening view of photographic practice and encompasses this within five characteristics of the media.

  • the thing itself
  • the detail
  • the frame
  • time
  • vantage point

I see some of the relevance here within my own practice,

Firstly the thing itself – or the representation of the real world, but, as debated by Szarkowski, being remembered through the image taken, not by the scene studied by the eye. The notion here is that memory fades. A photograph can move the reality from existence to fabrication, simply by the perception of memory.

My practice is very much about visually recording stories and as such I often record events attended by an audience. It is very often the case that images go onto become the agreed visual memory of the event, long after the physical memory has faded.

The question here would be – who’s memory is being recorded and who is being altered. The photographer is, after all providing a view of an event that they see. This would be very different from the view someone else has seen. But the remembered image is often that of the photographer’s picture. The thing itself, therefore, can very much be a blessing or a curse depending on your own perception.

In my practice, I see this as a blessing, as I am looking to record a river visually from perceptions others may not get a chance to see.

The second element is the detail.

Szarkowski claims in The Photographers Eye that photography cannot tell a story nor give a narrative. It can only give commentary and provide detail to a visual narrative captured by other visual means – such as film.

This is at odds with Berger who portrayed photography as a means to build on narrative and enhance stories through the detailed perception provided by photographs. Hence creating a memory.

I very much disagree with Szarkowski here. I feel very strongly that photography can be effective at storytelling and can provide a detailed narrative of events. However, the photographer’s ability to choose when such moments in time occurs can always be argued as bias. We are after all looking at one person’s view of an event. But at the same time, we are permitting the viewer to give detail to the narrative and ‘flesh out’ out the story, in the same way, a reader does when enjoying a good novel.

To suggest photography cannot tell stories is simply brash and confines the practice of being a witness. A commentator on a narrative. I shall seek to explore this further over the coming weeks.

The frame for my own practice is something I consider to be very highly coveted. The chose of what the viewer sees is directly a result of the framing of the image. A selective process that changes depending on what direction the lens is pointed.

It is this process that offers a high degree of discretionary art. That being the photographer’s own control over what the viewer sees. There could be an argument that photography is narcissistic. In that, it only gives the viewer what it wants that person to see, often for its own purposes.

Whilst I don’t see this as part of my own practice, I do agree that the framing of my work alters the perception of any scene and moves such perception away from a wider narrative. Such compositional arguments could indeed conflict with the detail. This could lead to an altered narrative from what was originally decided.

Lastly, I see time and vantage point as being connected within my own practice. I have spent a fair degree of time observing and noting down the movements of the water, how the river changes with the weather and seasons and how at different points in time the same scene can change dramatically.

I feel that in order to tell the story of the river objectively, honestly and in ways that spark interest – both time and vantage point have to be as essential as the frame.

By combining these a more detailed narrative can surface that gives the viewer a greater scope and freedom to decide what is within and beyond the frame. It is the ability to take the viewer on a journey within the image but also beyond it that forms the third element of my exploration in this module.


References:

  • Gaiger, J. and Wood, P. (2003). Art of the Twentieth Century. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.138 139.
  • Berger, J. (2012). John Berger / Ways of Seeing, Episode 1 (1972). [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk [Accessed 28 Jan. 2019].
  • Berger, J. and Dyer, G. (2013). Understanding a photograph. 1st ed. London: Penguin Books, pp.17 – 21.