Liz Wells – Photography: A Critical Introduction

I enjoyed reading Liz Wells’ (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction, particularly the first section: Thinking About Photography. This was because it introduced many complex ideas and elaborated on them, without becoming too convoluted. On the other hand, understandably the book became hard to read as it began to delve into many specific debates concerning photography. While I got the reason for this, it would have been nice if the book had remained at a consistent level of readability. Therefore I decided to comment only on the first section as this was the area of the book I gained the most from.

The Photograph as Document

The first area that captured my interest was the part The Photograph as Document where Wells talks in depth and quite thought-provokingly about photographs’ relation to reality. Because of their indexical properties photographs retain a sense of authenticity. Umberto Eco In. Burgin, V. (1982) ‘has commented that the photograph reproduces the conditions of optical perception, but only some of them.’ Eco indicates that although photographs are iconic to their source, they only share some of the characteristics of optical perception associated with seeing.

Some photographers break down this notion of realism associated with photography in their work. For example Peter Funch produces a composite of a scene (with the same framing and therefore remaining a realistic representation) but overlays the scene with different people who appeared in that scene over a period of days or even weeks. This interrupts the indexical properties of the photograph because things are changing in the image world that didn’t change in the real world. All the while Funch plays with our notion of authenticity as the photograph at first glance often seems realistic. Looking closer it becomes obvious that the people overlaid in the scene are too similar to one another in terms of clothing/activity and that the scene is not a realistic rendition after all. Yet because of the established aesthetic conventions employed (landscape compositions), the viewer has to question the authenticity of each photograph. This I believe is where ethics become important.

© Peter Funch (2008) Memory Lane
© Peter Funch (2008) Memory Lane

Clearly the photographs produced by Funch do not represent reality as we know it; rather a kind of satire of it. However, they do document the people who passed through particular scene albeit at different times. The difference then between it being an alternate reality and realistic is the juxtaposition of the various people in the scene with each other. Traditional photojournalists would probably argue on the ethics side that such photographs tamper with the real and are not a ‘true’ representation of a time that has passed as the juxtapositions of the people have changed. They would have a strong case although, as noted earlier, Eco states that only some of the conditions of optical perception are reproduced. Funch has just reduced another of these conditions, perhaps to highlight this disparity of realism in photography. On the other side of the ethical fence artists might appreciate this reduction of the conditions of optical perception as it allows not only the interesting juxtapositions of people but brings into question some of the authority traditional photojournalism has in photography.

Wells acknowledges this kind of debate by attributing it to the realm of digital manipulation (I would assume Funch shot the images contributing towards the composites on a digital camera). ‘in recent years, developments in computer-based image production and the possibilities of digitisation and reworking of the photographic image have increasingly called into question the idea of documentary realism.’ – (Wells, 2009 – pp. 19). What was taken for granted in the past as truth – a photographic representation of reality – is according to Wells increasingly questioned because of ‘digitisation and reworking of the photographic image’. However, she does also allude that: ‘in everyday parlance, photographs are still viewed as realistic.’ – (Wells, 2009 – pp. 19).

The Postmodern

I have struggled with the concept of postmodernism in general but reading the section The Postmodern by Wells (2009) – pp. 21-24, I felt I understood much better the crux of its debate. Instead of there being grand, singular works of art, constructed by ‘seers’ of photography with a unique vision for their own work, photography has increasingly become saturated and so originality has been consumed. This has been brought about not only by the ubiquity nowadays of photographs but because the way we see the world (through communications) has become made up by simulacra – copies without originals. I did some research into Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard (1981) where I heard about the term simulacra and used the concept in my second assignment – Ephemerality of the Image.

Because of this it would seem there are a few negative aspects to postmodernism as Wells notes: ‘in the world of the simulacrum what is called into question is the originality of authorship, the uniqueness of the art object and the nature of self-expression.’ – (Wells, 2009 – pp. 23). However, this does not have to be the case as photographers have found ways round this loss of originality. For some like Cindy Sherman with Film Stills (1977-79), it is an opportunity to use traditional, accepted forms of media like 1950/60s Hollywood movies as a base and play upon the viewer’s gaze. As the viewer looks at seemingly authentic documents, interesting narratives are produced when the type of media (is it a photograph or a frame from a movie?) is juxtaposed with its content.

© Cindy Sherman (1979) Untitled Film Still #48
© Cindy Sherman (1979) Untitled Film Still #48

For other artists, they can use the transient nature of mutable forms like photography to experiment with new methods of vision, brought out by technological advancements like digitisation of the image. One example of this would be Joan Fontcuberta with his Orogenesis (2002-2005) series. Here he uses completely computer-generated images. These were created by inputting ‘visual data for contained in famous paintings or pictures of different parts of his anatomy’ – (Fontcuberta and Feustel, 2010), instead of the cartographical information the 3d renderers usually receive. This produced images that look a lot like photographs but ‘The results are these “landscapes without memory.”’ – (Fontcuberta and Feustel, 2010). This plays upon our notions of reality and truthfulness by utilising new technologies.

© Joan Fontcuberta (2002) Orogenesis Pollock
© Joan Fontcuberta (2002) Orogenesis Pollock

References:

Eco, U. In. Burgin, V. (1982) Thinking About Photography. London: MacMillan.

Fontcuberta, J. and Feustel, M. (2010). Interview: Joan Fontcuberta, Landscapes without memory. [online] Marc Feustel. Available at: http://www.marcfeustel.com/eyecurious/interview-joan-fontcuberta-landscapes-without-memory [Accessed 27 Nov. 2017].

Wells, L. (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. Oxon: Routledge, pp.11-64.

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