Towards a Philosophy of Photography

I have been reading a book titled ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ by Vilém Flusser (1983) which I found highly enjoyable and more importantly for my course quite timely in influencing my thought process for taking photographs.

I liked Flusser’s use of terminology that the photograph’s surface is a place for ‘magic’. He used this term frequently and after reading why he used such an archaic term to describe a photograph’s surface, I have to agree with him. His reasoning was that the magic of a photograph is non-linear and can recur again and again. This is in contradiction to the linear nature of the texts produced before technical images were invented.

‘images come between the world and human beings. … Instead of representing the world, they obscure it until human beings’ lives finally become a function of the images they create.’ – (Flusser, 1983). This to me seemed a lot like Jean Baudrillard’s (1981) descriptions of hyperreality in Simulacra and Simulation, although I found this description by Flusser more eloquent and easier to understand. As I understood, instead of images functioning for us, we’ve come to function for the image-world. One contributing factor for this line of thought would be the prevalence of images nowadays and the escalating volume they are produced at.

The idea that the camera can control the photographer was a thought-provoking one for me. This would occur if the photographer makes largely ‘redundant’ photographs and succumbs to the ambition of ‘only’ producing images as new variations of a theme. I had already been thinking about this during the course and kind of agreed it was present in my own photography but didn’t know how to mitigate this trend. Therefore I was intrigued to see whether Vilém Flusser could answer this burgeoning question in my head.

Thinking of photographs in terms of numbers rather than text was an interesting concept for me. I thought of it as meaning I would come up with new and exciting combinations of numbers making up each photograph’s identification. However, would I simultaneously just be helping to exhaust the well of information that the photographic universe possesses, without giving much thought to the order I gather up this information?

One explanation Flusser argued for was that instead of the photographic universe constantly being in a state of flux (as in new photographs constantly being produced), he proposes ‘a standstill situation: to find the same newspapers on our breakfast tables every day or to see the same posters on city walls for months on end.’ – (Flusser, 1983). This interested me because images seem to change so fast now. It would be refreshing to see an Instagram feed or magazine with images that stay similar or the same in a standstill situation while people continue their lives. It would be my inclination that people would take more notice of the news for instance if there was a standstill situation in the image world.

At the end of the book (in the afterword) there resides a quote by Flusser regarding what he thinks ‘freedom’ means – a key attribute to developing a philosophy of photography in his conclusion to his book. He defines being free as: ‘Not cutting off one’s ties with others but making networks out of these connections in co-operation with them. – (Flusser, 1983). I felt this was a touching quote to be left with and one that was also thought-provoking. It made me think about how photographer’s can break the chain of ‘just’ discovering new combinations for a variation on a theme by being free. Also looking forward to Assignment 3, which was to be based on my local community, this quote gave me hope of finding some freedom in my photography within connections I’d already made.

References:

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. 2nd ed. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Flusser, V. (2014). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 3rd ed. London: Reaktion Books.

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Simulacra and Simulation Notes

I have been making notes on Jean Baudrillard’s (1981) essay Simulacra and Simulation. Although the sentences were sometimes very long and the language used challenging for me to say the least, I discovered there was much food for thought present amidst this.

As the language used was challenging, I found thinking about certain topics/concepts Baudrillard brought up in more colloquial terms worked for me in ‘deciphering’ the text. For example ‘dissimulate’ simply translates to conceal and reality he often speaks of I found more useful to think of as three-dimensions with a fourth-dimension looming around. The world he compares reality to is this fourth, somewhat invisible dimension which seemingly has no limits. While the real stays stuck in three dimensions, the fourth dimension multiplies seemingly infinitely as ever more data/information is added to it.

‘Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.’ – (Baudrillard, 1981). I deciphered from Baudrillard (in the above quote and later on in Simulacra and Simulation) that today we see around us a hyperreal; a simulation based on abstractions of reality but of a reality that has since passed. Baudrillard to my understanding goes on to say how the hyperreal precedes the abstractions of reality (images etc) even though the hyperreal formed afterwards. This is because since reality has passed, the hyperreal now controls what the abstractions of reality are. Another way I perceived of saying this was for example the image-world is now governed by an autonomous structure – the hyperreal. The hyperreal while affected by remnants of reality, has since usurped the remnants as it is now so prevalent. So the hyperreal formed from these simulacra selects information from them based on capital and forms a new order of images.

Baudrillard balances the two sides to the image which I hadn’t considered in depth before: ‘the murderous capacity of images, murderers of the real, murderers of their own model as the Byzantine icons could murder the divine identity. To this murderous capacity is opposed the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the Real.’ – (Baudrillard, 1981). Although Baudrillard used extreme and complicated language here, I felt I understood what he was communicating. That is while the image could be seen to be ‘bad’ or ‘murderous’ as Baudrillard puts it, by defacing reality and indeed their own image, they could at the same time be seen as providing a meaningful, visible discourse of reality. However, such is the desire to represent reality in the form of images, that the image-world takes over and reality ceases to exist. Masking this ‘absence of a basic reality’ – (Baudrillard, 1981) would be images themselves, now forming their own world but not one which bears relation to reality. I had myself recently begun to wonder as I sometimes created photographs which had similarly been photographed a lot of other times, whether I was helping accomplish anything meaningful or perhaps instead just contributing to the deluge of oversaturated media? I felt secretly the latter was probably true and I hoped for a way of thinking about my photography which would enable me to achieve the former. Reading through this part of Baudrillard’s text I felt there was a chance of finding other, useful bits later on which could further clear up in my head how to make meaningful images if possible.

I enjoyed reading the examples Baudrillard gave to explain the points he was making, although I didn’t fully comprehend all of his points. One example which I felt I understood better was about the caves of the Lascaux: ‘It is in this way, under the pretext of saving the original, that the caves of Lascaux have been forbidden to visitors and an exact replica constructed 500 metres away, so that everyone can see them (you glance through a peephole at the real grotto and then visit the reconstituted whole).’ – (Baudrillard, 1981). This example reminded me very much of Datong in China where replicas of famous bridges and parts of cities are built. I only knew about Datong because I stumbled across an article about it on the Guardian. The article: ‘Back to the future: the fake relics of the ‘old’ Chinese city of Datong’ – (Ren, 2014) made me think about these replicas and the implications for building them but I didn’t make the connection until I reread Baudrillard’s text and what he goes on to say. Baudrillard (1981) goes on to say: ‘It is possible that the very memory of the original caves will fade in the mind of future generations, but from now on there is no longer any difference: the duplication is sufficient to render both artificial.’ If this same line of thinking about the caves of Lascaux was applied to Datong (even though Datong’s replicas were built on the same ground), it would mean the new and old cities would become ‘artificial’, while the memory of the original fades. This same analogy could somewhat be applicable to the real world compared to photographs/images, where there are so many replicas of the real world made in the image world that both the real world and image world become artificial.

‘Parody makes obedience and transgression equivalent, and that is the most serious crime, since it cancels out the difference upon which the law is based.’ – (Baudrillard, 1981). Parody interested me as one kind of simulation because I would say it is a kind of sarcastic humour which is dangerous in a way. For example it is difficult to tell whether someone is telling a joke when they say it sarcastically because it is founded upon real life. By making a parody of real life the person telling the joke is leaving it up to the observer to make up their mind which way to take the ‘joke’. I could imagine this to be quite powerful in the form of visual parody, especially in a photograph form. Perhaps introducing this type of humour would be a way to create provocation in my images, if I so desired.

 

References:

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. 2nd ed. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Ren, Y. (2014). Back to the future: the fake relics of the ‘old’ Chinese city of Datong. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/oct/15/datong-china-old-city-back-to-the-future-fake-relics [Accessed 15 Jun. 2017].