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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Colour in Documentary

I had heard and indeed experienced for myself that colour was a harder medium to work in than black and white. Black and white allows the user to concentrate on form and light. With an added bonus of heavier post-processing potentially being applied, the black and white photographer can enable the viewer to be further removed from reality while at the same time maintain a degree of truthfulness because of the black and white medium’s fact-based traditions. Colour on the other hand is much more immediate and colour relationships have to be considered as well as other elements of a photograph. On top of this the viewer has a harder time decoding the photograph as they work out the photographer’s intentions in the colour medium. Therefore I found it useful to read a description about William Eggleston as an example of transcribing his own visceral world into a social document.

William Eggleston, Untitled (Memphis), 1970.
William Eggleston, Untitled (Memphis), 1970.

First I read the press release for Eggleston’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976 where he was the only photographer featured who used colour. What Szarkowski wrote in the press release concerning Eggleston’s use of colour seemed to correlate with a text I had been reading called ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ by Vilém Flusser (2014). I had been recommended this text by my tutor to observe the discrepancies between black and white and then colour mediums. One thing I’d picked up on in both texts was how colour was intrinsically linked to the object. As Szarkowski puts it: ‘These photographers work not as if color were a separate problem to be resolved in isolation, “but rather as though the world it-self existed in color, as though the blue and the sky were one thing,”’ – (Szarkowski, 1976). As Vilém Flusser puts it: ‘The green of a photographed field, for example, is an image of the concept ‘green’, just as it occurs in chemical theory, and the camera (or rather the film inserted into it) is programmed to translate this concept into the image’ – (Flusser, 2014). What I gathered from these comments was that there is a code in colour photographs which make them translate as literal variations of the world once decoded by the viewer. Here the colour photograph seems at first glance to reflect the real world but in fact the viewer has to decode what they are seeing on the surface of the photograph in order to ‘get’ the colour concept. I had always thought of colour as a separate design element to be incorporated into the (colour) photograph but hadn’t seen it as something which couldn’t be dissociated from the object.

Szarkowski’s writing on Eggleston’s use of colour in the press release for MoMA’s 1976 exhibition also reminded me of an essay I’d previously come across by Thomas Weski (2009) entitled: ‘WILLIAM EGGLESTON: “The Tender-Cruel Camera”’ found on the website American Suburb X. Weski (2009) divulges Eggleston deliberately chose to employ a snapshot aesthetic to his colour images. He also: ’emphasizes hues that soak the scene or resonate in a critical way, virtually creating effects of sound, silence, smell, temperature, pressure–sensations that black-and-white photography has yet to evoke.’ – (Weski, 2009). He accomplishes this by using the controversial dye-transfer technique to subtly add perceptions of atmosphere through the colour treatment. In combination with a centre-weighted composition where seemingly incidental details are included going towards the edge of the frame as well as the obvious in the centre, Eggleston’s photographs become a lot more meaningful than the snapshot aesthetic he models them on. I wasn’t sure how I’d implement this into my own photography but it did get me thinking that with colour photography at least it’s not so much how well the photograph is taken but how well it is conceptualised that creates an impact for the viewer. Also how it is processed and/or shared by the photographer for the viewer might also be of importance, for example Eggleston with his dye-transfer technique.

References:

Weski, T. (2009). WILLIAM EGGLESTON: “The Tender-Cruel Camera” – ASX | AMERICAN SUBURB X | Photography & Culture. [online] AMERICAN SUBURB X. Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/01/theory-william-eggleston-tender-cruel.html [Accessed 27 May 2017].

Flusser, V. (2014). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 3rd ed. London: Reaktion Books, p.43.

Szarkowski, J. (1976). Color Photographs by William Eggleston at the Museum of Modern Art. [Exhibition].