Friday, August 19, 2005

What is wrong with photography?

When in 97 I found myself at the helm of Camerawork there was a problem far more serious than the ailing finances and the decaying building, namely photography itself. Like everyone else I had for years popped into the Photographers Gallery when "Up West ". It seemed churlish not to do so as one was passing and the Café was cheap, but I had never really got on with the exhibits themselves, the photographs.

Photography is everywhere and yet always seems to promise far more than it delivers. Just prior to going to Camerawork I had tried in an Art Monthly review of an exhibition to write down just what was so unsettling about the photograph. " Photography is an illusive and elusive medium. Illusive in its seductive simulation of the visual world elusive in its transparency which makes it’s impossible ever to do more than look at a photograph. If you try to look into it, to get a grip on something more tangible, it eludes your grasp. Convinced that there must be something more we enlarge, or like Antonioni we Blow Up certain that somewhere in the detail a secret is concealed. The dull truth about photography however is that its is essentially empty, a sublime void, a clever combination of optics and light sensitive emulsion that allows us to a arrest a few million particles on their way to infinity".

The review then goes on for a thousand words or so on the exhibition but I recall that this opening paragraph took much more time to write and yet never seemed quite right and still doesn’t quite do it today. It never seemed to get at just what is wrong with photography.

Last week’s blog on illusion suggested a correlation between the illusion of picture motion both on screen and off. In other words the continuity of vision we experience in the “real world” is itself an illusion. In this context the elusive nature of still photography maybe has less to do with its illusory depictive qualities and is more related to the impromptu arrest taking place; an aspect heightened with fast film and shutter speeds.

One of revelations offered by photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge’s early work was an answer to the age-old question of whether a horse’s four hooves left the ground during a gallop. Muybridege developed a system using a series of cameras triggered by wires to show what previously no one had been able to see that indeed all four hooves where indeed airborne. Why could photography see what the eye could not?

Just as the “persistence of vision” is blamed on some defect in the retina so again the eye is seen as the source of the problem and phrases such as "too fast for the eye to see", have entered the popular consciousness suggesting the eye to be a sluggish instrument easily overtaken by speed and superseded by faster photo optic technology.

But the eye is just part of the visual perception process, a restless process designed not for the still but for the moving. In other words we are constantly creating an illusion of continuity. Even with a fixed stare studying a static scene our gaze is constantly shifting, remapping, looking for change.

This suggests that the natural condition of photography to be movement not statis. No wonder then that the single photogarph is so absurd, it captures that instantaneous something but in visual terms is meaningless without the other frames. So the emphasis is less on a film made up of individual frames, as frames that contribute to or are part of the continuity of film. In other words all photographs are nothing more than ”stills” from a film, which may or may not have been taken.

This does not detract from photography’s usefulness as a recording medium for technical purposes, but if the detail is all in the still, the meaning in the movement. The problem occurs when we start ascribing meaning to the still to the expression, gesture or whatever captured. Without the other (missing) frames we are looking at incomplete evidence. The photograph for all its declarations of ultimate revelation is ultimately impotent to tell us anything without the frames that came before and after


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