The photographic character of photographs

The photographic character of photographs

by Daniel Silliman on March 2, 2011

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in Art

Photography must be the most self-erasing of arts. The most self-effacing: it makes itself invisible. The texture of photography is invisible and it has an authority that’s so great as to seem not to be an authority, but just to be a natural state. It is just there. Of course we take photographs to be more than record, but to be, actually, evidence: they are not just most in line with our idea of actual truth, they are what we mean by the word and idea. The photography itself erases itself for us, and leaves us just the real.

Or so we think.

The photographic nature of photographs, the photographic qualities of photographs, the photographic characteristics and texture of photographs … they all evaporate before us. We can’t see them. They disappear for us and we see only the referred to, only that which is signified. The sign is see-through, the referential transparent.

A question I’ve been toying with, though: can one photograph in such a way as to make that invisible visible? In such a way as to make the photography part of the photograph? To show the texture of the thing, and not erase it, not embrace the “myth of photographic truth,” which is this invisibleness, with the photograph, but to acknowledge the mediation, induce meditation on the mediation — and even appreciate it?

Which is how I ended up taking pictures of windows.

The pizza shop called home

Other arts, as much effort as there is to erase — ars celare artum — the texture is still there. It is observable even, to some extent, by the casual reader. The narrativistic nature of narratives, the painterly qualities of painting, the writerly texture of writing, the rhetorical texture of speech — all are noted, even by some unsophisticated readers, and are praised or bemoaned accordingly.

Even the concept of “reading” a photograph, in contrast, seems strange. The photographers we do know, commonly, the one’s we have heard of and have thought of as artists, are famous, note, either for shooting nature, where their technique is more or less ignored and considered incidental, as they “captured” what “was there,” or for posing the people they shoot, where this, and not the actual taking of the photograph, is considered the art.

Put it another way: amateur poets write poetry to express themselves, while amateur photographers take photographs to document their lives. We still basically always accept the idea of photography as promoted by Kodak so long ago with the slogan, “You push to the button, we do the rest.” That is, we think of photography as a mechanical act of recording the real, rather than as an art, as an act of seeing, and the mechanical, being mechanical and nothing more, becomes transparent to us.

Even criticism of the idea of photographs as truth generally tend to focus on manipulations, which reinforces the idea that photographs are truth, are supposed to be truth, and are truth unless they’ve been manipulated.

My real concern, here, with the invisibility of the photographic quality of photographs, with our allowance of the erasure and self-effacement, is primarily ethical. In that I think ethics is acts of awareness, requires the thoughtful attention that such erasure makes impossible, and that violence of all sorts, from ideology to acts of brutality, proceeds only from structural exemptions of our own innocence, that we are not culpable here, that what is, is natural, and normal, from the kinds of ethical “fourth walls” that assure us we are not involved. In this way, for me, analysis of these structural edifices is an attempt to be ethical.

With other arts, there are experimental artists whose work calls attention to its own texture: Abstract painters like Pollock and Rothko, for example, or even the Impressionists, and modernist literature, like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons or William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, and the metaficiton of John Barth or the anti-novels of David Markson. Photographs can do this too and there are photographers, for example, Lee Friedlander, who have done this. Friedlander is known for shooting street scenes where his own shadow falls into the frame, making the invisible photographer a presence.

Other self-referential strategies of calling attention to the photographic character of the photograph include:

Self portraits.
-Pictures that include cameras (e.g. self portraits in mirrors).
-Photos of photographers and meta photos. Mechanical failure photos (e.g. out of focus, over exposure, double exposures, etc).

I first started noticing the possibilities, though, of photographs that reveal the concealment, with Andrew Sullivan’s View From Your Window project. In the context of Sullivan’s blog, the photos function to reach out to the readers and give them the sense of being a part of something, and something global. Beyond that rhetorical function, though, I found them interesting. I wasn’t sure why, at first, but I liked, I knew, the limitation of photos taken from windows, the restrictions inherent in them, and started taking some myself.

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielsilliman/4843786012/” title=”Indiana in the morning (welcome back to America) by What is in us, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4106/4843786012_d330d724a5.jpg” width=”500″ height=”312″ alt=”Indiana in the morning (welcome back to America)” /></a>

Pretty quickly, I decided that what I liked about those fist window photos was actually excluded from them. I liked the effect of the pre-existing frame, which was lost in the way I took the picture. I realized, kind of slowly that I was shooting windows in both directions, both in and out, and that I wanted, specifically, to keep the elements of the window: the frame, the glass, and that specific sense of space that implies (sometimes uncomfortably) that one is looking.

There are others, of course, who have done this before. Saul Leiter has a whole series of through-window photos which are completely great and inspiring. I’m very much discovering this as I go along.

These photos I’m taking, I think, can work to establish a kind of imagistic stutter: the window works to repeat some elements of the photographs that are normally concealed, normally invisible, and because of the repetition, the photo can act to call attention to the photographic texture of the photograph. It’s these three elements that are repeated:

1) The frame: Photography is, first of all, an act of selection. Things are included, and things are excluded. The presence of a frame within the frame of the photograph serves to point to that, and it can act to make us aware that this is not a picture of the world, but an act of framing. There is, implied by the window, more there that we cannot see.

2) The glass: There is always a distance intrinsic to a photograph, and there is a lens between the viewer and the viewed. That glass is transparent, but when it’s made visible it acts, kind of dramatically, as a denial of access. It shows the barrier that was always there, and the distance, and that one does not have the thing, the reality. One is blocked in, in a sense, by the glass.

3) The voyeurism: photographs should make us uncomfortable. There’s a kind of viewing going on that’s more than a little invasive, more bold than ordinarily acceptable. There’s an objectification and a flattening that goes on with photographs, and that’s part of the characteristic texture of photographs, and a photograph through a window can remind us of the kind of invasion that’s happening here.

I wouldn’t say that I’m totally sure that what I’ve done actually works. It’s possible that I’m the only one who looks at these photographs and sees photography in them, sees them as making the normally-insivisibe photographic texture visible. It’s an attempt, though, to induce meditation on the nature of this mediation, to isolate the act of looking, to be more thoughtful about photography, and to show and point to that which is normally, in photography, erased by photography.

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