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In Through a glass, darkly: photography and cultural memory Alan Trachtenberg states that whether we say that photographs are merely surface descriptions or interpretations analogous to written history comes down to how we look at the image:
as a general rule we choose to see a photograph either as a mechanical transcription of a field of light with randomly disposed objects, or as an intentional reordering of that field into a deliberate meaning. We can look at the picture as the world, or the maker's mind or imagination playing upon the world.
We desire and need more information than the image alone. Uncaptioned, a photograph can seem a mote floating in space, unmoored, unattached. Or a cryptic hieroglyph. Hieroglyphs hide the codes, the secret knowledge they require for decipherment.

NorthropH.cluster.jpg Holly Northrop,

He adds that for all their apparent transparency and ease of identification, photographs often seem hieroglyphic, obscure, ambiguous, elusive, the more so the more transparently window-like they seem.
One way of beginning to look at images is to start from the commonplace understanding of images in academia. Images are understood as a kind of language, but instead of providing a transparent window on the world are now regarded as the sort of sign (a pictorial sign) that presents deceptive appearances of naturalness and transparence concealing an opaque, distorting mechanism of representation. That distortion is often understood as a process of ideological mystification.

S2artHarbourtown.jpg s2art, Harbourtown, Melbourne Victoria Australia, 2009

I say academia because many would still assume that photography provides a transparent window on the world--it is a natural sign rather than a conventional one. Photography, unlike traditional aboriginal painting, does not employ a vocabulary or language of conventional pictorial representation. So it does not need to be re-translated by those with special skills and training (not everyone has these) to yield up its information.

This is the traditional view. Photographs just look like the world. We can see what a picture is of without having to learn any pictorial codes.

'Like' here is understood as resemblance: photos are like or resemble the things they depict or represent.

A problem in photography after modernism  is how to link or connect different image/texts in a way that is different from the narrative story telling convention of photo journalism. What options do we have if we want, if we desire the connections between image texts that are open and nonlinear and in no way claiming to be  'finished.'  Some suggestions to explore.

How do we think or write in images?

In the history of modern photography the photograph has been seen as a static object, a frozen moment of time and it is words that link the static objects. A photograph that has been taken in the past, or present, is a brief and short moment of time. If photography is a cut into time then film is a series of movement,  and the latter is regarded as a sequence of movement, therefore more able to achieve a higher synthesis of life as it "represents reality as it evolves in time". So argued Siegfried Kracauer in his  well known book Theory of Film.

New Zealand_-334.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, Kaikoura coastline, New Zealand, 2009

The image seduces the beholder to believe in its representational qualities, but when the beholder is introduced, we have a pictorial mediation between past and presence; a memory of this coast from an earlier time or experience. It is through the beholder that past becomes to be present and through the beholder the relationship between past and present began to loose their formal boundaries. As preserved duration memory stores experiences, keeps them alive and frames the present. The photographic image becomes the embodiment of memory related to the unconscious.

We can go further. Time can be seen in terms of becoming (and not as static being) and the photograph in terms of change and stasis. The photographic image then consists in a temporal movement, when the grabbed instant exceeds into duration. Past things are being received into present. So we have time as duration. Time flows through the images as the changes in the landscape.
The meaning of the terms "historical understanding," "historical sense," or "historical consciousness" vary greatly, but they are generally understood as referring to both an awareness that the choices we face, our language, our meanings, and our values are contingent upon historically unique circumstances, and that the past continues to "live" in the present insofar as it shapes our thought and actions.

AberehartLMidwayBeach.jpg Lawrence Aberhart, Midway Beach, Gisborne, 1986, silver gelatin print

Historicial understanding also refers to what has been forgotten and the way that events have been expunged or repressed from an individual or collective historical memory. Remembering and forgetting are closely akin to one another. Thus acts of remembrance often become moments of wilful erasure and the desire to forget, paradoxically, produces the often unwelcome capacity to remember.

beyond modernism

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 Dom Ciancibelli raises an interesting issue about contemporary photography at haphazart! Contemporary Abstracts. The issue raised is transgressing modernism and shifting to a postmodern photography practice. It raises the question: can photography be a postmodern art form as well as a modernist one. If so what would the former look like?

This excellent picture----- new year in gaza-----by Mark Valentine would be generally interpreted as a modernist picture: it is abstract, expressionistic and associated with music.Yet it also refers beyond itself as photographic art:

Ciancibelli starts his discussion by quoting from linkwise, who says that:

At the risk if bursting some inflated egos, many images that we see in this forum are at best reiterations and regurgitations of visual issues that modernist painters and photographers resolved decades and indeed centuries ago. Thus there is not a lot to discuss.
My concern here is not to pass judgment on the quality of modernist abstractionist photography but merely to note that abstraction in art has been around a long time---most of the 20th century---and that it is no longer part of the avant-garde movement.
Can we speak of dialectical pictures or images. If so,  is the picture below---- entitled The end of oil 11  by  Peter G.A. Rosén aka  Kritisk massa on Flickr---- an example of one? If it is, then what can it offer those interested in cultural criticism? 


Walter Benjamin understood a dialectical image as an image of the past which carries the desires of the past generations into the present; an image that crystallizes antithetical elements  and where the  "synthesis" of these antithetical elements  is not a movement towards resolution, but the point at which their axes intersect.

The antithetical elements in the above picture is the promise of freedom by the car and  the negative effects of the car on both the environment (dirty air + emission of greenhouse gases)  and our urban fabric.These contradictory tendencies are not resolved in the picture --they intersect ---petrol station and the unsettling garish, greenish tinge. 
This picture----200812-02-03---- is by Guy Batey and it is from his The Melancholy of Objects set. It has been selected because it is a good example of the return to the world of objects after the turn away from the  modernist's preoccupation with the abstract image.

This  is the world of the found object,  and Guy's Flickr set begins with things----often trivial, humble objects--- and the way we apprehend them. This set of pictures of objects is more a phenomenological approach to things, than one that works within art history---eg., the object as an arsenal in the surrealist avant garde expressing the return of the repressed. The  uncanny  is present but it avoids collapsing things into fetishism or the return of the repressed desire as understood by psychoanalysis. 
In concluding Picture Theory WJT Mitchell raises the issue of representation  and what lies beyond it. This picture by casually, krystina  is not just a representation of reflections in a window--it points, or refers, to what lies beyond this particular representation. It suggests that something lies beyond this object (a picture) that seems to stand before us, a thing  standing for something else. The "something else", as suggested by the light in the background,  is some form of transcendence.  

There is a tradition that makes a distinction between visual representation and what is represented. However Mitchell also mentions the aesthetic tradition that holds there is nothing outside representation. Is this picture a way of emphasizing the unpresentable?


Are there different visual ways of allowing the unpresentable to be put forward?

Mitchell says that this is the tradition of the aesthetic sublime, which posits a realm of a negation, of  radical otherness,  and unknowability. The sublime located in pain, death transcendence and the unknowable, is precisely the unrepresentable.

pictures + music

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One stand of contemporary photographic practice  is  photography as the expression of emotion or feeling, both individual and public .  A good example is through a broken lens by floebee. Is this interesting picture  just an expression of the photographer's feelings?  Or is something more happening here? If so, what?


The 19th century  Romantics interpreted 'art as expression'  in terms of images expressing the artist's feelings or subjectivity (dreams imagination, horror); and this was then reworked by the New York based abstract expressionists in the 20th century who had close contact with composers such as John Cage and Morton Feldman.    Feldman spoke about sound as if it were something physical, malleable, something to be shaped, like pigment.

What  does this disclose?


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One of the themes that run through the pictures in Flicker group is the realism versus irrealism difference.   Aesthetically speaking,  realism (as in Edward Hooper's mimetic realism) is seen as historically obsolete (consigned to the dustbin of art history)  and is deemed to have been supplanted by irrealism. 


This picture by InterfacePublications would be commonly understood as a realist representation of a street in Melbourne in the sense of resembles, is similar to, a copy of,  this  particular urbanscape, even if it could be interpreted as an abstract image.

In this sense realism is the standard mode of representation of photographers and it has become historically become understood as an equivalent for universal or "natural" visual experience. It---perspectival realism---- has been underpinned by  traditional practices, customs and habits that reach back to Alberti's 1453 text De Pictura -----and is the key mode of representation of the mass global visual communication networks (film photography and television).

Should photographers question perspectival realisms that is assumed to be natural ---we have invented and built a  a machine (the camera)  to produce this conventional or historical  sort of image and this has  reinforced the conviction that this is the natural mode of representation as opposed to a historical way of looking or seeing.
W.J.T. Mitchell  has long argued that there has been a visual turn, or what he calls a "pictorial turn," in contemporary culture and theory in which images, pictures and the realm of the visual have been recognized as being as important and worthy of intense scrutiny as the realm of language. While the "linguistic turn" (Richard Rorty) in the 1960s called attention to the role of language in culture, theory, and everyday life the notion of a "pictorial turn" signals the importance of pictures and images, and challenges us to be observant and informed critics of visual culture. W.J.T. Mitchell grasps the importance of the visual and the need to take pictures seriously.

The title of Mitchell's new  book, What do Pictures Want?  strikes me as odd. Pictures don't have desires. They are objects that convey meaning not animated beings with desires, needs, appetites, demands, and drives of their own like dogs. Pictured are not alive like dogs. They do not act in the world like dogs. Images are not living creatures.

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