Photography – A Virgin? Or A Whore?

Joerg Colberg wrote recently on his Conscientious blog about parallels between photography and writing. We riffed a little about it via Twitter, but I want to add some thoughts that exceed that medium’s limits.

I meant to do this a few days ago, but Open Eye launch activities took priority.

Here’s a passage from W.H. Auden’s collections of essays on writing/literature, The Dyer’s Hand:

My language is the universal whore whom I have to make into a virgin (KARL KRAUS). It is both the glory and the shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property, that a poet cannot invent his words and that words are products, not of nature, but of a human society which uses them for a thousand different purposes. In modern societies where language is continually being debased and reduced to nonspeech, the poet is in constant danger of having his ear corrupted, a danger to which the painter and the composer, whose media are their private property, are not exposed. On the other hand, he is more protected than they from another modern peril, that of the solipsist subjectivity; however esoteric a poem may be, the fact that all its words have meanings which can be looked up in a dictionary makes it testify to the existence of other people. Even the language of Finnegans Wake was not created by Joyce ex nihilo; a purely private verbal world is not possible.”

There seems to me many parallels here with photography and, particularly, with photography as produced and shared in the digital age.

For a start, the photographer’s images aren’t invented. In order to photograph something, that something has to be out there in the world, in some sense. While the stylistic choices of the photographer can render objects in different ways, we can’t escape the fact that photography entails objects (in the loose sense). These objects are indeed the product of a human society and, by extension, infer the existence of other people; regardless of how much we try to avoid photographing people, they’re always implied.

Further, we use photographs for a thousand different purposes – from advertising images directed down the last pixel, to drunk photos shared by sophomores on Facebook, to news reportage, or fine art prints, we’re living with a surfeit of images, and a multiplicity of uses. The street photography of Matt Stuart becomes advertising for Nike*, and the news reportage of the Vietnam war hangs in galleries, while photographer-curators are pulling images from Facebook, Google Street View and other sources to create their own art. So, a multiplicity of purposes, coupled with a blurring of the distinctions.

And many platforms through which photographers share their work these days are also popular with a more casual, holiday snapshot crowd – Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, Twitter, and so on. When everyone is saying “look at my photo!” it can be hard to judge before viewing whether they mean a record of last night’s hen party, or part of a long-term project on hen-farming in Devon. This is even more true when a news photographer tweets snapshots of their day off in New York.

In addition to this, the classic photographers are being quoted (sometimes perhaps out of context?) by reference to single images from a body of work, or reductionist descriptions of entire careers, by photographers and writers seeking to better illustrate their own work. In much the same way, the classics of literature are frequently quoted to bolster arguments and beliefs, by taking a sentence from an essay, with the attendant risk that the reader can be given a distorted reading of the original source. Or no way of accessing the specific source, due to lack of proper attribution.

Even the protection from solipsism that Auden speaks of can be applied to photography. Photographs are descriptive, and even the more creatively abstract photographs share in common the mechanics and constraints of the form, and of the frame, that we become accustomed to from making holiday snaps. The viewer isn’t given a new object in abstract photographs, but a new content held in a familiar construct. And it is a construct the viewer has used frequently in their daily lives.

There is much more I could write about this, but these are just a few sketches for now. I’m reading Papageorge’s Core Curriculum and want to return to this way of thinking photographs in some future writing. But for now, I just have a few links I wanted to share, between how words and photographs function in our society, and this piece by Auden is particularly apposite for that.

I’m interested in what you think. I have no answers here. I’m not saying any of this is good or bad – I’m trying to tease out the value judgements, if there are any to be made, and have been doing so for a while. I have none to offer right now. But maybe we can find something to draw out of all of this?

(With huge thanks to Joerg for his fantastic post, which inspired me to put something down on this after sitting on it all summer)

*Note: I have no idea if Matt has actually photographed for Nike specifically. I know he shoots commercial work, that’s it. I’m taking a liberty here, for the sake of better rhythm to the prose.

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  1. #1 by john macpherson on November 10, 2011 - 12:52 am

    Interesting post, which I’ll have to mull over for a spell.

    Its late and I’m tired and I’ve no idea what sort of sense this might make but here goes!

    A few immediate thoughts…..

    “For a start, the photographer’s images aren’t invented. In order to photograph something, that something has to be out there in the world, in some sense. While the stylistic choices of the photographer can render objects in different ways, we can’t escape the fact that photography entails objects (in the loose sense). These objects are indeed the product of a human society and, by extension, infer the existence of other people; regardless of how much we try to avoid photographing people, they’re always implied.”

    Curious where you see natural occurences in this, objects that are not “a product of a human society”? Or do you mean the existence of other people ‘implied’ simply by the act of making the photograph, of creating the frame?

    What about the transient episodes of nature’s ‘story’ that surround us? I’ve photographed ‘flowers’ that have grown out of frost; a series of ‘hieroglyphs’ formed by fallen branches after a gale; a ‘fireworks display’ of water ripples on sand; a ‘spiral galaxy’ swirl of white waterfall froth on black peat-stained water; and much more. Ordinary stuff I guess, made extraordinary by the way photography can render it through freezing small moments of time, or compressing larger periods of time into one frame. Like words, different meanings, by being ordered and disordered again.

    Auden quote was interesting. I think though that the sheer beauty of words are in their democracy – those words that are available to ALL of us can, by the act of the ‘artist’ be recreated into a thing of wonder and beauty. Its that ‘recreation’ of words that is exciting and that is their power. I see no “corruption” in the “debasement” of language that Auden refers to – rather I see enrichment and evolution. And I see the same in the proliferation of image making that surrounds us.

    The whole notion of Auden’s “purely private verbal world” is anathema to me I must confess. That has an unappealing element of ‘wastefulness’ to it – words that can (perhaps) only be used once and then no more. Disposable, in a sense. The strength of words resides in their universality, their richness of meaning, their ease of misinterpretation, their chameleonic presence all around us, their use and misuse, and yes their history. Like photography too I think. We see, we record. We examine. We learn. And then we fail. And the process begins all over again. But next time we may ‘see’ differently.

    And I like the idea of photography and poetry/writing simply existing for all, drawing their strength from the fact that they come from a place and formed of things we all recognize, but which we may sometimes be challenged by, and need to learn more to understand by (being forced) to think differently, seeing from another perspective.

    Anyway, one of my favourite poems (from a recently well-earned Nobel prize winner) which uses a few simple words to hint at the depth of other stories that surround us which we’ll never fully know, maybe if we are lucky only ever glimpse but not understand, and must simply wonder at. This has informed my view of the world, of things that leave their fingerprint on the glass of our existence seen only at an oblique angle, or glimpsed out of the corner of an eye.

    From ‘March ’79’
    by Tomas Transtromer

    Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
    I went to the snow-covered island.
    The wild does not have words.
    The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!
    I come across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow.
    Language but no words.

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