Posts Tagged the dyer’s hand

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.

Advertisements

, , , , , , , ,

1 Comment