“As ever more sensitive emulsions come into use, pictures could be taken in a flash of light, and there was no need for a sitter to pose for long periods of time with glazed, unnatural expressions.”
What of an alternative view that there was, on the contrary, something more honest about a process with such undeniable artifice -sitting in a studio, remaining completely still, trusting in the expertise of the practitioner. That is a form of respect paid to the total difference manifested in this radical departure of a medium. It is not simply a ‘democratization of the image’ whereby anyone can now have a portrait, where previously such was only within the economic means of the higher ups. This was not an extension of the visual franchise, though it now suits all of us to call it such, and also suits the various companies who sell the equipment necessary to produce ever more snapshots.
There is a mendacity to the pervasive notion that the photograph gives us the natural, spontaneous “moment”. On this, consider whether you would ever greet a friend by saying, “my, how natural and spontaneous you look today!” (If you would, then I don’t know what can be done for you…) The snapshot pushes the natural and the real ever further away from us, and the technology makes it ever more difficult to see with our own eyes, instead of with the entire history of photography acting as a set of templates of acceptability. But this is a trite, cliched criticism. I have said nothing new. What I want to consider is the techniques of seeing that we can compare. Painters and photographers see the world differently. The photographer waits for that instant that is telling, unusual, striking. The painter, according to conditions of the medium, considers that which is to be depicted on a much longer time-scale.
For me, the above photograph by Diane Arbus does everything that photography can do. It erases what is potentially human in a portrait to the mechanism of the technology of depiction. It reduces the interplay of facial muscles to a time-scale that serves only the camera. It captures, with all its terrifying capacity for precision and focus, a particular series of electrical impulses firing throughout the hundreds of muscles in the face, reducing the becoming of a facial expression – in all its delicacy and complexity – to the lie of a static, solid gurn. It is a commonplace of discussing technology (via Lewis Mumford) that each new invention would be set in the terms of that which it replaces; thus the motor-car was in its early days referred to a horseless carriage. Time was needed for the new device or complex of techniques to come into its own. It saves us the effort of wasting time completely rethinking each new technology only to see it rot into redundancy. If it succeeds, then it can do so on its own terms. I do not think this is what I am doing in my comparison of photography and painting however.
For one thing, the photograph is not cutting-edge technology. I don’t think I would be extreme in considering it established. What I would question, however, is if we ever properly considered it in dispassionate terms. It is a tool, and accordingly it is a response to a human need via a human capability. It offers a semi-permanent method of storage of visual processing that takes place via sight. It brings sight into ever smaller divisions and ever greater extension of time via super-fast cameras and long exposures. It allows us to see in lower light. It expands sight into the infra-red and the ultra-violet. All these it can do, but what is it for? On the human, social level, in terms of objectification (in whatever regard one wishes to consider), it serves the machine and not the human. The most successful photographers for my euro, are those who bring the two closer together (Nan Goldin springs immediately to mind), rather than reveling in the technical difference that this machine can manifest (as with Arbus, though pass over this dichotomy in silence as a blogger’s prerogative).
Goldin revels (as with The Devil’s Playground – read the review which this links to) in the act of seeing itself, and the long relationships over many years allow us to see with her, rather than to simply see what she saw. The “absence” which the above review refers to is actually us. We see friends and relatives in the long view of many years, and in some cases of different generations. Time is made to conform to a human scale, one that gives us a beautiful intimacy. The charges of voyeurism made against Goldin might stick against some in the snap-shot generation, but in considering her own work they reveal a blindness. In her work, Goldin has thought through the act of seeing, and the technique of seeing that the photograph gives us. The effect of her work is cumulative, so that while of course she is subject to the same contraints as all other photographers, it is how she structures her own context that sets her apart. Her snapshots (as above) are something more than that. It is one view among many, as in a fleeting memory. They are not the instant being held up as the entirety of that person. She makes her own canon.