Unreal Nature

February 28, 2009

Spasmodic Finger Twitchers

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:41 am

When I saw the book review, Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature, Scott Walden (ed.), reviewed by John Andrew Fisher listed in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, I was delighted. I bookmarked it so I could have plenty of time to savor every morsel. So, when, with napkin tucked in to my shirtfront and knife and fork in hand, I was presented with a steaming pile of total drivel, you can imagine my intense disappointment (which is putting it nicely). It promised so much …

… it is a ground-breaking, cutting-edge anthology of essays by leading analytic philosophers of art all focused in one way or another on the foundations of photography.

But soon after that, as I read on, I ran into this:

… Only instrumental classical music has fascinated philosophers as much. In pure instrumental music there is no intrinsic representational content, yet the music feels as if it is saying something and sounds as if it expresses emotions. In the case of photography we have the opposite problem: instead of too little representation, we have nothing but pure representation; we see nothing in a photograph but the objects that are photographed.

*blink* Wha ….??

Then this bit on Kendall Walton’s contribution to the collection: 

Whether through an optical-and-chemical or digital process, once the shutter is triggered the image is determined by what is in front of the lens, not by the beliefs of the photographer:

The essential difference between paintings and photographs is the difference in the manner in which in which they . . . are based on beliefs of their makers. Photographs are counterfactually dependent on the photographic scene even if the beliefs (and other intentional attitudes) of the photographer are fixed. Paintings which have a counterfactual dependence on the scene portrayed lose it when the beliefs (and other intentional attitudes) of the painter are fixed. (38)

If a painter who is trying to depict the scene in front of her believes that there is a gorilla in the scene, she will put it in the painting even if it is not actually there, whereas even if a photographer also has that belief, a gorilla will not appear in the image if one does not exist in front of the camera.

How, how, how can presumably intelligent  people (which presumption is probably a mistake on my part) not see the problem with that statement within oh say, (looking at my watch) twenty three seconds?

Neither the photograph nor the painting are determined by the beliefs of the artist. If the painter wants to put the gorilla in the painting she will. She could believe that there is a gorilla in the scene and choose not to put it in the painting because she does not want it there. Likewise, the photographer will work to include in his photographs, whatever it is that he wants to be there. If he wants a gorilla and for some mysterious reason, it does not appear when he thought it should, he’ll make another picture in which, this time, the gorilla is where he wants it to be.

Philosophers (among others) get all bent out of shape because there is unintended stuff in photographs. Stuff that was not chosen by the photographer. As if anything that appears on any potentially pictorial surface must necessarily be art. If the photograph has stuff in it that the art photographer doesn’t want to be there, then the picture is not a finished work any more than a painting that has white canvas still visible is a finished work. A photograph happens to (unavoidably) have stuff in its “white space”; an unfinished or draft painting has blank whiteness; as does an unfinished or draft drawing. If you want to get literal, the painting and drawing have stuff also, it just happens to be a material that is canvas or fibrous paper. In all three cases, the art photographer, the painter or the sketcher will either decide that they want what is there (the stuff as it is, whether it be something or nothing) or they will choose to change it (by making another photogaph or by adding to or changing the painting or sketch).

Let’s consider the difference between what might be going through the mind of a photographer and the mind of a painter as they work toward the full visualization of what it is they want in their picture. First, the artist:

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, maybe, yes that little bit (adding it), no, no, no, maybe, yes, no, no, no, no, no, yes, maybe, almost, no, yes.

Now, the photographer, looking through his camera, moving about through the world or working over a studio set-up:

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, maybe, yes that little bit (circling closer; fiddling with lenses, aperture, etc.), no, no, no, maybe, yes, no, no, no, no, no, yes, maybe, almost, no, yes.

The reason it takes a long time to become — and there are so few really good — art photographers is (mechanical technique aside) the same reason that it takes a long time and there are so few — really good painters. Both are about knowing and then getting what you want. If philosophers who want to philosophize about photography would first either try to make an artistically good photograph or simply watch art photographers laboriously striving to make good pictures, they might get a clue.

One last quote from the review that I won’t dignify with a response except to say, see above. This one is about the contribution to the collection by Roger Scruton:

In “Photography and Representation” Scruton couples many of the same basic facts about photography that other authors accept with his own not implausible view of what an artistic representation of the world is to conclude that photographs as such can never be artistic representations: “photography is not a representational art” (139). It should be said that he is referring to a logically ideal photography, which he defines as having a purely causal and non-intentional relation to its subject. An ideal photograph of x implies that x exists and that it is, roughly, as it appears in the photograph. Yes, there is an intentional act involved in taking the photo, but it is not an essential part of the photographic relation. The appearance of the subject, therefore, is “not interesting as the realization of an intention but rather as a record of how an actual object looked” (140). Appearances in a representational painting are a different story. “The aim of painting is to give insight, and the creation of an appearance is important mainly as the expression of thought” (148). Given how they are defined, ideal photographs cannot express thoughts. He argues that “if one finds a photograph beautiful, it is because one finds something beautiful in its subject.”

As if anybody buying a point-and-shoot camera also gets a beret and a black turtleneck and goes bounding joyously out of the store singing Handel-ish halleluljahs, their fingers twitching rapidly, spasmodically on the shutter-release; works of art streaming across their LCD.

If you want to read this totally not recommended, hugely disappointing load of drek by a bunch of idiots … [ link ]

-Julie

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