Even if photography could produce a picture by means of the action of light, could it produce an art without the skillful touch of a hand?
… the camera operator, no matter how sensitive to the picturesque accidents of the world, lacks the capacity to take full credit for the plenitude of the photograph.
Those two bits, which sum up two perennial sore points to advocates of photography-as-art, are from an essay, “Photography, Chance, and The Pencil of Nature“, by Robin Kelsey that is part of the collection of essays, The Meaning of Photography, ed by Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson (2008).
Kelsey does an unusuallly good job of presenting the issues. Here is some necessary preliminaries:
… Although this upheaval has been described many times, these descriptions have neglected one of the principle features of photography, as a new pictorial means: its openness to chance.
To understand this openness, two dichotomies are particularly important (and here I will coin a few terms). The first dichotomy consists of the terms arrangement and interruptant. By arrangement, I mean the program or general intention that informs the production of the photograph as a picture. A desirable arrangement makes us inclined to take this photograph and not some other. By interruptant, I mean an accidental detail or formal relation that addresses the viewer as if from the photograph itself and swerves attention away from the arrangement. I use this dichotomy instead of the now familiar one proposed by Barthes, of studium and punctum, because the latter terms have idiosyncratic and often abused meanings.
… The second dichotomy I will refer to as the crop and the click. Following Rosalind Krauss, I use crop to mean the act of framing the photograph at the time of exposure, the cutting out of a rectangle or square or other shape from the encompassing visual field. The crop, in this sense, is a function of the deployment of the apparatus at the time the negative is made. By click, I mean the taking of a photograph in one particular span of time (however slight) and not another. The crop delivers the photograph as a representation of a fragment of continuous space. The click delivers the photograph as a representation of a fragment of continuous time.
He then moves on to discuss Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature:
… The problem for Talbot was that the labor of the artist, by virtue of the judgment that guided it, had long been understood as a principal means by which pictures took on value as art. “Labour united with genius,” was how Egerton articulated the formula for the work of art in his discussion of the painter Lanseer. So the question was: Even if photography could produce a picture by means of the action of light, could it produce an art without the skillful touch of a hand?
Talbot addresses this challenging question with an appeal to chance.
… Talbot proposes that art is a matter of the eye and not the hand. He implies that sensitivity to the chance encounter is what binds the eye of the photographer to that of the painter. Both photographer and painter rely on a capacity to detect the potential of accident to stir the imagination or soul. Under this scheme, the true creative act of practitioners of both categories is the arresting of the eye, the momentary crop delimiting a portion of an everyday visual field. Talbot embraces the notion, one might say, of pictorial composition as found object. The arrangement of the photograph, to use that term, is construed as serendipitous.
… Why then, did Talbot not suggest that photography and painting are akin by virtue of the common practice of basing pictures on carefully arranged models and props?
The answer lies, I think, in Talbot’s vested interest in transferring the locus of creativity from the hand to the eye. If arranging brooms in doorways was the stuff of art, then presumably arranging paint on a canvas would be as well, and skilled painters brought years of arduous training to their craft. If, however, the crux of artistic production was a matter of seeing, then photography as an art would be at no disadvantage when compared to painting. Talbot construes the art of all pictorial art as an opportunism of sight. Discovering a picturesque scene requires aesthetic sensibility and inspiration; transposing it to a surface, whether canvas or photographic paper, is merely a matter of mechanical industry.
…. Later in The Pencil of Nature, Talbot recognizes in photography a second operation of chance. [ … ] Photography, Talbot notes, can transpose things of which the camera operator himself is unconscious. [ … ] Talbot here acknowledges the possibility that not every item of interest that the camera records is noticed by the photographer during the preparation of the shot and the exposure of the plate. … This passage constitutes an admission that the eye of the camera operator, no matter how sensitive to the picturesque accidents of the world, lacks the capacity to take full credit for the plenitude of the photograph.
… Talbot’s meditations on photography and chance may require us to revise our understanding of photography’s relationship to knowledge in the nineteenth century. In recent years, scholars have focused on what one might term the indexical guarantee of photography, the notion that the photograph as a trace offers a direct knowledge of what is photographed. This focus has perhaps led us to neglect signs of a troubled nineteenth-century negotiation concerning the disruptive role of chance in determining the value of that guarantee. Chance, as we have seen, threatened to determine whether a meaningful arrangement came into view, or whether an interruptant possessed intelligibility and significance; and chance was always shadowed by fraud. The photograph may have borne an indexical guarantee, but of what?
… Talbot’s photographs of brooms in doorways and building at Oxford, I am suggesting, were less experiments of the sort that Comte favored and more probabilistic aggregates. One could not control the photographic process entirely, but one could nonetheless appreciate the order that unpredictably emerged in photographic samples. Talbot, by likening the unexpected clock dial to the magical delivery of the photograph itself, encouraged viewers to bracket any ambition to trace the exact causes of the image before them. They could take the photograph as it is — such is its charm — and discover order in it that the camera operator never intended. Similarly, Talbot’s peers who were pioneering modern statistics bracketed concern for the certainties of causal sequences and took their statistical data as it was, discovering order in it that reasonable men could not have foreseen. Order simply came to the surface, unexpected and after the fact. The black box of the camera had counterpart in the black box of the new statistical society.
These are the most interesting arguments I have seen in recent writings about photography. Kelsey does a beautiful job of presenting the issues — though I don’t agree with some of his conclusions.
First, I think it is the exception, not the rule, that meaningful content be found in a photograph that was not noticed while it was being made. Second, I don’t think that (the rare) meaningful or (the common) meaningless “stuff” that fills out a photograph without being specifically noticed by the photographer necessarily detracts from or damages the conveyance his original intent. It may add to it or it may offer alternative meanings, but I don’t think it ever negates the picture that the photographer made. It’s auxiliary to, not a replacement or effacement of the first or primary picture.
Nevertheless, I would like to read more of Kelsey on photography. He has a book coming out in the fall of 2009, Photography and Chance, which should be interesting.