This is from a lecture ‘A Talk on Photography and History: Time, Space, and Causality’ delivered at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1979; I’m finding it in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Framption edited by Bruce Jenkins (2009):
… About a week ago a preadolescent of my acquaintance gave me a comic book. It was a Disney-family comic book. One of the little short stories or tableaux in it was called “A Photography Contest.” In this tableau, Clarabelle Cow purchases something that looks very much like a Nikon and enters a contest in the photography, mind you, of animals. And there are various misadventures, needless to say, connected with this. She enlists the help of her boyfriend. I forget his name; he’s a bull in any case. And the encounters with animals that she photographs obviously become more and more horrendous until, in one frame, a lion that has escaped from the zoo is pursuing her boyfriend, the bull: and with a big bovine grin she snaps a picture of the lion. As she does so, she says to herself: “Great shot.”
The fact that we have the image of a cow using a camera engaged in a contest to photograph animals reminds me of a moment of vertigo I experienced the first time I ever watched German television. There was an ancient American movie that had Anthony Quinn as Chief Thundercloud, or whoever, and someone else as his young white friend. It’s the plot where the Indian boy and the white boy have been raised together as children, fall out, and are reunited at the end, and so forth. And of course the whole thing is dubbed in German. At the very end of the film, the red and white man are riding along together once more, side by side on their horses. In the original, Quinn had turned to whomever it was and spoken to him in English for the first time, not in Oglala, or something like that; but since this was dubbed in the version I saw, the white man turned back to Anthony Quinn and said, “In all these years I never knew you spoke German.”
Graft then, if you will, onto that ironic vertigo the fact that the comic book I told you about was in fact in Spanish: the name of the tableau was “Concurso de fotografia.” And what Clarabelle Cow said when she snapped the picture of the lion was, “precioso ejemplar,” a great shot.
In that scientific, Latinate diction of a Disney cow taking a picture of a lion, with a Nikon, in the kind of exploded and arrested pseudocinema of a comic book — the pictorial vulgate of Western capitalist childhood, if you will — we have, I think, the rack upon which the not-yet-very-well-formed backbone of photographic theory has been broken before it ever grew straight and strong: namely, that photographs, in their immense number (it’s like overkill, like nerve gas; there’s enough doses of still photography to kill every one of us a hundred times over) have never been seen in any way systematically: they are a virtually infinite collection of preciousos ejemplares, great shots, every one of which of course tends to make all the others temporarily invisible — to arrest the attention so completely that it becomes, as it were, paralyzed.
Watch out for comic books, they’re excessively instructive.
[ … ]
… at this moment … we set ourselves the task of examining, of all things, the history of a practice new to history, a social and intellectual phenomenon so common and old that it seems to share, with written language, a fundamental identity with the method and matter of history itself: the diffuse general practice, I mean, of photography. Not even the illiterate can imagine a world without written language, and a world without photographic imagery is, for us, unthinkable. If it often seems to us, as we think about thinking, that we think in words, it seems as often, when we are not thinking about thinking, that we think not merely in “pictures” but in photographs.
Habituated to language, we may no longer think of it [language] as a machine — or as the manifestation of a high technology for manipulating and accounting for a universe whose boundaries it obscures in a profusion of centers occupied by ourselves, who speak, understand, write, read — an unspeakably complex automaton that claims every mind as a subassembly, or an interlocking set of algorithms, self-defining and self-extending, that so determines the substance and limits of thought that every proposal to think anew automatically, relentlessly, imposes upon the one who would think the task of extending and redefining language itself. But to attempt to speak or write with conscious exactitude is to find oneself painfully vulnerable to the realization that language, whatever more it may be, is all those things.
But accustomed as we grow to the photographic image, nevertheless its origins seem less past than language’s perfect past, and less “transparent”; in symmetry with the visibility of its artifact, the photographic mode of production and the mechanism of photographic thought retain a certain “opacity.” If this is a sign of its immaturity as countermachine and complement of language, it is contradicted by history’s present readiness to unite, by a process of mutual ingestion, with the photographic image, incorporating it into its method as well as its object. The photographic machine embodies and exercises with effortless precision much of what has ever been discovered about the description and recollection of spaces, their enclosing or imbedded volumes, the surfaces that delimit those volumes, the colors that qualify those surfaces. What was once, and for long, a subject of the most intense experimentation is now simply knowledge, parameterized, quantified, seamlessly indistinguishable from the rest of inherited mother’s-milk culture and thereby all but inaccessible to individual practice within that culture, save through the mediation of photography.
In that indistinct moment when photographic representation, scarcely less abstract than the graphic signs of written language, became for the naïve or unreflective citizen (and we are all that person a good part of the time) associated with things as intimately and automatically as their names, our culture had passed an epistemological point of no return. In an age that has characteristically, in science as in art, preferred retinal to cortical vision, photography has provided an infallible retentive super-retina, more persuasive than a mirror, allegedly value- and language-free (or at least independent of the linguistic and social processes of discourse and evaluation).
… The incontrovertible photographic image, which was to have rescued the sciences from the most irksome of immemorial doubts about the reproducibility of observation and at the same time confirmed their academic curricula in enviable economy, enclosed them all within an impenetrable fortress-prison of image, a panopticon of visibilities — condemned them, in a word, to a long sentence on the basis of no more subtle argument than that of the decrepit legal principle (shared with some of the apologetics of Modernist art) res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself.