Unreal Nature

May 31, 2017

Double Vision

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… Although the photographer’s vision may discern the same “reality” as the painter’s, use the same effects of light, and value the same qualities of both character and appearance, it is subject to such different restrictions of time and material that the quantitative differences make a qualitative difference.

This is from The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space by Mary Price (1994):

… a key difference [from painting] is that a photograph is available for many uses inappropriate for painting. One reason for this is the cheapness and multiplicity of photographs, but the primary reason is that the photograph has a direct and physically governed relationship to the external world of objects.

… In most contemporary circumstances, the convention of the photograph will be made clear by a setting governing the expectations of the viewer. In a newspaper, photographs of action or situation will be expected and found; in a gallery, photographs that are presumed to have intrinsic visual interest; in a snapshot album, snapshots; in a book, photographs of visual interest complementing or illustrating a text. These examples are so commonplace, and they and other examples so numerous that it seems almost unnecessary to think about them. They are part of the context of everyday life. I shall try to make it interesting to think about them, beginning with the problem of description.

… If description is necessary to complete the meaning of a photograph or to interpret the visual aspect by identifying its elements in words, the question might arise of who is qualified so to describe. The answer is, anyone who is persuaded to look. Descriptions will be more or less competent, sophisticated, accurate, and useful. Accuracy is checked by reference to the visual evidence.

… Describing is necessary for photographs. Call it captioning, call it titling, call it describing, the act of specifying in words what the viewer may be led both to understand and to see is as necessary to the photograph as it is to the painting. Or call it criticism. It is the act of describing that enables the act of seeing.

… Contemporary critics writing about photography discuss the one-to-one causal relationship between objects and print in terms such as index and transcription. Photographs are without code. All three terms, index, transcription, and without code refer to a neutral, affectless, physical, impression of light on film, without reference to an operative cause, that is, without reference to human control. They eliminate the element of metaphoric instrumentality implied by the most famous phrase in the history of English photography, William Fox Talbot’s “pencil of nature.”

Transcription is the neutral term and the most exact way of thinking about the removal of an impression from objects to film. If a photograph suggests representation, it is because it has an analogic relationship to painted subjects. A portrait has primary identity in being of somebody; the physical being is the same whatever the medium. Secondarily, the portrait is an example of its medium and technique.

[line break added] The “reality” the painter creates is a combination of the attributes and appearance of the subject with the stubborn resistance of a separate vision, the artist’s own. Although the photographer’s vision may discern the same “reality” as the painter’s, use the same effects of light, and value the same qualities of both character and appearance, it is subject to such different restrictions of time and material that the quantitative differences make a qualitative difference.

[ … ]

… It is difficult to imagine conceptual interpretation of photographs before naming what is seen in literal description. Nor are the conceptual interpretations necessarily the more interesting. They are interesting only if they reinforce the visually nameable elements, the subject(s), in such a way as to preserve the double vision of literal and conceptual; they are not interesting when they substitute abstractions for subjects.

-Julie

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