Unreal Nature

July 26, 2017

Discovered in the Blind Spot of Ordinary Perception

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:33 am

… The stray detail thus confirms and augments for him the evidentiary promise of the photograph, its marvelous delivery of a certain there and then.

This is from Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (2015):

… According to [Sir Joshua] Reynolds, a great artist, even if restricted to a scene that appears in a camera obscura, will nonetheless draw on his experience to render the elements of the scene in their general significance, while the camera will attend exclusively to the arbitrary particulars before it. Setting the artist free to compose a scene from his imagination and synthesize his many observations of nature would only increase the superiority of his picture. The artist can also elevate his style through the use of historical, biblical, or mythological allusions, which can enrich pictorial meaning in ways that the camera obscura cannot. Reynolds thus defines art in a way hostile to the aesthetic claims that photographers would later make.

Countering Reynolds, Talbot in The Pencil of Nature tries to shoehorn photography into art by appealing to the aesthetic potential of accident. He proposes that the photographer with an artistic eye trained by study and experience will be able to recognize when the particulars of a scene momentarily coincide with a picturesque ideal.

[ … ]

Talbot, having developed a process that withdrew the skilled hand and restricted the imagination to scenes in the world, displaced the traditional sites of agency and substituted the eye. The eye would no longer be a passive receptor, an imagined target for the finished work, but a decisive agent in pictorial production. It was where the mind could register and sift the sensuous particulars of the world. What had been a matter of thinking and handling would now be a matter of seeing.

Talbot’s reconciliation of art and automation, however, had several shortcomings. One was the improbability of encountering a scene that offered a satisfactory configuration of forms and lacked extraneous details. Talbot had evidently arranged his broom carefully for a reason. What was the likelihood of finding an ideal arrangement in the world? Of finding an individual case coinciding with a desirable type?


William Henry Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844

… A second problem for Talbot’s scheme was the weak link between the picturesque photograph and the sensibility of the camera operator. It was one thing for a photograph to faithfully record a picturesque scene, and quite another for it to record the operator’s recognition of that picturesqueness.

… What would differentiate a photograph that spoke to the aesthetic refinement of the operator from one that attested merely to the quirks of dumb luck? The traditional arts had never posed this problem to a significant degree. A painter might have a lucky day, when conditions endowed the paints on his or her palette with the perfect viscosity, but there was no such thing in painting as a lucky masterpiece. The bond between aesthetic sensibility and pictorial output was presumed to be firm. The automatism of photography, whereby the action of light over a brief interval of time generated the image, destroyed this traditional lamination of intention and result.

… the eye of the 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.

… Chance has filled the gap between the incomplete attention of the photographer and the indiscriminate receptivity of his or her apparatus.

… [There is] the possibility that a photograph might exceed the intentions that informed its production. Although Talbot describes this encounter as belonging to the photographer (“the operator himself discovers upon examination”), it belongs properly to any viewer. The first encounter motivates the photograph; the second interrupts the general intention that informed its making.

… One of Talbot’s principal challenges in defending photography was to salvage its significance from the noise of the arbitrary.

Talbot’s rationalization of the unexpected detail in photography consists of two moves. The first is to associate it with the wondrousness of photography writ large. The chemical emergence of the photographic image possessed a quality of magic, and Talbot claimed that the cropping up of unsuspected details in the finished photograph constitutes “one of the charms of photography.”

Talbot’s second and subtler move is to suggest that the surprising inclusions of photography tend to signify. [ … ] If the serendipitous encounter allows an operator to express his or her taste and sensitivity in a photograph, the unexpected detail allows a photograph to talk back.

But what, according to Talbot, does a photograph tak back about? The accidental details that he discusses are, for the most part, not any old notations and measurements, but notations and measurements that mark time and place. … The stray detail thus confirms and augments for him the evidentiary promise of the photograph, its marvelous delivery of a certain there and then.

[ … ]

… An automatic process sandwiched between the chance encounter and the accidental inclusion, photography combined immense depictive capacity with weak intentionality. It dispensed with the godlike designing powers of the artist in favor of aesthetic sensibility, serendipity, and the play of chance. Like the new social statistics, photography tended to shift the production of meaning away from design and toward analysis after the fact.

[line break added] Like a statistical table, the photograph contained an order that was stumbled across, discovered in the blind spot of ordinary perception. While Talbot suggested that the accidental stuff of photography could reveal instants of familiar beauty or orderly intelligence, photographers coming later, pressed by other doubts, would seek other wonders.

My previous post from Kelsey’s book is here.

-Julie

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