Unreal Nature

August 30, 2017

The Lie of the Photograph

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… It resides in a faith that the world dreams itself into the photograph, overcoming the play of chance.

Continuing through Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (2015):

… “In photography, you’ve got to be quick, quick, quick,” Cartier-Bresson says, “like an animal and a prey.” Bypassing the plodding deliberations of the mind, the photographer records a “decision made by the eye.” This consolidation of bodily instinct and aesthetic judgment liberates the photographer to work “in unison with movement.”

Cartier-Bresson’s theory piggybacked on several contemporaneous strands of popular thought. Carl Jung had popularized the notion of synchronicity, according to which ostensibly random events could momentarily reveal the profound embedding of the individual psyche in the world. In 1952, the same year that Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment appeared, Jung’s essay “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle” was published. In it, he argues that a spontaneous density of meaningful connections distinguishes the archetypal pattern from the meaningless product of chance.

[line break added] “The problem of synchronicity has puzzled me for a long time, ever since the middle twenties, when I was investigating the phenomena of the collective unconscious and kept on coming across connections which I simply could not explain as chance groupings or ‘runs.’ What I found were ‘coincidences’ which were connected so meaningfully that their ‘chance’ concurrence would be incredible.” Jung’s account of synchronicity was a boon to photographers, for it underwrote the possibility of a collectively significant yet instantaneous correspondence between individual and world.

Another important cultural correlate was the enthusiastic reception of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, first published in German in 1948, and translated into English in 1953. Herrigel’s slim volume followed in the wake of D.T. Suzuki’s influential writings introducing Zen Buddhism to an anglophone audience before the war.

… Over time, Cartier-Bresson’s account of the decisive moment became a powerful alibi, and the photography market clung to it like a drug. If the photograph was an interface between the photographer’s uncanny aesthetic intuition and the world’s momentary revelation, it could claim both inspired authorship and documentary power. Buyers and sellers of photography could enjoy the perfect marriage of aesthetic sensibility and worldly relevance. The paradigm of the decisive moment underwrote Cartier-Bresson’s practice at large, suppressing acknowledgment of directorial intervention or editorial contrivance.

[line break added] His dazzling production of captivating photographs seemed to confirm that all he said about his capacities was true. Beyond that, the paradigm legitimated the significance of a broad swath of photography in society at large, from news reportage to art school assignments. By exalting the modern photographer as a master of chance, it muffled the maddening strangeness of a society relying extensively on accident for the production of its most vital images.

In truth, Cartier-Bresson’s famous theory saddles users of photography with two disabling forms of cognitive circularity. First, his theory would have us judge a photograph by its success in capturing the essence of its subject, but we often know the subject proper only through the photograph. The second form of cognitive circularity surfaces in Jung’s theory of synchronicity. According to Jung, if an event very much seems significant, then it cannot be the product of chance, and if it is not the product of chance, then it can be significant.

[line break added] The problem with this circular logic is that chance inevitably produces coincidences that very much seem significant, and so the fact of seeming significant is a poor guide to what has — or has not — been caused by chance. Indeed, only a few years after Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment appeared, a cognitive psychologist coined the term apophenia to refer to the strong propensity of human subjects to find meaningful order in random data.

Even if we accept the possibility of a photographer embodying Cartier-Bresson’s ideal of feline reflexes and Zen-like immersion in time’s flow, we will still lack criteria for distinguishing photographs produced by dumb luck. Although Cartier-Bresson argues that the sufficiently alert and sensitive photographer can seize the decisive moment of an event, his theory does not rule out the possibility that photographers can also capture such a moment by chance. The problem is latent in curator Peter Galassi’s jocular remark that “other photographers have a sober respect for [Cartier-Bresson’s] luck.”

… the crucial issue is not staging or cropping; it is chance. The lie of the photograph has nothing to do with honesty. It resides in a belief that the world reveals itself to the camera that is wielded by the seer. It resides in a belief that pictorial rhetoric stems from and reveals an underlying reality that surfaces momentarily when the shutter clicks. It resides in a faith that the world dreams itself into the photograph, overcoming the play of chance.

My most recent previous post from Kelsey’s book is here.

-Julie

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