Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Words Matter

As most of my readers ought to know by now, Ctein and Mike Johnston have had a falling out over, proximately, whether or not we should have a different word for photographs which have been, to some unspecified degree, modified from the original scene. This dirty laundry isn't my concern, although I found the episode to be mildly tragic and I wish it hadn't happened.

I want to think about whether Mike's right, and why we might need such vocabulary now. It seems, on the face of it, that perhaps we've been getting along just fine for 160 years or so, so why now?

Here's a thumbnail of the relevant history, told through the lens of my ignorance and opinion. Don't quote me on any of this, although of course I will try to be as accurate as possible.

For roughly the first 40 or 50 years or so of photography, people are largely thinking of this new thing as a kind of painting. It's a way of making a really accurate (in some senses) painting without having to learn all that business about brushes and mixing colors and whatnot, although there is a whole host of other things you might learn. While there is a certain amount of railing against people who are "merely lousy painters" and so on, this is pretty much what people think. You might even mention the zeitgeist here.

Somewhere in there we have Emerson (and probably others who have not benefited from Newhall's PR campaign) trying, kind of, to invent straight photography. He's against manipulation, but he still thinks he's making paintings of a sort. He's making Art, Impressionistic Art at that.

So throughout that time, manipulation is more or less baked in. With orthochromatic emulsions you have to paste in the sky anyways, always. One of the mainstream approaches is to composite multiple negatives together for everything (pace Emerson) and we're about to roll forward into the "Camera Work" era of hand work in a big way. It's "painting for dummies" and the idea of the photograph as indexical has not really been born yet, although there are glimmers in Emerson's thundering rebuttals of Robinson.

Then we have "Camera Work", gum bichromate, hand work. Art Photography is if anything more wildly manipulated, and it's still simply baked in as part of the normal process. Also, in 1888, we have Kodak introducing their camera for the people. 100 exposures, send the film away to be developed and printed. The snapshot is born.

We start, I think, to see a split in the zeitgeist at this point. On the Art side manipulation is part of the process. These people are still "painters" and nobody expects their photos to be indexical. In fact, it's somewhere about this time that the idea of "indexical" is invented but it naturally remains the province of eggheads and wonks for some time before leaking out, in some form or another, to meet a similar idea held by the masses.

The Kodak camera, I feel, cannot help but have launched this idea in the minds of the public. They begin to take snapshots, and surely the idea that a photograph is a record of what truly was begins to rise to consciousness, more or less broadly.

We're somewhere around 1900 when I think these ideas really begin to take root, the idea that a photograph can be something with an inherent truthiness built in to it; the photo is a new thing, an objective visual record which has its own distinct and unique value.

Next up, a few decades later, we see Straight Photography rise up and dominate, the idea of indexicality is quickly central. It is, allegedly, absolutely vital to a photograph. While Straight Photography was more of an idea than an actual practice, it was the important idea of the era. Photography in America converges largely around this business, and manipulation is shunned. I think that in Europe we still see a lot of manipulation, but it tends to be quite obvious. Multiple exposures and so on. Man Ray is running around at this point, and so on. Adams famously thunders extensively at Mortensen.

For most of the 20th century, it seems to me, one could make Obvious Art photographs with heavy manipulation, compositing, multiple exposures and so on, and not be too deeply sneered at. At least in the USA the high ground was, and would remain for some time, straight photography. No removing telephone wires, and so on. In between, one could make photo-realistic manipulations, but one was a dirty animal and when caught you'd be roundly abused.

Furthermore, while one certainly could make photo-realistic manipulations, most practitioners lacked the skills and anyways it was a huge pain in the ass even if you knew how. While people could and did do all sorts of things in the wet photography era, it was rare, and it simply wasn't the sort of thing decent people did. Stalin did it, for god's sake, we don't.

Enter digital.

Abruptly the entire spectrum of manipulation possibility fills in and becomes equally easy, almost trivial. Anyone can remove the telephone wires, move the lamppost, delete three men in a rickshaw. Anyone. Whatever you fancy might "improve the composition" is trivial. Ideas shift, with dizzying rapidity, to "and if you think it will make it better, you should go ahead and do it." Photojournalists are supposedly the last bastion of straight photography, but everyone knows that even that is a farce.

No longer do we have a clear visual and social distinction between "manipulated, probably Art" and "straight photography".

I think this argues strongly for a need -- a new need, here and now -- for artists and viewers to have vocabulary to talk about these things. While none of these things are new, as such, the social context in which they occur and the frequency with which they occur, mean that, arguably, we can no longer get along with a few assumptions and, as necessary, talking around the issues.

Are "photoart" and "photograph" the right words? I dunno. I don't care, and most importantly, I don't get to decide. Terms will arise if they are truly needed. We could simply use "photograph" and "straight photograph", borrowing some more or less appropriate terms from the past. This has the advantage that "straight" naturally permits a usage implying a degree of straightness.

This photo is straight
This photo is mostly straight, it's pretty much straight. I just erased a wire in the corner.
This photo isn't really straight, I moved a bunch of stuff.

I dunno. Like I say, I don't get to decide. We're probably all going to walk off cliffs and die trying to catch imaginary monsters in our phones anyways.

That said, Ctein is also right. Once you create these categories, people will line up in one camp or another and start hating on the other guys. However, note that we already have that, we just don't have the words for the categories, and also, so what? Welcome to humanity. Trying to force everyone to get along by controlling language is just silly. The Whorf-Sapir hypothesis isn't completely wrong, but that doesn't mean that you can actually force people to get along by forcing them to use the same words for everything.


  1. Nuff Said, a concise, short and clear read on the subject. Thanks Andrew, good piece.

  2. Good take on a complex problem of perception. A strict sense of documentary/journalistic photography was a very late development. Sainted Gene Smith did stuff that would get you fired from the NYT today, and it was much harder to do back then. "Let Truth Be the Prejudice" would get you fired now. Emerson was all painterly until he had a conversion, and then got doctrinaire, like all converts, in the opposite direction. Digital has made it a new game, because anyone can do it. What does that mean for photography? Hang onto your seat, cuz the ferris wheel is about to take our carriage over the top.

  3. Love it when history explains why we are who we are. Color photography used to be seen as vulgar, "fit for ads only", was the reason behind it that slide film didn't have the post processing latitude as negative film had?