Thursday, June 22, 2017

Putting the Depth Back

Susan Sontag argued, long ago, that the photograph replaces reality in our mind. Sally Mann echoed this in much more recent book, remarking that where there are photographs, her memories are of the photographs rather than the people. Darren Campion over on his excellent blog spent a little time thinking about Sontag (part 1, part 2) and makes the claim that Sontag is a little too obsessed, and that photography need not do this, that this is just one common way in which photography behaves.

Me? I kind of think it's baked in to photography and the human psyche. It strikes me as basic. It's possible that I am just slavishly doing my best to agree with Sally Mann, though. Anyways, that hardly matters. The point is that photography frequently does behave in this way. The photograph of the thing frequently replaces the thing itself in our mental space.

This is somehow related to Equivalents, although it's not the same thing, but that's not where I am going today.

Consider the "primitive man" to use a no-doubt almost criminal expression. It's so much handier than "humans living long ago, pre-technology, in smaller communities more closely integrated with the world around them" though. These people did indeed live in closer contact to their world. Their worlds were far far smaller than ours, in some meaningful way, and they lived in that world largely without the help of Media. In those communities, a few of which still exist, the answers to the most trivial questions can be infinitely complex, because these people often perceive far more of the interrelated nature of things. The see the web of cause and effect, or relationship, that extends infinitely far in space and time. Where there are gaps, they gloss over with a god or a sprite, but often they have a far more nuanced and detailed understanding of their little worlds.

The modern world is vast. Not just geographically. We have medicine, science, space, planets, other nations, other cultures, machines, and creatures from far away, all available to be understood. After a fashion. To make sense of it all for us, we have the Media, broadly construed. We have handy books and television shows and web features that will tell us about why WWI started (the assassination of the Archduke, of course!) and which will boil damn near anything else we care to learn about down to simple causes and tiny soundbites.

It is inevitable. The world is too vast to be grasped in anything like the way an aboriginal person of 500 years ago might grasp the relationships between certain plants and animals in her environment. We actually need simple explanations for things. "It's Trump's Fault" or Obama's, May's, Merkel's, or Modi's. In fact, this is basically never true. Anything we might conceivably blame on Trump is surely the result of 100s of actions by 100s of players, at least. Trump, at best, it the most recent and most influential of a cast that has been working on this plotline since the beginning of time.

This, incidentally, is why anarchy won't work. People haven't any interest in returning to the narrow, simple, worlds of the past. Burn the media down, and the people will instantly construct another one. We demand simple answers and a complex world. Someone is certain to step up with the answers for us, and as soon as you have a Media, you'll have all the rest of it in short order.

Alright then. The media is an inevitable product of modernity, as well as a supporting structure of it. Photography with its special characteristics is integrated fully into the media, along with everything else. Photography is one of many modes which provides simple answers. It replaces deep understanding, and memory, with the simple picture that shows us The Truth (as whoever is in charge at the moment wishes us to understand it).

I've written a few times about various notions like trame and network, suggesting that Good Photographs should at any rate hint at the external world they're drawn from. I think one might usefully re-frame these remarks as suggesting that the photograph -- while it will inevitably do its dire work of replacing memory -- ought to at any rate replace memory with something that has the same connections outwards to reality as the real memory would have.

The photobook, the essay, can do this far better even than a single photo. If Gene Smith's Minamata does nothing else, it teaches us that this is possible.

My understanding of the tragedies of Minamata is not the real understanding. I cannot grasp it in the way the people who lived it do, nor in the way the later generations living with the outcomes do, nor even in the way a Japanese citizen grasps it. Mine is further removed, mediated through this book. The book, however, by its design, does not encyst a version of The Truth into a neat little package, a small world unto itself. The book, by its design, remains connected to the messy, interconnected reality.

While it would be better, um, in some sense, for me to understand Minamata first-hand, that is impossible. I am the wrong age, in the wrong place, of the wrong parents. A mediated understanding is all that I can have. Better, I think, a mediated understanding of this sort than the other sort, or none at all.

This permits me both the larger world of modernity, with the necessity of Media and therefore Mediation, without the grotesque fallacy of the pat answer, the nifty package of false Truth.

This, I think, is something to strive for.


  1. I think this is the best thing you've written so far. Good job. I'll write a more extensive comment when I have time.

    Still, fantastic work. Although I suppose it just speaks of my ignorance that I haven't seen something so obvious about the media expressed anywhere else. But even if I did, I doubt it would've been conveyed so clearly. Thank You.

  2. I too would like longer to think about what you have written, but I have a comment about your use of the term ‘the media’.

    You say: “(Primitive humans’) worlds were far far smaller than ours (…) and they lived in that world largely without the help of Media.“ But I think there were media, even before the onset of literacy, and very important they were too: those folk in the village responsible for the communication of history, myths and legends, religious rituals, community rules and taboos, the latest gossip, and tales about the habits of the unspeakable folk in the nearest village (which you have never visited). One’s world view was largely mediated through the mouths of others, and though we don’t talk about these others as the ‘media’, I think that’s in effect what they were.

    Nowadays ‘(t)he world is too vast to be grasped’, you write, but actually our own bits of it still remain incredibly small, thank goodness, and grasp them we can, without the media’s help. I may turn to Politico for an American view on Teresa May, or search Google to find out how on earth the Titanic could sink, but I do for instance have first-hand, intimate, detailed and important (to me) knowledge about how my domestic relations work. (Enough to write a book, ha ha.)

    1. A few random remarks in reply, although your main point is well taken.

      Even in our own little world, do we understand the car we drive, the machines that clean our clothing and our dishes? Do we understand the path by which our food arrives at the table? And, by "understand" I mean in the same way that an ancient hunter-gatherer might have.

      You are absolutely right that myth and religion behaved as "Media", filling in those pat answers, of course. I think, perhaps, they filled it in, often, in a "good" way, in the way that well done photojournalism does.

      Not, therefore, as a simple pat answer that exists in a bubble, but rather as a relatively simple answer that stands in a realistic relationship to the world, in all its messy complexity.

      Perhaps, anyways. I may be on the wrong path entirely, or perhaps I am just grabbing hold of it the wrong way 'round.