Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Dialects of Photography

Calculus was, more or less famously, invented twice. Both Newton and Leibniz invented something we can readily recognize as modern calculus, at more or less the same time. At the time, there was some discussion about whether someone had stolen the idea from someone else, but in hindsight it seems that this was simply an idea that was ready to be had. The relevant intellectual spadework had been done, appropriate questions were in play, and all that was needed was one or more people with the right sort of minds to have the right perceptions.

Calculus is, according to this interpretation, simply a natural product of the intellectual mixture that was going on in Europe at that time. It could not happen without a few hundred years of fairly specific spadework, but when that was done its discovery was more or less inevitable.

Painting, on the other hand, seems to require no such underlying spadework. What is necessary is something that is colorful and sticky. Drawing requires only something that will make a mark on something else. Dance and song require only a more or less functional body. Poetry requires a spoken language, but once you have that you'are pretty much off to the races. Sculpture is only slightly more complicated.

For this reason, all these artistic disciplines have arisen, over and over, for millennia. When a people is smashed down to the bare basics of survival, they may lose their art, perhaps completely, perhaps only in part. But, having migrated to a more congenial location, they re-invent it all over again, because the human urge to create remains, and goo which is both colorful and sticky is pretty easy to come up with.

This, together with the simple passage of those millennia, has led to endless iterations of regional art, of ethnic art, of religious art. Many peoples paint, or sculpt, or dance. All different, all distinctive.

Photography occupies a perhaps unique territory between calculus and painting.

One cannot simply invent photography out of nothing, or nearly nothing, the way one can re-invent painting. Photography cannot come into existence without a functioning chemical industry. One might be able to continue photography performing all the chemical synthesis in your basement, but one cannot invent it from scratch without access to a lot of different things to try out, which means that you've got to be able to order sodium thiosulfate in reasonably pure form by the bottle. Or at any rate some chemical precursors to it.

To create a functioning chemical industry, you need a lot of intellectual spade work, and a particular shape to your society. When all that is in place, like calculus, photography simply arises, and is invented several times by several people all, notably, in essentially the same area of the world. Talbot and Daguerre and all their friends existed in essentially the same social circles, in the same society, with access to the same materials and ideas, at least if you squint a bit. The world was ready, the questions were in play, and in due course suitably inspired and lucky minds were produced to do their thing.

As a consequence of this, photography as a process, and as a cultural phenomenon, grows from a single root. Unlike painting, unlike dance, unlike song, drawing, poetry, and so on.

While there is a lot of art that is distinctly Chinese, African, Indian, there is no ethnic Calculus. There is only Calculus. I suppose one might suggest that there is a Malian or Ethiopian Calculus, and in the woolly wilds of the academy, someone probably has. But, it's not true. There is calculus as performed by Malians, to be certain, and they may have introduced some notations or terminology that makes it more accessible, but it is still calculus. Calculus comes from a single root.

This is, by the way, not to suggest that Chinese (etcetera) culture is inferior, it simply wasn't the right mixture to produce Photography, or Calculus. I am given to understand that they produced a lot of things, presumably many things which were the inevitable results of the cultural, intellectual, scientific mixture that was in operation there, waiting only for the birth and education of one or more Chinese people with the right kinds of minds, people who were duly produced to do their thing.

A consequence of this is that there is no such thing as Sri Lankan photography, at least not in the sense that there is Sri Lankan dance, or poetry. There cannot reasonably be a Sri Lankan photography. Photographers in Sri Lanka learned their craft from, ultimately, someone outside of Sri Lanka, who learned from someone else, in an unbroken chain back to the single root from which springs photography less than 200 years ago.

All of us who photograph, have a more or less unbroken chain of reference, influence, knowledge, back to a small group of essentially interchangeble dudes living in the Anglo-French region in about 1840. We all spring from a single root, we are leaves of a single branching vine that is something like 180 years old.

Another consideration is the globalization of media, a phenomenon in which photography plays a major role. Indeed, the photograph, easily reproduced and distributed, was arguably in the van here. To a large extent, we all see the same photographs, we all have the same influences. Not, of course, entirely, but to a meaningful degree.

There are white grizzly bears (a species that is normally brown), which are not albino. There are some facts about genetics that can be rolled out, but you can look those up. What matters is that there are some isolated islands in which these bears are more or less common. By walling off a species into an isolated habitat, you bring out recessive genes. If memory serves, this has been suggested as a core mechanism behind speciation, the creation of new species of life: split the population, and prevent cross-fertilization for a long long time.

In the fine arts this same thing obviously occurs. It is not necessary, really, to re-create painting from scratch. It is only necessary that a tribe be divided, separated, and prevented from communicating for some period of time. If both sides paint, divergent and regionally distinctive painting styles will emerge.

Modern globalized media specifically prevents this from happening.

Not only is photography derived from a single root, but by its own nature and action it has helped bring into existence a culture in which regional, ethnic, religious influences can not, will not, generate distinctive dialects. There is simply too much cross-fertilization.

There will be for the forseeable future, no "natural" divergence, no "natural" arising of differing photographic languages. There is no Malaysian photography, and there never will be. The mechanisms are simply not present for such a thing to occur.

None of this means, of course, that there are no dialects. Far from it.

What it means is that dialect forming is voluntary. Rather than having our influences, our antecedents, limited by circumstance and fate, they are limited almost entirely by our own choices. We choose what pictures to look at, we choose which pundits and critics to attend to, we choose what to admire and what to spurn. Dialect-forming is now as much social as it it anything else. We make pictures that look like pictures made by people we agree with, that we hang out with, that we like.

We might select our photographic group, and thus our dialect, based on social preferences, professional preferences, or perhaps simply on some indefinable "I like those pictures" criterion. Surely our equipment and tendencies will dictate to a degree, if we lack either funds or a fondness for fiddling with mechanical bits, we're unlikely to align ourselves with the macro photography crowd -- unless our best friend is a member, or we really really like bugs.

Regardless of mechanism, it is manifest that affinity groups do arise, and they do produce collective bodies of work that look kind of similar. Because the associations are voluntary, usually more or less conscious, nobody is actually walled off from other dialects. Cross-fertilization will necessarily occur, and often will be fought against viciously, leading to schisms and so on. The usual social detritus of more or less voluntary social organizations occurs. It would not have occurred to an 18th century Central African sculptor to rail against the Chinese ideas, because those ideas simply were not in play. China's sculptors and the sculptors of Central Africa were more or less completely isolated from one another at that time. While the African might have railed against that young man down the road who was doing that weird thing with noses, both artists were working firmly within an established regional (involuntary) dialect of sculpture.

Therefore, in this modern age we do still have dialects of photography, but they are voluntary, not an inevitable product of circumstance. They are not based in region, ethnicity, or religion particularly. It is important, I think, to keep this in mind when discussing them.

A dialect of photography is fundamentally different from a dialect of, say, traditional dance, and should not be treated the same way.

What is not immediately clear to me is what the consequences of this, if any, are. What differences does it make, whether a "language" of art be derived from tradition, from the inevitable vagaries of circumstance, rather than a voluntarily constructed set of ideas, consciously designed to represent something?

I have, I think, more to say on this but have rambled on long enough here.


  1. I think it was Kandinsky who said that in any given culture group and era, only a specific kind of art is possible. "Kind of art" does not mean e.g. painting or sculpture, but in e.g. painting only a few ways to paint are possible. I interpret it like that the time must be ripe for a given school of art; painters stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, too. Of course a particular painter could paint in a completely different style, but it is likely that his work wouldn't be understood and accepted.
    To me, he seems to have a point - so even for art, some kind of prior "spadework" is needed.

    Best, Thomas

    1. Quite right, and I was unclear (probably because my thinking was, and is). It is not that any kind of painting can arise spontaneously in a moment, it is that *some* kind of painting, the idea of painting and a first crude attempt at it, can arise pretty much anywhere and any time.

      Oil painting in the style of the European Masters is, I think, a surprisingly technical thing?

    2. As far as I know (I'm not an art historian), at least up to the beginning of the 19th century, yes. I believe at about that point in time art was separated from craft, and concepts like self-expression of the artist emerged. It was also around that time that aesthetic theories emerged (for instance, in Kant's "Kritik der Urteilskraft").
      I remember that in an exhibition about landscape art, the guide explained to us that many (almost all?) paintings by flemish and italian masters were intended as symbols of status for the clients. Market demand certainly restricted artistic expression, and technical finesse probably made a painting more valuable (realistic rendering of highlights on a silk dress, for example, or accurate perspective). This kind of mastership was probably passed on from master to disciple.

      Best, Thomas