Thursday, February 21, 2019


Suppose I were to show you a photograph of an egg and a golf ball. The "subject" as such might not be clear. Suppose, then, I were to show you two more pictures: a egg and a mouse, an egg and a teacup. At this point you would likely work out that I am interested in the egg. The egg is the subject. The subjectness of the egg is an emergent property of the collection of photos, it is something that is clear in the triptych, but which is literally not even present in any of the individual photos.

Perform this experiment with any number of photographers, from the rankest amateurs to (I think) many who teach photography, and you will learn that all three photos are bad photographs specifically because they fail to make the subject clear. The very definition of a good photograph is broadly seen to include "it should stand alone" and from there it is a very short step to denial of emergent properties of sequences. While it does not follow strictly logically, it is a very natural progression to the notion that a pile of good photographs is nothing more than a pile of good photographs.

Most books of photos made by people who fancy themselves photographers bear this out, being simply a collection of whatever they think are the best photos in whatever theme is relevant.

Photographers, in general, seek to make single photographs that stand alone. They want to make those hero pictures, suitable for framing and hanging, which could in theory but rarely in practice, be sold as single objects. The model is the painting. These assumptions are deeply embedded in the culture of photography.

Switching tacks, consider media's ability to shape thought, shape society. This too is a largely emergent property. We do not learn that BMW is the ultimate driving machine from a single ad spot, we learn it by endless repetition across print, television, radio, billboards. This functioning derives from the way our minds work. There is endless research in to how we remember things, and how to modify our behavior, and all of it includes a large degree of repetition.

Ideas are repeated in the media both to drill it into our brains, but also to ensure that both the first thing we heard, and the most recent thing we heard, are repetitions of the same idea. Repetition causes us to lose sight of the supporting evidence (or lack thereof) and so on.

Photography's prejudice against the very notion of emergent properties, in favor of the Single Heroic Picture, makes it near impossible for photographic people to make any sense of media and the way it influences society. This tendency is aided and abetted by our apparently natural human desire for simple causes with simple explanations.

On the one hand, when seeking the causes of some social effect in photos, photographers and critics tend to overvalue certain pictures. Note the endless boring analysis of this iconic picture or that which "turned the tide of public opinion about Vietnam" and let us not forget Colberg's histrionics regarding the picture of the Andamanese people and the white man. These are both cases of assigning too much power, too much force, to a single picture. This is the equivalent of declaring the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand as the cause of WWI.

On the other hand, photographers and critics undervalue other pictures. Suppose, although it never happened that I can determine, Peter Magubane had made a definitive portrait of Nelson Mandela. This would be the poster child of black South African photographers photographing the (black) towering heroic figure of South Africa. Surely there is no "white gaze" here? Surely this is wonderful and good and awesome?

Seen as a single picture, yes, it surely is. In the context of Media as a whole, who can judge? It's not anything as dunderheaded as some white jerk writing a shitty caption, it's the whole endless repetitive flow of Media. This portrait of Mandela would have been viewed in the context of all the other reportage coming to us around South Africa. Its effect on you, on me, on us collectively, on South African whites, on the various South African black communities, who is to know?

Now, the portrait is a constructed example, intended to nail down a kind of extreme. Still, you might go look at the pictures of Malick Sidibé which are real pictures of Africans taken by an African. Imagine various ways these pictures could be seen by various people who have experienced one view of the world or another. These pictures could be read any number of ways. An unrepentant bigot would see savages crudely aping the ways of the white man on the one hand, and plenty of extremely woke white people have seen a special, exalting, "black gaze" in the photos which they are unable to articulate any more clearly.

The point here is that the ability to shape society while simultaneously pandering to it is an emergent property of media. It does not reside in the individual pictures, adverts, billboards, voiceovers. You cannot find it in the components any more than you can find the essence of an engine in a camshaft. You cannot understand media's power by examining this picture or that picture. It is not really a case of good pictures and bad pictures (whether those labels refer to the politics or the composition).

Given that photographers and critics of photography are, apparently, locked in to the single picture model, these people seem almost uniquely badly suited to analysis or even understanding of media as a whole.

Perhaps more importantly, they are thus uniquely unqualified to either combat or create propaganda.

In the corners of the internet where I lurk, I see a lot of deconstructions of photographs, a lot of explanations of why the optics are terrible or whatever. The bold deconstructer then, as it were, stands back and awaits victory, which does not arrive. They over-weight the importance of this picture of Donald Trump or Angela Merkel or Theresa May doing something stupid, not realizing that whatever political attitude they despise or support does not live or die on single elements, or even a handful of them. These things are emergent.

It does not particularly help that these would-be critics cannot actually visualize how people other than themselves might read a photograph.


  1. Off the main topic, but there is a short scene in the Scottish film Comfort and Joy that uses that BMW slogan very well. It's subtle humour though so modern audiences might not laugh. :)

  2. @ Robert Roaldi:

    As an aside, Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits fame, wrote the soundtrack to Comfort and Joy -- it was sophomore effort, after writing the soundtrack to Local Hero the year before -- and both of these otherwise charming Bill Forsyth movies can be recommended on this basis alone. 8^)