Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Witnessing vs. Representation

A more or less interesting conversation going on over at Leicaphilia in the comments. I made some powerful and erudite contribution which at this exact moment awaits moderation. By the time you read this, though, it is likely that it will be moderated through, no doubt sparking a witty and insightful conversation. Or, you know, maybe not.

Anyways, the thrust of my insightful comment was this:

The photograph testifies, more than anything else, that something was. This is the only intelligent observation in Barthes' Camera Lucida and while it sounds a bit blockheaded, it is nonetheless a critical point that deserves repetition. This is a truth, albeit a simple one. It is important, worthwhile, and often lost-track-of, specifically because this exists in contrast to, perhaps even in constant struggle with, another truth:

Photographs represent what was there. Here, the idea of representation is a term of art, roughly aligned with this dictionary definition:

The description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way or as being of a certain nature.

You might consider representation to be commenting on what was rather than merely testifying to its existence. Indeed, a representation need not testify to the reality of something at all. A painting might comment on the nature of a thing, or a category of things, without in fact showing us a real one of the things. A painting might represent a monarch as, I don't know, let us say evil, without being a picture of an actual monarch.

These two realities of what a photo is happen also to line up with two competing philosophies, neither of which would likely be delighted with this characterization. While Barthes more or less denies the power of a photograph to represent, most of his acolytes ignore the possibility that a photograph can do anything else. When pressed, they would likely admit that the photograph can witness, can testify, but they would deny that this is important.

I think coherent argument can be made that the early Art photographers, through the Pictorialists, were struggling to push their photographs to represent, to do more than to merely bear witness. This is, after all, the standard argument against photographs as Serious Art — they can only witness. Later, many of the Modernists used other technical means to attempt the same goals. Get in close, abstract the shapes, drill in to details, select unusual vantage points, and so on, all to try to force a "straight" photograph to reveal something more than merely a copy of what was in front of the lens. Forcing a straight photograph to represent coherently and clearly is, frankly, a struggle. It "wants" merely to witness.

At the same time, photojournalists and early documentarians were doing precisely the opposite, striving to simply record and witness as distinctly as possible. Recording architectural and cultural wonders for the all-consuming eye, and all that business. This group generally believed that their work only witnessed, it did not represent.

At some point there was a shift. Duchamp's "Fountain" is many things, including a stick to the eye of Fine Art, but also a statement: witnessing can be Art. There's nothing there, it's just a urinal, it simply sits there, be-ing. And yet, it is Art.

And thus is dismissed entirely the question of how a photograph, which some say merely witnesses, can be Art. It can be Art, whether it witnesses, whether it represents, or both. But not just any shitty photograph, it turns out, however much it witnesses whatever-the-hell.

To a degree this is the world we have arrived at. Much of photographic Serious Art styles itself precisely this way, as documentary photography (witnessing) with a message, an opinion, with politics (representation). Done well, this can be truly fantastic stuff.

The trouble, as I see it, with much of Serious Documentary Art, is that because theory states that all photographs represent the photographers don't even try. They just snap a photo of whatever, and figure that since theory says so, it probably represents something. There is a failure to acknowledge that a straight photograph does not particularly "want" to represent, the default setting as it were is to witness. Because the artist feels so strongly, surely the photograph must represent? All too often, it's just a snap of a microfilm can, witnessing only that the photographer knows where a library can be found.

On the other side of things, the Serious Decor people, seem to think that merely witnessing is the point. They take some loving, overwrought, picture of a landscape or a flower or a water droplet and they process it into oblivion, and they figure that since they put all this technical work into it, it's probably Art by now. They have no philosophy, no notion of representation at all. Their photographs, no matter how many layers they put into their Photoshop file, never do anything more than witness that there was a rock, a flower, a bug. These people too are trapped by the default witness-only character of the photograph, but unlike their MFA-holding compadres, they think this is a good thing.

Now, to be fair, Duchamp can get away with just chucking a urinal out there, and lo, it is Art. You, as a maker of overwrought pictures of bugs, probably can't.

Art is embedded in culture both as result and substrate. Duchamp's stature, and his ideas, allowed him to shove his damned urinal in there. You are, most likely, nobody, so you'd jolly well better have some ideas and, to be honest, your ideas probably ought to be visible. If not in the pictures, at least in the artist's statement. You don't get to be substrate upon which culture stands by cranking the sliders in Lightroom over to 11. At least, not unless you're Duchamp.

Nor, it turns out, do you get to be substrate upon which culture is built if your pictures are bullshit pictures of nothing, witnessing nothing much, but (according to you) representing the shit out of... something nobody can quite put their finger on.

This witnesses the existence of, the life and work of, one Dr. Ceriani. It also comments on that existence. It is not a bullshit picture of nothing. It is not an overwrought picture of nothing. It strikes a balance.

Country Doctor: Gene Smith


  1. Do you need a philosophy a priori? What if you're just drawn to record what you see, fire hydrants, buttons, turnstiles, etc. and it doesn't occur to anyone till later what it all meant? It might be a lot to ask that you know beforehand what you're doing, you may only discover it along the way.

    1. You can do stuff with found photographs, so I think it follows logically that you can just shoot stuff, and figure it out later? You might need to shoot a lot of stuff, and the results might feel a little weird.

      I find that no plan survives contact with the enemy, so the plan when I finish rarely looks like the plan did when I started. But when I start with a plan, and end with a plan, the results seem to come out more to my liking.

      Your mileage may differ!

  2. Interesting article: by the way, it gave me an insight on the issue of when a photograph, subjected to endless manipulation, stop being a photo and starts to being "computer graphic": perhaps it is when the "witnessing" is very little, and it is overwritten by the "representing"... What do you think?

    1. Representing seems to require some sort of viewpoint, though? I mean, if you're processing it to make it "look more like God" or to make the subject "look more poor" then sure, you're imposing a specific idea onto the thing.

      If you're just processing it to make it look more colorful, or sharper, or to follow some aesthetic muse, then I'm not sure.