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Friday, February 14, 2020

Signs and Portents

If you spend much time with contemporary photography books, of the Serious Art variety, you will start to notice repeated tropes. Let us take for our example the suburban landscape, which indicates modern life is hell, but we lie to ourselves about it. There are other tropes which you can go locate yourself if you like. This one references "Edward Scissorhands", "Stepford Wives" and a jillion other movies. It references, maybe, New Topographics, and probably loads of other stuff.

The point is that the photo of suburban landscape is as much a citation of other sources as it is anything else. Frequently, it seems to be little more than a citation.

These things might be blended with some other stuff, indicating which bits of modern life are hell. In American Origami Gonzales mixes his suburban snaps with pictures of teddy bears and testimony about school shootings. Here it is, he says, the hell that lies behind the facade. Kleinstadt has some other ideas, and so on.

These things form a sort of simple language, not unlike words. The signifier (the picture) is dragged out, the signified (life is hell) is duly indicated, just as the word "dog" indicates the four legged nose-transportation system.

This makes life a lot easier for an MFA student, to be sure. Whether there is an actual vocabulary lesson somewhere in the curriculum or not, it is pretty obvious that they are absorbing this vocabulary. It's just a couple dozen grunts without any noticeable grammar, so it's not too hard to pick up. Lucy Soutter's piece Should I do a Photography MA makes this pretty clear. The point of an MA (MFA) is to learn to make work that refers to the work of other Serious (i.e. MFA-holding) Artists, and the obvious way to do this is to a) have and to b) deploy a fairly detailed visual language.

Indeed, I think that in this kind of incestuous hothouse environment a language will almost certainly arise. The whole point is, arguably, to devise a kind of visual slang that only the insiders really understand (although, to be honest, it's not very hard to work out most of it from the outside.)

Contrast this with reality.

In some ways, the real world has language-like properties. The tracks of the raccoon in the mud signify the recent presence of the trash panda, just as surely as the word "dog" signifies the furry nose-transporter, and as surely as the suburban landscape signifies hell on earth. And yet, there also certainly a difference of character here. If nothing else, the signifier of the footprint has infinite depth. You might notice that the raccoon is missing a toe, you might follow the path and guess about intent. The footprint is rooted in reality, it literally rests here in the real world and as such is inextricably entangled with an infinitude of detail.

People talk about "the language of the forest" or whatever, and in some ways they are not wrong. In other, important, ways, it's completely idiotic to talk like that.

The word is a simplification, an abstraction, intended to carry a specific cloud of meaning. Post-modernists will tell you, not incorrectly, that it derives its meaning mostly from the other words around it. Meaning is drawn in through tendrils spreading out through the abstract universe of language and of thought.

The footprint derives its meaning mostly from the other physical details around it. Meaning is drawn in from the actual universe of real things.

The photograph, to my mind, naturally occupies a middle ground here. It is itself rooted in reality, albeit not as firmly as the raccoon's footprint. The sometimes almost infinite detail of the frame contextualizes the subject in a way, to a degree and depth, that mere words cannot.

We can make a photograph that evokes, that signifies in the same way the raccoon's footprint can, it signifies by reference not to the other signs that surround it, but by reference to the real world.

I think one could make the argument that Barthes and his stupid punctum idea are essentially aimed at this. The punctum supposedly reifies the photograph, binds it emotionally to the real world, wherein, then, it gathers its meaning. Without punctum, Barthes claims, the photo is naught but studium, it is nothing but coded meaning. Its meaning derives from the symbols we connect to it rather than from the real world it is drawn from. Perhaps either Barthes or I am taking this a bit too far, I am on the record as stating that I think punctum doesn't exist.

The photograph ought to, I think, reach into the real world to find its meaning. The power of the photograph lies specifically in how lightly it mediates, how minimally it separates us from reality and how little it allows the artist to impose a system of abstract signs onto the picture. The point of the photograph is that the photographer discovered meaning in the world, they spotted the raccoon's footprint, they chose to reveal it to us not as a metaphor for something but rather as the actual trace of the animal itself.

I think that photographs which are built on reality, especially rather than a sort of callow language devised in Art Schools, are better photographs. Or, at any rate, more inherently photographic.


  1. Lucy Soutter forgot to mention that you should also have a po-faced website with tiny text on a bland white background with unusable navigation and subzero personality. Without that you're not serious.

    1. To be fair, I direct linked to an essay that expects to live inside a frame, so the link above is especially lousy (and not one you'd see navigating the site proper). That said, there's no OTHER way to get you directly to the essay.

      It does look a bit like a geocities refugee.

    2. I manually went to the top level of the site. It is cut from the Standard Serious Personality-Free Photographic Artiste template, although she's gone a bit wild with the coloured text in the menu. That will make getting gallery representation tricky...

    3. "Standard Serious Personality-Free Photographic Artiste"

      [hive mind]