Wednesday, June 10, 2020


I've been thinking a lot about how we understand photos of real stuff. News photos, vernacular photos, things which are not staged. Photos which are themselves made, of things which are not made. All along I have shoved off until later the other sort of thing. I feel like now it's later.

Why do we take fashion photographs? Why not fashion drawings? (Fashion drawings do exist, and they are far more fabulous than the photographs, and certainly much cheaper to make in many cases, so why fashion photos?) Of course, this applies to all kinds of things. Advertising, certainly, or really anything that falls under the broad aegis of still life.

The formal portrait probably lands near here as well, although I maintain (with my clumsy little fists if necessary) that a well done portrait is also in the documentary mode. Perhaps it bridges some gap, here.

Perhaps it's like the difference between a puppet show and a play? Other than a certain awkward aesthetic, are not puppet shows and plays essentially the same? It's artifice all the way down, a bunch of representational figures acting out a fictional story. And yet somehow when the player are live humans versus puppets, the result is different in ways that matter.

If we see photographed a collection of human figures in action, in such a context as to believe that this is documentary, we find ourselves compelled to make sense of the picture in terms of our own world-view. We try to fit the picture to our notion of reality. This is, as I have noted, a fairly ruthless and rigid process. We are wont to reject the photo as somehow faked if we cannot make it fit.

If, on the other hand, we are given to understand that these are actors in a play, we only need to fit their action to a fictional story. If we don't know the play, we may be fairly unconcerned with the story, although we'd probably still try to guess at the point of the scene. Regardless, we no longer need to reconcile the photo with our probably fairly rigid world-view.

What, then, is left that is photographic here?

To be perfectly honest, I am unsure, but I do think there is something. We do not use fashion drawings, and people watch a lot of plays with human actors.

I think it likely that there is something, something important, in the reality of the things on stage. Perhaps the fact that the model is real, and wearing a real dress, provides some emotional access point. Even though we know the scene is artifice, and the model is actually an angry European waif who will shortly fly home to Milan to argue with her layabout boyfriend, the dress is real. We can, perhaps, imagine ourselves in the same dress with the same haughty look, stamping on a few serfs, because it is a photograph.

The toaster and the car are more appealing, because they are real and we can imagine making toast, and then driving very fast.

If this notion is right then, naturally, it applies just as well to photos in the documentary mode. Not only do we have to fit the photograph of the UFO into our world-view, but when we succeed, we can imagine ourselves in those roles. We feel an empathy, perhaps, with the man in the picture; we can imagine, perhaps, ourselves tossing pie-plate UFOs across the frame while our sibling photographs them.

Maybe it's this emotional trap-door to the scene that the photograph provides, which is supposed to be changing the hearts and minds?

If this notion is right, then it is, obviously, inextricably entangled with that whole business of how we read the picture, how we make sense of it in terms of our world view. Not for complicated theoretical reasons, I assume an entanglement because everything always is.


  1. "The toaster and the car are more appealing, because they are real and we can imagine making toast, and then driving very fast."

    I'm not entirely clear what your argument is here, but I'd offer the thought that it may be useful to consider cases where staged photographs are commonly used (because they're quick, easy, and relatively cheap) but do an unsatisfactory job. I'm thinking of things like photo-comics, box lid art for plastic kits and toys, movie posters (a very interesting one, that), instruction manuals, and so on. What painted/drawn art provides (or used to provide) is surely the emotional engagement you are talking about, and isn't it this that photographs lack, in these contexts? Plus, in the case of instruction manuals (e.g. for vehicle maintenance) they also lack clarity, for the simple reason a photo doesn't "know" what to leave out.

    For me, much as I love photography, nothing can touch the immersive, emotional impact of well-executed box art, or the communicative value of the "exploded view" of a complicated assembly like a gear box. But these things are rarely seen now, as the necessary illustrative skills are disappearing. Who's going to pay for a painstaking, evocative rendering of a plane in aerial combat, when you can plonk a pack-shot photo of the finished kit on the lid?


    1. This is an excellent point, and one I have been noodling on without much effect for the last day or so.


  2. And here I am, trying to see the difference between Juno Calypso, Cindy Sherman and Belle Delphine.

    1. There is a certain similarity, isn't there?