Tuesday, June 16, 2020


In my wrestling around with photographs of real events and whatnot, versus photographs of artifice, I have reverted to a much earlier notion of mine on photographs. In this conception, a photo is essentially a kind of show-and-tell. I photograph the flower, to show you the flower. I photograph the protest, the automobile race, the model in her dress, to show you the thing I photographed. Distinctions between artifice and not-artifice are set aside.

The point is that a photograph has distinctive properties in the "show-me" action.

Barthes claims that the only thing a photograph does is witness that-has-been, and here I am leaning heavily on that idea. If I draw a rose to show you the rose, that is one thing, and if I photograph the same rose to show it you, that is another. This is not to suggest that the drawing is lesser: I could draw you a cubist rose, and show you the front, sides, and back all at once which a photo cannot do. I could draw a botanist's anatomically detailed rose, based on the rose, and you would learn more of the structure of the thing. The photo shows but one view, obscures details, and if I took it it probably doesn't even show you the color and is kind of muddy anyways.

But the photo of the rose nevertheless has a quality of reality to it. It is more like actually seeing the rose, albeit for a moment, than any painting or drawing can be. It more closely resembles the moment when I point and say "would you look at that rose!" than a painting, a drawing. Even a film does not resemble the moment, but rather something else, perhaps a walk around the rose or something else depending on the way the camera moves or does not.

When I show you, thus, a picture of a cop pepper-spraying a protester, it is a little like coming upon the scene yourself as if transported there from the starship Enterprise by a perennially stressed out Scotsman. Thrown into the world thus, you struggle to grasp what is in front of you, and you fit it into your world-idea. You quickly accuse either cop or protester depending on your politics, and then Scotty beams you back up.

When I show you a photograph of a model in a dress, you need not struggle to fit her into your world-idea, because you recognize the fashion shot as artifice. Still, the dress on the model's body has that same quality of reality, that same quality of being shown you in real life. "Would you look at that dress!" It is more visceral, more immediate and real, than a drawing of the dress or a technical description of the dress. Wow, there it is, that looks great.

You learn almost nothing about the dress, except what it looks like. Happily, the function of a fashionable piece of clothing is to look like something, so the photograph suits the purpose perfectly. You might reasonably, on the strength of the photo, wish to possess the dress.

In the same way, I could show you a photo of a plastic model of a Spitfire, a model you could buy for $19.90 and which includes the necessary glue and decals. The photo would, again, resemble in important ways the experience of seeing the actual built model. Seeing a small model of an airplane might be a thrilling experience for a few, but for many of us — even aircraft enthusiasts — a small plastic model is not particularly thrilling. This photo might not induce a desire to possess. Thrill appears in the painting of the aircraft in battle. Possibly a really good photo of a similar battle scene would be even more purchase-inducing, but it might also be a little too real for comfort.

Perhaps one can more easily set aside the ideas around simultaneously plummetting and burning to death, when one sees a painting.

Regardless, this sort of notional mechanic of "Would you look at that!" strikes me as a sort of useful baseline, the starting point from which we might usefully spin out theories of how photographs induce meaning. And so, you know, I shall and I do.

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