Wednesday, July 22, 2020

On Theories of Photography

I've been more quiet than usual for a bunch of reasons, not least, summertime and feints at holidays. But also, I've been writing a short book, which is proving difficult as usual but fairly productive. I will be asking for readers in a little bit, I think.

Anyways, the point of the book is something that I think could be called a Theory of Photography.

For my purposes here let's call anything a Theory of Photography that grapples seriously with what happens when someone looks at a photo or a body of photographic work. We all claim that photographs affect people, affect societies, but often leave unstated any serious effort to answer the question: "Ok. How?" A Theory of Photography attempts to do that.

It might feel, for example, that "gaze" is a Theory of Photography, but I don't think it is. It's usually just a way to state a property of authorship, with a vague hand wave in the direction of some undemonstrated and undescribed negative effects. All we need to know is that "male gaze" is bad and "female gaze" is good, and that it the end of it. The actual alleged impact is left unstated, and the mechanism is silently assumed. "Representation" is similar. It's really the other end of the same stick.

Barthes' Camera Lucida on the other hand is a kind of Theory of Photography. He describes in detail the effect some photographs have on him, a "doubling a vision", a kind of ecstatic reification of the contents of the photograph, induced by a slippery thing called punctum, and finally the assertion that this is all there is. This is the limit of the power of the photograph. He is describing an effect, and naming and to some extent describing a mechanism, and then at least claiming a kind of completeness to his theory. It does this, via that, and that's the end of it.

I think he's got it wrong, but at least it's a Theory of Photography.

My memories of the details of Sontag are due for a refresh, but I am pretty sure that somewhere in there she articulated some things that sound like a Theory of Photography of some sort.

But who cares? Why would anyone need a Theory of Photography? I suppose I could leave this as an exercise to the reader, or assert that it's obvious (it is pretty obvious, surely?)

The point about a ToP is that it provides a framework in which to talk about how photography affects people and society. Without such a thing, you're just wandering around in the dark making unsupported assertions (cf. Colberg, Reading The Pictures, Bush, the MFA-Industrial-Complex, the Photobook Extraction Industry, the whole shoddy lot of them.) Worse, your assertions are not even connected to one another. When you read these guys you will routinely find them saying something one week and the exact opposite the next.

There are still old school photography critics out there, scribbling away. They seem, generally, to have at least some internalized ToP, though whether they ever got around to writing it down I can't tell. Still, even reviews I like tend toward a detailed description of the object under review, together with a fairly slender discussion of meaning and impact based as much on surrounding material as on the photographs. Photo reviews tend to end up as caption reviews.

See, for example, Vicki Goldberg on Sally Mann in this NY Times piece. The piece wanders back and forth between Mann, Hold Still, and the actual work being reviewed. A surprising amount of what appears to be criticism is actually paraphrased quotation: her willingness to experiment with levels of romance beyond what most late-20th-century artists could tolerate is something Mann says about southern artists generally, for example.

The actual criticism is larded into this material largely in the form of adjectives attached to descriptive material. To my eye, it's pretty spot on. It is clear that the critic has a firm idea of what the meaning of the show was, and she's not shy about suggesting that this meaning is, if not objective, at least broadly intersubjective. Goldberg is pretty sure that you ought to see these pictures the same way she does, and she makes at least a nod toward specific things she sees in the frame that support her views (both of the pictures, and the idea that you should also see the pictures the way she does.)

Is it perfect? No. It's not even very serious, and it cannot be. It's a newspaper review of a show. As such needs to spend a great deal of time and energy just describing the thing itself, it has to be fairly anodyne, and, contrary to pretensions, the NYT is a thoroughly un-serious paper designed to feel serious. All that said, I believe Goldberg did a fair job here.

Anyways, I am working up 12,000 words or so on a Theory of Photography which should be pretty familiar to long-time readers. I think I've made a fairly sturdy argument in support of it, but we shall see.

If you know any publishers eager to publish the next Camera Lucida hit me up, you delusional maniac.


  1. If you wanted to get an overview of the field, an old friend of ours edited one of those readers that gets used a lot on introductory academic courses. I've never read it (what would I want with a theory of photography?) but I see it's now in its 5th edition, so is clearly well thought of. It's "Photography: a critical introduction", edited by Liz Wells.


    1. Tell me more about this friend and whether they can get me an introduction at Routledge? There's only one bit there that I actually care about, but I am willing to sit through the boring bits to get to the "introduction? of course!" part.