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Friday, July 24, 2020

Theory of Authorship

I've been working on this stupid book. As part of that process, I have approached some rather more visible and well-known people in Photography, who have invariably given me many things to think about. I am loathe to mention names, because I do not wish to usurp their authority, nor do I wish to make it know generally that they are perfectly approachable lest they get inundated with more idiots with manuscripts. I mention this only because I don't want to pretend that what follows originates entirely in my own skull, it does not.

It is chic these days to sort of set aside the idea that you can discern anything about intent in the picture. This is part and parcel of the modern program of gassily waving away the idea that there's anything whatever that can be trusted in a photograph. I have, to my regret, been somewhat taken in on this point, but I was set straight by wiser heads.

My interest here is not particularly in what one, as a critic, might make of the author's nature by way of a photograph (although this also could be done.) I am interested in what we, as more or less normal people, looking at a photograph, might make of the author's intentions with this picture, and how that might color the way we make meaning from the picture.

If we were to, say, discern that the photographer had momma issues, that might color the meaning of the picture I suppose, but also perhaps not.

Whatever the Smart Set's opinions, the fact is that we do form theories of authorial intent when we look at photos, and that guessed-at intention does color how we make meaning from the picture.

Let us proceed and see what happens. I have no idea where this leads.

We do, sometimes at least, formulate a theory of the intention of the photographer. There is the thing we're supposed to look at. There might be other things of interest in the frame. This is a picture of the little girl, oh, and also her stuffed toy. Or perhaps the other way around. Usually there will be a bunch of extra crap that we decide isn't important to the frame There is an ugly cross-stitch on the wall behind the little girl, out of focus and partly obscured by the toy, it probably doesn't matter.

First and foremost, with most pictures, the thing we're supposed to look at is probably whatever is in the center. I don't mean most pictures taken by Serious Photographers, I simply mean most pictures. If the thing in the center of the frame is also out of focus, we have to decide whether the photographer meant something else as the Main Thing, or whether the photographer failed to achieve sharp focus.

This unpacks quite a ways, I think. What is it, really, that we're supposed to look at? Is it the thing in the middle, the thing in sharpest focus, the brightest thing? If the picture strikes us as a naive snapshot, we'll probably accept the thing in the middle, every time, and treat any other prominent things as accidents. If the photo bears marks of sophistication, we might be more cautious.

There are photos which are clearly, or at least we imagine are clearly, about the whole scene. A crowd of people. A landscape. Now, it might be that we have a naive photographer trying to photograph her daughter in a crowd with a with a wide lens. Is this a crowd scene, or a botched portrait of the little girl slightly left of center in the front of the crowd? We don't really have a way of knowing, but depending on the details we might lean one way or the other.

Photographers have often trained themselves to "follow leading lines" or look at "rule of thirds power points" for the subject, and if the hack who made the picture has used these devices, the subject is usually obvious anyways. The girl on the train tracks is indeed at the end of some leading lines, but she's also the girl in the photo so we look at her. There's nothing else in the picture of note, so she must be the thing the photo is "of." It is possible, though, that we could run in to trouble here. If the thing we're supposed to look at does not stand out particularly, a normal human being might not be able to identify it whereas a Thoroughly Modern Photographer would, because of its position in the frame.

A certain amount of contemporary (ach-German-oo) art photography doesn't seem to be of anything, and efforts to discern authorial intent might well founder entirely due to the over-sophistication of the photographer. The cynic (me) identifies the intention of the photograph to be indecipherable on the grounds that the photographer suffers from a sort of self-induced lunacy, and is seeing meaning where none is present. A less cynical but equally naive viewer might assume that they simply are not clever enough to discern the meaning. The photographer's students would, likely, nod wisely and claim to see the point, naturlich but find themselves mysteriously unable to articulate it.

This same sort of thing probably encompasses a lot of snapshots. Is there a difference between an idiot (me) trying to photograph a small bird with a 35mm lens, and a serious German artist taking a random snap, err, serious critique of humanity in the form of a bunch of tangled branches and shit, in which you can barely make out a tiny vaguely bird-shaped blotch?

This is, I guess, a manifestation of a larger issue which is really smeared all over the problem of making meaning from photos: we're all different, and we are sometimes going to come up with different things. My broader thesis is that we tend, generally, to light upon roughly similar things more often than not, and so make meaning in similar ways, and I think it holds true here. There might be more than one reasonable guess at authorial intent, but there probably aren't more than a small handful of such guesses.

What makes this relevant to me in this moment is that, whatever else is true, this process takes place outside of the photograph. Much of a photo's meaning arises, I have maintained, from in some sense inside the frame. We imagine ourselves there, rather than here. This theorizing about intent, though, cannot reasonably take place from that point of view. Like any formal analysis of the properties of the picture itself, it occurs from where we actually sit or stand looking at the picture.

It follows that my larger Theory of Photography includes the making of meaning from multiple locii. We inhabit the picture, sometimes we inhabit a role within the picture, and at the same time we remain here, looking at the picture.

Which is, roughly, "aaaig" from my point of view.

Adding to the difficulty is that we may or may not care that much about what we think the author intended. The old lady centered in the frame, smiling at the camera, might not be of much interest to us. Perhaps we find the vase on the shelf behind her to be most interesting. To be honest, that would be a bit perverse, but it's not impossible.

I don't mean to suggest that there's some specific order of operations here, but we can in a way imagine some sort of sequence like this:

I look at the photo, I see someone's grandmother. She bores me, my eye slides off her and alights on the vase behind her because I have a peculiar interest in mid-century vases. I then "step into" the frame and inhabit the role of a spectator in the frame, examining the vase and wondering about how it came to be there on the shelf, and whether the old lady would sell it, and so on.

In this case, we might imagine that I begin outside the picture, here in my chair, looking at the photo. I then metaphorically pass into the mirror world of the photo, and continue to make some kind of meaning, albeit in this case idiosyncratic meaning, from that point of view.

In reality I think it all sort of happens at once. There simply isn't that much time, our process of making meaning from a photo is all over in a second or two.


  1. You may find that your theory of photography needs some neurological and psychological underpinnings to really come to fruition. There's a lot of concrete scientific information about how the human visual system works available these days.

    I know, I know, heresy!

    But the fact is that most humans visual systems work in more or less similar ways and understanding how a system works often yields insight.

    1. Indeed there is! I am by no means up to date, but I did read Arnheim so I'm fully up to date c. 1950 or so!

    2. So mid-last century then?

      If you find any books on this subject that are particularly interesting I'd love to hear about them.

    3. Surely it's irrefutable that the human visual system on Twitter works like a dumpster fire.