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Monday, October 12, 2020

Photography and The Cultural Critics

I have been dipping, very very slightly, into Stuart Hall who I think (don't quote me) was mainly just warming up Gramsci in the microwave.

His Big Idea seems to have been, in the very simple strokes I understand it, that events, people, objects, are not born with "meaning" but have that meaning assigned by media. This is obviously true, to some degree. Consider a protest march in some urban center:

One media outlet describes it as freedom-loving people struggling to reshape our corrupt society into something better, the other media outlet describes it as vandals and thugs tearing at the very heart of civilization. These media outlets are assigning meaning to the protest. The conventional sort of dunderheaded academic idea is that this is all there is.

But anyone who has actually been at such a thing knows that it was not a meaningless mass of lemmings, the march had meaning in and of itself.

Events and so on probably, usually, have some sort of ground-truth meaning, possibly different for everyone involved. Media provides mediated meanings of the same thing, which may or may not bear much resemblance to anyone's ground truth. This is a lot like history and historiography. Media can and does attempt to shape the meaning it delivers to its readers, as noted above. Of course it does. This is arguably the job of the media, just as it is the job of historians to shape and deliver the meaning of historical events to us. There's a lot going on, media and history try to distill it and in doing so inevitably take up a position. Sometimes they take up a wilfully shitty position, sometimes they try to be "honest" whatever that might even mean.

Stuart Hall, by all accounts, was not an idiot, and we ought to assume that he understood all these things and made some sense of them. These are all pretty obvious.

The big point beloved by modern scholars is that someone has power, someone has an agenda. The media does not shape meaning in a vacuum, they shape meaning according to some agenda. Is this agenda set by the bigwigs who own the thing? Or is it simply set by constantly testing "what sells more papers" (that is, set by the audience?) Well, yes. Obviously. Both. So, sure, media outlets absolutely have agendas, and interpret events through that lens, and assign meaning accordingly.

Academics prefer the it's the bigwigs take, because, of course they do. Everything is a plot to keep them out of the Endowed Chair of Naval Gazing, after all.

Here is where the wheels begin to fall off for photographic scholars.

A street protest has some meaning all on its own, as does any event. The people in it had motivations, hopes, dreams, ideas. These may be opaque, but if we are to accept that objective reality exists, then we have to accept that.

The news story about the event assigns some meaning to the same event, as well as, most likely, reporting at least some basic facts about the event.

A naked photograph lies somewhere between the two and off to the side a bit.

To assign a meaning to an event in the style of media is quite a bit of work. You have to write a headline, some text, you have to assemble a set of visuals to support your words, and so on. To shoot a single photo is indeed the first step of the process, but it's not all the way there. The photo stands closer to the event than does the final news story. The meaning-assigning power of a photo is more limited than the complete story.

Consider a photo of a cop wrestling a protester to the ground.

One article emphasizes the keeping of order in the face of violence and vandalism. The other article emphasizes the brutality of the police toward peaceful protesters. The ground truth could be either, both, or something else. The photo, however, is probably thoroughly ambiguous. Unless the photo editor selected a picture with a particularly brutal grimace, or a lit Molotov cocktail, we probably have a pretty generic photo which leaves the meaning wide open.

Modern photographic thinkers want very very much for photographs to fix meaning, and to thereby shape thought and culture. They want to be able to say pompously that such and such a photo, embodying colonial gaze, is of course very violent and it made them cry. While this is sometimes true, more often it is not. A single photograph rarely fixes meaning. A photo is as likely to unmoor meaning and let it float than the other way around.

To return to our cop, there was a ground truth. Was the protester smashing things, or merely chanting? We do not know if the cop was thinking "fuck this commie!" or "oh shit, I have to stop this guy from killing that girl!" The photograph leaves things out, and it reveals little or nothing of the thoughts of the players.

It removes meaning. It unmoors meaning, and lets it float. At the same time of course it may attempt to assign meaning with photographic technique.

To fix meaning, the photo editor must as a rule place the photograph in context. They must use the photo in some way. Photos, being generous, permit themselves to be read widely, and it does not take much of a nudge to fix the meaning of the photo. A caption can do the job.

The picture itself, as often as not, contains a great deal of material which begs to become meaning, but does not itself particularly fix that meaning. The usage of the photo, within a context, if skillfully done, will crystallize these latent meanings, these signs and omens, to a particular value. It it less the photo that "means" and more the usage of the photo.

I have in mind a sort of visual analogy.

Imagine a short piece of writing. Imagine a blank page. The piece appears, bit by bit. First the vertical strokes of the first line of text, just noise. Then some of the curved lines. The next line begins to fade in as the letters of the first line resolve themselves in to words, and so on. The meaning of the piece is absent, even after a fair bit of ink has appeared. Details fill in, and following some distance behind, meaning arrives.

In the same way, fragments of media contain less meaning than a coherent whole piece, and sometimes no meaning at all.

Is a photograph like merely a few vertical strokes of ink? Sometimes. Is it the first sentence? Yes, sometimes that as well. Is it, occasionally, an entire paragraph? Yes, that also, but only occasionally.

We could wrangle endlessly about where photographs usually land, I suppose. Do most of them unmoor meaning, and only a few fix it? Or do most fix meaning, and only a few unmoor?

The whole thing is made rather a muddle by the fact that, as individuals, we tend to assign meaning to photographs all by ourselves, and then to insist that this is the only possible reading. People, especially modern academic photographic "thinkers," tend to be thoroughly dedicated to the proposition that photographs do indeed fix meaning, and that anyone who doesn't see a picture their way is just visually illiterate.

This is wrong.


  1. It's trivially easy to make, and consume the type of photographs that transfix these bozos, and they spend their careers haggling over. Is this the hill they want to die on? Oh yes.

    Lewis took his ball and went home, and not for the first time. So there's that.

  2. I would be interested to know specifically which thinkers you're associating with those attempts at "fixing" meaning. Anyone in academia, and anyone engaging with images even remotely in reference to philosophy worth their salt knows better than to rely on this kind of fixing-down; academics were putting the heads of thinkers who did so on spikes back in the 1960s.

    Given the vast influence that post-structural thought has had on the humanities, I'm wondering if the thinkers you're referring to might largely constitute people with a big presence in the art market/'photoland' who talk a lot, but who are themselves not that much into thinking, and who haven't done their reading...

    1. I'm thinking of guys like Jörg Colberg and the larger group of which he is a representative. They're kind of academics, and also kind of bush-league, but I think they's also kind of it. I don't think there is a non-bush-league community of thinkers-about-photos.

      I'm sure that none of them would admit to the idea that photographs fix meaning in this sense, but virtually everything they say about photographs implies it. They are, to be blunt, a remarkably muddled bunch. See my remarks on "gaze" which follow this one to see what I mean.

      When confronted with a single photo they will invariably offer a single reading as if it were the only reading, and that is the end of it.

      Photography in general suffers from a lack of people willing to think very hard about it. We had a spate of work in the mid twentieth century, and then it all dribbled off and all we have now is essentially politics dressed up as intellection, and off in a corner, AD Coleman still beavering away like a longshoreman doing his own thing while nobody pays much attention.

  3. Also, "I tend to keep a low profile where possible as it helps me to photograph by being below the radar." -- Paul H.