Saturday, November 7, 2020

So Here's a Long Read

Here's a thing Lewis Bush wrote, "Invisible Chains: Photography's Ingrained Assumptions" which is probably worth your time to read, if you happen to be among the tiny elite who think my writing is worth reading. There's a few typos and the name-dropping gets a little tedious, and it doesn't really say anything that wasn't thoroughly worked out at least a couple decades ago.

It is nevertheless a cogent summary of a branch of contemporary thinking about Photography. It is also, in important ways, wrong.

I mean, it's not wildly wrong. There's a lot of stuff that's pretty much OK. He's really just pulling Sontag and Berger out again and buffing them up a bit, although curiously those are pretty much the only two names he does not drop. He also spares us Barthes, though, for which we owe a deep and abiding debt.

Anyways, his thesis seems to be that there are certain ingrained assumptions that inform the ways we make and make meaning of photographs. He invents new names to give us a few of them, presumably the ones he thinks are important: Sight, Effects, and Transparency. The first is that sight is the primary means by which we ought to understand the world around us, the second is that the function of photography (photojournalism?) is to (I guess) document effects rather than causes, and the third that photographs are truthful in some sense.

I have to say I'm not sure what the first one is on about. Ok, so, maybe Smell or Psychic Divination is a superior way to understand the world, but what has that to do with photography? Is Lewis's point that Photography Thinks It's All That because Sight? Maybe, I guess?

It's not clear how distinct this "axiom" is from simply modernity. Divine revelation is not exactly au courant as a means of understanding the world and the other senses are more or less objectively less well suited to modern ideas about how we ought to find out about stuff. He may be trying to contrast Sight to things like "testimonies from indigenous peoples themselves" or something, I guess, but it's not clear.

I'm not convinced that this isn't a bit muddled, but neither is it what I am actually interested in, so let us pass onwards.

His axiom of Effects is maybe on to something. It's a lot easier, certainly, to photograph the effects of things than the causes. Lewis and his cohort tend to focus on this, especially on how photojournalism allegedly concentrates on victims rather than perpetrators. I'm not convinced this is quite accurate, though. On the one hand, photographing the cause of an earthquake is kind of hard, and on the other hand we've seen lots of pictures of Epstein and OJ Simpson.

But sure, that's a thing. It's part of what distinguishes good photojournalism from bad, and that, to be blunt, is well established. To the extent that Lewis is on to something here, I'm not convinced that it's not already well known and completely settled. Which, I guess, doesn't mean we don't still see a lot of pictures of starving kids in Africa?

The last one, though, that's a good one.

This is the one where he marries his ideas that these axioms are all culturally constructed to his axiom of assumed truthiness in photos, and where he veers off into being wrong.

Regular readers will recall that I've concluded that part of our reaction to photos is somatic, visceral. Whether it's rooted in the liver, the spine, the amygdala, or the visual cortex I do not care. The point is that much of our reaction to photographs, specifically to their sense of reality, is not rooted in culture but something like instinct. Lewis almost notes this himself, when he points out that photographers "know" photographs are not real, and can radically misrepresent the world; and at the same time consume them as if they were real, and did accurately represent.

Lewis may not know why this happens, but you and I do!

This is not a conflict within culturally constructed ideas; but a conflict between conscious/cultural knowledge, and something else a lot closer to biology.

This is a fundamental difficulty with the modern academic effort to reshape photography and reshape our understanding of photography. The underlying assumption in the academy is that photographs are like any other media, and that they can be completely understood as cultural artifacts coded culturally in essentially the same way language can be.

This is not true. There is, of course, cultural meaning contained in photographs, and we always understand photographs in the context of and through our culture. To suggest otherwise would be absurd.

Unlike language, though, photographs are not purely culturally constructed signs. The word "elephant" is entirely a construct of culture. It is a sound, a series of marks, which are connected together and which embody a cultural construct called a "word" which is itself a signifier which points to a certain kind of large animal. A photograph of an elephant, however, while also merely marks on a flat surface, hits us in a different and non-cultural place. We, as animals, recognize another animal at a level that is well below any cultural overlay. This, in addition to the cultural meaning that we make of an elephant.

I think there is a serious effort in the photographic academy to understand photographs as if they were language, and this is essentially a doomed exercise, because it is fundamentally wrong.

This is roughly where the wheels fall off when modern theorists start talking about truth on photos. They imagine that the whole thing is a cultural construct, and subject therefore to the vagaries of that world. They imagine that a photograph is equivalent to 1000 words, that discussions of authorship and culture more or less translate.

They don't.

Photographs begin with a mechanical transcription of reality, to which we, independent of culture, react in specific ways. These reaction is modulated, expanded, contracted, and altered by culture.

It's like food. We have certain visceral reactions to fats, salt, sugar, carbs, etcetera. Your cultural background does not generate these root responses, but it does radically modulate them. I don't like sushi, and you might think Butterfinger candy bars are much too sweet. The general theme of "more fat and salt makes it taste better" is true for both of us, though, because we're both homo sapiens.

The analogy is not precise, of course. Don't be an idiot. The point is not that food is the right analogy and language is the wrong one.

The point is that photographs are a bit like one and also a bit like the other, and that it would pay us to attend to that.


  1. The big assumption I find a lot of people make above all of this, which marrs their attempts at these kinds of discussions, is this fanciful idea that the way most of the world now experiences photographs is just a given, entirely unadulterated. As ethnologists found when they started visiting various tribes and cultures around the world, the use of linear perspective to understand flat surfaces as images with perceptual depth is a technology that cultures develop as part of attempts at representation -- it is not reducible to the natural phenomenon of being able to perceive depth using one's eyes.

  2. "Lewis Bush spent several weeks forensically examining, fingerprinting and photographing all of his shopping."

    Kind of sums it up.

    1. Yeah, his "Latent Work" zine is, uh, not his strongest work. The news that people have touched the things you buy is not particularly revelatory, although, sure, bringing it to front-of-mind is a legit thing to do.

      Lewis actually makes things, though, which is to his eternal credit. Most of the pontificators don't. They blather, but they don't do.

    2. It's the claim he spent *weeks* at this inane project that's worrisome. #lockdownpsychosis

  3. Is it just me, or does 'Photoland' increasingly resemble a sitcom played out on twitter? These characters!

    1. Yep. Buncha loonies shouting into a bucket.

      Completely unlike me, natch.

    2. The thing to note about @PhDPhotographer is that they haven't got one. They're trying to get one.

    3. "I'm not sure I think a PhD is about finding meaning any more, I think it's about deepening your confusion." - L.B.

      That's ... gonna be a challenge.

  4. "My last word on Magnum." -- the punchline of every episode. Cue laugh track and closing theme music.

    1. Oh look. Today: "Although it's kind that people in the wider community have contacted me about this letter in the end it really is primarily for Magnum's photographers and what was on my mind most while writing it (and still is) is whether any of them will actually respond to it."