Monday, December 14, 2020


There are probably infinitely many spectrums (spectra?) you could throw down to think about photography along, but the one I'm interested in today has photographers at one and and viewers at the other.

Photographers, naturally, are fond of any way of thinking that places them front and center (see also artists, authors, mechanics, and so on.) From an art-historical perspective, you probably need to keep the photographer in mind; if nothing else their birth and death dates bracket the dates on which the photos were made (usually.)

For things that are not photographs, frequently you can make a sturdy argument as to the importance of the author. No word of a novel appears by accident, the author stuck it in there on purpose. The painter applied each brushstroke. The photograph, though, at least often, contains much that the photographer could not control, or didn't notice, or didn't care about. Even in the studio, there is no guarantee that the photographer was as involved in the way the light fell on the vase as the painter must have been.

One can reasonably wonder if perhaps the author might, for some purposes, step back a bit when it comes to photographs.

My working hypothesis at the moment is, as longer term readers might be agonizingly aware at this point, is that meaning is mostly constructed by the viewer.

Current academic theory is very very author-forward. "Gaze" although originally defined independent of authorship, for all practical purposes, is now used largely as shorthand for the identity groups to which the photographer belongs. A photograph exhibits female/black/gay gaze if the photographer is female, black, or gay, and that is the end of it.

"Representation" is largely assumed to include the prefix "Politics of" and again refers to the photographer and the photographer's power to portray their subjects this way or that.

At the same time, of course, these same academic will protest loudly that authorship is largely irrelevant, "Barthes!" they shout, and then return to their author-centric thinking.

If "gaze" or "representation" means anything for photographs, they cannot meaningfully refer directly to the author. They must be the way that a viewer constructs an imagined author, based on what they, the viewer know (including, possibly, the identity of the author.)

A photograph of a naked woman can take on different meanings depending on whether you "know" the photographer was female, or male, or Terry Richardson, or Sally Mann. This is a construct of the viewer, at least as much as it is present in the frame. If I lie to you about the author, you will, most likely, follow along and construct an idea of "gaze" or "representation" or whatever that matches my lie. The locus of these ideas, therefore, is not in the picture itself, but in the information surrounding it.

Thus, it is not that the author vanishes, but that the viewer is brought forward and that the author is seen through the mind of the viewer. This is not the real author, but a constructed, imaginary, author.

To be fair, in some cases the imaginary author closely matches the real one. There is no law that says this can't happen.

At the same time, though, there is no guarantee that the assumed author does match the real one. There could be an immense gulf here, especially if the photograph has been misattributed, or if the photographer is unknown.

The biggest problem with a viewer-centric way of thinking, of course, is that it makes it a lot harder to scold photographers for taking wrong pictures. Since this appears to be mainly what the academy is currently interested in, I don't expect them to adopt my ideas any time soon.


  1. What if ... the photographer was later debunked | found to have done naughty things with Thai prostitutes | photoshopped in a few penguins?

    Asking for a friend.

  2. I don't see any method at all, sir...

    1. There is a madness in it ... like your web site and pics, but the url is wrong (should be, you left off an "m")

  3. The irony is that photography became so popular as a medium in an academic art context precisely because it enabled people to evade long-term theoretical concerns about "authors" and their wicked, undeclared intentions and agendas expressed through unfashionably expressive skill-sets. Hey, I just clicked the button!

    Obviously, along with conceptual art, it also enabled people who couldn't paint or draw to become credentialled artists... And, best of all, to throw shade on those who could.


  4. I was just wondering ... what would a Magnum founded by the likes of Lewis, Ben, and Jorg look like? A camera club-cum-faculty lounge? Surely with a different name -- 'Dram' perhaps? What would be the market for their photos? Photobooks obv., pushing sales in two figures. Obscure web blogs (which purport to 'review' said photobooks), e-newletters, twitter follows by a handful of photoactivists and wannabes.

    Yes, a very different sort of agency, but one without the crippling baggage of seedy bars and little boys peeing. Imagine being free of all that, free to pursue a vision.

    But first, you'd need one.

    It would be a good thing, a necessary thing even, if they would endeavour to do this. Show us how its done. It's a small world, after all.