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Thursday, April 15, 2021

On Realism in Photography

I am going to attempt to pull together my thoughts from the last few days into a more coherent whole, adding some new things. This is a bit redundant, therefore. Sorry.

Begin with this assertion: that photographs work by metaphorically transporting you to the scene of the photograph. Your response physically, emotionally, cognitively, though attenuated, is as if you were present at the scene. Importantly, one of your responses is to imaginatively fill in a larger world to contain what you notice in the photograph. You speculate about what surrounds the picture in time and in space, and you take your speculations for a kind of truth.

Take this on faith, please, and hold the thought.

Berger, writing in Art and Revolution defines realism in art (citing Lukács) as a property of the art, a property of embodying in some sense a totality, a complete world represented through a species of synecdoche by the work itself. Berger suggests that this is best realized by, among other things, embracing the medium and its limitations.

Now, to be fair, what Lukács means (as near as I can tell) by "a totality" is pretty specific. He's interested in a person's socio-economic position, their class, and what that all means. He's a Marxist, and so is Berger. I think Berger might be using a more expansive definition of "a totality" and I certainly am.

Nevertheless, I think one can argue cogently that the realism Berger is talking about is in fact the normal operation of a photograph. To a degree.

This is not to say that every photograph operates particularly well. We can certainly imagine, at least, that some photos function in this way fluidly and powerfully, while others produce the effect weakly or in some other anemic fashion. The point is that this is a thing that all, or almost all, photographs seem to striving to do.

We can then follow Berger's argument and suggest that the normal operation of a photograph (realism) is best executed by, among other things, embracing the medium of photography rather than by attempting to conceal, distract from, to argue with, the medium.

Let us now cast our minds back to 1904, and Sadakichi Hartmann's famous Plea for Straight Photography.

Hartmann here is railing against the Photo-Secession habit of heavily working their pictures, so that they look like charcoal drawings, or etchings, or paintings. He begs for photographic prints that look like photographic prints. He is, specifically, arguing that photographers ought to embrace their medium and its limitations.

The argument does not go so far as to suggest anything specific about the functioning of a "straight" photograph, beyond that it should be just as beautiful and more, in some vague sense, honest than a heavily worked print. It is clear, though, that Hartmann also believes that photographs have some special property, something he cannot quite articulate, which can give them real power. He makes clear that this power, whatever it is, is enhanced by embracing the medium and is damaged, hampered, by struggling against it.

I do not find anything in Hartmann's essay to suggest that something akin to the realism of Berger and Lukács is not what Hartmann thinks is the power of the photograph.

Let us now rope in M. Barthes, and his punctum and the "blind field" it induces. Without squinting too hard, we can identify the "blind field" as at least overlapping strongly with the totality induced by the realism we're thinking about here. It is an emotional belief in the world outside the frame, and it is induced by Barthes' punctum which everyone gets wrong. Punctum is not some "wounding detail" it is, by definition, whatever it is that induces the "blind field" effect.

Examining Camera Lucida in a little detail, we find punctum difficult to pin down, but more often than not Barthes' examples point to something banal, something ordinary, in the picture. This, of course, makes sense. The ordinary, the banal, tends to reify the photograph, it makes us believe it as real. Sometimes this is a detail, sometimes it is an overall flavor, sometimes Barthes can't tell us what it is. When he can, though, it is banal, ordinary.

Lukács also, if I am to believe the summaries, hewed to the idea of the banal detail, the ordinary, as the correct means to bolster the synecdoche by which art gestures toward a totality.

It is this embrace of the ordinary which seems to be the embrace of the medium.

When we struggle against the medium, we're seeking to show you directly something sublime. We're erasing the banal and ordinary, we're painting in something we think points directly to the sublime. When we photoshop out the cigarette butt on the ground, we're seeking to eliminate the ordinary and to replace it with the remarkable, and in doing so we uproot the photograph from its reality.

This same argument applies to staging, to posing, to a any number of pre-exposure shenanigans. The most photographic thing is to simply point the camera at what is, and mash the button. This will, by necessity, preserve all those banal details, all those shabby bits and pieces and flavors and atmosphere that grounds the photo in reality. These, in turn, might perform the punctum dance, or embrace the medium sufficiently so as to produce the totality, or if you prefer will simply result in a photographic print that looks like a photographic print.

These are all the same thing. It is the blockheadedly direct photograph which is more "photographic" and which most induces that sensation of being present, that sensation which induces us to imagine the world around the photograph, to expand the slender picture to a complete, total, world.

It is the most blockheadedly direct photograph which allows the photograph to most fully function as a photograph naturally does.

I am no Sadakichi Hartmann, in so many ways, but in particular I do not rail so against anything which is not straight photography. Do what you will, and if you desire to make your photo look like a collection of gumdrops, or half-etching and half-pencil drawing, it matters nothing to me. You be you, I urge you to follow your muse wherever it leads.

No, I mean only to speak to a particular kind of result, the kind of result that is in some sense the most natural photographic result. This kind of photograph embraces the nature of the photograph fully, contains the unintended detail, the atmosphere of the banal, the ordinary subject. It eschews heavy cleanup after the exposure, as well as any emphasis on setup, posing, and so on. In doing so, the photograph appears most like the world at which the camera is directed; in doing so it most abets that presence of viewer in the scene, and thereby abets the imaginative construction of the total world around the photo.

This is the thing photographs do best, most naturally.

This is an argument that has been made, in various forms and guises, for most of the 20th century, and here we are again. I am making it again. There is, and I dare say always will be, a tension between the urge to do as much work as possible to control the frame, and the urge to reveal and record as directly and transparently as possible that which is.

Photography is just a tool, it does both perfectly well, and much else besides. Do what you will, nobody is trying to take Photoshop away from you.

What photographs do most naturally, most effortlessly, is reveal that which is. They testify to the existence of that which was. If you choose not to argue with that, you get a thing, and a marvelously effective and powerful thing it can be.

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