One of the more common dopey aphorisms trotted out by "serious" photographers is that photography is a language. This is wrong, at so many levels.
First, in any sort of technical way, photography is not a language. While the definition of "language"
is somewhat contested, absolutely nobody thinks that a pile of signs, in the semiotics sense, is
a language. It just isn't. Vocabulary is not language, as anyone who has tried to learn a language
from a dictionary knows. At best photography has a kind of vocabulary.
This is in fact what people mean: they mean you can print it dark, you can stick a crucifix in the frame,
you can tell your model to grimace. These are all signifiers which point to something other than themselves,
they are signs in the semiotic sense. I am at a loss for a better word than "language" to describe
this, and so, apparently, is everyone else. You could argue that, imprecise as it is, "language" is the
best word to describe this. More on this in a moment.
There is another possible meaning here, which is that a picture of a tree is not the tree. It signifies the
tree, and is therefore a sign for the tree. This feels potentially interesting in a very technical
way, but even
Barthes couldn't actually make any hay here, so it's more likely a dead end. This is a technical curiosity,
and in the end sort of dumb and uninteresting. We acknowledge that the tree (or frog, or model, or cloud) is
not the photo of itself, but other than to note the obvious distinction there doesn't seem to be much there.
Ok, back to "language" as sloppy but maybe appropriate.
The trouble with accepting this as-is, is that it emphasizes the wrong thing. Yes, there are signs that
can be added to, or managed, in a photograph, but this is a relatively bush-league operation. The main thing
a photograph does is copy reality, preserve it in a limited kind of way, and allow us access to that
pickled reality. The main thing you as a photographer do is select which bits of reality to do that to.
The idea of promoting photography as a "language" is part of a larger program to enlarge the photographer's
role in the making of the photograph. It goes with the mealy-mouthed "photos are made, not taken," and it
rubs up against ideas like "gaze." This set of ideas is very attractive to photographers, who generally
want to see themselves as kind of like painters, imagining that Leonardo got laid a lot. It's also
attractive to theoreticians who constantly seek grounds to expand the scope of their favorite
activity, which is scolding people.
The conceit is that the photographer is visible in the frame, is speaking through the language of photography.
A photographer takes a picture of a cat, and I don't like the photographer. I can see in the photo
the essential badness of the photographer. You can just tell, by signs, because photography is a language,
that the photographer is a bad person who hates cats.
The idea that photography is a language is part of a larger system of thought which argues that we can
and should see things in the photos which we know to be true outside the photos. It allows
theoreticians to project things into the photograph which simply are not there. The idea that photography
is a language is thus quite harmful to actual understanding of how photographs function.
Most of what we "read" in a photograph comes not from the photograph, not from some notional "language"
or system of signs, but from ourselves, from the things we know, from the things we see around the
photo, processed through ourselves and projected onto the picture.