Sunday, March 13, 2022

Addendum to Previous

I feel as if I can usefully expand on a point made in the previous remarks, and a comment from Mr. Chisholm seems to confirm that!

Suppose I were dropped onto a street corner in Mumbai, right now, at this instant.

I would interpret all I see and experience in terms of who I am at this moment. Much of the speech would be meaningless to me, probably a lot of the gesture and body language would evade me as well. Signs, movements, everything, I would see and try to make sense of as only myself, now.

If then I lived in Mumbai for a year, or ten, I might absorb at least some elements of the local culture. The city and its inhabitants would shape me, I would grow and learn. That same street corner would read to me quite differently. I can't tell you in detail, but I know it would.

In the same way, a book can shape the reader a little, can give the reader necessary background, "culture" in some very broad sense, that enables the reader to make sense of the book. In a way that is the point of a book. A movie can do the same thing, albeit usually in a smaller way.

A photograph is like being dropped into a street corner. You cannot really become more, and then make sense of it, except through forces outside the photo. Being "in" the photo you have only yourself as you are now, to make sense of it. This doesn't mean you cannot learn things, you cannot enlarge yourself, by looking at a photo. But you do so on the terms of yourself as you are now.

I'm not sure if this is a matter of degree or kind.

I'm not sure to what extent a photo book is like a movie, and to what extent it's like a photo.

I do know, or at least I believe, that you can surround a photograph with material, say a block of text, that might shape the reader, might "expand your culture" in such a way as to make different sense of the photo. In some sense, this is merely contextualizing, of course.

In a sense, this is all just a way of thinking about contextualizing photographs, but the point is that the photo in and of itself is an instant, and you perceive it in terms of who you are right now, at the moment you look at it. A photograph does not unfold over time, you cannot meaningfully become in the process of looking at a photo. You can only be.

As Mr. Chisholm remarks, this is as much a limitation of us as of the photo! We are when we look at the picture, and that present being is all we have, all we can bring. Reading a book, we become, we change, we are different at the end of the book.


It does feel like a photograph ought to change us, though? I look, I see some new piece of information, I am different. Then I continue to look at the photo, as that different person. Do I make sense of it anew? Do endlessly spin, re-reading, changing, and re-reading again? I don't think so. Perhaps I converge in an instant on a subtly different me and see the photo in those terms, and that's end?

Is it, in the end, the same as reading a book, but in the small, and in an instant?


  1. I'm liking the respect: like Pumbaa in The Lion King, around here they call me *Mister* Pig!

    I think we are entitled to be suspicious of all attempts to generalise from the particular, when it comes to such diverse activities as "photography". As Mister Blake scribbled in the margin of Joshua Reynolds' Works: "To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit – General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess"...

    FWIW I'd much rather read a series of your reflections on actual individual photographs, in the vein of Szarkowski's "Looking At Photographs", than thoughts about some non-existent abstract "Photograph", accepting that the latter underpin and motivate the former.


  2. What he ^^^ said. Also, "I look, I see some new piece of information" -- the brain is pretty good at filtering out irrelevant information. You have to be pretty engaged with the photograph to pull actionable information out of it. It has to be an unusual photograph, not easily catalogued (and thusly, dismissed) as 'another one of those.' I submit Mister Molitor is unusually engaged with photographs, is looking at them far harder than your average punter, by several orders of magnitude.

  3. I realize that my awkward feints at becoming a French Philosopher are some of the least accessible and interesting things I write. The goal here is always (err, beyond issues around ego) to bring machinery to bear on specific photographs.

    If I just roll up on some photo and start yakking, I have no particular authority to say anything. I can offer up my personal take, which can be just fine, but that's what everyone does. Some of them offer their personal takes up as authoritative, and others merely as a personal witnessing. The authoritative ones are largely clowns.

    My goal is to lean more toward saying authoritative, universal, things, and that means I need (at least to my eye I need) some sort of basis for thinking about photos, some sort of "theory" that goes beyond my personal emotional reaction. Otherwise I am just another clown climbing out of a very small car with all the other clowns.

    So, I ascend to absurd generalizations, and descend again to looking at individual pictures, and repeat.

    To be fair, this exactly mirrors how I was taught to do mathematics research, so it might be a poor strategy here? I dunno. In math as I did it, the goal was the general end of the spectrum (the applied math weirdos used the generalities to examine specifics) but you always got there by examining specifics and trying to see what in there was actually general. Specifics, generalities, and back again, endlessly.

    I am naturally drawn to the general, but I do take the point that, here, it's not really the part we care about. I maintain that it's a useful periodic diversion.

    1. My admiration for the maths-capable knows no bounds, so I did not dare make the mathematical comparison, but as you have, well, there it is. QED...

      The thing is, we *like* it when you pull up in the clown car, roll up on some photo, and start yakking. It's also an awful lot easier to read and to follow... But, please, write about whatever you want, sir!


    2. I appreciate your confidence! Thank you!