Friday, March 11, 2022

The Machinery of Photography

I've been noodling on Flusser's ideas of these machines, these systems, in which we are inevitably trapped; the idea that our apparently free activities are in the main merely operations in service of some notional machine, a machine contained in another machine, and so on. The machines are a little vague, but they seem to be something like society, something like culture, something like prejudices, traditions, ideas, formalities, rituals that ensnare us because we are human and social. I've forgotten enough of the details of his ideas that what I am going to say here is probably not very closely related, but I also probably stole a bunch of stuff.

Just so you know.

As an aside, it is worth noting that Flusser may well have meant to include actual machines in his net, the factories and locomotives and tools that dominate the work of so many. In today's era, those machines dominate our private lives as well in the form of smartphones, technology, web sites, gadgets, cars, electric bicycles, and the 1000s of other mechanical and electronic gadgets and widgets and apps and softwares that infest our lives.

The camera obscura came to dominate European painting, either by its literal application, or by painters mastering the general look of the thing. Tricks like single point perspective slip away, and we're left with a fairly natural perspective which, as Berger reminds us, "privileges the eye." European paintings represent the world as we see it. In the same way, the camera does the same. It does it, however, in rather more ways than merely perspective.

The camera is a machine which sees. It emulates, in a sense, the eye. In the early days it saw only tones, not color. The eye sees color.

The camera cannot initially freeze motion, and instead renders motion as a blur. The eye does not see the running horse as blurred, but rather as in motion. With the advent of high speed shutters, the horse now appears frozen. The eye does not see the horse as frozen, as such, but we accept the frozen animal as a fair approximation in ways that we would not (or do not) accept the blur as "realistic."

In general, the development of the camera, and of photography, consists in solving difficult problems. We know how to take blurry pictures, so can we take sharp ones? We know how to take grey pictures, can we take color ones? We normally think of this as expansion of the expressive envelope, and to an extent it is. At the same time, though, standards are being set.

I'm going to name a thing. I'm calling it a rubric, and I'm going to name it "straight photography." This probably isn't quite the same as what we traditionally call "straight photography," what I mean is photography that looks "real" in whatever sense we mean that. Not really real, but "real." The subject is in focus, motion is frozen, or nearly so. The tones, colors, and contrast appear more or less reasonable to the eye. Post-processing effects are applied fairly lightly, or at least are unobtrusive. This covers a lot of territory.

I submit that this rubric dominates contemporary photography. There are other rubrics, of course, but first of all they are rubrics in the same sense (i.e. a pretty narrowly defined category) and secondly they are not the dominant one.

The development of the photographic apparatus has been a pretty steady progression toward enabling and enhancing the ability to make photos which fall under the rubric of straight photography, in this sense. When we started building shutters capable of freezing motion (or of not) we chose, mainly, to freeze motion.

It is a curious thing to me that this development has been driven, to an extent, by little more than the technician's desire to solve hard problems (fast shutters, powerful lighting, large aperture lenses, color-corrected lenses, etc etc) while at the same time producing a very distinct kind of artifact, the straight photo. The affordances of the modern camera lean heavily toward producing this precise and narrow idea of what a "photograph" might be, and the march of photographic technology and technique has been steadily in that direction virtually from the first day.

The straight photo's curiosity as an artifact is thus: it is precisely these photos which, while obviously not "realistic" in any meaningful way (they're flat, for starters,) happen to be exactly those which tickle the sensation of presence. It is precisely the straight photo which, I claim, is the photograph that acts as a portal to the scene, the portal through which we pass.

The affordances that produce this go so far as to encourage photos taken from the height of the eye. The waist-level finder enjoyed a certain heyday, now past. Even the view camera is as often as not set at approximately eye level. Photos, in the main, are taken from an eye-like point of view. There is no reason a camera could not be built to work most easily at ground level, or 12 feet in the air (and indeed some cameras are) but the majority of cameras operate most simply at eye height, and produce eye-point-of-view pictures. The affordances of the camera produce photos taken to mimic what we would actually see, even to the point of view. The machine mimics the eye.

The frozen motion stands in well enough for the non-blurry way we perceive motion with the eye; the point of view is eye-like; even shallow depth of field stands in for the way our attention tends to center on the subject, and ignore the background. The camera offers not an accurate simulation of vision, but a set of sufficiently good analogues.

The straight photograph is, in a pretty well defined way, a kind of sub-cultural artifact. This action of a straight photograph on the mental apparatus of the viewer largely transcends culture. We pass into the scene, we react as-if we were there regardless, or almost regardless, of culture. What we do once there, of course, is intensely human and thus heavily reliant on culture. What we make of the signs we see there depends very much on who we are, as cultural creatures. But the passage through the plane of the image, into the scene, occurs at a level of being that is simpler and more basic than cultural.

I don't pretend to understand why this particular rubric, with these particular properties, came to dominate. It would be fun to suppose that it is precisely because of its property of creating these specific sub-cultural artifacts, but that is to ignore much. On the other hand, this probably isn't an accident either.

More than merely the machine which takes the picture, the process of photography is itself a kind of system, or machine. We take photographs with the device. The next step, we are carefully taught, is to examine a contact sheet and pick out "the good ones" and circle them with a red pen. What are the good ones? In this day and age, they are pretty much the ones that adhere best to the rubric we're applying, which is normally "straight photography." We discard the blurry ones, we discard the ones with "bad" exposure, and we pick out the ones with "good composition."

Even if we're using some different rubric, we nevertheless apply it. We have a set of standards, a set of things we're looking for in the pictures. We don't pick at random. We don't pick the darkest ones, or the first one on the roll, or the ones that look most like a kitty-cat when we turn them upside down.

The all-important "edit" is also a machine, that operates according to rules. We turn the crank on the machine, and out come the good ones.

Out come, more often then not, the "straightest" ones.

As Flusser notes, we can defy the operation of the machine, but we only wind up serving a larger machine the contains the machine. We can take blurry photos, we can select frames at random, and we find ourselves only performing in the role of art-rebel, within a larger society which relishes a certain number of art-rebels and bends these too to its own uses.

It occurs to me that the only real way to cease to feed the machine is to simply opt out. Vivian Maier never did the edit. There isn't any evidence that she was interested in serving that machine, serving the greater machine of photography. And so, obviously, some dipshit has to reanimate her, to flog her corpse to the workstation, and to force her legacy through a sort of caricature of the work of serving the machine. And now her pictures are like anyone else's, content to drive clicks, to drive ticket sales, to drive book sales, to contribute their little efforts to the great wheel of Capital, grinding us all to meal.

To opt out, though, is to give up the possibility of meaning. Undeveloped rolls of film in a storage locker have no semiotic content. They do not mean because no consciousness perceives them. Only when John Maloof develops the film, and makes contact sheets, and circles the good ones in red according to some rubric that is if not exactly "straight photography" is quite close, do the pictures acquire some kind of meaning. I rather detest that he did that, and I find that this meaning is at best obscure, but there's no doubt that the photos would be even less if they'd simply been thrown into a dumpster. It is not that Maloof didn't locate some meaning, didn't in a sense imbue the photos with meaning, it is that I find the meaning which results to be suspect.

What is this meaning which imbues a photograph? What is meaning in general?

The coded cries of a prairie dog have meaning. One cry means "predator" and another means "all-clear." Is this cultural in any meaningful way? Probably not, it's probably pretty close to biology. To an English-speaking human "help!" is a cry for assistance, the tone may carry a near-biological urgency indicator, but the word is pure culture. To the French speaker "ceci n'est pas une pipe" means "I am a painter" and is entirely and distinctly cultural, unless it is articulated in (biological) anguished tones in which case it means "Help! I am a painter, please take my brushes away and restrain me."

Meaning seems to cut across the spectrum of biological to cultural. In order to mean in any particularly human, in any sophisticated way, it must encroach on the cultural. One might argue that it must be coded in some sense, whatever that might even mean.

The photograph, especially the "straight" photograph, gives us a portal to mirror world, a world we enter and inhabit in some sense. This portal does not particularly rely on culture. What do we find when we pass through?

Certainly the objects and so on of the photo, but also we find our own culture. We find in the photograph a sketched copy of the very machinery we "operate" in the Flusserian sense. Just as we read the meaning of our own world according to our own cultural machine, we read the meaning of the photograph.

The portal itself transcends culture, transcends the machines we serve. The photograph is, as Barthes suggests in a rare moment of sense, "a message without a code." Having passed through the portal that admits all, however, we find ourselves back in our own world, in thrall to the same machinery, reading the codes of the world in the same way, making sense of this mirror world as if it were our own.

Herein lies the wildly polysemous character of the photo. Anyone can make sense of a photo. Everyone makes sense of it in their own way.

Unlike a book which requires that you know the code, the language, you don't need any prior knowledge to access the photo. A photograph, a straight photo, can be directly accessed by anyone, without the slightest knowledge of cultural codes.

This is its universality, its power.

Anyone can, after a fashion, commune with Ella Watson, holding her broom in the large institutional space she was paid to clean. It doesn't matter where you are from. You don't even need to know what a broom is, to be there.

Having passed into the photograph, we are instantly ensnared by the machines of our own culture, and perceive the photograph, make meaning of the photograph, in those terms, in the terms of our own culture and self.

That is its limitation, its weakness.

Communing with Ella Watson, only if you recognize the broom and mop can you guess at her job. Only if you recognize the American Flag can you see some sort of contrast. Only if you can roughly date the flag, and integrate that with a rough knowledge of American history, can you read the intended code of the picture. Only then can you read the critique Gordon Parks put into it. Contrariwise, being an American, you can only read the code of the flag as itself. It is a flag. You know it. The flag isn't a frog, or an asteroid. It's an American flag, from between 1912 and 1959. As an American, you're stuck with that. It's part of your machine, part of your culture.

But anyone can go there. Anyone can commune with Watson, American or not.

The straight photograph is at once accessible across cultural boundaries, and incapable of transcending culture. Meaning is made relative to the machine of culture; the machine inside a photograph is the same as the machine outside it.

Whichever machine that is.


  1. "Having passed into the photograph, we are instantly ensnared by the machines of our own culture, and perceive the photograph, make meaning of the photograph, in those terms, in the terms of our own culture and self.

    That is its limitation, its weakness."

    True, but I think you have this the wrong way round. That is surely *our* limitation, *our* weakness? Isn't the purpose of art (as opposed to documentation, or reportage, or hobbyist time-passing) to offer us ways of extending the boundaries of our limitations, and not to offer mere opportunities for confirmation bias?

    Obviously, it's easier not to recognise or rise to the challenge, and take refuge in box-ticking kitsch or in fashionable fault-finding. Especially the latter, which it's so easy to kid ourselves is the same thing as extending the boundaries of our sympathies and understanding (hey, I'm *already* woke!).


  2. OTOH I think what you are putting your finger on is precisely why it is difficult for photography to work as art (as opposed to documentation, reportage, and decorative kitsch, which it does supremely well). Not impossible, but difficult, and rare.


    1. "Not impossible, but difficult, and rare."

      As a student who learns best by example, I wonder if the commentariat could point to one or two of these elusive photographs which work as art?

    2. Anything by Steichen, but especially a soft-focus orchard in bloom with maidens cavorting in diaphanous white garments. You're welcome.