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Thursday, September 15, 2022

Magic and Time and Photographs

A photograph, as Barthes noted, testifies to that-which-was and that is all it does. Every other effect follows from this. We see the photo, and we are assured that whatever subject we are looking at was. A photograph shows us, by this testimony, two things: first, how that-which-was is unique and special, and second how that-which-was is the same as every other instance of the subject. We tend to focus on the former, but in almost all cases, it is the latter which dominates.

There are tropes bordering on mandatory for photographing practically everything. Portraits suffer from a gradually evolving set of standards which more or less much be obeyed, not merely to avoid complaint from photographer colleagues, but because in the end your subject does not want to look special or unique. Your subject wants to look the same as everyone else does in their portrait, so you better get all five lights ready. Protests also look all the same; the function of the photojournalist's pictures is not to reveal the uniqueness of the event, but to portray it as like all the other similar events.

The Queen is dead. The pomp surrounding this event is lifted verbatim from history, and the photographs of it will be the same as for her father's funeral, slightly updated and largely in color.

Photographs serve to close the loop, to connect that-which-was with all the others, to reveal not what makes that-which-was unique, but what makes it the same. They help us to construct and maintain an abstract, Platonic, ideal of what a person looks like, what a landscape is, what protest looks like, what a flower looks like, and so on. More precisely, I suppose, every successful photograph contributes to and supports the idea of what a photograph of that thing should look like, but that's almost the same thing. Our idea of whatever-it-is is often basically a photo of it.

Let us cast our mind back, now, to Vilém Flusser. He had some ideas about image-culture versus text-culture, with the former subscribing to a kind of magical thinking in which events repeat endlessly, and the latter leaning toward a proto-modernism, a forward-only linear thinking.

Magic, generally construed, is a kind of personification of time, of the universe. At least one form of magic is built around the idea that repeating an action will cause something to occur. The dance brings rain, etc. Nobody, I suspect, thinks that the dance actually causes the rain in any meaningful way. The idea is that by repeating events that formerly came before rain, the universe can be induced to pick up the pattern and repeat itself. This does not, in fact, work for time, for fate. It works great for people, for dogs, and so on. If you sing the song, the dog jolly well turns up for its dinner, and it really does not take the dog long to learn that the song means dinner.

People, animals in general, make these associations. We constantly blur the lines between correlation and causation. The song does not cause dinner to appear, but it reliably occurs just before, and that's good enough. Magic is a attempt to bend the universe along the same paths, it treats the universe as if it were a trainable dog. See also, of course, Gods, which are a more direct personification attempt, and are closely related to magic.

People are still like this. Even if you never, ever, submit to superstition (and I suspect that would make you a rare bird indeed) you nevertheless fall into patterns dictated by society. You say the appropriate things at the appropriate times, at least some of the time. You may not be manipulating the universe through ritual, but you are observing social rituals in order to get along in society. It is a stretch to suppose that things like good manners are a way to manipulate one another, but they are certainly a means to induce repeat behaviors. Decent manners help keep our spouses coming home, and prevent us from being banned from stores we'd like to return to, and so on.

Ritual is, by definition, repeated. We have a lot of small ritual in our lives, every one of us. We live in cycles.

The photograph reifies the cycle. We don't want to look different in our portrait, we want to look the same. The same as ourselves, the same as everyone else. We want to conform, to perform the ritual, to repeat. The protest makes sense to us only as an instance of a protest, that is similar to, even identical to, all the other protests. The flower, the landscape, the cat picture, the street photograph, the football action shot, all these photographs make sense to us as repetitions of the subject.

Although we say things like "it captures her personality so well" about a portrait, the truly important thing about the picture is that it should look like every other portrait. If the lighting is weird, we notice that. If the styling is dated, we notice that. Only if the picture matches the fairly long laundry list of technical details will we notice how much it captures her personality. Indeed, when we say that, we usually don't mean that at all. It does not capture her personality and in general only looks vaguely like her, but by god it hits all the contemporary tropes and it looks like a portrait photo. So we say the only nice thing we know to say about it.

The point of the photo is not that it captures anything unique, but that it shows the subject as the same as all the other subjects. The point of the photo is to connect the subject to the abstract ideal of a photo portrait, as it "captures" everyone else in the same way.

Let us be terribly realistic for a moment: a portrait that truly revealed someone's personality in any meaningful way would be a terrifying artifact.

Perhaps we no longer seek to control the universe through cycles of ritual, but we certainly make sense of it thus.

This does rather invite the question of how culture was prior to the photograph.

Obviously, um, different.

Mcluhan might chime in about now and remark that a culture that photographs is different from a culture that does not. It occurs to me that prior to the photograph, culture legitimately was more cyclical. For many people, the cycles of the day, the week, and the year were all there was; in modern society, for many of us, every year brings new and unprecedented events. Modernity is in its essence the idea that change and "progress" are normal, expected. We expect to get pay rises, to eventually move into a better home, own a better car, drink more expensive whiskey. We expect to travel, to relocate, to make new friends and lose old ones. It's normal.

Perhaps the photograph as a cultural phenomenon encourages this? Or compensates for it? Or perhaps a bit of both?

It might not be completely crazy to say that modernity would not look quite this way, without the photograph to reify the cycles that we lost along the way.


  1. People often remark how many photos are "remixes" of previous images. So what. Did you stop eating steaks after your first one?

    1. I've eaten a disgusting amount of steaks. Definitely unhealthy.

    2. Like looking at too many pictures of protests.