belle infidèle (frantom) wrote in pretty_theory,
belle infidèle

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photographs tell lies

This is a short section on why we should resist the temptation to see photographs as a truth telling medium.

If trust what the linguistic message and contextual situation tell us about Brassaï's photographs, we fall into the trap of mistaking photography for pure perception and textual intervention for transparent explanation. Even as a photographer, Brassai often fell into this trap, expressing conviction that photography held a special role as a representational medium and idealizing the capacity for the camera to be a truth recording mechanism. “L’œil photographique enregistre tout ce qui est vrai,” [The photographic eye records all that is true] begins his Images de Camera, a hefty book about all kinds of photography, from portraiture to under-water photography. In the introduction to Images, Brassaï brings up the place of photography and older forms of visual reproduction, such as painting and drawing. From its inception photography was relegated to the level of an inferior substitution for these arts. The photographer, always covered with the black cloth, had renounced his agency (son "je") in the process, serving as a mere intermediary for reproduction (7). So although photography may be, as Bourdieu has called it, "un art moyen," it is at least faithful to its subjects.

From the inception of photographic practice, the medium has been granted authority objective, truth-telling, and realist(ic). The camera has been called the "pencil" and the "eye" of nature, as if it cannot help but show exactly what it "sees." The rising popularity of "photo-journalism" in the early twentieth century is evidence of the way in which society trusted photography to represent the truth, just as it trusted words in print as reporting the truth. As illustrations to news stories, photographs were not seen as being redundant, but as adding veracity to the "truth" already asserted in the text. They were seen as transparently truthful--realistic representations of the reported event or the players involved. Although Brassaï did not identify his main line of work as photo-journalism, he did contribute to many such publications, from the true-crime rag Détective, to the less sensational Harper's Bazaar.

In Paris Secret, photographs illustrate and serve as proof of Brassaï's "penetration" of secret places. Indeed without the photographs there would be no story, as he primarily focuses his narrative upon the act of gaining access and taking the photographs. This tautological substantiation (photograph justifies text which justifies photograph) problematizes photography's status as truth-telling.

Michael Shapiro says that a photograph is often thought to be an "unmediated simulacrum," so transparent that even the grammatical structures we use to talk about photographs tends to confound the subject and the photograph. (It would make perfect sense, he says, to hand a photograph to someone and say, "This is John" without explaining that it is, in fact only a photographic representation of "John" and not the man himself.)

Earlier I pointed out that context is key to understanding the creation of meaning in and around an image. Context, however, is not created in a vaccuum. I also pointed out that our ability to interpret photographs hinges upon the cultural codes we bring with us to the image. As John Berger reminds us quite simply, "the way we see a things is affected by what we know or what we believe" (8). He is right, but does not go further to question exactly where what we know or believe comes from. Shapiro, on the other hand, adamantly asserts that ideology is behind every step of image creation, use, and interpretation:

"What is 'real' in the case of an image is not invented from moment to moment by viewers. The 'real' is forged over a period of time by the social, administrative, political, and other processes through which various interpretive practices become canonical, customary, and so thoroughly entangled with the very act of viewing that they cease to be recognized as practices." (135)

Shapiro's breakdown of what Barthes more simply calls call the "naturalization of the cultural" highlights the way photography can be seen as discourse.

This is why, according to Shapiro, it is not only important to look at not only the photograph and its context and what they "purport to merely describe and analyse" but also to search for "rhetorical motions" of the photograph and its contexts. John Tagg, too, points out that photography is "never phenomenological, always discursive" (123, but also all throughout his book--it's like his refrain). It is not, therefore useful to ask what Brassaï's photographs articulate. Instead, we must ask whose argument is articulated by these photos and to whom and why. In other words, not what do these pictures show, but what do they do?

[[non paragraph, really]] Why is it important to answer these questions? If I can, I will be able to understand the social, administrative, and political processes that have been naturalized. I will understand who was wielding power to contextualize and use the images. And I will understand a little more about the place of the lesbian in that society and the way that the figure of the lesbian was deployed as an enforcement of norms, while at the same time this very deployment, in a way, created her as a social category. Hi, Foucault. Nice to see you again.
Tags: dissertaion, photography, semiotics
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