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article imageOp-Ed: The philosophy of photography — An argument in progress

By Paul Wallis     Jan 23, 2014 in Entertainment
Sydney - In an image-saturated environment, you’d think people would be pretty blasé about the mindsets and principles of photography. Not so. An argument is in progress about the whys and wherefores of the medium, and diametrically opposing views are clashing.
The Boston Globe highlights two of these views in a review including quotes from John Berger and John L Thompson, who’ve written extensively on the subject from very different perspectives. (Please note this is an ongoing debate, which started in the 70s, so don’t be confused by the Globe’s many different references to different works):
Berger’s views:
…John Berger writes in his new collection, “Understanding a Photograph,” “the visual never allows itself to be translated intact into the verbal.” The slyly elegant loophole provided by “intact” is a reminder of what words can nonetheless do for the visual. It’s also a reminder of what a searching and astute writer Berger is.
It’s also a reminder of how purely principle-based the argument about photography is. That’s a critical cultural issue, because photography is now a universal language. The most esoteric information is available online, everything from retro film camera sites to the absolute latest in digital photo technology, top quality DSLRs, and the maddening array of technical information which goes with product descriptions even for personal cameras.
The point is that photography is now a built-in mode of expression into just about everything that happens on Earth. That’s exactly what Berger’s getting at. It’s also why he’s so penetrant and tenacious in making his case. He does so brutally, in some ways, but with a lot of critical integrity as well.
… Here Berger the novelist matters far more than Berger the polemicist. “What did August Sander tell his sitters before he took their pictures?” he writes of the photographer who tried to make a systematic portrait of 20th-century types. “And how did he say it so that they all believed him in the same way?”
Berger’s “polemics” read more like "necessary argument" to me. If you’re going to make a point, why not make an argument of it, to build in more thinking and more perspective?
On the other side, we have Jerry L. Thompson, an equally thoughtful, depth-seeking writer:
In “Why Photography Matters” Thompson argues that the greatness of the medium lies in the tension between interior and exterior — the collision between a photographer’s vision of the world and the world itself.
For Thompson, this tension was stated almost at the birth of photography, by one of its inventors, William Henry Fox Talbott. “It frequently happens,” Fox Talbott wrote in 1844 in his book “The Pencil of Nature,” “and this is one of the charms of photography — that the operator himself discovers on examination, perhaps long afterwards, that he has depicted many things that he had no notion of at the time.”
…And you thought you were just looking at pictures?
This sticky but interesting argument is very much part of the process of redefining and redesigning the palette of creative photography. From Warhol (now on exhibit at the Dali Museum), Man Ray and other pioneers to the current savants of modern photography come the natural polemics, on a daily basis. Visual art is often much more than one’s notions as any artist can tell you. It’s as tricky as any of the fine arts, creating and evoking things which may or may not have been in the composition plan at the time.
The core question is this- What is being depicted? Arguments include the fact that photographers include a lot of incidentals in their works, attaching subjects to environments and context.
The nature of the medium is also changing. Any kind of photographic image is now as much raw material as it is a finished product. Digital processing has expanded the creative range, some might say compromised it, but has added a value set which was never on the map before.
Who would have thought that cinematography would have been the basis for games like Call of Duty, even 20 years ago? That’s based on HD photography, and it’s effectively upgrading graphics software, and games, and cultural standards for imagery, around the world.
It’s no great leap of logic to see photography evolving into something as diverse, complex, and useful as CAD, building maps and blueprints of visual media in the same way. From a 1 layer photo to a 1000 layer image, playing by software rules is inevitable.
The view of photography as purely image, purely contemporary and transient died, long ago. This huge, highly mutable subject is changing itself, and changing the world.
Don’t be too surprised if photography becomes the basis of a place you’re living in, in multiple ways, from architecture to designing the wiring.
When that happens, you’ll see why this argument about the philosophy of photography is so much a part of real-world culture.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about principles of photography, Andy warhol, man ray, John Berger, Call of Duty cinematography
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