The power of the frame

all art dramatizes things by putting them in an intensifying frame and thus giving them a sense of heightened reality or vividness” (Shusterman 2012, p 72)

Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.’ (Winogrand, cited in Newman 2015)

Butler (2009) speaks of the power of the photographic frame, what she refers to as its “delimiting function, bringing an image into focus on condition that some portion of the visual field is ruled out” (p 74); “norms are enacted through visual and narrative frames, and framing presupposes decisions or practices that leave substantial losses outside the frame” (p 75). This reminds me of Errol Morris’ illustration of the subjective crop in photographic framing:

The relationship between photographer and photographed is mediated by the frame, forcibly imposing interpretations on us:

We do not have to be supplied with a caption or a narrative in order to understand that a political background is being explicitly formulated and renewed through and by the frame, that the frame functions not only as a boundary to the image, but as structuring the image itself. If the image in turn structures how we register reality, then it is bound up with the interpretive scene in which we operate” (ibid, p 71).

In this way, we are able to understand that interpretations have been imposed on us, and we are able to interpret those interpretations. Unfortunately, according to Butler, this understanding of the framing of reality is a rare occurrence.

we cannot understand the field of representability simply by examining its explicit contents, since it is constituted fundamentally by what is left out, maintained outside the frame within which representations appear. We can think of the frame, then, as active, as both jettisoning and presenting, and as doing both at once, in silence, without any visible sign of its operation. What emerges under these conditions is a viewer who assumes him or herself to be in an immediate (and incontestable) visual relation to reality” (2009, p 73).

Thus, Butler assures us, “the image, which is supposed to deliver reality, in fact withdraws reality from perception” (ibid, p 75).

Lewis Hine (1909) recognized the subjective-narrative power of photographic framing; in his words photographs become more effective than reality since “the non-essential and conflicting interests have been eliminated,” while he considered his own humanist motives beyond criticism, he expressed his reservations about the truth element in the photographs of others:

The photograph has an added realism of its own… For this reason the average person believes implicitly that the photograph cannot falsify. Of course, you and I know that this unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken, for, while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph . . . Moral: Despise not the camera, even though yellow-photography does exist.” (Hine 1909, p 357)

Despite regarding the photograph as a ‘trace’, John Berger admitted “the photographic image… cannot be simply a transparency of something that happened. It is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude” (Berger & Mohr 1982, p 92).

As Burgin wrote, “through the agency of the frame the world is organised into a coherence which it actually lacks, into a parade of tableaux, a succession of ‘decisive moments’” (1982, p 146). The frame not only organises the world into a scene that becomes a pictorial representation of reality perceived, it also implies the gaze of the spectator, or viewing subject:

The structure of representation – point-of-view and frame – is intimately implicated in the reproduction of ideology (the ‘frame of mind’ of our ‘points-of-view’)… The characteristics of the photographic apparatus position the subject in such a way that the object photographed serves to conceal the textuality of the photograph itself – substituting passive receptivity for active (critical) reading” (ibid, p 146).

This may also be part of the reason why we still tend to accept photographic reality, if Burgin is right, because we are literally beguiled into belief by the concealed textuality of the photographic image.

In a later essay, Sontag pointed out the apparent dichotomy between the dual properties of the photographic image:

Photographs had the advantage of uniting two contradictory features. Their credentials of objectivity were inbuilt. Yet they always had, necessarily, a point of view. They were a record of the real-incontrovertible, as no verbal account, however impartial, could be-since a machine was doing the recording. And they bore witness to the real-since a person had been there to take them” (2003, p 26).

Barthes also questioned how a photograph could simultaneously be ‘objective’ or ‘natural’ and invested with cultural meaning, and suggested that connotation, the assignment of cultural significance, is invested in the photograph at the time of production and during subsequent presentation:

Connotation, the imposition of second meaning on the photographic message proper, is realized at the different levels of the production of the photograph (choice, technical treatment, framing, lay-out) and represents, finally, a coding of the photographic analogue” (1977, p 20).

Which demonstrates that a photographic image, even when analogue, is never free from meaning or cultural significance.

Conversely, Medeiros et al (2015) adduce that since photographs have a partial viewpoint and the original camera is absent from the frame, they “more than other images emphasize the gaps between reality and their images, revealing, contrary to traditional discourse on photography, the subjectivity of all images and all experiences” (2015, pp 9-10).

Peter Davis also points out that despite the apparent power of the frame to exclude visual, cultural and contextual information , “the gaze of the viewer will necessarily wander beyond the frame and seek, by design or default, a context in which to decode the image” (2005, p 63).


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