Howells, R. (2011) Visual Culture, Cambridge: Polity Press.

An article which traces the history of photography’s perceived realism, Howells speaks about photography’s umbilical relationship with reality:

Photography, indeed, had a special relationship with reality, which persuaded people that when they looked at a photograph, they were looking at reality itself. They could say, ‘this is Abraham Lincoln’, when actually they were looking not at the man but at a photograph … an attitude that suggests that a photograph is an unmediated medium with a direct, uncomplicated authenticity and which provides straightforward evidence of the thing photographed. As it is a mechanical recording device, it can only record the truth. (p 190)

Although Howells is speaking about the nineteenth century, it could be said that more or less nothing has changed – people still believe in the photograph as somehow recording the truth, without really understanding what exactly “the truth” means. It seems to be commonly accepted that there exists one objective truth or reality, and that photography is the most effective means of faithfully recording that truth.

The main purpose of the essay is to prove the fallacy of Scruton’s argument that photography cannot transcend it subject matter; that a beautiful photograph may not of necessity be taken of a beautiful thing. Photography is not as simple as pressing the shutter on a beautiful scene to create an equally beautiful print (in which case, as he points out, even a well-trained gibbon could produce satisfactory results) but the result of a great number of selective choices, which he asserts are the creative choices, compositional (hence aesthetic) choices that ultimately affect the form of the final image. In arguing the case for the possibility of recognising beauty in form rather than content, Howells reminds us:

We do not … respond to Impressionist paintings as a result of our fascination with water lilies or haystacks, but because of our emotional response to form. (p 193-4)

The author then looks at the work of Aaron Siskind (look up), who he refers to as “one of the most intellectual of American photographers“:

Siskind began very much in the documentary tradition in the 1930s, when he was a member of the socially committed Film and Photo League in New York. He joined them in documenting topics such as life in Harlem and the Bowery, but he became increasingly interested in the formal properties of photographs as opposed to their subject-matter. (p 195)

Although the Scrutonian argument that a photograph is a representation of how something looked, or a substitute for looking at the real thing could in theory be applied to documentary photography, Howells points out that with use of framing and cropping, a photographer can deliberately make a scene look the way he/she wants it to. He uses the following example of a cottage that was photographed for a real estate magazine, omitting the colossal nuclear power station less than 100 metres away:

Citing Bazin’s Ontology, Howells declares that the photograph is like a fingerprint – not actually the thing itself, but an impression made directly by the thing itself. Photography’s essence is somewhat surreal, since the logical boundary between the real and the imaginary seems to disappear; possessing the dual nature of hallucination and fact:

“…photography is: a meeting of the actual and the imaginary, where each adds to, rather than detracts from, the power of the other. When we view a photograph, we are stimulated by the hallucination and the fact at the same time – and receive the compounded stimulation of both. The effect is doubled, not halved. The relationship between photography and reality is, therefore, a complex one, but it is a complexity that explains the deep and articulate richness of the photographic image.”

An interesting point that the author makes is about iconological over-interpretation, the dangers of which are greater than that of painting, since items may appear in a photographic image by accident, but this is not the case with painting: “As such, a photograph can be indicative of a wider, cultural way of seeing the world than the photographer had imagined.” Very often, the viewer can see things that the photographer may not have perceived at the time of shooting, and this is something that really rattles me with a lot of hyperbolic photo criticism – is this what the photographer intended or how the critic has chosen to interpret the image, especially when the photographer is no longer around to clear the matter up!

Nevertheless, despite its apparent mechanical reproduction:

…even the most subject-based photograph still has formal properties, whether or not form was its prime concern … that the same subject can be photographed in many different ways endorses the fact that form is always a relevant factor in the analysis of photography

Whichever way you look at it, photography is a creative (aesthetic) pursuit!

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