Saturday, 9 June 2012

Book: Photography Theory. Chapter 1: Introduction

Book: Photography Theory
Chapter  1: Introduction
Theories of Photography: A Short History
Sabine T. Kriebel

The book starts with an introduction into Theories of Photography by Sabine Kriebel. It asks the question ‘What is a photograph? What is photography?’, which one would think is a fairly simple question initially, until you start to delve a little deeper, which is what this chapter does (Elkins, 2007, p.3). Photographs and photography range from practices to include everything from the daguerreotype (a single image unable to be reproduced), all the way through to the modern digital image (that may only ever exist on a screen).  In addition the question is asked – do we theorize the object (the photograph), or the practice (the act of taking) or their function? It functions as so many things – from journalism to art to advertising and everything in-between.  And the photograph and photography has changed over time – not just physically, but in how it is perceived by people, dependent on (amongst other things), the social and political scene of the day.

Nineteenth century photography was ‘based on nature, not technology’. This changed in the 20th Century with the advent of mass-reproduced photography and with the advent of the picture magazine. Some are critical about this advent of large-scale availability of photographs, and suggests that the world is aestheticized by it, and Bertold Brecht, in a book by Walter Benjamin remarks ‘Less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality’ (from Elkins, 2007, p11). Benjamin also comments on what could be termed early post-processing (on gum prints) as ‘artificial and whims of fashion’ (Elkins, 2007, p13), which we might transfer over to today’s mass use of editing of images. The use of photographic images during the war had a large role in shaping the public’s view of the medium.

In the 1960s, photography started to enter the realms of art galleries and museums, led by the American museums, for example by John Szarkowski, curator of Photographs at the Museum of Modern Art from 1962 t0 1991, and by film critic Andre Bazin. Bazin noted that photography offers us ‘an image of the real, of something that was, that we can hold in our hands, paste in an album, or put in a frame, but that does not physically exist in our time and space’ (Elkins, 2007, p18). There seems to have been a lot of discussion around photography in the decades after 1960. Susan Sontag, for example, in her book On Photography ‘asserts that photographs only show the surface, not the complex relations below the surface’ (Elkins, 2007, p19).

In the 1980s, photography was turned to by art historians as an acceptable form of art. MoMA photography curator Peter Galassi wrote that ‘The object here … is to show that photography was not a bastard left by science on the doorstep of art, but a legitimate child of the Western pictorial tradition’ (Elkins, 2007, p24). Photographs were being reassigned into categories once only held by traditional arts. Here the repeatability of the photographs comes into question, with discussions around the value of something that can be ‘replicated endlessly’ (Elkins, 2007, p27). Similarly, there are questions around how something mechanical (using a camera) can be anything more than a mechanical process and thus is it art?

The 21st Century has brought much change to the medium with the widespread use of digital cameras. It is argued that ‘one of the predominant qualities of digital technology … is its ability of produce imagery that has no immediate relation to the material world. Until it is printed … the image is immaterial and ephemeral’ (Elkins, 2007, p39).

This book is discussing the theory of photography via several essays. Key themes are ‘the nature of its relation to the world-out-there, … quarrels about photography’s uniqueness, …and if it is an object or a function’ (Elkins, 2007, p42), and ‘How do the material and physical processes of different photographic practices contribute to the meaning of the image represented?’ (Elkins, 2007, p43). This first chapter introduction is an insight into questions around photography not considered by many outside the artistic institutions, and thus is already fascinating for a student of photography such as myself.

Elkins, James (2007) Photography Theory New York: Taylor & Francis Group, LCC