Saturday, 29 June 2013

Book: Photography Theory. Chapter 2: Starting Points

Conceptual Limitations of our reflection on Photography
The Question of “Interdisciplinarity”
Jan Baetens

This essay discusses the question of interdisciplinarity. There is a quick discussion at the start on photographic time and medium specificity. What is the difference between ‘meaning’ and ‘context’? Photography is no longer considered to be one single medium, and the practices of looking and making photographs are separated. Baetens states that ‘Interdisciplinarity is seen as the panacea we need in order to escape the limits of disciplinary and narrowing methods’, however the question is, what does ‘interdisciplinarity’ actually mean? (Elkins, 2007, p55).

When photography was invented, discussions on photography were held by photographers themselves. This contrasts with modern photography, where ‘specialists’ discuss photography (think of the key names in photography: Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Roland Barthes, who are all first and foremost writers). Here Baetens asks if we can really talk about interdisciplinarity when the ‘professional discourse on an object is detained almost monopolistically by one type of scholars’? (Elkins, 2007, p58).

Following on from this, what impact has literature had on shaping photography? Diminishing discussions on ‘technological fetishism’ is one example (Elkins, 2007, p59) is mentioned, though any look online on a photography forum will still find predominately interest in this area (though perhaps this is not considered in the same category?). This has brought photography more in line with the other ‘arts’ and into culture. By reading photography in an interdisciplinary way, the basic assumption that a photograph is merely pictorial has been contested. Instead, it allows the photograph (or series) to considered temporal – that is it can be linked to the elements of time, story and fiction (Elkins, 2007, p60). Finally, literal discourse has allowed photography to be freed from only being for ‘meaning’ only – that is, the meaning can be determined by the viewer to be what he/she wants it to be.

It must be considered that the literary view of photography is the dominant one. That means that it can be said that interdisciplinarity narrows as much as it opens (Elkins, 2007, p62). Considering the temporal nature of photographs which has been emphasised by literary scholarship on photography has resulted in, for example, the ‘traces of the temporality of the picture’s taking and deciphering’, and also the ‘fascination with sequential arrangement of pictures’ (Elkins, 2007, p62). Thus interdisciplinary reading of photographs has resulted in a separation between two types of images: those which can be read within a temporal perspective, and those where it is simply not relevant.
Baetens closes the essay by summarising that though interdisciplinarity has its weaknesses, it is important to continue, though perhaps in a different direction. Photographic discourse should make room for research by artists (the real specialists in their field!). This is a trend I think we are seeing more and more since the advent of online blogs. Artists and scholars should work together to produce knowledge together. This also becomes easier with increased global connectivity. And we need to accept that there are limits to both words and images. ‘… whatever the obstacles may be, images do manage to say something, whereas words do not necessarily fail  to do the same? …clear and distinct ideas, not as something given that is to be dismissed because it can never be attained, but as a possible horizon for our efforts?’ (Elkins, 2007, P68).

An interesting discussion on a topic I’ve never considered before relating to how photography is discussed. I have read Sontag and a little bit of Barthes, but had only fleetingly considered that they were not photographers themselves. And It’s interesting to consider what influences photography critics and writings on photography have on the development of photography as a medium.

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

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