Sunday, May 9, 2010

frightening and pensive at the same time

During a brief period I worked at a place which provided photo developing and printing service not so long ago, one day a customer asked me to make a set of sleeves of negative film from his digital photos (it is possible), because the customer, from a construction company, was asked by his client to hand in film to show that the construction had done properly, instead of digital photos. For his client, film was still more reliable as the evidence than digital photos.
It was already the time that digital images, which are easily photoshoped, had taken over the majority, but I still saw customers who think film as relatively reliable evidence, even though photographs lost such an innocence (if ever was). Such customers were real estate brokers, detectives, and constructors. I must say "relatively," because those old schools, in which I am a member of it, know that a photograph has never been a simple emanation of the original. I can remember that, when I was a child, many tabloids often claimed to discover photos that captured stars' nudes which were mostly synthesized.
I know nothing about legal matters, but I can imagine a photograph alone has never been a material evidence of, say, a crime scene. It needs the other materials, or strict scrutinizing whether the photo is genuine, or both. To be interpreted, a photograph needs a caption.
By the way, perhaps Polaroid images make more reliable evidence, for they need no dark room operations. But, interestingly, such images look rather unreal, too flat, and sometimes too picturesque or even surrealistic. The immediacy of a Polaroid photo is embedded to rather that white part of the sheet. The white part becomes as its caption (and also a "real" caption is often written with a Paint Marker) to make us feel intimacy, making the image more interesting. Or, that part becomes part of the story the image carries. Those Polaroid images may have a place somewhere between photography and Big Brother.
Many professional photographers may know that making a photograph is nothing more than processing. Ansel Adams left good books to teach this. He taught us how to make boring mountains and valleys interesting. As a very bad amateur photographer, I like his books not only because they inform about the taste of his time, but also because they inform about practical things than theoretical ones, though I rarely follow what is written in it. It is like that I also like to read recipes that I do not follow; I am already full when reading them.
The practical things inform me his aesthetic and ideology. I admit his photographs fascinate me. Our notion of nature might be partly constituted by the images he left. And I imagine his taste might have been influenced by Casper David Friedrich's paintings and the other good old landscape paintings. His aesthetic might have been of what Jacques Rancière calls the regime of representation. His photographs are not about presence or presentation. Though he might have known immediacy of photography, he knew too well photography is something to be processed. Adams experimented his mediums to achieve his aesthetic, as did many painters so.
How to make is one thing, however, and how to be seen is another. When Roland Barthes in his Camera Lucida expresses his disinterest in making of photographs, I imagine he stresses this. He resembles those who dismiss many musical theories created by composers, and argues that how music sounds is more important. And I agree with such people; I am a bit bored with theories of how to make, especially when it comes to music.
Camera Lucida is a poignant book. He is in search of images that "prick" him, as if he uses pain to cure his wound. He ignores "deliberate" photographs because they are too noisy for him. Instead, he chooses those silent images and tries to let them speak. He replaces his own captions (the punctum) to the captions already embedded to the images (the studium), and sees death in every picture. He admits his distinction of the punctum and the studium is arbitrary, but he needs to do so in order to live with those who are already living.
Already living. I just remember this phrase T.S. Eliot used in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, from The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. The last paragraph of it goes like this:
There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.
There is a gap between creating and appreciating. This Eliot's essay can be read as his arguing either how a poem should be written or how a poem should be appreciated. I do not know at all whether Barthes was influenced by Eliot. But I imagine Barthes tried to appreciate "emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet." I also imagine why he remained to be a thinker/critique rather than tried to be an artist despite his creativity (he even occasionally wrote music) and often inserted his own personal stories into his writings (The second half of Camera Lucida is dominated by his own mother's death and A Lover's Discourse, for instance, is known as the most personal writing by him). Renouncing to be an artist might have freed him to some extent, if he thought creating artworks must be impersonal. In my opinion, it is impossible for an artist to "surrender himself wholly to the work to be done." I never claim an artist has to create something personal; there are sometimes good reasons for an artist to try to erase his/her own traces from the creations. But a certain amount of people who always want to see personal motivations of artists in any artworks could find what they want to see even in Tony Smith's Die. Eliot's The Waste Land connotes the author's personal stories that tabloids might have liked, but it becomes impersonal in a space between him and the readers. Impersonal emotion emerges rather in a gap between creating and appreciating, between the subject.
Barthes talks about the pensiveness of the images he chooses. He says, "Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks." Rancière, in his essay The Pensive Image, basically seems to agree with this, but defines this pensiveness more precisely: "someone who is pensive is 'full of thoughts', but this does not mean that she is thinking them." For him, "thoughts" take place between the subject. He sees a possibility of passivity as art, and that is why he criticizes Barthes. For Barthes, creation of artworks is still active and passivity means making non-art. He overlooks a possibility that art of passivity exists.
At this moment I am not so interested in distinction of art and non-art, but Rancière's emphasis on what he calls "double poetics" in photography. He says photography became art "by exploiting a double poetics of the image, by making its images, simultaneously or separately, two things: the legible testimony of a history written on faces or objects and pure blocs of visiblity, impervious to any narrativization, any intersection of meaning. This double poetics of the image as cipher of a history written in visible forms and as obtuse reality, impeding meaning and history, was not invented by the device of the camera obscura (The Future of the Image, pp 11-12)." And he says this double poetics was established by certain literatures that capture the images and then slow our apprehension of them.
Such a photograph brings immediacy to us, as if the transportation of the image has happened within the time of exposure, but also suspends our apprehension of it (this "apprehension" means nearly "to understand"), unsettling both the sender and the receiver of it.
Interpretation of images does not rely on an individual's choice, or is not matter of subjectivity. My guess is that Barthes, knowing that, pretended that his interpretation was matter of subjectivity.
By the way, I think a photograph can be subversive, even it "frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes." Doing so, simultaneously it can be pensive. I think those Abu Ghraib photos became subversive to some extent, during their circulation. The initial intention those were taken was just having a fun. The kids who shot them were obviously ignorant about the fact that they were shooting their own war crimes. If the images were shot by Polaroids, the kids might have written captions with Paint Markers. Indeed they did the almost same things, titling the photos and sending them to their friends. But at some point the other kind of people became the senders. They collected the photos and redefined them. What they did was perhaps not so different from what Christian Boltanski did with family photos, even though it was not elaborated operation.
And now, we have the video footage by WikiLeaks. The conversations between the soldiers in this are outrageous enough, but I just point out that between the conversations, the white noises, and the other electronic sounds there are powerful silences. I do not call those silences the punctum. No longer. But it shows that those people on the ground were indeed silenced that way.

No comments:

Post a Comment