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Photography

We linger unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, our age-old habit, in mere image of the truth. But being educated by photographs isn’t like being educated by older, more crafted images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around claiming our attention. Daguerre started the inventory, with faces, and since then just about everything has been photographed; or so it seems. This very instability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. The most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as anthology of images.

Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store. In Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963), two sluggish lumpenpeasants are lured into joining the King’s Army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich. But the suitcase of booty that Michel Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of monuments, department stores, mammals, wonders of nature, methods of transport, works of art, and other classified treasures from around the globe. Godard’s gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image. Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as “modern.” Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power. A now notorious first fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern, inorganic societies. But print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What can be read about the world is frankly an interpretation, as are older kinds of flat-surface visual statements, like paintings and drawings, Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it: miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Photographs, which fiddle with the scale of the world, themselves get reduced, blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored, trickled out. They age, plagued by the usual ills of other objects made of paper. They are lost, or become valuable, are bought and sold; they are reproduced. Photographs, which package the world, seem to invite packaging. They are stuck in albums, tacked on walls, printed in newspapers, collected in books. Cops alphabetize them; museums exhibit them.

Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about but doubt seems “proven” when we’re shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates. Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous round-up of Communards in June, 1871, photographs become a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations. In another version of its utility, the camera record passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is “like” what’s in the picture.

Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects. Virtuosi of the noble image like Paul Strand and Edward Steichen, composing mighty, unforgettable photographs decade after decade, still want, first of all, to show something “out there,” just like the Polaroid owner for whom photographs are a handy, fast form of note-taking, or the shutterbug with a Brownie who takes snapshots as souvenirs of daily life.

Despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interests, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is also part of the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers to serve reality, they’re still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s (among them Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee) would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film—the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, despair, exploitation, dignity, light, texture, and space.

In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, standards are always being imposed on the subject. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as any other work of art. Those occasions when taking photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This very passivity—and ubiquity—of the photographic record is photography’s “message,” its aggression.

Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness (like class pictures, still lifes of the bleaker sort, and mug shots). There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera. This is as evident in the 1840s, that brief period which Walter Benjamin considers photography’s greatest, the mere ten years that preceded its “industrialization,” as in all the succeeding decades, during which technology made possible an ever-increasing spread of that mentality which looks at the world as a set of potential photographs. Even for these masters of the first decade, David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron, Hugo and Nadar, who used the camera as a means of getting painterly images, the point of taking photographs was a vast departure from the aims of painters. From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. Painting never had so imperial a scope. The subsequent “industrialization” of camera technology only continues a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democratize all experiences by translating them into images.

The “industrialization” of photography that Benjamin deplores in his essay of 1931 is much further advanced now, forty years later, than even he could have imagined. That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption—the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed—seems remote indeed from the era of sleek pocket cameras which anyone can use. The first cameras, made in France and England in the late 1830s, had only inventors and buffs to operate them. Since there were then no professional photographers, there could not be amateurs either. In this first decade, taking photographs had no clear social use; it was a gratuitous, that is, an artistic activity, without yet being an art. Contrary to what Benjamin argues, it was only with “industrialization” that photography became an art. As “industrialization” provided social uses for the operations of the photographer, so the reaction against these uses inspired the self-consciousness and taste for stylistic experiments of photography-as-art.

Recently photography has become almost as widely practiced as sex and dancing—which means that, like every other mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power. Memorializing the achievements of individuals considered as members of families (as well as of other groups) is the earliest popular use of photography. For at least a century, the wedding photograph has been as much a part of the ceremony as the prescribed verbal formulas. Cameras are part of family life. According to a sociological study made in France, most household have a camera, but a household with children is twice as likely to have at least one camera as a household in which there are no children. Not to take pictures of one’s children, particularly when they are small, is a sign of parental indifference, just as not turning up for one’s graduation picture is a gesture of adolescent rebellion.

Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait of itself—a kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness. It hardly matters what activities are photographed so long as photographs get taken and are cherished. Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and America, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery. As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of the much larger traditional family, photography came along to reinforce symbolically the imperiled family life. Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally “about” the extended family—and, often, is all that’s left of it.

As photographs give people an imaginary sense of possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography is linked with one of the most influential of modern activities: tourism. It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. For the bemused and somewhat anxious vacationer, the photograph offers indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that fun was had. Photographs document consumption carried on outside the view of family, friends, neighbors. Dependence on the camera as the device that makes real what one is experiencing doesn’t fade when people travel more. Taking photographs fills the same need for the sophisticates accumulating photograph-trophies of their boat trip up the Albert Nile or their fourteen days in China as it does for vacationers taking snapshots of the Eiffel Tower.

A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Lacking other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic—Germans, Japanese, and Americans. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.

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