Photography – Theories from the 1960s
Although my interest in photography is not in photography per se, I use photography extensively as a means of recording matters of interest and as an aide memoir. As part of my practice and general interest, I visit numerous galleries and exhibitions and I try to record the items that most speak to me, the punctum, that provoked my interest. What is more, although photography nowadays is considered an art form, it wasn’t always so. Art Photography has taken nearly 100 years to reach this status. By looking at some of the artists and thinkers of the 1960s one can see part of the story which lead to this position in the present day.
I recently attended a lecture by Juliet Hacking at Sotheby’s where she gave a reductive summary of the theories about photography from the 60s to the 80s. As a general overview on the subject, this proved to be an eye opener.
She described an arc in the development of the theories on photography where at the start, in the 1960s, photography was seen as embodying an essential truth. By the 1980s, the exact opposite view had been reached when photography was seen as an artificial construct like in the work of Cindy Sherman.
I will try and follow the trajectory as best I can bearing in mind that I am a novice on the subject.
Charles Sanders Peirce was an American 19th century philosopher, a semiotician, and a scientist. He is most famous for his theory of semiotics, which has been associated with photography from its inception.
The central notion of semiotics lies in the typology: icon, index, symbol.
This typology classifies every sign according to the category of the sign’s way of denoting its object:
‘The icon (also called semblance or likeness) by a quality of its own, the index by factual connection to its object, and the symbol by a habit or rule for its interpretant.’ In other words, the icon might be represented by a picture of a dog, the index is an image which relates to the dog, for example an imprint of his paw, and the symbol would be the word ‘dog’ that stands for the object itself.
Pierce in his 1894 book ‘What is Sign’ says:
‘Photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are very instructive, because we know that they are in certain respects exactly like the objects they represent. But this resemblance is due to the photographs having been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature. In that aspect, then, they belong to the second class of signs, those by physical connection’.
In other words, according to his premise, photographs are always indexes,
traces of the objects, rather than a substitute for them.
Siegfried Kracauer, who wrote in the 1920s, was popularised in the 1960s becoming influential once again. He wrote an early essay, ‘Photography’ in 1927 which was reprinted in 1963 in ‘Das Ornament der Masse.
He was affiliated to the Frankfurt School, and interwar institution which concerned itself with left wing, Marxist, philosophical ideas.
Although primarily interested in film, Kracauer applied some of the same theories to photography.
Kracauer’s theories on memory revolved around the idea that memory was under threat and was being challenged by modern forms of technology. His most often cited example was the comparison of memory to photography. The reason for this comparison was that photography, in theory, replicates some of the tasks done by memory. However, the differences in the functions of memory, and the functions of photography are that photography creates one fixed moment in time whereas memory itself is not beholden to a singular instance. According to him,
photography is capable of capturing the physicality of a particular moment in time, but it removes any depth or emotion that might be associated with that memory. In essence, photography cannot create a memory, but rather, it can create an artefact. Memory, on the other hand, is not beholden to one particular moment in time, not is it purposefully created. One can recall a memory due to the significance of a moment whereas photography excludes the essence of a person and over time can lose its meaning. Kracauer thought photography was most useful for the purpose of recording collective memory, such as the details of a town parts of which might disappear over time and therefore be forgotten.
Karacauer’s main objection to photography, however, lay in that he felt it deceived people from how things really are. For example, the photographic images found in magazines and other publications create an idealised world which obscures from people the world as it really is, alienating them from the realities of life.
In his ‘History: the Last Things before the Last’, 1969 he writes:
‘Never before has an age been so informed about itself, if being informed means having an image of objects that resembles them in a photographic sense…In illustrated magazines people see the very world that the illustrated magazines prevent them from perceiving.’
Krakauer took photography very seriously but he was also very critical. He believed photography was used to manipulate people, preventing them from being able to confront the realities of life.
Andre Bazin (1918-1958), wrote ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in 1945 which was then reprinted in 1960 in the Film Quarterly, Vol 13.
He was mostly concerned with cinema but again, his theories also applied to photography. He argued that realism was the most important function of cinema and consequently of photography as well. His call for objective reality, deep focus, and lack of montage are linked to his belief that the interpretation of a film should be left to the spectator. He therefore was in opposition to the film theory of the 20s and 30s which emphasized how the cinema could manipulate reality.
For Bazin, photography did two things. It ‘embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.’ That is, it freezes an image or a memory, rescuing it from oblivion.
But, unlike Kracauer, he also considers photography as a living object in its own right:
‘Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty’.
In other words, the photograph of a flower can affect us as much as the flower itself would. He believed that photography could act as a substitute of the object itself.
He also believes that photography has done one important thing above all others: it has freed painting from having to deal with facts.
From the time of Manet in the 1860s to the Abstract Expressionists of the 1960s there has been a gradual letting go of reality. Thanks to photography there was no longer a necessity for painting to keep an accurate record of the world around us. Painting was able to become liberated, to become fully abstract, it’s own essence.
Bazin was always interested in the nature of representation but his belief that the photograph of an object can stand in for the object itself has been a matter of controversy to this day.
Walter Benjamin was an important theorist and philosopher who wrote the seminal article: ‘The work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility’, 1936, which would have an obvious relevance to the art of photography. And in 1931 he published ‘A Small History of Photography’.
‘The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility’, was a critique of the authenticity of mass-produced art; he wrote that a mechanically produced copy of an artwork can be taken somewhere where the original could never have gone, arguing that the presence of the original is a ‘pre-requisite to the concept of authenticity’.
Three competing influences were central to his work: Berthold Brecht’s Marxism, Adorno’s Critical Theory, and Gerschom Scholem’s Jewish mysticism. He never managed to resolve their philosophic differences. The historian of religion Joseph Josephson-Storm believed that Benjamin’s diverse interests can be understood in part by the influence of western Esotericism. Mainly among those were the ideas of occultists and New Age figures such as Eric Gutkind and Ludwig Klages the latter being of major importance for having introduced the idea of ‘the aura’, a central precept of Walter Benjamin’s.
In his essay, The ‘Work of Art…’ Benjamin begins by reviewing the methods of reproduction from earlier times: an artist copying the work of a master by hand, the industrial arts of the foundry and the stamp mill in ancient Greece, woodcut printing, etching, engraving, lithography and photography, to establish that artistic reproduction is not a modern human activity. But the modern means of artistic reproduction have much greater accuracy throughout the process of mass reproduction.
Like Krakauer, Benjamin is concerned with the concept of authenticity although in his case it is not in relation to memory. Benjamin: ‘even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be’. Certainly echoes of Krakauer. In the artwork proper, Benjamin argues, the ‘sphere of authenticity is outside the technical (sphere)’ of producing the artwork, hence the original work of art is independent of the copy. The action of mechanical reproduction diminishes the original artwork by changing the cultural context (original vs. copy); thus, the AURA, the unique aesthetic authority of an artwork is absent from the mechanically produced copy. As with Charles Sanders Peirce, the reproduced object, the photograph can only be the index of the object photographed. And as with Krakauer a photograph can never supplant a real memory. Or with Bazin, the photograph can never replace the object itself.
Eugene Atget was a late 19th, early 20th century photographer who only received recognition in the 1960s thanks to the efforts of Man Ray and Berenice Abbott, two American photographers who took him up in the 20s and 30s. His work was published by MOMA (NY) comprehensively in 1968.
Atget has been described as a roving Flaneur, a term given weightiness by Walter Benjamin who in turn appropriated the word from Charles Baudelaire, the French poet.
The original meaning of the word comes from the Old Norse via French meaning ‘to wander with no purpose’. Walter Benjamin, drawing on Fournel, a writer and journalist, described the flaneur as the essential figure of the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city. More than this, his flaneur was a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism. After Benjamin, the flaneur has been the subject of a remarkable number of appropriations and interpretations. The term has been used to explain the modern, urban experience, urban spectatorship, class tensions and gender divisions of 19th century city life, and more recently to describe modern alienation, to explain the sources of mass culture, and the post modern spectatorial gaze.
The term flaneur applies to Atget admirably. He has been described as a pioneer of documentary photography but was also considered a proto-surrealist because of his superimposition of reflected images on the vitrines of shops he photographed. But his main interest was in capturing the old Paris which was being demolished before his eyes by Haussman’s drive to modernise the city.
He photographed narrow lanes and courtyards, magnificent palaces, bridges and quays on the Seine, shops with their window displays, stairwells and architectural details on facades and interiors of apartments. He photographed street hawkers, prostitutes, fairs and popular amusements, the poor and the homeless.
Atget deflates the concept of the aura. He worked at a time when photography was experiencing unprecedented expansion in both commercial and amateur fields. H was a commercial photographer and began selling his work to other artists. In 1987 he started his Old Paris project where his interest in the picturesque and the unusual are evident. And he was also interested in selling his work.
Victor Fournel in his book ‘What One Sees in the Streets of Paris’ says:
‘This man is a roving and impassioned daguerreotype (pre hand- held camera), that preserves the least traces, and on which are reproduced, with their changing reflections, the course of things, the movement of the city, the multiple physiognomy of the public spirit, the confessions, antipathies, and admirations of the crowd’.
It is interesting how in the 1960s a great many artists, thinkers and photographers were resurrected from an earlier time. Perhaps the passage of time is needed to assess and reassess their work and that of others.
There is, of course, a great deal more to say. But seeing how in this short period arguments and counter-arguments raged, and how wide open this topic so very much still is, it is a joy to examine, even if it is only a smidgeon, a subject which in its short history can elicit such passionate views.
Atget’s Old Paris