David Campany / Anastasia Samoylova – a conversation
Foto Colectania, 2018
A conversation commissioned by Foto Colectania, Spain, on the subject of “reading images”, 2018
The subject we have been invited by Foto Colectania to explore in the coming months is ‘Reading Images’. I hope we can do this in a number of ways. To get us started I’d like to set out some of the different thoughts our theme suggests to me. While there are philosophical, intellectual and aesthetic aspects to ‘reading images’, there’s also a political dimension, for the obvious reason that society seems to have become less vigilant in its approach to images, less able to think critically about them, less able to resist them perhaps, less able to think differently about what it might want from images, less able to ‘read’ them. I’ll simply list a number of points and we can explore any of these directions.
The term ‘reading’ immediately invokes language. We hear this word often in relation to images and I’m always in two minds about it. On the one hand, images don’t communicate quite like language, and so they can’t be read like language either. Photographs might be able to show or suggest, but they can’t explain, or reason, or argue. They are more like poetry than prose. As I often say, images do not carry meaning the way a truck carries coal. On the other hand, it’s important that we have critical and evolving languages for talking about images and the effects they have upon us. Without this, we are, in some ways at their mercy.
The term ‘reading’ suggests something scholarly, careful, even critical. ‘Reading’ consciously, instead of ‘consuming’ unconsciously, perhaps. In this sense ‘reading images’ suggests not our first, immediate, gut response, but a second, slower, more reflective response. A reading of our reading, so to speak.
I teach photography, and I know in the past that you have taught too. Trying to help young students to move from simply liking or disliking images towards a more reflective attitude that might empower them to make sense of the visual culture around them has never been easy. In western countries at least there was a move, a couple of generations ago to try to bring a critical study of images into the school curriculum, under the name ‘visual literacy’ (and there’s language again). Images have enormous effects on us, so knowing something about how they work was thought to be essential for all children. The project of visual literacy was inevitably political in key ways, since a large part of the motivation was to encourage children to grasp just how images can manipulate, particularly images to do with advertizing, consumerism, fashion, political propaganda, gender stereotypes and so forth. But of course as corporate power began to dominate western societies, teaching visual literacy was regarded as ‘left wing’ agitation, and the project was undermined severely, to the extent that it is hardly taught in schools at all today. But now we might be at some kind of crisis point where young people are left with very few critical tools with which to make their way through the visual culture in which they find themselves.
What aspects of images, specifically photographic images can be ‘read’, and what aspects cannot? I recall how the French cultural critic Roland Barthes confronted this in a number of his writings (in his book Camera Lucida, famously, but also in his essay ‘The Third Meaning’). For Barthes, that which is describable in images represents the common experience, the shared aspect of response, the presumed collective meaning, the obvious. The images that are easily digestible are the ones that are easily describable, easily put into words. That is to say, the closer an image comes to being, or being received as a cliché, the closer it comes to language.
Sometimes when you and I discuss images that strike us as clichés, we try to describe them in as few words as possible. The more clichéd the image, the fewer words are needed. However, against this idea of the obvious and shared reading, or within it, Barthes also noted that there were aspects of response that resisted language, resisted ‘reading’. Aspects that could not be reduced to received wisdom or ideology. Those aspects might have something to do with what is visual and non-verbal, with what is personal and not collective, or with what is in the end essentially enigmatic about all images. Images might be given to us in programmed ways, following established rhetorical conventions, and we might be encouraged to receive them in those programmed ways, but if we remove the programme (be this their context, their moment in history, their fixed place in relation to other images and words) they revert to what Maurice Blanchot called their essential ambiguity. This too presents us with a challenge in relation to the ‘reading of images’. Is it the image itself that is to be read, or is it the image in relation to its text and context that is to be read? Both, I think.
Word and image are never truly separate entities. Communication is largely a matter of what the writer and artist Victor Burgin in his essay ‘Seeing Sense’ called the ‘scripto-visual’. By this he meant much more than the fact that images tend to be accompanied by words of one kind or another. For example, reading or hearing the word ‘sunset’ immediately prompts within us mental images of sunsets. I type ‘sunset’ and upon your reading the word some kind of visual impression will inevitably form in your mind. Likewise if you see a sunset, and recognize it as being a sunset, then on some level the word ‘sunset’ will be on your mind. As Sigmund Freud and others noticed, the mind makes no fixed distinctions between words and images; it is only out there in the world that they appear to be separate. The implications of this are profound, especially in relation to the point I made earlier about the way ‘obvious’ readings of images equate to language more readily than those moments when we confront the ambiguous or enigmatic.
There is ‘reading images’, as distinct from ‘reading an image’. ‘Reading images’ might suggest that images themselves, if arranged strategically, might be able to encourage close reading. A couple of things make me think of this idea. One is Walker Evans’ American Photographs (1938), a book which, perhaps more than any of the European avant-garde experiments in sequencing really pushed hardest at the idea of dialectical, reflexive possibility. It is a complex associative arrangement exploring the deep connection between imagery and identity in modern America. Our response is modified and complicated by each successive image. Here are some quick shots I took of the opening sequence from the book:
Opening image sequence from Walker Evans’ book, American Photographs, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1938
Evans seemed to want us to look and think and make connections, to engage in a reading of these photographs from one to the next, and by extension make a reading of America.
The second example is your own series of constructed tableaux, Landscape Sublime. Each work in the series is made from a set of images gathered online using specific keywords (again there’s the connection between image and language). Black and White Mountains. Rainbows. Forests in Mist. Cascades. Volcanoes. Crashing Waves. The accumulation of these formulaic, describable images opens up a reflective space, a critical distance for the viewer. The ‘sublime’ – an experience or awe, or fear or wonder presumed to be beyond language – is not present in the images, but in your suggestion of the countless millions of similar images that are out there. The sublime totality of familiar representations.
This idea of bringing images together to open up a ‘critical reading’ really emerged in the 1920s and 30s, in opposition the manipulations of the growing mass media (magazines, newspapers, cinema). But perhaps today, when the links between images are broken by the internet and remade not by individual intelligence or creativity but by algorithms, finding ways to make images ‘speak’ in relation to each other is more important than ever.
Well, this is a little pool of thoughts that we might return to in the coming weeks.
Thank you for the generous start. I am looking forward to expanding on all these ideas in the upcoming weeks. I will accept your offer to dive in and consider where the emphases fall for me.
I wonder if the choice of the word itself, ‘reading’, pre-selects the types of images that could be deserving of such investigation. As you contrast the terms ‘consuming’ with ‘reading’ I think of the hordes of images that pass us by at such a rapid pace daily that we barely pay any attention to them. Perhaps because this flood of images appears to be ever encroaching into our lives and psyches we develop shutdown mechanisms to avoid burnout. And as we develop those mechanisms the images respond by becoming even more enticing, sensational and pervasive. We know that images can instill desire for a wide variety of concepts or tangible things; they can produce consumption in the world.
For that reason alone, we must actively seek to develop a language suitable for discussing images that operate in society differently than the written or spoken word. Not only that, I believe such language must be designed to be accessible for an audience of viewers who may not be versed in the disciplines that are traditionally associated with the analysis of images; disciplines which use specialized terminology, such as art history, anthropology, semiotics, iconology, and philosophy. The illusory democracy of images calls for a true democracy of language that can decipher them while allowing some space for their inherent ambiguity. Do you think this a viable proposition?
This feeling of being submerged into the world of images could be a symptom of what W.J.T. Mitchell calls a “pictorial turn”, which is a regularly occurring phenomenon that happens whenever a new imaging technology or tools for surveillance or entertainment is mobilized and popularized. He makes a distinction between the pictorial turn as a “matter of mass perception, collective anxiety about images and visual media” and a “turn to images and visual culture within the realm of intellectual disciplines”. The invention of photography contributed to the sense of threat to the traditional modes of knowledge and the tools for its analysis have not quite caught up.
Perhaps you’re right that there can be no universal way of reading images. In ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’ Jacques Rancière proposes three main “regimes” of art identification, or methods in which a specific era conceptualizes the nature and purpose of artistic representation. The first is the “ethical regime” in which images are subject to questioning mainly according to their moral and political impact on society. The second, “poetic” or “representative” regime stems primarily from the study of literature and reflects the idea that the world prioritizes the verbal articulation of meaning in all the art forms. Similar to what you said about images being closer to poetry than prose, Rancière distinguishes between the two forms and proposes that the well-known quote from Horace, “reading a poem is like watching a painting” could also be reversed to mean, “a picture is like a poem”.
Based on that principle all images and artworks in general regardless of their medium are means of storytelling; and the same story can be interpreted using a variety of different media. However, in the third and arguably main, “aesthetic regime”, Rancière suggests that things or images in the widest sense of the word contain meanings that extend beyond the capacity of socially constructed interpretations; therefore language as a form of social convention can never fully encapsulate these meanings. This is close to Barthes’ idea that you noted.
The perception of ambiguity in images has something to do with language, even literary language, falling short of wholly capturing the meaning of images, or of ‘reading’ them. Nevertheless, language cannot be entirely removed from the process of image interpretation either. There is this commonplace idea that photographic seeing can somehow be separate from the rest of our brain activity that occurs while observing something, even though for most of our waking hours our brain is preoccupied with responding to visual stimuli. It can’t. In “The Spoken Image: Photography and Language” Clive Scott names language as one of the three interrupters of seeing: in order to return to the ‘…freshness of vision associated with the pre-conceptual, pre-interpretative, then language must be forcibly stripped away’.
There is a great quantity of advice written on how to approach image making without any preconceived (or ‘pre-articulated’) notions, particularly when it comes to the photographic flâneur, or the ‘spontaneous’ street photographer, yet some of the best image makers went as far as making lists of what exactly they wanted and did not want in their images.
Walker Evans, whom you mention in regard to experiments in image sequencing as a means to push the work far beyond singular meaning, was also a brilliant list-maker. While my favorite of his is the famous 1937 list called “Contempt for,’ which includes: “men who try to fascinate women with their minds, gourmets, liberals, cultivated women, writers, successful artists who use the left to buttress their standing,” in his short story “Brooms” Evans features a list that is quite telling of his capacity for intense observation of the everyday: “Imperative Needs: suspenders, drawers, collar pin, bath slippers, Crime and Punishment, rubber cement.” His lists serve as succinct collections of thoughts and the photographs translate and expand those thoughts into visual form. Certain subjects find their way into Evans’ images over and over again: picture-based outdoor advertising and signs, vernacular architecture, domestic interiors and burgeoning American automobile culture.
Likewise, in the work of Eugène Atget and August Sander, repetition of particular subjects emphasizes the cumulative documentation of the contemporary condition within the photographers’ urban or social context. Skipping past a significant number of artistic influences loosely following this tradition I will respond to your point about my Landscape Sublime work, which is based on the very act of collecting. To further tie the connection, the collected images in my tableaux only surfaced because of the keywords attached to those images online. In this case language didn’t just pervade the describable and familiar source images: language was literally inscribed into their digital metadata.
I am interested in what you say about words as ‘search terms’ for images. This is something with which almost everyone is now familiar. For much of the history of the medium, photographs were classified, filed and retrieved via words, and to a great extent they still are. Not just search terms, but image archiving, image metadata, online image hash tags, geo tags, keywords, captions and so on are all means by which the photographic order is constructed and accessed through language. And yet images, particularly photographic images, clearly exceed language, for reasons we’ve touched upon already. The processes by which words function as gateways to pictures are always strange and uneasy compromises.
In relation to this, a handful of artistic and slightly anarchic image projects come to mind. In the late 1930s the pioneering magazine editor Stefan Lorant set up a publication in the UK titled Lilliput, which soon became well-known for its image juxtapositions – comic, satirical, surreal or just surprising pairings of images that were never intended to be placed together. Lorant would make these pairings by going through the images that were accumulating in the filing cabinets magazine’s offices. He wrote:
Lying on the floor trying to find likenesses from the hundreds of photos spread out in front of me…whenever I see an interesting photo of a personality, an animal, or whatever it may be, I put it in a box. Once a month when the printer is becoming urgent about material for the next issue I go into seclusion. I shut myself in a room and go over the pictures in the box. The pictures I like best I throw on the floor, then I go through the other boxes. I have got four of them. One is full of personalities, another of animals. The third is filled with women and children, and the fourth with landscapes and funny photographs. One by one I go through them – if I find a photo that would match one of the pictures on the floor, I put the pair aside […] I think there is always somewhere a photo which fits…believe me, the whole business is much easier than one thinks. …One only needs an eye to see the possibilities in a photograph, and one must have a good optical memory.
Lorant’s process is revealing. He has a kind of a system, based on language and classification, but he also talks of simply ‘liking’ images and of the need for what he rather enigmatically calls a ‘good optical memory’. I’m not sure what this is exactly, but we know that very often images are not remembered on the basis qualities that can be attributed to language or function. Images are remembered for all kinds of irrational and unconscious reasons, or reasons more to do with form or pattern than theme or ‘content’. Lorant’s balance of system/intuition, and linguistic/non-linguistic processes brings us quite close, I suspect, to the ways we all respond to images, partly bound by language and convention but also much more wildly and unpredictably.
Secondly, I think of John Baldessari, the Californian artist who moved from painting into the rigours of conceptual art, and then into a realm in which he has explored the ambiguity of even the most seemingly banal and familiar photographic images. Baldessari has been particularly attracted to film stills, those 10×8 inch glossy prints once produced in great number to publicize the latest movies. Most were destroyed once their initial use had expired but some made their way to the open market where they could be picked up for just a few cents. Baldessari acquired thousands, and has re-used them in different ways in his montages and collages. Back in 1985 he wrote a revealing little text about how he organizes his collection:
Below are the current categories in my file of movie stills, which form a large part of the raw material from which I draw to do my work. I hope the categories (which are continually shifting according to my needs and interests) will provide some clues as to what animates the work I do. A Attack, animal, animal/man, above, automobiles (left), automobiles (right) B Birds, building, below, barrier, blood, bar (man in), books, blind, brew, betray, bookending, bound, bury, banal bridge, boat, bird, balance, bathroom C Cage, camouflage, chaos/order, city, cooking, chairs, curves, cheering, celebrity, consumerism, curiosity, crucifixion, crowds, climbing, colour, civic [and so on, through to Z]. A bargain must always be struck between what is available in movie stills and the concerns I have at the moment – I don’t order the stills, I must choose from the menu. Also, one will read from this a rather hopeless desire to make words and image interchangeable – yet it is that futility that engrosses me. Lastly, I think one will notice the words falling into their own categories, two being those of formal concern and content.[i]
You can find remarkably similar schemes and statements by many collectors of photographs, be they artists, curators, or plain amateurs. Many professional editors and archivists also speak of what they do in this way. Unstable and provisional categories; the peculiar disconnect between word and image; the unruly marriage of form and content; the Sisyphean drive to accumulate; the precarious balance of logic and caprice, order and chaos, knowledge and ignorance, enchantment and boredom. Baldessari points with great clarity to the madness and method to be found at the heart of every image collection.
Baldessari’s archive works for him, and if we appreciate what he does with it, then it works for us too. We might be tempted to take Baldessari’s idiosyncratic approach as a sort of comic inversion of the sober and good order of ‘proper’ archives maintained by the language of upstanding institutions (the police, the medical profession, our museums, art history and so on). However, the aspiration to logic and neutrality is never entirely plausible, because where there are mages there is always kind of madness, and wherever there is an archive structured by language there is potential anarchy.
In the last decade or so we have seen the mainstream online image world extend from language-based systems to the use of algorithms based on form, pattern and colour. For example, it was back in 2007 that Microsoft announced Photosynth, a piece of software that could combine tens of thousands of photographs found online to produce three-dimensional virtual models of real places and buildings. The more images available to the software, the better the result. Of course, not every surface of the world has been documented with equal intensity. The most photographed belong to the best-known historic buildings (the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal, Big Ben). These all have surfaces that are intricate and distinctive enough to be unique, and they are present enough in online images to be rendered as virtual 3D collages by Photosynth and its derivatives. Such software skips language all together.
The artist Joan Fontcuberta’s ‘Googlegrams’ use photo-mosaic software to gather and assemble thousands of images into grids that from a distance resemble single photographs. Here’s his ‘Googlegram: Niépce’, from 2005. Interestingly, Fontcuberta did use keywords, in this case ‘photo’ and ‘foto’, to instruct the software to compose a version of the oldest surviving photographic image made with a camera.
I’ll finish here with a public poster produced by Victor Burgin back in 1976. It is an example of text being used to complicate the reading of an image, and vice-versa. Graphically, it looks as if it is going to be simple enough: a question is posed, a sort of answer is given, and a photograph appears at first glance to be a straightforward illustration. However, the question is ‘What Does Possession Mean to You?’, the follow up is ‘7% of our population own 84% of our wealth’, and the image is a studio advertising photograph of a young, white, stereotypically attractive couple embracing. How are we to ‘read’ this? There is no simple answer. Burgin scrambles the signals and in the confusion we are left with the messy overlaps of money, power, class, patriarchy, sexuality, gender, desire, whiteness, and consumerism. In his book Between, published ten years later, Burgin reproduces a transcript of a radio show in which the poster was discussed at the time. A man looking at the poster says, “Well, it’s not really passion is it?” The host of the show replies: “Passion? It doesn’t say passion: it says Possession.” The man looks again. “Oh yes, I misread it.” It’s a fascinating revelation. The man was led by the image to expect to see the word “passion” and so that’s what he unconsciously reads. The image is the first thing he sees and this leads to his misreading of the text. Burgin’s poster is decades old but it still has the power to confound us, because we still live in a culture in which images and words are almost invariable combined to secure an ‘easy reading’.
[i] John Baldessari, ‘My File of Movie Stills’, Carnegie International Exhibition (catalogue), Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1985, pp. 91-93.
Many thanks for all those thoughts and ideas. I think what you say about the experience of taking, storing, accessing and reading photographs being an inevitable combination of method and madness, language and non-language, is fascinating, and true. It raises all kinds of questions, not least about that strange term you mentioned in your first blog, ‘visual language’. We often hear this term used to describe aspects of photography, particularly its different rhetorical strategies, styles, and modes of sequencing.
But as we’ve seen, ‘visual language’ is something of an oxymoron. Photographs cannot do what language does. Although there are parallels and overlaps between the two, in the end photographs cannot replace language, and I wonder whether it is even like a language in its own right. Photographs are not capable of reasoning, for example, even when they are arranged carefully in a given sequence. To that list of great artistic experiments that you described, I would add a couple by the artist Hans-Peter Feldmann. The first is his publication in the year 2000 of an issue of the Austrian current affairs magazine Profil. All Feldman did was remove the text to leave the images floating in their original places on the empty pages. It was such a bold and simple gesture, made all the more profound because that issue of Profil happened to carry a story on the rise of the far-right political candidate Jörg Haider. The cover image was of Haider signing a pact that would allow him to enter Austria’s federal government. Haider had been waging war with the media over coverage of his campaign. The image was left to resonate for Austrians on the black cover of the magazine.
But for decades much of Feldman’s work has been an exploration of what images do and do not communicate. In 1974 he was interviewed by the American art magazine Avalanche. To every question Feldman responded not with words, but with a well-chosen and very playful image. Avalanche never published it, but it appeared in a later book of Feldman’s work. Then in 2009 he did it again, this time for a book-length interview with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.
Of course, the questions are posed to Feldman in the form of words. Thus, the concrete enquiries contrast each time with the semantic fluidity of the pictures. The good sense of the interviewer meets the anarchic sense of the artist. But what if the questions also took the form of images? Can a photograph be a question in this sense? Probably not. But could a ‘conversation’ take place purely in the form of images? Why not? This is probably a good time to introduce into our discussion Dialogue, the Instagram project that you and I have been pursuing over the last the last year or so. I am not sure now exactly what our aim was, but there was certainly a testing of an idea that images could respond to each other, if not as a conversation then at least as some kind of exchange. We have had no rules. We post alternately, and let the Dialogue go wherever it goes. So far there are around 3300 images.
It is interesting to note that in the last year or so there have been several explorations of this kind of visual exchange. Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented Talking Pictures: Camera Phone Conversations Between Artists, featuring partnerships from Manjari Sharma and Irina Rozovsky to William Wegman and Tony Oursler, and many others. Not all the exchanges resulted in still photographs, and not all of them wordless, but several were.
Then there is the web-based project A New Nothing, which invites pairs of photographers to respond to each other’s images with images. So far more than a hundred pairs have been involved.
It is tempting to think that these kinds of exchange are specific either to the mobile phone or to online platforms. Not only do they make such exchanges simpler than ever, they might well be responses to the fact that far from making us feel connected, most of the time our new communications technologies prove to be deeply alienating, cutting us off from each other. Instagram is only social in the very loosest sense, so with our Dialogue project there was an attempt to replace the practice of simply putting images ‘out there’ in the vague hope of reaching an audience, with the idea of making images with someone very particular in mind.
This kind of thinking is not specific to new technologies, although it might be specific to photography. In 1863 the American essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes published ‘Doings of the Sunbeam’ (The Atlantic Monthly, vol. XII, No. 69, July 1863) in which he speculated about the possibility of complete strangers coming to know each other simply by exchanging photographs:
A photographic intimacy between two persons who never saw each other’s faces is a new form of friendship. The artist sends his own presentment […] surrounded by the domestic accidents which so add to the individuality of the student or the artist. You see him at his desk or table, the objects lying about; you divine his tastes, apart from that which he has in common with yourself.
Clearly Holmes would not be surprised by the role of images in today’s social media. It is startling that he was thinking this way back in 1863. For most of that essay Holmes was concerned with describing the growing number of commercial Daguerreotype photographic studios that were springing up across America. It is only in the last page or so that he begins to imagine this future of image exchange. But his idea was clearly motivated by the fact that the Daguerreotype technique had travelled from Europe, its images were small and most often personal, and could be exchanged easily.
David, you live in London; I live in Miami. This exchange for Foto Colectania is taking place across continents in the form of words, while our Instagram Dialogue happens in the form of images. But can either really be located? Not in any meaningful geographic sense. And this brings me to another interesting parallel of words and images. The French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure wrote of the difference between langue and parole. Langue is the shared storehouse of all language that precedes us and belongs to no-one, and nowhere. Parole is this or that particular act of speech made by an individual drawing upon that store house. We use language in ways that are shared but hopefully also specific to us as individuals.
In the 1970s and 80s, with the application of linguistics and semiotics to the analysis of images, it became clear that photography has its own version of this relation between langue and parole. There is what’s possible with the medium, and there is what this or that individual might do with it. But somewhere in the middle, in both language and image making, there is convention: the expression of over familiar ideas and attitudes that individuals may think are their own but are merely the empty mimicry of pre-existing forms. In other words, clichés. I have noticed, although we have never actually discussed it, that what has happened in our Dialogue is an exploration of many of the clichés of Instagram. We happily twist and rework image types that circulate but belong to nobody, like a conversation made up of preformed, pre-expressed sentences. Not always, but we do it a lot. It might be conscious; it might be unconscious. Maybe we are bumping up against the idea of whether, and in what form, originality is important. That’s a question we need to ask as much about the images we make as the language we use.
Thanks again for your thoughts. Yes, I think you are probably right about the nature of our Instagram project, although one of the advantages of a wordless, image-based dialogue is that it is very open to intuition, for its makers as much as its viewers. Placing one image next to another, or responding to one image with another, can only ever be a matter of suggestion, with thoughts overlapping and perhaps half-formed. A very loose kind of ‘reading’ where there can be no wrongs or rights. As we discussed earlier, an image sequence is closer to poetry than prose, but as you say, image making may become trapped easily by convention and cliché. The poetic can become prosaic quite quickly. The image reduced to language. I think that any serious image-maker has to be aware of this, and any serious audience, too. It is what the composer John Cage called “response-ability”: a call for an active, engaged respondent, not a passive consumer.
Oliver Wendell Holmes’s insight is remarkable. His ability to foresee just how deeply embedded in society photographic images were to become, tells us not just that Holmes was a perceptive and prescient thinker, but that something profound about the fate of photography was discernable very early on, maybe even from the start. We could go back farther than Holmes, to William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, published between 1844 and 1846. Using twenty-four of his images, each with an accompanying text, Talbot set out what photography might be and might become, and it is remarkable how clear sighted he was. Documentary, art, legal evidence, scientific applications, topography, history, tourism, advertising, archiving. I don’t think there is much in the visual culture of 2018 that would really surprise him. More to the point, as well as demonstrating the possibilities of forms of communication based on image-text relations, Talbot also seemed to understand that each and every application of photography would need to be underpinned by the discourses and protocols (the regulating languages) of institutions – the legal profession, journalism, scientific research, artistic judgement and so forth. That is to say, with The Pencil of Nature Talbot both argued for, and clearly demonstrated, a deep interdependence of photographic images and words.
To be contemporary for a moment, I notice there is much discussion at present about ‘machine seeing’ and the function of images that that are not intended for human eyes in the first instance. Think of recognition software, for example. Here, the optically captured image (in the broadest sense) is interpreted by a computer programme in such a way that something within its content is identified and classified – a face for example, or a car number plate. The image may never require being ‘seen’ at all, and may never become an image in the sense we have come to understand the term. Does that mean it is not read, or is beyond language? I don’t think so. We have delegated such acts of seeing and reading to machines, made them more efficient, and less accountable, even. I am not really one for making predictions, but I suspect these kinds of technology will turn out to be very short-lived, a bridge between an older moment of visibility and more integrated systems of automation and surveillance that don’t require any optical impression at all, and don’t leave space for the ambiguity of reading. Maybe this bridge is our present moment, one in which we can feel the transition between the optical and the post-optical, although this post-optical moment was also predicted by Talbot, through his interests in computer calculation, and in light waves that are beyond human perception.
Machines and computer programmes are largely insensitive to nuance and ambiguity. If, as I have suggested, the essential condition of the photograph is its ambiguity, its lack of clarity as to how it can be read, then it may be that only humans are in the best place to understand them. Ambiguity of meaning is a result of conflicting motivations, conflicting desires, and conflicting intentions. To be human is to hold contradictory ideas at once.
Take at look at this photograph by Ruth Orkin. No doubt a computer programme would be able to identify faces in such an image, and even identify the street setting, but the possible meanings of the image are another matter entirely.
Is it possible to describe a photograph without interpreting it? Can a viewer ever be as dispassionate as the cold lens of the camera? And how far can a photographer’s intentions determine public responses? This was one of nine photos by Orkin that appeared in the September 1952 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, in a feature titled When You Travel Alone.
“Solo voyaging need hold no terrors for the feminine tourist”, opens the text. “It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s the best way in the world to meet new people – men, for instance. Having no-one but yourself to depend on and being away from friends who expect you always to be yourself, you are likely to develop a brand-new self-reliance and charm. Besides, two girls or a group travelling together look like a closed corporation, and are less likely to be invited to join other people’s fun.”
Orkin, aged 29, was not entirely alone and neither was the woman in the picture, a 23 year-old American calling herself Jinx Allen. Orkin was on her way back from an assignment in Israel; Allen was on a six-month tour of Europe. The two met in Florence, at the American Express Office where ex-patriots collected their mail. They discussed life away from home, and the next morning headed out for a photographic collaboration. The shoot was free-spirited and fun, Allen comically asking for directions, looking confused with foreign currency and gazing at statuary. Orkin made two attempts at the photograph we see here, asking Allen to repeat her walk, and suggesting the man on the motorcycle not to look at the camera. A minute later Allen hopped on his passenger seat for another picture.
The issue of Cosmopolitan came and went but this image has lasted. By accident or design its form is more classical, and its drama more theatrical than Orkin’s other shots from that day. There are compositions like this in Renaissance paintings.
While the two women insisted always that there was no ‘message’ here, nothing about harassment or patriarchy, or feminism, or the ‘male gaze’, the mood suggested may not feel as light as the duo intended. Allen clutches her shawl to her chest, knuckles a little white. The bag and sketchbook are held close to her body. In that unpredictable fraction of a second her eyelids drop, her mouth hangs open, and the angle of her head might suggest apprehension. The stride is forthright but her body seems to withdraw, as if moving through the scene unwillingly, men’s gazes hitting the side of her face.
We often think of images having ‘messages’ or ‘agendas’, but a photographer’s intentions can never determine meanings. Meaning is made not by the photographer but by the viewer. The photographer may ‘write’ the image but it is the viewer who must ‘read’ it. A great deal can happen between the writing and the reading of an image.
I am so glad you bring up John Cage’s thoughts on “response ability” in relation to images. I would like to look at this idea of an active respondent from the perspective of compositional aspects of a photograph, as I believe these formal elements play a critical role in how the image is eventually perceived. In that fascinating essay titled Silence from which you cited the term, Cage goes on to dissect the structure of a musical composition and draws upon some examples from nature when referring to viewers’ individual responses to phenomena, whether in visual or audio form: “Does not a mountain unintentionally evoke in us a sense of wonder? (…) What is more angry than the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder?” However, each person’s emotions in response to those experiences are quite subjective, so when expressed in an art form the sounds (as in Cage’s case) or visual elements (as in ours) must be allowed a degree of liberation from any pre-conceived theories about their meaning. I think this relates to how earlier you distinguished between the poetic and the prosaic in an image.
While learning to critically analyze photography, students in the arts are advised to examine both the subject matter and the composition of a given image, with all the visual components. In photography, unlike painting, framing and composition tend to be perceived to occur somewhat mechanically. For a viewer, the subject of a photograph often overshadows the original intent, the context in which it was made, or any formal achievement. With painting the question of the author’s environment at the time of making is rarely the question that comes to mind, as we typically imagine paintings being made in the an artist’s studio unless it is en plein air. However in figurative photography, with a few exceptions, the author was right there where the event occurred; a fact which perhaps leads to a more inquisitive look at the story behind an image, as is the case with Ruth Orkin’s photograph, which you used as an example.
If we attempt to describe this photograph in objective terms we could say that we see a woman briskly walking down a city street where a number of men are standing and sitting in leisurely poses. She looks straight ahead while the men’s faces are pointed in her direction. Humans are naturally wired to pay the closest attention to faces. Whenever an image contains a face the focus inevitably shifts towards the nuances in its expression. In Orkin’s photograph, I think the woman’s face appears composed and unfazed by the men staring at her. When provided, a caption or title affects the further interpretation. “American Girl in Italy” outlines that this is a tourist, from a perhaps relatively more emancipated America of 1952. Could it be that her American-ness is contributing to the attention she is getting on the street? Are the men just babbling in encouragement of her pioneering act? Is it her fashionable dress? This is the point in the process of reading an image when objective description starts morphing into a subjective interpretation. Personal history comes into play.
As a woman who has walked down city streets wearing a dress many times in my life, I have experienced being the subject of unwanted attention and more often than not the vocal expressions of such attention do not constitute a pleasant feeling. So unfortunately such gender-specific personal history takes quite a bit of fun out of this possibly harmless image from the 50s. While Orkin’s photograph was eventually published in Cosmopolitan to promote the benefits of women’s solo traveling with the aims of finding male companions; to me it would be more ethically satisfying to see it paired with this work by Barbara Kruger:
While Kruger’s image contains a somewhat confrontational statement, the directness of her words does not take away from the enigma of the artwork. The classical statue, which represents a human face, appears quite androgynous. There is an illusion of it being almost alive; it looks like a portrait under a harsh light. When you shift your focus from right to left you realize this is indeed an object. Whose gaze is Kruger talking about in the text?
Sometimes finding out the story behind the making of an image can change its context and affect the reading of the work significantly. One haunting example is this portrait of the minister of Nazi propaganda Joseph Goebbels, from 1933. It was made by Alfred Eisenstaedtand later published in Life magazine. While Goebbels was smiling openly in the minutes preceding this unsettling look, Eisenstadt recounted that the moment pictured in the photograph was the moment Goebbels found out that the photographer was Jewish. Such background information imbues the image with an additional layer of meaning, which possibly would not have surfaced otherwise. But of course it could be that, having taken this photo, Eisenstadt simply decided, retroactively, to give it this narrative. It may not have been ‘actually’ true even though the ‘symbolic’ truth may be greater.
Certainly the meaning of a photograph is comprised of more than the sum of its parts and so much depends on who is looking. David, I recall you telling me a story about the American artist Stephen Shore who is known for his distanced observational style and rigorous attention to the compositional structure of his images. On one occasion he was showing his book Uncommon Places and the person viewing the book, who was a mechanic, asked about the large number of MGB cars in Shore’s photographs. He wondered if there were a lot of them in America at the time, or whether Stephen specifically sought them out. Shore loved the question and said that no “photo person” would ask this.
To such a viewer the artistic merit, which is generally determined by the conventions of the art world of the time, is secondary in the reading of the image. What drew this person’s attention was something directly related to his personal interests. The reading of the image in this case is again dictated by the personal history of the viewer. But a mechanic’s reading of an image is as important as anyone else’s.
The informational and documentary content of photographs is something that “photo people” can easily forget in the rush to consider artistic intention, form, innovation and so forth. For all the medium’s artistic aspiration, it can never truly leave behind its status as a document. Very often if photographs survive, and have an afterlife, they survive on the basis of their documentary content (and making sense of that content has its own challenges and ambiguities, of course). This is a humbling fact, because it can have little to do with intention and even less to do with authorship. And without the baggage of intention and authorship, the reading of a photograph can be wide open.