Friday, 9 September 2011

Graham Clarke–The Photograph

Graham Clarke has written a very readable history of the development of photography and its genres. He initially talks about what a photograph actually is – writing with light, and how this gives us an ability to order and record nature. Once the initial development of photographic processes had begun with Daguerre and Fox-Talbot there was continuing development of both processes and cameras throughout the nineteenth century. Over 60 years this allowed the photograph to become ‘one of the most accessible and accepted means of visual representation ……. the ultimate democratic art form’. (Clarke, The Photograph, 1997, p.18).

He goes on to describe how our understanding of a photograph is very dependant on its context, small or large, monochrome or coloured, and also the genre of the image, ‘an ‘art’ photograph involves an entirely different set of assumptions from a documentary photograph’ (Clarke, The Photograph, 1997, p 10). Photography also (by its very nature) fixes a moment in time and allows us to look back at the past.

Clarke then looks at how we ‘read’ a photograph. This is dependant on our own past experience and also on our assumptions about the meaning of the photograph. There are also different levels of meaning, the ‘denotative’, which is the literal meaning and the ‘connotative’ which is the underlying or implied meaning . Over time photography has gradually developed itself to  a place where the images in themselves are important and can become ‘visual essays’ (p37).

In the nineteenth century photography often followed themes that had been used in painting, such as The Open Door by Fox Talbot which bears similarities to Dutch interiors, and many of todays genres, such as portraits and landscapes follow on from this. Photographs were understood because people were very aware of the visual language and subtexts associated with various types of paintings. I wonder if this is actually reversed nowadays – with many people much more familiar with photographs than with paintings. A further new development was ‘travel’ photography, which allowed people to see’ wondrous images of otherwise only imaging culture’ (Clarke, The Photograph, 1997,p49).

Landscape photography moves between two poles, ‘the basic elements of nature,( trees, flowers and so on) and change (light, water sky and the seasons)…………or pastoral scenes of a postcard culture.’ (Clarke, The Photograph, 1997, p 56). In the USA much early photography was associated with the government expedition and surveys, but it often reflected a ‘sense of wonder’  and is associated with Transcendentalism  where every detail is significant, and fixes a moment as part of time and space. American landscape photographers, from Watson to Ansel adams choose landscapes that are empty of people, ‘sublime and pure scenes….. a mysterious otherness’  (Clarke, The Photograph, 1997, p65. British photographers tend to more follow the picturesque route, possibly because of the lack of grand landscapes that show no signs of human habitation. England is increasingly ‘cluttered… with space at a premium’ and this is often mirrored in the recent British photographers work such as Martin Parr.

Cities give a series of different possibilities to the photographer. One may use panoramic shots, look down from above or look up from below. Another possibility is street level images, which may be empty of people or be cluttered with items and invoke a threat of danger or violence. Photographers look at a variety of street form broad avenues (Steiglitz) to small alleys. As the century advanced cities were increasingly lacking in unity and fragmented and may become ‘an invisible, at times underground city , in which the sheer density of the human presence threatens to overwhelm the camera’ (Clarke, The Photograph, 1997, p 80).  Other photographers concentrate on the human figure to give meaning to the city (Hine and Arbus), Cities can be photographed both in daylight and after dark, where they may may show deep needs, and the underside of the city.(Brassai) In the end ‘the urban space is both insistent and unreadable….. a series of disparate elements…  which remain impervious to the photographer’s attempts to capture it’ (Clarke, The Photograph, 1997, p97.

Portraits in photography can be problematic. The photographer tries to express the essence of the person in one image, and show personality. This is then filtered though a series of stereotypes that are dependant on the age and sex of both the photographer and the sitter There is often a clear difference between photographs of males and females, for instance in the work of Margaret Cameron which ‘reinforce the myth of male dominance and individuality’ (Clarke, The Photograph, 1997,p 105). There is also a marked difference between those who use studio’s and those who take portraits in context, or use the situation to define the person, such as August Sander. Sometimes, in the end, the photo is more about the image and what is says about society than about the person.

The body has become a ‘pervasive’ image in our society, but it can still cause controversy. Pornography has been present as photographic images from very early on in the development of the use of the camera,(and probably simply took over from pen and paper drawings). This continues as an issue, and the majority of image of the female nude are taken by men, and are often passive or submissive in nature.  Pictures of the male nude tend to be represented differently even when overtly homo-erotic such as those by Mapplethorpe.

Documentary photography can be defined as images that give 'a truthful and objective account… of what has happened…. a series of discrete images which speak of the complexities of human experience and disaster. (Clarke, The Photograph, 1997, p 145)  The camera has often been used to expose and bring to public attention things that would otherwise remain invisible. This can be done either in a way that acts to work overtly on the emotions of others (the Migrant Mother by Lange) or, sometimes, in a very neutral stance that is the more shocking when fully examined (Bergan-Belsen Concentration Camp by Rodger). War, and its aftermath, is frequently a subject for documentary photography but one must not forget the possibility of censorship even today. The other area that needs to be considered is the possibly lack of veracity of a photograph. This has always been an issue, however is much easier to perform now. At the end, one is dependant on the honesty of the photographer for the truthfulness of the image.

Clarke then continues on to discuss photography as ‘fine art’, where the content of the image is often subsumed to the impact of the image and can make very subtle images from basic materials of life. Her also talks about images that have been deliberately manipulated to reveal the meaning of the photographer.

Overall this is a fascinating introduction to the theory and history of photography. Some of the types of image he discusses are ones I have experimented with such as landscape and portraiture, but others need investigation especially the body, and also documentary work.

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