Photography as Necessary Fiction
Photography, literally writing with light, is in itself “necessary fiction.” Is a photo reality? Truly representational of reality? A certain angle, a certain play of light and shadow reveals or conceals according to plan. But whose plan? The artist with a keen eye, sophisticated equipment, experience, and strategies? Or is it the universe — a divine spirit that determines the eventual artistic result? When we find images and make art of them, we progress and expand our journeys by them. We take pictures not so much to keep and carry an image with us, but to allow a new journey to commence… often following unexpected, unplanned paths. A photo offers a narrative with a full story arc, nuanced with subtlety or overt, but certainly a most necessary fiction. Yes?
“All photographs are accurate. None is the truth.”
— Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
Maybe. Regarding photography, claims of truth and objectivity have for decades been advanced in opposition to the notions of chance, the unplanned and the indiscriminate. A common criticism cites photography as the only art or craft in which a total beginner has a chance to produce a master work, if only one. Since the inception of the medium in the late 19th century, arguments have been made about the value of particular pictures (as art, as document, as propaganda) and about the influence of photography in contemporary society and its historicization, to say nothing of its influence on painting (which run from “executioner” to “liberator”).
Let’s take up the question of narrative. In part because still photographs often accompany written narratives (as for example in journalism), it’s widely accepted that photographs are themselves narratives: stories in and of themselves. Perhaps the narrative quality of cinema, photography’s “second cousin”, helps to reinforce this view. But does a still photograph tell a story? Can any single image be an account of anything? If yes, I would argue it to be a terribly brief account. So brief that any number of different narratives could conceivably be said to flow into and out from that single image. What a photograph can instead do is support and reinforce a particular narrative, in the same way that any single image can. Images fill this function so often that they are easily conflated with the texts they support, and are sometimes used to stand in for those texts (think of allegorical or religious painting).
Perhaps the attribution of narrative force to photographic images in particular flows from, citing Avedon, their “accuracy”, or what a semiotician would call their “indexical” quality. Absent digital “post-production”, photographs flow mechanically and predictably from some observable configuration of persons and objects, whether constructed or found. But this link to material “reality” has no bearing on a photograph’s narrative content. For a narrative to exist, there must be a text, and the text and the image, while having the potential to enhance each other, are necessarily separate. Some contemporary art photographers have even chosen to highlight the photograph’s neutrality with respect to narrative by deliberately photographing human subjects while they are speaking, as if to underscore the fact that although a story is being told right there in the picture, the medium of photography is powerless to transmit that story to us.
So what sort of fiction operates when narrative is removed? Returning a moment to our second cousins, still photography has been likened to poetry and cinema to prose. A cinematic work tells a story, moves horizontally across time, and puts most of its content, from soundtrack to lighting effects, in the service of its narrative’s forward movement. This movement seems natural to us, since we inhabit a world constantly in flux. A still image is something altogether different: a meditation on a single moment in thought or experience, something fixed and compact and exhibiting a quite unnatural urgency. A photograph concentrates our attention first and foremost because, unlike our living visual field, a photograph is unchanging. By taking in all and resolving little, it invites us to contribute our own associations and memories. Rather than pushing us along a predetermined itinerary, it remains open-ended. In contrast to the horizontal movement of cinema, the movement of still photography is vertical, unfolding while going nowhere.
Photographs have become so ubiquitous, so technically easy to produce that the term “photographer”, in the sense of a dedicated professional, has nearly lost its relevance. Today we have visual artists, and anyone with a camera phone, and photography itself as a still vital visual medium. So what of our desire, artists and non-artists alike, to take or make photographs? A mid-20th century master, Gary Winogrand, once declared “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.” Something of Winogrand’s fascination is revealed considering that at his death he left about 2,500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped film. Perhaps, like Beethoven who at the end of his life composed and conducted in total deafness, Winogrand had evolved to the point of no longer needing to actually see the fruit of his labors. Regardless, there was surely, somewhere in those 2,500 rolls, satisfaction in the simple act of photographing. And if we take Winogrand at his word, he was hooked on the transformative power of photography: the flattening and juxtaposition of elements, the grammar and harmonics of the frame, the reduction to monochrome, and most especially (emphasis mine), that lifting and permanent fixing of a single freakishly static scene, indiscriminately inclusive and yet tightly reductive, from the otherwise unstoppable horizontal flow of his living sight. An act which in earlier times might have brought divine wrath, available to almost anyone in Winogrand’s time as in ours. How could he, how can we resist?
My take is YouTube all you like, the still photograph’s power continues to draw and awe us. As viewers, we gaze at the immutable silvery shadows of old relations, guessing at the stories they might tell. As makers, we defy our finitude in the same moment that we acknowledge it, that moment we “take” the picture. It’s as if Art, if only the merest chance of it, calls us to sing louder than death. The call is what matters, the call and our attempt, and what remains.