The Languages of Photography

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Donald Miller, Sep 24, 2005.

  1. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

    Messages:
    6,242
    Joined:
    Dec 21, 2002
    Shooter:
    Large Format
    I have had a prolonged period of time contemplating the matter of human expression through photography. There is a lot of talk about a "personal vision". I am not sure that I understand what that means...it seems, that can mean any number of things from the depiction of a "project or specific body of work" to a statement of what the world is to us individually.

    I have come to the point of asking, is that all there is? I see a lot of derivative photography...most of it is actually derivative. Very little of that work resonates within me and it all becomes rather mundane when one has seen the same thing for the umpteenth time.

    I have long felt that there is the potential for a deeper more meaningful form of expression in photography. The incorporation of symbolism into photographs seems to be where this potential lies. Someone here said the other day that Brett Weston reportedly said that everything had been done before. While I respect Brett Weston's photography, I disagree with his judgement on this matter. For instance the work of Jerry Uelesmann and Misha Gordin is unique and is not derivative, so far as I know, of anything that has been presented before in the realm of photography. The work of both is very symbolic.

    Someone recently said that there are two ways of observing a photograph. The first was by "direct observation" the second was by "symbolic reference". Speaking for myself, I think that there is a perponderance of work that is based in "direct observation".

    Throughout history there has been a study of mankind and his symbols. Dr. Carl Jung wrote a seminal work in his book "Man and his Symbols". In that book, he explores and gives basis to the universality of symbolism that cuts through the constraints of cultures and time.

    Beyond the universal symbols that Jung addressed, there are, of course, other symbols that may have great influence on given cultures based upon the history of that culture. Then there are individual symbols that have resonance within an individual based upon the experience of that individual. Symbols of the later type could be Water (standing and running), Doors, Paths, Bridges, Windows, Clouds and Sun. These come to mind immediately and there are others. At it's the very foundation black and white photography could be symbollically referenced to Yin and Yang, male and female, strong and weak etc.

    It is interesting to me that Wynn Bullock appears to have addressed this at one time in his consideration of the unbreakable relationship between "space and time". Perhaps he was influenced by Einstein's Space/Time Continuum or possibly he came to this insight on his own. As I view Bullock's images, they are rife with symbolism.

    It would seem that with this universal language of "symbolic reference" that transcends "objective observation" that symbolism would resonate at the greater magnitude.

    I would appreciate hearing from those who have given thought to this.
     
  2. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    4,350
    Joined:
    Apr 2, 2005
    Location:
    Montréal (QC
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I did.

    First, let's talk a little bit about your idea of "universal language of symbolic reference": Leibniz, having thought erroneously that Chinese characters (Hanzi) are purely semantic in form, stuck upon the idea of a universal language, in which all propositions could be understood without the need for this language to be learned. He believed there was a language in which pure ideas could be expressed, without being hampered by the contingencies of what we call "languages": english, french, etc.

    Well guess what? Hanzi is not an ideographic system, where ideas are represented by form. Leibniz never produced his universal language. What's more, we have never found a "langue" (to borrow Saussure's dated, but still commonly known, distinction) that was divorced from a "parole". Kant was perhaps right in considering that the categories of our understanding are the only means whereby we can have access to the world, and that we are stuck, so to speak, in the phenomenal world.

    Semiotics is of the opinion that the world is a network of signs: images, sound, culture, rites, text, utterances, all of these would form a coherent network of signs. Yet we have not been able to isolate a "grammar" of images the way we are able to isolate the grammar of a language. That does not mean either that we cannot create organized systems of thought upon images and their interpretation, but that these systems would be coherent and essential enough as to be able to substitute themselves for language remains to be proven.

    Sign language is perhaps the counterexample you have in mind now, but consider that sign language is not a depiction: it IS a language, which uses a syntactically organised temporal sequence of shapes instead of using a syntactically temporal sequence of sounds to communicate meaning. Visual arts, on the other hand, are depictions, which is to say that they are a contingent visual formulation of meaning, but NOT an organised and cognitively structurant system of meaning, which can be used to produce meaning.

    As to what is the reason for symbols to be repeated between cultures, you have to ask yourself how that is significant. Anthropological studies of myth noticed that there are recurring narratives between cultures but denied that their meaning would be similar only on this basis. Lévi-Strauss will argue that it is like early linguists who believed that certain sounds had certain meanings. Linguistics made a giant leap once it recognized that holding the connection between sound and meaning as arbitrary, and looking at the system instead of its elements, would give them better tools for inquiry. On the idea of myth/symbols being common among culture, I'll go with Lévi-Strauss and support the idea that we cannot treat myth as language, because it is already made of language.

    Finally, the nail in the coffin of the universal, self-explaining language, was hit by Gödel, who held that, at least in the mathematical sense, you cannot explain and understand a language without the use of a meta-language (i.e. a language describing another language), and that if you look for a system of propositions perfectly consistent between each other, you will end up with propositions that you must accept as true, without being able to prove them.

    What does that mean? Well, I for one believe that after all the contingent world IS perhaps the only world we can think upon and with; proponent of embodiement theory will rightly point that we haven't seen so far a mind outside of a body, so that thinking the mind independently of the body fact is an error. The same goes for language--which some will argue to be coextensive with the mind--that you don't find in the world a pure language that is not particularised by practice. That does not stop children from learning any language you expose them with. We don't learn Language, then go on to English. We don't make Photography first, then start making photographs after. We are in a continual process of creating that is never independent from our particular context.

    Learning and theories will not help either: being now a grad student I can take myself seriously and start saying all sorts of fancy stuff about artists. Yet, most of these artists 1) have "nothing more" than a BA or a BFA and 2) dictate the field of what I study.

    Heck, even James frickin' Joyce had nothing more than a BA and he has made scores of PhD students sweat till they drop by writing Ulysses.

    You can't depend on an involution into theory to help you create better works of art.
     
  3. Daniel Lawton

    Daniel Lawton Member

    Messages:
    474
    Joined:
    Mar 8, 2005
    Location:
    California
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I think many good photographs rely on elements of both "direct observation" and "symbolic reference." Since photography is a visual medium I feel as though direct observation is every bit as important as symbolic reference. In other words if the actual photograph itself does not catch my eye and pull me in than it fails in being effective imagery. A photograph that requires a lengthy verbal description of what it means symbolically and lacks "visual stimuli" rarely interests me. I suppose a perfect example of this would be Lee Friedlander's photos. While they may be full of symbolic references the photos themselves have little appeal to me and I think if no one knew they were taken by Lee Friedlander I doubt anyone would call them good. This is just my opinion since I know many like his work and he has had a successful career as a photographer. I think a good photograph should first catch a person's eye and the symbolism will take care of itself since, as you say, one image can mean 100 things to 100 different people.
     
  4. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

    Messages:
    6,242
    Joined:
    Dec 21, 2002
    Shooter:
    Large Format
    MHV, Perhaps I didn't express myself clearly. At least I didn't intend to address things from the point that you seem to be approaching this. I did not propose to create a new language...because in fact, I believe that the language already exists.

    In recognition of the presence of this unspoken language, I don't propose that any explanation is necessary from me to indicate what the symbolism is. It is the opportunity of the viewer, should there be one, to assign any meaning that may exist for them.

    My intent was to indicate my recognition that photographs based totally on objective observation were missing a portion of what was possible. I believe that Jerry Uelsemann, Misha Gordin, and Wynn Bullock succeed where Ansel Adams and others did not. I am not distracting from Adams technical abilities. I am stating that from my perspective that beyond a "pretty image" the Adam's photographs carry very little if any impact upon my psyche. At least that is true in my experience and observation.

    At any rate, I appreciate your thoughts. You have given me further considerations. I thank you for that.
     
  5. jovo

    jovo Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    4,124
    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2004
    Location:
    Jacksonville
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Actually, I believe it has been demonstrated that certain pitch sequences (rising or falling intervals of consistent degrees) are universally experienced as expressively meaningful...i.e. plaintive, joyous, sad, etc. The implication is that we are hard wired to these gestures that exist apart from oral 'language' per se. Similarly, perhaps there are primal, visual proto-gestures that are expressive within a large variety of contexts. I would not presume to suggest exactly what they may be, but I suspect that photographers like Bullock attempted to get close to them. Rather than being semiotic constructs, certain elements of tonality and organization may be fundamentally meaningful. The challenge may be to seek and find their purity and make images that resonate consistenly with them
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 24, 2005
  6. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    4,350
    Joined:
    Apr 2, 2005
    Location:
    Montréal (QC
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Yes, but there is a wide gap between having common perceptions and sharing a universal language. Just like we respond to some pitches in a similar manner, we also respond to sugar, salt, fat, and bitterness in a similar way.
     
  7. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    4,350
    Joined:
    Apr 2, 2005
    Location:
    Montréal (QC
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I see, however I would offer you an academic word of warning about your method for evaluating art. "Based totally on objective observation" is quite strong a word, and while we must not fall into the opposite, anything-goes vision, if I were you I would ponder upon my own bias.

    However I find your reflection interesting, in that I consider myself too that it is hard to appreciate photo beyond the "pretty picture" surface, or to find pictures that do so. In fact it's one of the things I find harder with photo, because it is sometimes so close to being a mere found object, that the ascription of meaning to it can be spurious at times. With painting, maybe because there is more time spent delineating all the details of the depiction, I find that there is more matter for thought, and that you can construct a fuller statement.
     
  8. jovo

    jovo Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    4,124
    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2004
    Location:
    Jacksonville
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    The pitch intervals are man made and deliberate and have been demonstrated to evoke universal meaning, and not just agreement as to what they are. Although perceptions of taste may be universal, I believe reactions to them may be influenced heavily by culture which is why I don't regard all cuisines, for instance, as desirable or even tolerable.
     
  9. roteague

    roteague Member

    Messages:
    6,671
    Joined:
    Jul 15, 2004
    Location:
    Kaneohe, Haw
    Shooter:
    4x5 Format
    Why do you assume that all photography must be unique? Surely, there is room in this world for photography that lifts the soul, through traditional techniques, using familiar subjects.

    I find the works of the two photographers you mentioned, Jerry Uelsemannand and Misha Gordin, to be bland and boring, and their works does absolutely nothing for my inner being, because they lack a connection to the glory of this world. However, I can sit down with a copy of Jack Dykinga's "ARIZONA" or his book "Desert: The Mojave and Death Valley" and be satisfied for hours. Because, in his images I can see the interplay of light on the land, the natural patterns of flowers, the foreboding colors of the desert, something that only the master artist - God - can create.

    Photography is about art, art is about beauty, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I can find nothing more meaningful in my photography than the expression of the master artist, through my lens, through my own unique vision and way of looking at the world.
     
  10. roteague

    roteague Member

    Messages:
    6,671
    Joined:
    Jul 15, 2004
    Location:
    Kaneohe, Haw
    Shooter:
    4x5 Format
    Not to diminish from what art moves you, but one of the reasons Adams work is highly regarded is because it impacts some people, and touches their soul in some respect. We each have to find in our own lives how we are touched. For me there is nothing more magnificient than the glory of the natural world.
     
  11. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

    Messages:
    6,242
    Joined:
    Dec 21, 2002
    Shooter:
    Large Format
    At one time I shared your appreciation of the natural world. But after I have seen it done by so many, many times...there is very little more that can be done. I shot a lot of color 4X5 at one time...it became very, incredibly mundane. I mean one sunrise or sunset, one more mountain range or tree stand or waterfall, or cloud ridden sky is just one more about ad nauseum. No disrespect intended of your work.

    But how many photographers today have the recognition or the ability to express the inner being of their lives in a meaningful and original way that resonates with others? Not many I find.

    I understand your view of the work of anybody that disagrees with your method of photography. It is not unusual and to be expected. Not many are comfortable with what does not validate us.

    In my experience there are too many lemmings going over the cliff.
     
  12. roteague

    roteague Member

    Messages:
    6,671
    Joined:
    Jul 15, 2004
    Location:
    Kaneohe, Haw
    Shooter:
    4x5 Format
    I take no offense at what you say. It isn't a question of being uncomfortable with something that is different, or going along with the flow as a "lemming". As I stated, I find the work of Jerry Uelsemann and and Misha Gordin to be bland and boring, not because it challenges any world view I have of the medium, or art in general, but because I find their work to be chaotic, whose only merit seems to be to create images different than others.

    I find beauty in nature, because I find beauty in God - I'm sorry for taking this to a religious point of view, and I mean no offense, but my faith is the guiding point of my life, and it influences my art as well. I am very much a student of landscape photography, and have read and seen work by many artists in this field. In my mind the two greatest landscape photographers are Jack Dykinga and Joe Cornish. I can generally identify one of their images without seeing their names attached to the image; each of these two men has a unique view of landscape photography that is easily identifiable to me.

    I think that you have set for yourself an impossible task, and I wish you the best in trying to find what you seek. For me, I've long ago become comfortable with the art that I do.
     
  13. medform-norm

    medform-norm Member

    Messages:
    863
    Joined:
    Dec 5, 2004
    Location:
    Netherlands
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    These are bold statements. They sound nice in their sequence, but are extremely disputable in their content.

    When I read sentences like these, they make me wonder if the author really thought about what he said, or that these words are just skipping over the topics indicated so as to 'not' have to think about them for very long - and get the underlying akward questions over with fast.
     
  14. Sponsored Ad
  15. noseoil

    noseoil Member

    Messages:
    2,898
    Joined:
    Oct 6, 2003
    Location:
    Tucson
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    The best definition I have heard about art in general (not specifically aimed at photography as a medium) was from a book about Zen. "Direct pointing to the soul of man" is as close as I have seen to a definition of art which I can accept. This bypasses language completely and pushes on toward an understanding of pointing, soul and man. Robert's reference to a deity is implicit in his understanding of art. Donald's query into a form of "language" as a means of expression is certainly a valid question, but I think it begs the issue by imposing a frame of reference with the spoken word. If I have misunderstood the "spoken" implicit language and thereby the whole point, I do apologize.

    A work which resonates at the level of the soul is certainly worthy of respect and consideration, but it brings with it a rather large burden of implied understanding which may or may not be available to the individual who "sees" it. Robert and Donald both see the same photograph, but where one is left cold and empty, the other is left full and refreshed.

    I have found the work of Edward Weston to be pure in terms of what it asks of the viewer. His "vision" was unique in that he was able to see a thing which was mudane and elevate it to a level of reality which transcends the mundane and allows us a view which is unique. This was done with shapes, things and the human form. Some of his portraits do seem to capture the essential being.

    This question of a common means of expression is a thorny issue. Since we do not all share the same experience, vision or internal dialog, the understanding of a photograph by means of "language" will be at best an expression of the self as it relates to a thing, hardly a universal form of expression. That the work can stand on its own merits and bypass language completely must, it seems, be one factor in the elevation to a status of art. tim
     
  16. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

    Messages:
    2,512
    Joined:
    Sep 22, 2002
    Location:
    Omaha, Nebra
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    The greatest photographers are able to take their chosen subject matter and build their own language around it.

    Wynn Bullock. If you look at a portfolio or are lucky enough to see actual prints you can easily see that there is a certain "atmospheric" about his work. A great deal of symbolism underlies his work and I would go as far as saying his langauge is one of mysticism.

    Ralph Gibson sets up his images and uses found objects and compositions. He has spent decades defining a unique language with photography as his medium of expression.

    Brett Weston's language is about the supremacy of form and line.

    Eugene Smith had the ability to compose and design an image to bring forward several layers of meaning that go far beyond the orignal content the viewer first sees. Beyond the story the images force us to look inward at ourselves on some level.

    Edward Weston, Adams, Callahan, Frank, Kertesz, Strand, Siskind all developed a unique langauge with the camera.

    I think all of these photographers would have been great artists in any medium. All of them sought to present a far deeper meaning then simply recording something on film. Of course we all hope to do that, but the great artists of the medium see it, know it, and define it long before the shutter is released.

    The other thing they all have in common is they pretty mcuh had the stage to themselves, innovators in modern photography.

    I also believe that every found object or theme has been photographed at least 1000 times. But that doesn't keep me from doing some of it for the pleasure and challenge to find meaning in an object or composition. And I still see new work that does rise above the crowd.

    The other option is to go in the direction of a Gordin, Uelesmann, Duane Michaels, or Fredrick Sommer and build your own unique language from scratch. No different then sculpture or painting.
     
  17. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    4,350
    Joined:
    Apr 2, 2005
    Location:
    Montréal (QC
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Well then, I'd really, really like to have a bibliographical reference to what you are claiming. What researches are you referring to?
     
  18. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    4,350
    Joined:
    Apr 2, 2005
    Location:
    Montréal (QC
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    For the side note, Kant had a similar view on art, considering it to be a harmonious interplay between the world and the subject, bypassing the adjudication of judgement. Eastern philosophy started to make inroads in Europe by the 18th century, so it's extremely likely that he has been inspired by that type of point of view.
     
  19. MurrayMinchin

    MurrayMinchin Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    4,196
    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2005
    Location:
    North Coast,
    Shooter:
    4x5 Format
    Edward Weston's Pepper #30 - a pepper, a tin funnel, light, and texture. About as minimalistic an objective observation you'll find in photography, yet incredibly powerful. You can't put walls around creativity.

    Murray
     
  20. mark

    mark Member

    Messages:
    5,270
    Joined:
    Nov 13, 2003
    Now, I would have to say that these three artists missed it. I admire the hell out of Gordin's work, don't get me wrong, but I am not moved in the slightest. I am much more moved by the sybolisim I find in those images you consider "pretty Pictures". I feel the others try too hard to create the symbols thus making their art worth much less in my eyes.

    To me, symbolism comes down to what a person brings to the image. Is Moby Dick the story of a whale and a whacko captain or is it a metaphore for the trials and obsessions of one's life that will ultimately bring ruin upon the individual and others. The answer depends on the reader.

    Is this a photo of a three people in a box or is it a metaphor of something much more. Personally I think he has tried too hard to force the viewer to see it as a metaphor. Almost slapping them in the face with it.

    What about this where i feel the symbol and metaphor is much more subtle. Is it just an excercise in sharpness in a pretty place or much more.



    N. Scott Momady Told me, when i was taking his folklore class, and we were talking about symbols in writing, that all writing is filled with symbols; Real and imagined. Some are intended and many many more are imagined by the reader. Because the author did not intend them does not mean they are not there. The worst thing a writer can do is work too hard to create a guide for the reader, by hitting thm in the face with the symbols. Doing this treats the reader like they are not smart. As long as the author writes what is in their heart then the symbols will place themselves. (this is paraphrased obviously since the conversation happened a long time ago during office hours)

    I feel the same can be said about photography.
     
  21. mark

    mark Member

    Messages:
    5,270
    Joined:
    Nov 13, 2003
    This is really sad.


    Wow this is not only presumptuous it is insulting. Of course not everyone can be as enlightened as you I suppose.
     
  22. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

    Messages:
    5,974
    Joined:
    Nov 6, 2002
    Location:
    Wine country, N. Cal.
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    This statement probably says more about you than it does about photography.

    The are many disciplines of photography that really have nothing to do with art. Some is utilitarian, some is frivilous and some is by people copying others to try to get to a level of expertise so they can "blossom" on their own.

    Also what one thing is today may be considered "art" at a later date.

    Donald ,it seems is in a place, as he admits where he is pretty well bored with many aspects of photography and is looking for a higher level. He admires a few people for that "transcendence" but I wonder if he just tried to achieve that in his own, if he would be happier. Tried for the duality of pretty pictures and the metaphorical encompassed in one shot.

    I think that most people take pictures of what interests them and if unconsciously, they produce something transcendent they are happy. Conscious transcendence my be a self conscious, or overbearing manipulation that in the end says nothing.

    I will say that I often find that when someone tries to find illumination in someone elses work, they are often adding things that were not necessarily thought of, or perhaps even meant by the author of the work.


    Michael
     
  23. MurrayMinchin

    MurrayMinchin Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    4,196
    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2005
    Location:
    North Coast,
    Shooter:
    4x5 Format
    Donald, it sounds like you're at a crossroads, about to embark on a seminal change in the way you work. It also sounds like you've become numb to the work of many of your peers. Might I suggest a good old cleansing?

    Take all those burdensome, dead lemming negatives of yours from your "pretty picture - objective observational" period and burn them. Why anchor yourself to a meaningless past? Start afresh. Be reborn. There's nothing like going for it without a safety net to get the motivational juices surging!

    Murray
     
  24. Daniel Lawton

    Daniel Lawton Member

    Messages:
    474
    Joined:
    Mar 8, 2005
    Location:
    California
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    When I look at a photograph I'm not trying to read into the artists mind nor am I trying to understand the inner being which drives him/her. Besides, unless the artist has lead an exceptional life, it would be pretentious to assume anyone would find these things interesting anyway. I'm more concerned with what connection I as a viewer make with the image. That's what photography is all about for me. If one so desires to convey the inner workings of their psyche why not just put a pen to paper and write them down? IMHO photography is very inadequate as a form of communication. To me a good photograph does one thing, it catches the viewers eye and allows them to draw their own conclusions.
     
  25. roteague

    roteague Member

    Messages:
    6,671
    Joined:
    Jul 15, 2004
    Location:
    Kaneohe, Haw
    Shooter:
    4x5 Format
    True, but the statement was only meant to be viewed in the context of the tread. I think that many photographers, including myself, take photographs that we don't consider art. I have a Canon Powershot A-510 digi camera that I use to take pictures of signs, pictures of friends (for my desktop), etc - I don't consider those images as "art".

    Most of us learn from photograhers in one way or another. I hope that when you look at my images, you will see my view of the world, but with the realization that I learned many of the techniques through the masters of the art - people like Jack Dykinga, Joe Cornish, Tom Till, John Fielder and others.
     
  26. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

    Messages:
    6,242
    Joined:
    Dec 21, 2002
    Shooter:
    Large Format
    Your statement may be true in your experience. I have no argument with what you say, but I wonder if it goes far enough. For instance, there is nothing particular beautiful about "Migrant Mother" or about the Vietnamese officer who was assasinated, about the child that was burned with napalm, or the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima (I forget the names if the latter three images) yet they do touch most people who see them.

    The Iwo Jima flag raising is far more a symbolic image then it is about objective reality, in my opinion. Migrant Mother imparts the defeat and despair and the Vietnam era images impart horror for most of us.

    I think photography can be about art (which I would define more about ideas and concepts then beauty) and it also may be simply illustration. Art may be beautiful and it may be unbelievably ugly. I think art is primarily capable of evoking an emotional response in someone whereas illustration will not normally have that as it's primary aspect.

    Maybe it's because I have lived and photographed in places similar to those that Ansel Adams, Howard Bond, John Sexton, Bruce Barnbaum and others of the "found objects" genre have photographed, but I am really burned out on those images. I realize that this is mine to resolve...maybe it is time to have a massive bonfire as someone suggested.,