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Thread: Transparency

  1. #1
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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    Transparency

    Here's another one of these Big Questions, but it always need more tackling. It's been bugging me for a while because most academic papers I've read seem to be one-sided.

    When people write about photography, they often take the transparency position about it.

    Its briefest summation was given by Gary Winogrand: "I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs." (*) In other words, that we do not look at photographs, but through them, like the late John Szarkowski said.

    This means two things:

    a) That we have a different interest in the photograph of a thing than we do for the thing if we were to actually encounter it

    b) That photographs have a privileged relationship to the world that painting or drawing do not have.

    Claim a) is not controversial to me, I think it is fairly obvious to most people who either appreciate or produce photos. Claim b) is where the meat is.

    We've all heard (or taken) positions to the effect that photography is a trace, whereas a painting is an interpretation, an act of will. Fiction in painting is indeed more accepted than it is in photography.

    But what if we actually had an interest in painting because we like to see how things look when they are painted? Did not Monet paint the same cathedral over and over because he wanted us to appreciate its changing appearance through painting?

    The problem with b) is that it actually prevents any meaningful creation of fiction in photography. Why would a painting of a Cyclop be a painting of a Cyclop, whereas a photo of a person dressed as a Cyclop will never be a photo of a Cyclop? Why would Cindy Sherman's "untitled film stills" be only self-portraits, whereas a movie with Marilyn Monroe is not a portrait of her?

    No swearing, no name calling, discuss!


    (*) He also said "A photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how the camera 'saw' a piece of time and space," so I don't want to say that he believed in photographic transparency.
    Last edited by Michel Hardy-Vallée; 07-09-2007 at 07:13 PM. Click to view previous post history.
    Using film since before it was hip.


    "One of the most singular characters of the hyposulphites, is the property their solutions possess of dissolving muriate of silver and retaining it in considerable quantity in permanent solution" — Sir John Frederick William Herschel, "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. p. 11

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    Are you saying that photography demands a literal interpretation?
    Or, that people are pre-disposed to apply a literal interpretation to a photograph?

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    copake_ham's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mhv View Post
    ..... Why would Cindy Sherman's "untitled film stills" be only self-portraits, whereas a movie with Marilyn Monroe is not a portrait of her?
    ....
    I know naught of Cindy Sherman - but a movie with Marilyn Monroe is a movie wherein Marilyn Monroe is portraying a role in a story that is scripted. How could it be a portrait of her - when she was portraying a fictional character in a story?

    As to your greater point.

    I'll leave that one for the rest of you.

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    And how many angels dance on the head of a pin? And are they doing the Twist or a Waltz?
    When I grow up, I want to be a photographer.

    http://www.walterpcalahan.com/Photography/index.html

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    Trucking,

    Cheers,
    Clarence

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    Quote Originally Posted by mhv View Post
    Here's another one of these Big Questions, but it always need more tackling. It's been bugging me for a while because most academic papers I've read seem to be one-sided.

    When people write about photography, they often take the transparency position about it.

    Its briefest summation was given by Gary Winogrand: "I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs." (*) In other words, that we do not look at photographs, but through them, like the late John Szarkowski said.
    Maybe...

    When I go out actively to photograph a landscape or other subject, I tend to adopt a differing attitude and look at the World in a much more intense manner, thus actually seeing what is there rather than 'interpreting' the scene through my normal data smoothing filters.

    My theory is that these filters allow me to acknowledge what features of my environment I find important to function in a basic manner, avoid danger and allow my brain to function more abstractly, but they often dither-out subtleties that become important 'artistically'.

    I might adapt that quote to say, "The act of making photographs makes me look at the World in a different manner, a more clear manner than routine functioning and I try to capture that unusual state in my photographs".

    But maybe that is the same thing, in a way...

    Quote Originally Posted by mhv View Post

    This means two things:

    a) That we have a different interest in the photograph of a thing than we do for the thing if we were to actually encounter it
    Perhaps, but not necessarily; I think it would depend on if the photograph was a 1. "realistic" (oh boy what a can of worms that opens) or 2. Abstract interpretation of the object/subject.

    By "realistic", I mean a means of producing a photograph of a subject that is generally accepted in the mainstream of society as a photograph that is a truthful representation of the object/subject. (Don't stroke-out, give it a chance) More along the lines of documentation...

    By "abstract", I mean a means of producing a photograph of a subject that, while it may or may not be recognizable as the actual subject/object, is generally accepted (or reviled) by the general public as an "artistic interpretation" that could never likely appear that way in nature. More along the lines of impressionistic photographs.

    Of course there is no clear delineation between the two states, which makes it very amorphous and calls (to me) to the forefront a question; which came first, the urge to document or the urge to express oneself through the item?


    Quote Originally Posted by mhv View Post

    b) That photographs have a privileged relationship to the world that painting or drawing do not have.
    Not really. The frame is a contextual construct and demands input from the artist. Why would a photograph hold any privilege over a painting or a drawing unless you strictly demand it to be "realistic"?

    In fact, I would say 90% of all photos in the gallery are NOT in the slightest, a "realistic" representation of the actual scene they are photographing, but are the representation of an aesthetic the photographer projects onto the scene via their tools -- the camera, film, and darkroom processes.

    Even the purely documentary-type of photograph that strives for pure "realism" is hopelessly rooted in the film stocks, chemical processes and aesthetic underpinnings of "modern" photography. Want proof? Just go back a decade and look at any and all photographs. We are defined by our time, materials and processes, which are as biased and unique to our time as to the 1920's, or 30's or whenever...

    Quote Originally Posted by mhv View Post
    Claim a) is not controversial to me, I think it is fairly obvious to most people who either appreciate or produce photos. Claim b) is where the meat is.

    We've all heard (or taken) positions to the effect that photography is a trace, whereas a painting is an interpretation, an act of will. Fiction in painting is indeed more accepted than it is in photography.

    But what if we actually had an interest in painting because we like to see how things look when they are painted? Did not Monet paint the same cathedral over and over because he wanted us to appreciate its changing appearance through painting?
    I maintain that all of photography is a fiction (no two people see anything exactly the same way with the same resonances upon viewing) and that we all photograph the same images over and over again -- just look at the gallery. Not that I am putting anyone down; repetition is a major part of any artistic expression. We refine, hone and search for like images that more perfectly express the concept we are trying to express, whatever that may be...


    Quote Originally Posted by mhv View Post
    The problem with b) is that it actually prevents any meaningful creation of fiction in photography. Why would a painting of a Cyclop be a painting of a Cyclop, whereas a photo of a person dressed as a Cyclop will never be a photo of a Cyclop? Why would Cindy Sherman's "untitled film stills" be only self-portraits, whereas a movie with Marilyn Monroe is not a portrait of her?
    I think a photo of a person dressed as a Cyclops can certainly be a graphic representation of Cyclops, and interpreted as such, as long as there are "artistic" clues that allow the viewer the right of suspension of disbelief -- all contextual and, gosh darned if I can define them, but you know they are there. If they weren't, how can motion pictures function very effectively on that level?

    Quote Originally Posted by mhv View Post
    No swearing, no name calling, discuss!

    (*) He also said "A photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how the camera 'saw' a piece of time and space," so I don't want to say that he believed in photographic transparency.
    Oh NOW you trip me up with this bit of philosophy! Got to think about this...

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    Cindy Sherman is a good example of fiction in still images. Jeff Wall would be another example, though perhaps we should just include nearly all advertising photography of the last several decades.

    There is a believability of photography, something about an anticipated truthfulness, or honest accuracy. Much as Cindy Sherman stated "I learned that photographs lie". Thomas Demand is another example, constructing models of scenes reminding us of news events, or social commentary, made mostly out of cardboard.

    I would state more of divisions being realistic, representational, surrealistic, or abstract. While maybe photojournalism could be realistic, many images would probably fit more easily into being representational. A good example is any B/W image; unless you have some unusual form of colour blindness it is likely most people see the world in colour. Longer time exposures are another easy example, since our eyes cannot see what takes place over that period of time in the same way as film.

    To compare with painting, it might be easy to think of the detail information, though it is not necessary for photographs to have detail. Even in painting, when you provide enough information (detail), then the minds eye of the viewer fills in the rest. I approach large format photography in this manner, more with the idea of enough information, and letting the viewer imagine the rest. I only mention this in regard to large format due to my slower approach and the usage of selective focus, though that is not all I do, nor my only method.

    It can be fun to show people something unexpected, that is a photograph. The expectation of reality is strong enough that only something a little bit different can change perception. Of course there are historians and photojournalists who want the most realistic view possible, though even then the camera points both ways. We might have a view of a scene, though in reality we have a view of the photographer.

    Ciao!

    Gordon Moat
    A G Studio

  8. #8
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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    Great answer so far guys, and I'll answer when I have more available grey cells.

    Just one thing I want to underline: I'm presenting the argument mostly as I find it in the literature. It is not my own way of thinking. I'm presenting it for discussion, if you disagree with it you're not agreeing or disagreeing with me. I'm still trying to figure out my own ideas anyway...
    Using film since before it was hip.


    "One of the most singular characters of the hyposulphites, is the property their solutions possess of dissolving muriate of silver and retaining it in considerable quantity in permanent solution" — Sir John Frederick William Herschel, "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. p. 11

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    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pinholemaster View Post
    And how many angels dance on the head of a pin? And are they doing the Twist or a Waltz?
    Here's a hypothetical case. You were walking late at night, and some bugger made a mugger out of himself. He left with your wallet and your sense of safety. Consider now the following two possible course of events.

    Situation 1: luckily, a neighbour is a peeping tom photographer and he had his Exakta with a 200mm f4.5 lens loaded with Delta 3200 at the time of the incident. Because he lives on the third floor and has a plaster cast, he was only able to take a photo of your mugger from the side.

    Situation 2: luckily, you have a good memory. At the police station (wow, they actually have time to take care of your case!) you sit down with the guy in charge of composite pictures. Based on your memories and his craft, he reconstructs the face of your mugger.

    Which of the two evidences should have the better value in court and why? Is it the photography because it is "inherently true" or is the composite portrait because it has much more details that can actually identify the mugger?
    Using film since before it was hip.


    "One of the most singular characters of the hyposulphites, is the property their solutions possess of dissolving muriate of silver and retaining it in considerable quantity in permanent solution" — Sir John Frederick William Herschel, "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. p. 11

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    DrPablo's Avatar
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    Where is it established that we don't look "through" paintings and drawings? In fact the more abstract the painting the more I find myself looking through it.
    Paul

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