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  1. #1

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    The Languages of Photography

    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. #2
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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    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. #3
    Daniel Lawton's Avatar
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    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. #4

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    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. #5
    jovo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mhv
    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. .
    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 jovo; 09-24-2005 at 10:03 PM. Click to view previous post history.
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  6. #6
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jovo
    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 even more fundamentally meaningful. The challenge may be to seek and find their purity and make images that resonate consistenly with them
    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. #7
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Donald Miller
    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.
    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. #8
    jovo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mhv
    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.
    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.
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  9. #9
    roteague's Avatar
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    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.
    Robert M. Teague
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    "A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist" -- Louis Nizer

  10. #10
    roteague's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Donald Miller
    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.
    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.
    Robert M. Teague
    www.visionlandscapes.com
    www.apug.org/forums/portfolios.php?u=2235

    "A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist" -- Louis Nizer

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