This is Reality Testing, a new column where two of the smartest people we could find (on Twitter) Khalid Warsame and Joshua Barnes  ...Read More
This is Reality Testing, our column where Khalid Warsame and Joshua Barnes fight over an idea.
So our increasingly inaccurately defined ‘fortnightly’ column is back.
Once we’re done, ‘fortnightly’ will mean ‘biannually’. And that will be good and right.
This week, we’re branching out a little and we’ll be taking a look at some issues relating to photographs and photography. But before we do that, tell me: have you noticed that a rather shockingly large number of novelists and writers moonlight as photographers or photography critics? You’ve got Geoff Dyer (who we can’t seem to escape, lately), Teju Cole, who is the New York Times Magazine’s photography critic, and John Berger, just to name a few.
It’s an odd connection, which reminds me a little of something Dave Chappelle said once about the parasitic relationship between comedians and musicians, where every comedian wishes they were a musician and every musician thinks that they are funny.
Photography—like comedy, I think—seems to offer the wannabe in all of us great aesthetic reward without appearing to also require expertise. The impulse that demands How hard is it to be funny? is the same one that makes you think you could take a few good pictures—or, worse, that the pictures you’ve already taken are Diane Arbus–surpassing observational masterworks. That said, one can hardly accuse Teju Cole and John Berger—both trained art historians—of being armchair photography critics.
But one could definitely accuse Geoff Dyer of that. Could and, I would venture, should.
But why photography? Is there something about it that attracts fiction writers? I’ve been thinking about this since I am, myself, a fiction writer who maintains a hobbyist's interest in photography and I’m beginning to think that what draws me to the medium is the same species of thing that draws me to reading and writing. I’m fascinated at how photographs seem to gesture at a 1:1 relationship (albeit flattened and projected onto a paper or screen) with reality while being anything but. And how they’re really never about what they’re really about, and if they are about what they’re about then the photo is so obviously a boring one.
Photography and fiction, writing and visual art, it’s interesting: the ostensible subject of this series of ours is the question of fiction and nonfiction, truth and invention, reality and realities. I mentioned it to a friend of mine the other day, and they said, ‘How do you write about fiction and nonfiction in photography?’ It’s an interesting and possibly troubling question, because photography is a documentary medium that can’t help but fictionalise. Or maybe I mean ‘aestheticise’, as per the old-school critique of photography: photographs are weird, the argument ran, because they seem, as you say, both of our world and alien to it. Susan Sontag wrote that they ‘trade simultaneously on the prestige of art and the magic of the real’; photographs appear to be (but are not, really) ‘unpremeditated slices of the world’.
I remember something the former MoMa photography director John Szarkowski once said about the photographs of Diane Arbus. Hang on, let me Google the quote because it’s interesting—
Sontag, FWIW, hated Diane Arbus.
—okay, here’s Szarkowski:
For most Americans the meaning of the Vietnam War was not political, or military, or even ethical, but psychological. It brought to us a sudden, unambiguous knowledge of moral frailty and failure. The photographs that best memorialise the shock of that new knowledge were perhaps made halfway round the world, by Diane Arbus.
I remember reading that and disagreeing very strongly with it (Szarkowski is absolutely wrong to suggest, as he does, that images of the war weren’t effective in capturing the dominant mood of that period in America), but I also remember being fired up by the connection, the bridge he drew across the gap in what a photograph is about and what it’s actually about. I think good literature also has that same nature to it, but with photography it’s more… raw, more of a leap. I mean, on one hand you’ve got Diane Arbus and her famous portraits of people on the margins of American society—carnival freak-show performers, transgender people, dwarfs, and giants—and on the other hand you’ve got the Vietnam war, which has a visual identity that is so radically different that the link between the two is one that occurs completely outside the photograph and in our heads.
Right, yep. Wayne Koestenbaum has a cool essay called ‘Diane Arbus and Humiliation’, which is three pages of questions addressed somewhat loosely to Arbus’s work. He asks, ‘Does black-and-white humiliate, using the alibi of “artiness”? Or does black-and-white process veil an otherwise humiliatingly colorful “realness”?’ Koestenbaum shares Sontag’s conviction that somebody is getting humiliated in Arbus’s work, but he’s less sure of who: is it her subjects, whom she often depicts as carnivalesque weirdos? Or is it Arbus herself, humiliated by her own proximity to freakishness? Or is it the viewer who is humiliated, just by looking at them?
Those questions aside, I think this invites us to consider something more basic about photographs in general: what are they about? What kinds of things do we expect them to be about, to show us? And, by virtue of this expectation that photographs will be about stuff—something, anything; that they will be representational—what kinds of burdens do we shift onto them?
I think this gestures at the link you made: how meaning, even on a straight level, is really created by us and not the image, and how context is really the only valid rubric by which we can understand art. A big problem in photography, especially in the documentary tradition, has always been the essentially modernist impulse at the root of the form that has never truly come to grips with the fact that all photography is on some level a fabrication. There’s mediation at every level of the photomaking process (from the film stock you use, to the way you frame the image, to what you choose to photograph etc.).
You pointed me, a while back, to an essay—‘Why does it always have to be about something?’—that goes pretty concisely to the quick on this.
Yeah, Jörg M. Colberg, who is one of my favourite writers on photography, hit on something which has been bothering me for a long time that I couldn’t really put my finger on until I read his polemic. That a lot of photo-books, exhibitions, and photo essays seem too heavy-handed in the way that they guide the viewer. They won’t let you draw the links between what they are and what they’re about. Rather, as Colberg argues, they all seem to be about something in a way that robs the viewer of any agency in the process. You see it a lot with the kinds of photo-essays that get featured in magazines and journals: loose collections of not-very-interesting photos grouped around a single topic that guide the viewer to a specific reading of the images.
A particularly galling example that recently made the rounds on my Facebook newsfeed had the following headline: ‘This Photographer Takes Fun Photos Of People After One, Two And Three Glasses Of Wine.’
The photos are utterly boring tripe, sure, but beyond that I think they fail on a deeper level, and this hints at a fundamental anxiety of art in the internet age: how, increasingly, everything is packaged for us to consume in a way that robs us of our faculty to respond in any way that doesn’t boil down to, ‘Oh, that’s neat’.
Colberg takes it further and puts the blame on laziness at the conception stage:
"So I suppose my main problem with pictures ‘about’ something is not the general principle. It’s the fact that all too often, the photographs end up being bad, simply because their makers stop when they’re about whatever it is they’re supposed to be about. That’s really not how this should work, though. You don’t use training wheels on a bicycle to learn how to ride with training wheels. You use them so you can ditch them as quickly as you can."
He’s essentially taking issue with boring art for being, well, boring. But it’s certainly an interesting take on a big problem with photography as art: the relationship between a photograph and what it’s ostensibly ‘about’ is very close (closer than any other art form) and that means that it’s often very difficult to separate the picture from the claim that it’s a representation of an ‘un-mediated’ reality. There’s something intrinsic to photography that makes this claim (or else we’d be just as likely to use paintings on our driver's licenses as we are to use photographs), and maybe it’s our urge to see documentary value in a photograph that lends it this power.
I think it’s that continuum, which Koestenbaum sets out in his essay on Arbus, between artiness and realness; in photography, and especially in documentary portraiture of the kind made by Diane Arbus or Walker Evans, the former largely derives from the latter. That is, to the extent that a photograph can be a work of art, it must do so by getting ever closer to the reality of that which it purports to show us.
One thing that struck, and strikes, me about Colberg’s critique of aboutness is the degree to which he’s thinking about it in terms of the individual artist. He writes that
if a group of stellar pictures are ‘about’ something, that’s very different than a group of mediocre pictures that are only being held together by aboutness. And the latter is something you see a lot. In fact, we—collectively—make it too easy for photographers to get away with that, in part because we have become too comfortable looking for photography that confirms our belief system, instead of challenging it.
So the claim here is about contemporary photography, and contemporary photographers, rather than photography as a technology. Colberg’s making a point about (as it were) a tendency he’s observed among various photographers working today. And I think it’s worth noting that he divides the responsibility for surmounting the yoke of ‘aboutness’ evenly between artists and their audiences: we should get better at looking at pictures, so photographers have to take better pictures.
But what if there isn’t an individual artist to take the pictures, or indeed anybody to look at them? What, for example, is this picture—taken from 9-eyes.com, which collects images from Google Street View—about?
This project, 9 eyes, takes its name from the cameras affixed to the roof of Google’s Street View cars, which capture simultaneous images of the streets from nine individual angles and combine them into a digital, navigable composite.
There’s something mesmerising about these pictures.
To the question What’s it about? you would obviously be right in saying, ‘That’s a cow, you idiot’.
But it’s not just a cow, is it? In asking ‘what is a picture about?’ we’re also asking the unspoken question: ‘Who is it about?’ In most photographs, that ‘who’ is the photographer herself. The way in which we see an image is fundamentally tied to a) who is doing the seeing, and b) whose viewpoint we are seeing the image from. The actual content of the image is significant, but it’s very much a subordinate to the ideological impulse behind and around the image. When you take away that human aspect (i.e. ‘the who’) the politics of the image shifts in a radical way.
Right, right: these assemblages—there’s a real question, I think, of whether we would even call them photographs in the traditional sense—are not made by a person, a photographer, but they aren’t free of the spectre of authorship. The images themselves have been captured indiscriminately by Google’s Street View technology, but they have been compiled and endowed with meaning by Jon Rafman, who runs the 9 eyes blog. There’s even a glossy art-book compendium of them.
Their power, in this form at least, is indisputable. The ones I love most are those images in which the medium itself reveals its instability. Here, for example, in the bottom right, you can see the road warp as one image blends and bleeds into the next:
That question you raise—who is it about?—reminds me of this essay by Matthew J.X. Malady in the New Yorker from late last year, where he describes his habit of logging onto Google Maps to search for places of great personal significance: ‘When I really want to dig in,’ he writes, ‘I’ll treat these Street View adventures as mini treasure hunts, attempting to come up with the most obscure and faintly held memory of a place, to make my search for that location as difficult as possible.’
What happens is one day, tracking past his old house, he sees his mother, who had died some years earlier, standing on the porch. ‘At first,’ he writes, ‘I was convinced that it couldn’t be her, that I was just seeing things. When’s the last time you’ve spotted someone you know on Google Maps? I never had. And my mother, besides, is no longer alive. It couldn’t be her. That feeling passed quickly. Because it was her.’
The point here, I think, expresses something of why 9 eyes is so eerie: you don’t expect to find anything specific, anything particular or weird or personal, on Google Maps or Street View, because you expect it to be, well, a map. But it isn’t—it’s a photograph.
That specific moment, of finding a dead relative on Google Street View, is almost perverse to me. It’s a mechanical realisation of Barthes’ claim that photography will always capture the moment of death and fix it in time, only there is none of the organic awareness in the subject or the photographer of this fact: just a machine recording an image, blindly, which is then beamed all over the world. I’ve always thought of photography as a continuously shocking medium, and I think that as the medium matures it has become less so, but maybe this is the new frontier? Maybe these kinds of images are the future of photography, in its most galvanising, most surreal aspect.
So the future is full of robots taking pictures of us?
Sounds about right. I think we’re done here? Are we done here?
I think we are.
Khalid Warsame is a writer and editor who lives in Brisbane. He is the fiction editor for The Lifted Brow and Festival Coordinator for the National Young Writers Festival. He tweets at @kldwarsame.
Joshua Barnes is a writer and editor from Melbourne. His work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, The Suburban Review, Junkee, The Point, Voiceworks and on All the Best Radio. He is also a fiction editor at Voiceworks and a creative producer for the 2016 Emerging Writers’ Festival. He tweets from @j___barnes.
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This is Reality Testing, a new column where two of the smartest people we could find (on Twitter) Khalid Warsame and Joshua Barnes fight over an idea. ...Read More