Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Realism – What makes a document (ii)

Some more reflection on this subject before I get to the 200 words.
If I don’t accept that the simple existence of a subject accounts for the perceived difference in realism between photos and other pictures, but I do accept a difference, what then is an alternative explanation. I can see two options: technical or cultural.
Technical: A photograph – film or digital – is caused by the interaction between photons and a sensor and some subsequent processing. This is not true of other forms of image making – so perhaps this is the key difference – a physical link. Me as a Roman Statue qualifies as a photo because there was a stream of photons moving from the statue and my glasses to the sensor. This seems a reasonable definition of a photo – I can think of no situation where it does not hold, but is it sufficient to account for the perception of realism and the power of photography (which Walton goes on to assert is a function of this realism)?
Pile of Laptops - or is it?
With apologies to Magritte – this is not a pile of laptops. By my proposed definition it is not even a photo of a pile of laptops because there is no direct link between the subject on the photo sensor and the pile of laptops. Yet most people I think would accept it as a realistic depiction of such. Similarly, irrespective of the post-modernist debate, most people would accept that Levine’s “After Walker Evans 4” is a realistic depiction of Allie Mae Burroughs, and yet it is not a photograph of her, by my definition or Walton’s.  By a similar token I believe that paintings of either would also be considered as less realistic.
Moving on to Walton’s final assertion – that photography is a new way of seeing – a way that allows us to see the past. He is very definite, we are not talking about imagining or perceiving, buy seeing into the past. Seeing – unless I have misunderstood is a two part process akin to photography. A stream of photons passes from the object to a sensor (our eye) and is then processed (by the brain) to register as an image (on our conscious). Take out the first part and we simply have memory or imagination. I do not see my long dead great grandfather when I look at a photo of him – in any way – I may remember him or register him or acknowledge that it is a photo but I do not see him because no photons have passed from my great grandfather to me. And yet – I accept that it is a realistic depiction and I feel that odd, and undefined, sense of connection to the individual in the photo. In truth, of course, it could be a photo of anyone.
If my argument makes sense then the power that photos exert is not because of any direct physical link to the object depicted. It is because I trust that the event or individual depicted actually existed – the photo does not prove it however.
What proves it – to me - is my trust in the source. I trust that Sherrie Levine has photographed the Walker Evans photo, and I trust that Walker Evans took a photo of Allie Mae Burroughs and I trust that no-one manipulated the image in between. I have little evidential basis for this trust except a willingness to believe what I am told.
In other words the power of photographs – and particularly documentary photographs – is a function of trust – a cultural attribute. We trust that the photographer is not lying to us. That is why some photo manipulations – such as the addition of extra smoke in a war photo – are considered wholly unacceptable, and others – such as the enhancement of lighting for dramatic purposes, while contentious are less frowned upon.
In my view the essential difference between photos and other artworks is down to cultural perceptions – many of which hail from historic perspectives – and a trust, or otherwise in the practices of the photography business. An example of this might be Mohamed Bourouissa whose works have the ring of authenticity and truth to them in spite of our knowing they are staged. we regard them as a document because we trust him – often for no more than cultural reasons.

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