“For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man…in spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually, re-presented… ”
(André Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in What is Cinema? 1945, p.7)
“If we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.”
(Allan Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’, 1997, p.454)
To turn Berger on its head - quotes are like photographs – what is excluded, the manner of presentation and their context all impact on the way we read them. Bazin was a realist – so it is unsurprising that his reading of photographs is grounded in their relationship to the real. And yet, if we read the quote in its full context it is clear that even Bazin acknowledged the potential for human interference in “the instrumentality of a non-living agent”. It is also noteworthy that Bazin is simply observing that a photo is proof of the object’s original existence – a legitimate viewpoint in a pre-digital age. He makes no claim for the meaning of the objects which have been proved to exist.
Sekula by contrast was a post-modernist who frequently questioned the alleged realism of photographs to help with political commentary and critique. Unlike Bazin, who simply asserts his position, Sekula specifically acknowledges his assumption before proceeding to argue from it that photos have no unique meaning. Taken together these two quotes establish an idea that a photo can demonstrate the existence of an object, but not its meaning. Taking this further a photo alone cannot unequivocally demonstrate the relationship between the objects in the photo, because key information such as the excluded objects, and the photographers intent are not known to the viewer. If I have understood correctly it is this that allows the development of narrative.
Bazin, A., 1945. The Ontology of the Photographic Image. In: What is Cinema?. s.l.:s.n.
Berger, J. & Mohr, J., 1982. Another Way of Telling. New York: Pantheon Books.
Sekula, 1997. On the Invention of Photographic Meaning. San Diego: University of California.