PRINT November 1974

The Territory of Photographs

TWO TEXANS REPORTED AN ENCOUNTER, one lonely night last year, with strange creatures they took to be the likes of Martians. Obviously shaken, they weren’t able to accredit their experience because they could give only an eyewitness account of it. In a court of law, dealing with human actions, such eyewitness testimony may well convince, beyond, as they say, a reasonable doubt. But with an unidentifiable event, 2000 Texans would have been no more credible than two––unless someone had a camera. That instrument has aptly been called “the mirror with a memory.” Seeing is believing, but even the unanimous vision of many individuals finally can’t be substantiated unless some impartially recorded trace of it has been left. The camera was devised to furnish that indisputable trace.

Though infested with many bewildering anomalies, photographs are considered our best arbiters between our visual perceptions and the memory of them. It is not only their apparent “objectivity” that grants photographs their high status in this regard, but our belief that in them, fugitive sensation has been laid to rest. The presence of photographs reveals how circumscribed we are in the throes of sensing. We perceive and interpret the outer world through a set of incredibly fine internal receptors. But we are incapable, by ourselves, of grasping or tweezing out any permanent, sharable figment of it. Practically speaking, we ritually verify what is there, and are disposed to call it reality. But, with photographs, we have concrete proof that we have not been hallucinating all our lives. Without nerve or interfering brain, the camera lens drinks in and stores a complex of light on film that is forever in the process of transmuting itself––and therefore, in relentless escape from us.

Recognizing this, we must also acknowledge that we are acutely separated from all those who perished before 1839, the year Daguerreotypes were introduced to society. The event marks a line between those who would henceforth possess a contradiction in terms, a real, if fragmented image of their past, and those who didn’t. It’s strenuous to imagine what it might have been like for people to live without samples of seized time, graven by light. (Or, for that matter, seized time made audible by voice and sound, as in phonographic recording.) In transforming physical energy, the photograph gives us an irreducibly fixed transcript of an instant that existed. Every time a print is developed, a vestige of a lost sight comes back to us, retrieved as if from some abyss. We have been so deeply hooked by this second sight that we no· longer know how insatiable is our appetite for it. The world of passing light––just about anywhere––may become latent nourishment for our thoughtless addiction to photographic images.

Photographs resemble paintings at least in that both are inanimate artifacts surviving from our history. But the furniture, clothes, monuments, and incunabula of the past, while fabricated through human consciousness, do not corroborate it. Objects produced by long dead persons may be maintained as curios after their passing. But their unique, perceived reality died when, as mortal organisms, they died. Obviously, we have the same perceiving equipment as our ancestors. But those who came before us were different from us, at the very least in that different things were available to their perceptions, all of which, together, made up their changing, mortal reality. Photographs enable us to glimpse that reality, as if in an old mirror its contemporaries could have used. That is why, in these lingering reflections human visual consciousness itself seems to endure and to transport us across a void. No matter how physically faint, a photograph involuntarily whispers of something exquisitely carnal. The weeks, the years, whatever stretches of time separating our present from the photograph’s, retire into the transparence of the shot and seem to be erased by it. We have almost to shake ourselves to overcome the feeling that we peer out at the other place, in that different age. Yet we are always aware of this illusory dislocation, for such is the ambiguity, in principle, that seduces us over and over again in the photographic experience.

Still, the photographic distillation of extinct appearances is highly conventionalized, most decisively in its registration of a held, immobile image which the functioning brain cannot project. On that score alone, images received through the camera are fundamentally dissimilar from our optical impressions. Many other crucial discrepancies between them come to mind: the general absence of color (only now being rectified), monocular rather than binocular sighting, precisely framed instead of open and blurred peripheries in the field of vision. And this is not to speak of the variables introduced by different film stocks or pl ates, chemical washing and toning, let alone the optional choices of exposure in lens speed, aperture opening, and focal length.

But talk of these different removals from normative vision already protests too much. We speak of them as much as we do in large part because we have signed away our consent to the limitless convincingness of photographic form. No matter how idiosyncratically edited by the photographer, the print generally offers such an overwhelming quantity of finished data that our disbelief in their evidence is nipped by gratitude. On the contrary, that it everywhere shows us what we could have viewed had we not been so prejudiced in the viewing act, reinforces the qualitative impact of photography. At a single stroke, the camera doses the visual field with that massive amount of discriminated material we miss at every blink, yet know to be there. This one, disinterested feature, completely uncharacteristic of our retinal activity, strikes us as a photo’s most clinching likeness of the way we see. In vain would we shrug off its flattery. I am not speaking of the real uses to which we put this phenomenon, such as determining which horse won in a dead heat. The potential efficiency of the camera apparatus in this high-speed instance, lends itself to legalistic, or in other cases, scientific demonstrations. Rather, the determining element of the medium here is that it introduces a prospect of alertness without mind. It thereby persuaded human beings that they could realize an ideal, a perfection of looking, enchanting because it is entirely impractical in the physiological sense.

In the new vistas opened up, the subliminal capacities of eyesight were incalculably restored. A photo simultaneously became a prophecy of vision and a tapestry brimming with everything extant just then within its frame. The tableau was so pristine on that level that it is no wonder that the first commentators on the invention were often idolatrous.

If they imagined only that a new art had been full born, true and momentous enough as this was––we forgive them. But the contemporaries of Hill and Fox Talbot, Le Secq and du Camp, also knew they had been handed an extraordinary power. Looking at a scene recorded by any of these photographers, they held a visual advantage over anyone susceptible to every manner of breeze, texture, motion, and heat who had been merely present when the shutter opened. A further plenitude had been awarded their absent eyes, one that enlarged visual retention with a torrent of details, parting from each other as willed, but always melting back into an unheard-of whole.

For practically everyone indoctrinated within the figurative arts, that whole is astonishing because it is a radical fragment cut from an unlimited flux. It had nothing to do with notions of order, states of definition, or concepts of style. These were among the criteria one used to judge works of art, and many photographers, then as now, have subscribed to them. But they are foreign if often compatible standards superimposed upon an instantly realized integrity. A photograph achieves its whole in an interval no longer than the exposure needed to configure its negative. For then there was internally established an echo of those same randomly disposed and mutating shades discovered by the lens in its field of sight. The photographic whole is made up of abundant givens, naturally situated and brutely sufficient unto themselves. No more nor less was included in the initial picture, nor from any other angle, than the adjusted camera was capable, at that moment, of transcribing. Photographs, at least the preponderantly spontaneous kind, seldom give off the lively effect of striving to attain this wholeness because they cannot fail to visualize it. A print may be turbulent or highly charged in its chiaroscuro. No matter. It is the serene, assured, and passive completeness of that photographic whole which dazzles its observers.

What more natural conclusion to draw than that a circle had been closed? Perception had rounded on itself in the defeat of time to which all those fuzzy, gray, paper rectangles bore witness. A means for supplementing our visual apprehension became, through a metonymic paradox, the extending of that fleshy apprehension. So, one can speak of the carnality of photographs. Were we to be deprived of them now we would doubtless feel half blinded . . . and progressively unmoored in time.

Painting and drawing, obviously, seldom get construed in this fashion because their relationship to the physical world is entirely hypothetical. To confirm this statement, all we need observe is that these arts display fictional projections, not traces, of things other than themselves. Correspondences between pictorial images and known appearances are made to occur all the time, and inform about these appearances. But painting ultimately does not answer to them, even painting where it matters that a subject be recognized and affirmed through detail of high, naturalistic specificity. This is because the pictorial image demands to be considered as something that has welled up through its material embodiment, a moist, base substance, from which it has been modeled out and coded, attaining a finish that cannot be thought intelligible apart from its status as a willed construction. The process that brings this about mimes its own sentience, and the release of energy that at any time could have been lowered or heightened in its voluptuous course would have swayed the concluding illusion intimately. Painting seems to draw sustenance from itself. (That is why, if there exist images of great finality in painting and drawing, they rarely seem foreclosed as do many casual photographic images.)

The first task of painting, for the artist, then, is to originate signals out of his strokes, closing and weighing them in, not only as will seem fit to him, but receivable by an audience. In unison with whatever idiom involved, control of this signal emission determines and tightens itself by a notion of the work as a self-contained whole. Variables within it are directed and shaped, not only so as to pertain analogically to each other, but that they defend their bordered action as a unique event, taken into, or rather, coeval with, an insoluble, dried-out space, beyond which there can only be a void. Criticism notes what may have been individually omitted from this field, but does not remark that every painting implies a full-born irradiation emerging from nothingness. Few saw this as the marvelous effrontery it is until the advent of photography. Photographs are refugees from their moment; paintings are sovereign over a moment that never was until they brought it into existence.

We photographers have a good ground of complaint against you art critics, for the sneering and overbearing manner in which you assign limits to our powers, and in anything but an encouraging or friendly manner dictate to us what we ought or ought not to do . . . Who disputes that photography is not engraving or lithography . . . ? We are satisfied that it is an art in itself, only guided by the general canons of art for successful combination to produce an art-looking result.

No stickler for media purity, Oscar Rejlander here (1872) insists on the prerogatives of photographic manipulation, without, of course, abandoning the “truthfulness” of the photo image. In his wonderfully bastardized tableaux, the beaux arts allegories and narrative sentimentalisms of contemporary English painting are impersonated by live models and quite stifled by their poses. But there is a difference between his ostentatiously simulated candor––a twinkle of glee or a woeful moping held for 20 seconds––and bad faith. For if he was in advance of a documentary genre his slow technical means could not realize, he also expanded the creative scope of photography by combining multiple negatives in one print, as in his celebrated The Two Ways of Life, 1857. In this work, several moments, places, and even scales are brought together in one hopefully seamless and unified locale. One wonders if anyone had ever noticed that the title of the piece epitomizes the way it speaks in forked tongues. For, taking up unaware their piecemeal assignments, his subjects would seem to converse with each other, as if the jerry-built event in which they participate had been an actual one.

Originally, Rejlander desired only to compensate for the limited mise-en-scène of the photographic studio. Soon thereafter, he wanted to provide data for painters in emulation of an artistic canon that he thought he had as much right to exploit as they did. He seems not to have calculated at all that a photographed figure is held responsible to a notion of plausible conduct far more rigidly than a painted one. Some observers considered his work quite acceptable within its field of competence; others thought him rather an upstart––violating good taste, aping a “higher” mode, and so forth. Since heavily theatricalized behavior went as standard fare in most of the contemporary arts, the objections leveled at Rejlander actually disparaged photography’s claims to be such an art. But the point made perhaps unconsciously by this ebullient and imaginative pioneer is that photography could no more be reserved for “naturalness”––whatever that may be––than any other representation of the human world, whose artifices were better understood.

At any rate, these mongrelized collodions emit another effect beside presumptive artiness. Had he wished, Rejlander, or his better-known competitor, Henry Peach Robinson, could have photographed stage productions; they could have recorded the charades conceived by others. But they were more ambitious, and their ambition led them to investigate the combined photograph. Retouching was a cosmetic available to satisfy portrait clients whenever the camera’s truth needed to be improved by the sitter’s less blemished visions of themselves. To embody an artistic truth, however, a medium had to be able to “lie like a Trojan”––the phrase is Robinson’s in 1892––and for this purpose, combination printing was the most useful fraud. Robinson, again:

[photography] has a capacity for lying sufficient to enable it to worthily enroll its name among the noble arts. Nay, is it not the greater for its humility? Photography gives us the means of a nearer imitation of nature than any other art, yet has sufficient elasticity to show the directing mind, and therefore is the most perfect art of all. If we must have paradoxes, let us carry them to the bitter end.

Not only unframed, the oil and water vignettes of a Robinson scenario are smoothed into each other, and their lack of communion becomes the prime fact that must be concealed through darkroom technomancy.

A sweet, suave visual balancing might result from all this procedure, but the bitter part––or was it so bitter?––remained the physical foundation of the light itself. We can no longer consider it a possible chiaroscuro at all, for no one had witnessed any but fragments of it, nor were the actions reflected by it ever in sum accessible to a single pair of eyes. The substratum of the photograph, its historicity, was blended away into a counterfeit of itself, yet it held in suspension, in fact, was composed of nothing other than the transformed light of lived scenes. What one saw and what one knew parted ways, yet with delicacy, and in the end, eerily. Because of its graphic plausibility, we are highly disturbed by the violence of the combine photograph, so much more heartless in its covert mutilations of lighted space than the montages that were later to explode the old spatiotemporal unities altogether.

The people and substances in these Victorian scenes are literally homeless as we now see them. Another world may commence a millimeter next to someone’s leg or the daze of high noon may back up the glow of later afternoon. It could happen that a man may be endowed with two left hands, or that the floorboards don’t match up. “Distance makes no difference; it is only the first step that counts,” wrote Madame du Deffand apropos of Cardinal Polignac’s remarks on the long distance (six miles) that the martyred St. Denis had walked with his head in his hands.

There is a larger problem wrapped up in this 19th-century episode, endemic to all photography. It concerns the photographer’s intention to reduce or augment, by his own devices or decree, what presents itself to the lens. From his viewpoint, a shot can’t help including x neutral and y percentage of unwanted material. And there is no telling when he will grow short-tempered with any single ratio of the givens. Conversely, what critical features can be inserted so as to appear still a normal part of a situation, or to make a didactic or expressive point without diminishing authenticity? Even the slightest shift of angle entails some decision of this sort, but to obtain their results, photographers have been known to undertake more than the pivoting of their instruments.

Social commissions and subject genres have assisted them, of course, in regularizing their efforts. The faces of a grammar school class had no reason to be where they were at a certain moment clustered together, except to be photographed. The blades of grass had no reason not to be where they were when the landscape, of which they formed an essential part, was photographed. But artists sometimes put pressure on themselves to work outside genres, or found new ones. Photographic artists may well be prejudiced against waste information, but they have the most natural reasons to be far more tolerant, say, than painters of surplus sensation. Even as there were absolutists like Rejlander and Robinson, who imposed upon the social world their weird corrective derangements, we find exponents of a “come-as-you-are” street life, like Weegee. No doubt I am misapplying an economic metaphor. But the difficulty remains that the most extraneous, bewildering, or far-fetched events run amok in photography; there is often no “turning them off.” In dealing with this chaos, photographers confront an archetypal problem and a classic opportunity.

The more prolonged his contact with photographs, the more the spectator is likely to increase what he would consider his sane allowance of random visual possibilities. No one will make much headway in understanding photographs who is not open and liberal in this fashion. But it is precisely the randomness of the photographed world that puts its viewers on guard when they smell a setup. According to his chief, Roy Stryker, Arthur Rothstein, the FSA photographer, got entangled in an uproar during the ’30s when he moved a steer skull ten feet to get different backgrounds for various shots of the Dakota badlands. It seems that the documentary mode may discover any “accident” it pleases, but it cannot alter or allot new positions to its subjects without being accused of an irresponsible tampering with reality. Much of the tension and excitement of photography occurs in tripping our loose ideas on what has a right to be “there” at any one instant. Somehow, vague if working signals of territoriality are precipitated by photos as they reveal the flow of events. Yet any untoward oscillation of this flow threatens to erode our confidence in the data furnished, however it might show the activity of “the directing mind.” We accept stage-managing in photographs very well, at least when the motive for doing so is obvious. But suppose that the managing continues to assert itself while the motive is camouflaged or dimmed. A malign element is introduced, for we have no basis for distinguishing anchored from vagrant phenomena, and temporal cause from its effect.

Explaining the action of a falling stone, Aristotle said “It is trying to get to the ground: just as a horse moves faster when it gets near to its stable, so the stone moves faster, the nearer it gets to the ground.” He called this an illustration of the doctrine of final causes––things are determined by what they are going to be rather than what went before. We may smile at the naivete of attaching an intelligent purpose to an inanimate object in order to account for the rate of its fall. But one of the most sensitive areas in photography lies in what it omits to tell us, yet constantly implies: the futurity of objects and beings destined to leave the place where they have been caught out in the open. Whether it is their sole, evanescent business to stay put for us, or that they have simply gotten in the way, intelligibly or not––either of these often mixed potentialities will make us hang differently on the edge of their next moments. Still, the photograph will never relinquish the moment that has frozen events. No one can get them going again, track them out, learn their ending. They evoke a curiosity no less intense because it is vain, and no less meaningful because they are without reason. It is an everyday, light delirium into which we may enter, where, with those photographers who fine it down, the unearthly creatures that scared those Texans might suddenly tremble into view.

––Max Kozloff