Photography: A Strange Confined Space Tuesday November 21, 2006

The explosive energies compressed in a photograph, encouraging the viewer to puzzle out is literal and conceptual contents, are like the unconscious energies Freud describes as emerging in a joke or a dream. The release achieved by comprehension of joke, dream, or metaphor is satisfying: in the Freudian joke because repressed ideas, which have gathered strength from their repression, are discharged or re-aligned with revelation of meaning. The very closure of a photographic frame compresses energies.

The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space, Mary Price 2000: 92

This brief quotation summarises, I think, a perceptive understanding of photography. The idea that photography is ‘magical’, that it simultaneously reveals and deceives as an ambiguous representation of life both real and unreal, lies at the heart of it. It fascinates us as children, if we are lucky enough to enjoy it at a young age. It entrances and delights us in a darkroom, as the meditative counterpoint to being out there in the world with a camera: if we were lucky enough to experience it in the pre-digital era or, indeed, if we still do it. We take it for granted and no longer consider its inherent psychology, as we pursue our beloved hobby or professional practice. Photographs are such a ubiquitous aspect of contemporary life, unless we read books like The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space or actively take photographs ourselves, we probably never think about it. And yet there they are: informing, illustrating, entertaining, and offering diverse 2D windows onto a world we can never fully experience nor understand. Cameras are everywhere, and photographs are their testimony; why and how we invest meaning in this work is the hidden and forgotten psychology that delighted me as a young boy and remains, despite the layers and layers of adult sophistication, my inherent response to the photograph.

Gary Winogrand wrote “I photograph to see what things look like photographed”, implying a process which is its own rationale with an inherent cognitive dimension. The act is itself the work; the craft is itself the meaning. Cartier-Bresson described photography as another form of language, and Lee Friedlander said

I suspect it is for one’s self interest that one looks at one’s surroundings and one’s self. This search is personally born and is indeed my reason and motive for taking photographs. The camera is not merely a reflecting pool and the photographs are not exactly the mirror, mirror on the wall that speaks with a tiwisted tongue. Witness is borne and puzzles come together at the photographic moment which is very simple and complete (Self Portrait, 1970: introduction, quoted in Photography Speaks, Johnson, 2004: 232).

And Freud is still there, outdated and superseded by diverse psychological understanding and even more diverse psychotherapeutic methods, but still important and unique for his contribution about the unconscious mind. The photograph, Price says, is like a dream or a joke; the revelation of meaning it contains within it corresponds to the release of psychic energy when the symbolism of the night-time images or humorous quip is suddenly manifest. We gain insight, we laugh, and we appreciate the meaning of the photographic image: the psychodynamics are similar, concerned as they are with a reconfiguration of meaning allowing a new kind of knowledge. Price again: “when the known elements of an objective world are recognised and at the same time a new aspect of that world is presented, pleasure (as well as shock) can result” (84).

Earlier in The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space, Price suggests the work of Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida) and John Tagg (The Burden of Representation) pose a fundamental dichotomy in photographic interpretation and culture. Barthes, she notes, proposes a phenomenological method as a means to understanding the nature of the photograph; his famous musing over personal images of his deceased mother lead to a consideration of photography as an inevitable meditation on death – not very cheery stuff. And yet he was right; the poignancy of a photograph is always that it fails, that the moment it records existed then, and will never be the same much as any moment in a human life is impermanent and thus inherently unsatisfactory. We can enjoy it, like a dream, joke or good movie, but it’s never immovable or definitive. According to Umberto Eco, there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary or conjectural. According to Sartre, the universe is contingent and inherently meaningless, and the only certainty and ultimate meaning is our own mortality; although having accepted that, we are allowed and encouraged to develop what he called a ‘project’, whereby we create meaning in life as a deliberate act of investment. What’s the point of suicide? – we may as well have some fun, within the parameters given to us.

Tagg, on the other hand, suggests that the meaning of a photograph, indeed all cultural artefact, traces back to the political conditions in which it is produced, and the material conditions of history as described by Marx. Price tries to intervene: “these statements cannot be reconciled even though they are not altogether contradictory. Reconciliation would involve establishing facts, whereas facts are precisely the source of disagreement” (9).

In this famous image of Steiglitz, we see an act of aesthetic creation when confronting harrowing political conditions:

The Steerage (1907) shows a questionable stratification of class, privilege, and power. The wealthy are comfortably above, the poor people below; but Steiglitz is more interested in a Cubist composition of photographic art.

I like The Steerage as an art-photo, and while I accept the criticism that it fails to question that situation (a criticism not applied to the work of his contemporary Lewis Hine), that in itself does not undermine it. I find the opposite situation more unacceptable: the blocking and censoring of aesthetic creation according to the oppressive politics seen in China and the former Soviet Union, whereby all art is/was supposed to conform to political ideology. Aesthetics, they imply/ied, can only express this and a failure to do so demonstrates what Marx called ‘false consciousness’. This is precisely Tagg’s position, in his The Burden Of Representation. And it’s a very dreary book.

But in both cases, the aesthetic and the political, the photograph has a revelatory power conveying a proverbial thousand words. In that respect, psychology/phenomenology is the encompassing schema accommodating and explaining both: a situation where personal response, and thus self-awareness, is placed at the legitimate centre of debate and enquiry, rather than a constant deference to an external groups of ideas.