R Nandakumar on Photography – between reproduction and representation

{ R. Nandakumar is an art historian and culture critic. He has taught art history and aesthetics in various Fine Arts colleges and has been Professor and Head of the Department of Visual Arts in Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi. Formerly a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, he has currently been a Senior Nehru Fellow at Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi.

As an art historian though visual arts is his home discipline, cultural musicology is another major area of his research interest. His works in both have appeared in important academic journals and they address areas of intercultural concern from the perspective of the sociology of culture. }

Umrao Sher-gil
Photography (C) Umrao Sher-gil / image taken from internet

The art enthusiast who is confirmed in “his ability to adopt the posture socially designated as specifically aesthetic” (Pierre Bourdieu’s words), often feels let down in his self-assured aesthetic gaze while watching a photograph, whether documentary or the so-called art mounted on the walls of a gallery. While studying the aesthetic attitude of various classes of people to the photographic image, Bourdieu found that the value attributed to the photographic image as an aesthetic object corresponded to the value attributed to the thing of which it is a photograph. That is to say, people found many of “the objects unsuitable for being transfigured by the act of artistic promotion performed by photography.” What exactly is the nature of this artistic promotion performed by photography that transfigures objects? Or, is there any, for that matter? A photograph of foot prints on the sands is just that – the sign of somebody having passed through the sandy stretch before the camera – until a certain metaphorical intent as articulated in the field of discourse of the aesthetic is appropriated by the visual referential of the image which would have us take it for “the foot prints on the sands of Time.” For many, the photographic image is too real, too mundane and too immediate to evoke the psychic distance called for in the traditional aesthetic gaze that would assign it to the culture-neutral domain of rarefied aesthetic. All the more so when the content of the image would have implications of a non-art kind that cannot be wished away under the rubric of the aesthetic. I mean, political implications. Even those aesthetes would be increasingly aware of the difficulty in distinguishing between the aesthetic and the informative at the level of message as the affinity that art has with information and communication is ever more becoming a matter of course in any contemporary experience of the environment that is all but an aestheticised simulation of a spectacle. It is the simulacrum of such an environment that configured through the representations of photographic imagizing, but still in the offing in the fifties of the last century, that Richard Hamilton alludes to when he said:

In the fifties we became more aware of the possibility of seeing the whole world, at once, through the great visual matrix that surrounds us, a synthetic ‘instant’ view. Cinema, television, magazines, newspapers flood the artist with a total landscape and this new visual ambience was photographic, reportage rather than art photography in the main.1

What is to be noted is that photography has already established its coexistence with the systems of information and communication, making good its own susceptibility to be manipulated by words – by way of captions and accompanying text. In fact, Walter Benjamin seems to have been aware of what the caption can do to a photograph when he asked whether the captions would not become the essential component of pictures.2

Photography (C) Raja Deen Dayal / image taken from internet
Photography (C) Raja Deen Dayal / image taken from internet

That is one side of the story. In spite of such common attitudes, however, what is amazing is the amount of theorizing and philosophizing that is going on about photography which only shows how the academic enterprise is still at a loss to come to terms with the aesthetic rationale of photography even as it has outlived in practice the situation in which theory still tends to circumscribe it. The two issues that figure time and again in the ‘great photography debate’ running the whole course of the history of the medium and getting into the conceptualizations of early film theorists like Andre Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, are centred around the notions of the authenticity of the photographic image and its ontological status. (In fact, Rudolf Arnheim titles one of his essays of 1993: “The Two Authenticities of the Photographic Media”3). All through this century-old polemic the unstated reference points are those drawn from the system of binaries of mind/machine, or art/fact, or representation/indexicality that keep changing only their terminological garb according to whatever is the current intellectual vogue. A look at some of the leading Anglo-American academic journals of art-theory and aesthetics over the last couple of decades will show how a speculative and hypothetical method of theorizing combining empirical reasoning and argumentative logic is pressed into service to score a point and make a case in defence of photography. The logically clever resourcefulness of those arguments that apparently have some claims to be formulating their views along the lines of the super-genre of theory veers between an apology for and a defence of photography for not being art: “Representation, all right. But reproduction, all the same!” Here is an instance of theory becoming redundant and out of step with the context of practice of what it theorizes as embodied in the new experience of the medium. Only very few of them show a different conceptual orientation informed at the same time by a new sensibility that can renegotiate the older aesthetic concepts in the light of the new experience of the medium.

Such discussions are quite often centred on the construction versus transcription paradigm where each term is defined along premises that would enable it to be pitted against the other in a traditional system of binaries. But it is the latent dualism of the photographic image between construction and transcription that endows it with its peculiar aesthetic rationale, as it is rooted in its very visual mechanism. Because of its counterfactual dependence on the motif depicted it is a transcription and at the same time, by virtue of the manner in which it characterizes the motif subject to its given methods of depiction, it is a construction. Even when a photograph looks unmediated, without human intervention in the realization of its image, and hence signifying the absence of the author, the absence itself is a construction. This also causes a peculiar ambivalence in the relation of the viewer to a photograph – in the casual and undemanding identification of the viewer with it. In the Albertian perspectival system the fixed point of the viewer is a metaphor that is presupposed in the organizing principle of the painting that lends credence to the depiction of the pictorial space as closed, centred and contained within the frame. But the photograph, however more organized it is than normal vision in terms of the perspective orthogonal and provides more visual information than a perspectival painting, does not have an interior perspective that conforms to any purpose and in that sense affords only far less a grip on the depicted world, as Max Kozloff observes.4 That is to say, unlike in the case of an Albertian perspectival painting, the viewer does not find himself being addressed by a photograph and is not invited into its space. The characteristically unstable relations among the various elements of a photograph’s optic array that results from this, even when it is a ‘composed’ one, are suggestive of a state of flux, a continuum as exists outside and independent of the frame which it is only a segment of. The composed optic array within the frame and the randomness which it suggests of the physical disarray outside the frame are bound by a causal symmetry and yet are different, creating a subtle imbalance that is built into the optics of the photographic image. The fact that this is not an empirically given precondition of perception, in the sense in which it is characterized as a message without a code, but something we have learned to read through cultural conventions, is relevant for any understanding of the signifying process of the photographic image. This in fact accounts for what Irving Singer refers to as               the wonder that we all feel in the presence of realistic photography. He says: “What looks so much alike is nevertheless so different – not just different in some attribute, but also ontologically different.”5

Photography (C) Sunil Janah / image taken from internet
Photography (C) Sunil Janah / image taken from internet

In as much as the optical mechanism of the camera obscura could not do away with the perspective orthogonal, it can be said to have anticipated photography via the Albertian perspectival painting. It is only a happy coincidence that the pictorial conventions initiated by the European Renaissance were to have anticipated the aesthetic rationale of photography coming, as it did, four centuries later when those very conventions have ran their course and were on the retreat. The normative preconditions that those conventions set for certain perceptual modalities were found to be concurrent with the more empirical processes of image-making of photography which in a way helped put the real back into the gross matter of reality. That is, the gross matter of tangible reality that makes up the phenomenal world as engaged by the human perceptual apparatus and mediated by the human consciousness but at the same time, is independent of the perceiver as attested to by its empirical existence. This is a status that man-made image in its whole history of being either a projection of himself on to the external world or an appropriation of it by him, did not have so far. Images which as Arnheim says, in the course of our civilization we have come to use as tools of contemplation.

We have set them up as a world of their own, separate from the world they depict, so that they may have their own completeness and develop more freely their particular style. These virtues, however, are outweighed by the anxiety such a detachment arouses when the mind cannot afford it because its own hold on reality has loosened too much. Under such conditions, the foot-lights separating a world of make-believe from its counterpart and the frame which protects the picture from merging with its surroundings become a handicap.6 [emphasis added]

The square or rectangular inset of the frame that closes in on a segment of the visual field does not simply present that visual field but it represents that visual field by qualitatively modifying and characterising the spatial relations among objects by introducing new dimensions in the relations between the figure and the field, figure and the ground and, by eliminating the ambient peripheral vision, between the figure, the field and the frame. Here things are cut at half-length by the edges of the frame and they spill out not contained by it. In other words, they do not follow the inner logic of any organizing principle to form a coherent, stable inner order, however ‘composed’ the frames are. Nor does it enclose a closed, centred spatial field contained and held together by the frame as whatever is within it is only consistent with all that is beyond it. This particular relation of the frame to the ‘unframed’ view of the camera was not something unknown to the artists as, for example, the plein air painters and artists like Degas who got the better of it. In any case, the image that freed itself from the protective limits of the frame, thus enabling it to merge with its surroundings and ceasing to be a tool of contemplation, was closer in the experience it embodied to a contemporary reality perception.  

Photography (C) Kishore Parekh / image taken from internet
Photography (C) Kishore Parekh / image taken from internet

From the foregoing it is hoped that the aspects of the orthogonal, perspective, frame and so on are shown to have a distinct nonpainterly, anti-graphic orientation in photography and have a value of their own in photogenic imagizing. So far so good. That said, it may sound to be falling for the argument that these elements go into the making of a universal ‘language’ of photography, if language that be. Now, in the present day practice, as the way it has come about, the photographic idiom surely has more than a touch of the international about it, though. But this is in sharp contradistinction to the early practice of the medium, especially in many non-western cultures. An interesting case of photography when it arrived for the first time in India in the pre-industrial, pre-modern era is studied by Judith Mara Gutman who argues that “a Western role, function, and use of the camera” did not enter the world of Indian photographers. In denaturing the specific attributes of optical realism of the medium, especially in the use of space, their methods were more in line with the norms of Indian painterly traditions, she observes.

Indian photographers followed in the painter’s foot steps, often flattening a picture’s space, creating a field of interest with multiple pockets of interest, no one pocket any more important than another. Sometimes, they created two planes in a photograph, essentially negating a middle distance, thereby emulating a favourite pattern developed by Indian painters. At other times, three horizontal planes, as so often appeared throughout Indian painting, appeared in their photographs…Adapting, rather than adopting, the Westerner’s equipment, the Indian photographers used the camera to reflect and extend an Indian conception of reality…These images did without vanishing points, for instance, just as the great store of Indian paintings had. Several pockets of interest ranged across a picture plane in such a way that they seemed to expand the picture’s space and run out to the picture frame’s edge, or even beyond it.7[emphasis added]

What strikes us as different about those photographs is in fact in their very manner of being more or less artisanal in moorings, having had close affinities with the pre-industrial craft traditions of the country and not the product of any self-conscious hankering after style to vindicate their Indian ‘identity’. What is equally important is how such early practices gave way to a standardized formal procedure of an international idiom subject to the compulsions of the techno-industrial environment of photographic practice dictated by trans-national capital, finally making those early works look naïve and unsophisticated through our cultural unlearning. One is also reminded of an early Japanese film maker like Mizoguchi who had adapted the cinematographic idiom to be more in tune with the pictorial conventions and spatial organization of the traditional Japanese horizontal narrative scroll painting.

Photography (C) Raghu Rai / image taken from internet
Photography (C) Raghu Rai / image taken from internet

Richard Shiff argues that in the historical situation of photography in which it has come to appropriate all claims to reality, it does so by virtue of a character of what he calls catachresis. The propositions on which he argues the case are:

[…](1) at any moment in history the value of all representation depends on the existence of some representation that can be regarded as transparent, realistic, or natural; (2) during the modern era photography has provided a kind of fabricated image that can successfully masquerade as a natural one; (3) as such, photography plays the role of a proper (but not literal) term in opposition to painting’s figured term. A rhetorician would say that photography plays catachresis to painting’s metaphor…We can accept the photograph as “natural” by comparison with other kinds of images and see how deeply implicated in a system of arbitrary signs it is.8

According to Shiff, though photography is not itself unfigured, it renders all other forms of representation more figured than itself and in the process becomes the ‘proper’, that is, the acceptable norm of all image of the real. Photography achieves this, he argues, through phototropism – photography’s peculiar turn or manner of figuration – by subverting the sense of proper representation. “The photograph is neither proper nor figured, neither properly documentary nor properly art; the photograph is a catachresis.”9

Photography (C) S. Paul / image taken from internet
Photography (C) S. Paul / image taken from internet

This is the point of the paradoxical relation between factuality and artifice or, put differently, between simulacrum and point of view – a relation that is positioned between the optic and the visual as the paradigm of perception in photography. It is commonplace to say that the camera is only recording what there is for any one to see at the time. And what one sees will be informed by what one is looking for as much as by what one brings to bear on what is thus seen – whereby the notional subject becomes content and the content becomes form in the image of the representation (remembering the oft-heard saying to the opposite effect). Though unreflective, unfigured and unrepresentational (that is, not informed by representational thought, a la Roger Scruton10), the photographic image, in the way it materializes, involves a multiplicity of processes of selection and omission guided by conscious decisions and unconscious predilections of the person who handles the equipment. In other words, the apparently transcriptional nature of the image is itself the result of artifice. The subtle dualism between the all-at-onceness of the counterfactual dependence of the photograph on its object on the one hand, and an artifice the transparency of which made it possible, on the other, creates an unsettling ambivalence which is inherent to the aesthetic context of the media’s realism. The stronger the artifice, the stronger is the transparency and never the other way round. In his introductory essay to Richard Avedon’s portrait photographs, Harold Rosenberg notes: “The nineteenth century made the revolutionary discovery that artifice – or, if one prefers, metaphor – is inherent in things; in short, that there is a truth of surfaces…In the nineteenth century, the secrecy of Being is dissipated into patterns of unprivileged data.”11 That the genesis of photography coincided with such a notion of the truth of surfaces as a function of artifice, made the artifice of photographic realism less problematic. It is only that the causal and counterfactual identity between the thing-in-itself and the image as sign in relation to the content of the thing, of which it is the expression, was perfectly tenable with the cultural conventions of the nineteenth century life world.

Photography (C) GG Welling / Image taken from internet

However, the artifactual transparency of the photographic image has more to it than this. The imagized transparency of the photograph is, in fact, endowed with the primal opacity of the object-in-itself as engrained in the “optic unconscious”12 that is constitutive of the domain of photographic realism and the peculiar perceptual modality that it entails. This primal opacity of the object is the attribute of its materiality in the state of immanence in time, which it withholds from being engaged by the human consciousness at least momentarily. This takes us close to the observation of Siegfried Kracauer who after distinguishing between the two spatial appearances of objects – ‘the natural’ one and that of the object permeated by cognition – notes:

By sacrificing the former for the sake of the latter the artwork also negates the likeness achieved by photography. This likeness refers to the look of the object, which does not immediately divulge how it reveals itself to cognition; the artwork, however, conveys nothing but the transparency of the object.10 [emphasis added]

If the phrase “This likeness refers to…” in the sentence quoted is to be taken to mean not as the word ‘likeness’ alluding to, but rather as the aspect of likeness signifying – it makes an interesting proposition. In that sense, it is not that the aspect of likeness achieved by photography is to be equated with the look of the object or that it evokes the look of the object, but that it only signifies the look of the object. Which is to say that it is a representation (subject to the media-specific conventions of photogenic imagizing) of the idea of the object and not (the reproduction of) the object itself, however illusionistic a replication of the appearance of the object it is. This look of the object in the likeness of which the photograph imagizes it is the irrevocable icon of the object-in-itself in its unmediated state of being as it precedes human cognition in the interactive process of perception-consciousness, as what appears to be given to perception is itself a function of perception. Photography retrieves this fleeting opacity of the object that is lost to consciousness as a function of the truth of surfaces – but as truth that is lost in the transparency of fact.


Photography (C) Kulwant Roy / Image taken from internet
Photography (C) Kulwant Roy / Image taken from internet

Now, I come to the last part of my argument. Taking the cue from Kracauer and extending his argument, is it that the artwork (painting, for our purpose) that concerns itself with the transparency of the object has at its disposal only the fact that is a leftover of truth? Without getting into the painting versus photography wrangle, I would like to suggest the possibility that the very basic difference between the two is that of an aspect of the faculty of perception. In the natural binocular stereoscopic perception the perceiver is always placed within the field of perception – he sees the world as himself seen within it and sees himself as seeing the world in a primal subject/object relation, with the spatial and temporal reference points being himself as the perceiver. It is around such a sense of the self on which the spatio-temporal reference points of the act of perception converge that the endless multiplicity of fragmentary visual stimuli is organized and oriented into the dimensional and directional experience of an unbroken perceptual continuum (temporal) and an engulfing perceptual ambience (spatial). The experience of such a unified visual field is rendered possible only by a perceptual apparatus in which is engrained the experience of space as coinherent in and coincident with that of time, the unconsciously perceived reference points of which are integrated into the sense of the self. As Edmund Leach has once observed in passing: “…we manage to recognize things as things and events as events by refusing to recognize the spatial and temporal boundaries where one chunk of space-time merges into the next.” And he goes on to add immediately that this is what cultural conventions are all about.11 The welter of superimposed sensory stimuli that crowd in on our visual perception – which hypothetically would be a mass of disparate ‘snap shots’ – is integrated into the spatio-temporal matrix of our experiential world by this unconscious refusal to acknowledge them individually. It is against the latent background of the ego-centred vertical/horizontal axis that these disparate ‘snap shots’ are integrated through what in phenomenological terms is called the “etc. principle” to define the events and the existents in terms of their continuity in time and extension in space. The sense of the self is that which is realized by the vertically oriented viewing subject (related to the complex psycho-physical make up of evolutionary bipedality and the emergence of the brain/mind/self constellation) against the horizontal directiveness of the physical, terrestrial lifeworld which latter is internalized as the unconscious symbolic axis of all syntactical connectedness and associative linearity of cognitive processes. Painting articulates the dynamics of this subject-object relation in the act of perception which inevitably has to embody the dimension of time as duration in its visual ontology.

TS Sathyan
Photography (C) TS Sathyan / Image taken from internet

But how does painting achieve this? The mediated and reflective language of representation of painting, in the forbiddingly precise formulation of Leo Steinberg, is “the fashioning of graphic symbols to act as analogues for certain areas of visual experience which are transmuted and reduced to symbolic pattern.”12 Among these areas of visual experience that Steinberg mentions, which are more than that evoked by the object sighted, not the least important is the unconscious experience of the act of seeing (itself involving time) through the constant scanning of the visual field by the shifting of focus, turning of the eye and the head and the sensations of the ocular muscles in controlling the eye movement – all that ‘little sensations’ of Cezanne. The experiential context in which each painting is located involves the triadic relation between the perceiver, the perceived and the act of perceiving. To take one example, the isotopic homogeneity of pictorial space of a typical Renaissance painting that is defined by the simultaneity of momentary views accommodated within it (in relation to the spatial location of the viewer which it presupposes) is collateral with the continuity of linear time as a serial passage (in relation to the temporal present of the viewer) defined by the succession of momentary points along the durational aspect of time.

Now, coming to the photograph – in materializing its image the photograph takes the percept out of this event-existent correlation and divests it of the temporality of its being-in-itself. The monocular, enframed and projective space of the photograph is that in which the object existed in a particular chunk of space-time from where time has ebbed off. In the normal perceptual experience this chunk of space-time has its boundaries lost to consciousness in the continuity of the object’s existence in time and the extension of its existence in space that is basic to the perceptual experience of the object in space. This, I maintain, accounts for the often felt timelessness of the photographic image – the kind of deja` vu that one experiences before the prints of Eugene Atget that haunted the imagination of the Surrealists.

(*Published in Nandan: An annual on Art and Aesthetics, vol. 23, 2003, Department of History of Art, Santiniketan, Visvabharati University. An earlier version of the paper was presented at the seminar on Photography, The KHOJ International Artists’ Workshop, Bangalore, November 3, 2002.)

Notes and References

  1. Richard Hamilton, Studio International, March 1966.
  2. It will not always be possible to link this authenticity [of the photograph] with reportage, whose clichés associate themselves only verbally in the viewer. The camera will become smaller and smaller, more and more prepared to grasp fleeting, secret images whose shock will bring the mechanism of association in the viewer to a complete halt. At this point captions must begin to function, captions which understand the photography which turns all the relations of life into literature, and without which all photographic construction must remain bound in coincidences. Walter Benjamin, “Walter Benjamin’s Short History of Photography”1), tr. Phil Patton, Art Forum, (February 1977), p. 51. See also for a discussion on the relation of the photographic image with the caption: Nigel Warburton, “Photographic Communication”, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 28, no. 2 (Spring 1988), 173 – 181.
  1. Siegfried Kracauer, “The Two Authenticities of the Photographic Media”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 51, no. 4 (Fall 1993), p.537 – 540.
  2. Max Kozloff, “The Awning that Flapped in the Breeze and the Bodies that Littered the Field: Painting and the Invention of Photography”, Art Forum, vol. 20, no. 1(September 1981), p. 53 – 60.
  3. Irving Singer, “Santayana and the Ontology of the Photographic Image,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 36, no. 1, (Fall 1977), p.39 – 43.
  4. Rudolf Arnheim, “Art Today and the Film”, Art Journal, vol.25, no. 3 (Spring 1966), p.242.
  5. Judith Mara Gutman, “Through Indian eyes: Indigenous photography in the subcontinent”, IMPACT of science on society, No. 168, (vol. 42, no. 4) 1992, p. 347 – 48. Gutman illustrates her essay with six chosen photographs with captions like: ‘Prya Lal’s son,’ ca. 1885, ‘Nizam’s noble’s with Raj officials,’ ca. 1880, ‘Landowner who loves music,’ 1870, ‘Party after Shikar,’ ca. 1890, ‘Police unit,’ ca. 1900 and ‘Transporters’ from Marwari census, 1891.
  6. Richard Shiff, “Phototropism (Figuring the Proper)”, Retaining the Original: Multiple Originals, Copies, and Reproductions; Studies in the History of Art, vol. 20, ed., Kathleen Preciado, University of New England, 1989, p. 161 – 179.
  7. ibid. p. 174.
  8. Roger Scruton, “Photography and Representation,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 7, no. 3(Spring 1981), p.577 – 603.
  9. Harold Rosenberg, Portraits: Richard Avedon, Thames and Hudson, London, 1976.
  10. Walter Benjamin, cit.
  11. Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography” (1927), Critical Inquiry, vol. 19, no. 3, (1993), p.421 – 454.
  12. Edmund Leach, “Profanity and Context”, New Scientist, London, October 20, 1977.
  13. Leo Steinberg, “Eye is part of the Mind,” Other Criteria, Oxford University Press, (London 1972), p.293.

Disclaimer: Photographs and text published in this post is copyrighted property of the author. Prior permission is required from the author for republishing and reprinting. For more information, contact Ekalokam Trust for Photography at admin@etpindia.org





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