On Photography: Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered by Stephen Mayes

Photograph by Alexander Gardner / Civil war photographs, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. "The home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg" from Alexander Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (Reprint; New York : Dover Publications, Inc. 1959), plate 41.
Photograph by Alexander Gardner / Civil war photographs, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division“The home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg” from Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (Reprint; New York : Dover Publications, Inc. 1959), plate 41.

I don’t know what I’m looking at any more.   

It’s been about 50 years since I first ran a roll of film through a camera and I fell into a lifelong devotional trance, spellbound by the mystery of the photographic process.  For years I fought to break the enchantment by any means I could find: to apply science I read all 596 pages of the Ilford Manual of Photography, to nail the philosophy I read Sontag, Barthes and Flusser, and to dissect the practice I attended conferences, I took jobs and talked to the smartest people.  I have learned to pass for an expert but still something magical prevails and I recognize that there’s a higher power in the photograph that is pure mystery in all its extraordinary power to inspire and excite along with its more mundane ability to inform and illustrate. 

Lately, almost imperceptibly, a subtle sleight of hand has replaced the organic magic of photography with the cold science of digital technology and everything has changed.  Like a cuckoo in the nest the digital image mimics the medium that once we understood and silently mocks those of us who still think we know what we’re looking at.   Because truly we no longer do.

I know that much because I have read, talked and explored the new digital medium with the same energy that my adolescent self applied to understanding the mysteries of wet photography and although my appetite for new information is voracious there remains an unfilled gap.  Even though the digital process is in some ways so much more transparent than the analogue antecedents– every twitch of every pixel can be analyzed and replicated with absolute accuracy – there’s a piece missing that not even the most advanced engineer can account for.   The cultural context within which the image exists defies understanding because we don’t yet have the history of shared experience that is the foundation of common knowledge. 

To give an example from the receding age of photography, think about the bizarre and contradictory place of black and white photography in culture.  Nobody actually sees the world in black and white and the medium is wholly fantastical, creating a dream-like representation of the world as we never see it.  Yet across the twentieth Century the black and white image came to be understood as a vehicle for authenticity and it survived long past the introduction of colourgravure print processes to represent unimpeachable veracity even until today on the pages of newspapers and magazines.   This is not a protocol that could have been decreed in 1900 even before photography had found its place in the news media, it could only emerge as a common cultural understanding through it usage.

There are many such peculiarities at the transition points and the predominant error that we never learn to overcome is the fixation on the outgoing technology to shape our understanding of the incoming.  Trains were known as “iron horses” and automobiles were thought of as “horseless carriages.” It never works but we always do it, just as we did with the introduction of photography in the mid nineteenth Century.  Although the process came into existence around 1840, it was rarely referred to as “photography” and was more usually known as “photogenic drawing”.   It’s easy to understand why because any pictorial representation must be a drawing and being made with light it was therefore a photogenic drawing.  Henry Fox Talbot published the first photo book in 1844 although it wasn’t marketed as such.  Even the inventor of the medium framed his transcendent new technology as an extension if the old, calling the book “The Pencil Of Nature”.  Looking back from our vantage point with 180 years’ experience of photography as distinctly not like drawing, this seems somewhat quaint. We go even further to condemn as deceitful the works of Roger Fenton and Alexander Gardner whose crimes were to move cannon balls into the frame when photographing in the Crimea and posing the body of a dead sniper in the American Civil War.  But such judgment is misplaced when one considers that they were quite rationally applying the rules of hand drawing to the new medium of photography because they were the only rules available.  Meanwhile, nobody has applied such forensic analysis to their near contemporary Francisco Goya and his etchings “Disasters Of War” and Fenton and Gardner could not have anticipated that their work would eventually be understood in such a radically different way.

We are at such a point now as the old technology of photography gives way to the new digital medium for which as yet no name exists.   So we call it “photography” and we think of it as photography, we teach it as photography and we practice it as photography.  And maybe this transition is the exception because after all the digital image looks very much like photography and until now it’s even being made with the same legacy equipment from the analogue age, modified slightly with the film plane replaced by an electronic sensor.  If this is really our best understanding of digital imagery, maybe it’s not so different even from drawing so why not call it such if that is what it is?   But it isn’t.  The digital image is made using a radically different technology that is no longer indexical but computational; it preforms different functions and its place in culture is evolving rapidly and it’s changing culture as it goes.

But without a proper understanding of the new digital medium’s emergent properties, or knowledge of the full scope of its intended purpose let alone the social accommodation that will be made for the medium it’s as difficult for us to anticipate its eventual cultural context as it was for Fenton and Gardner. Tomorrow will almost certainly re-frame the meaning that we intend for the imagery today.  Whether this switch in our understanding happens next week, next year or in ten years’ time it’s certain that the digital image will be understood to signify something very different as our evolving culture slowly embraces the emergent properties of the new medium and moulds our minds to fit the new form. 

The engineers of Alphabet, Facebook and Apple combined can’t explain why we look at images or why we choose to impart consistent meaning in ways that allow us to communicate with all the emotional subtlety expressed in visual art from Bosch to Brandt and beyond.   But without the shared cultural moorings that positioned each new form we are looking only at visual noise.  This can be resolved by our individual imagination but it lacks the shared protocols that form the basis of true communication. 

The discussion of analogue Vs digital as distinctly separate media might sound arcane, an intellectual exploration of semantics with little practical purpose in daily life.   Who cares how history will regard our nascent exploration of the digital media?  Here are two reasons why we should care: firstly, as naïve inhabitants of digital culture we are at immense risk of fraud or deceit.; if we persist in looking at digital imagery and assessing it as though it were equivalent to traditional analogue photography we will be susceptible to the sort of fraud that has plagued the World Press Photo in recent years, requiring the forensic validation of every pixel before declaring  an image to be fit for human consumption.  It’s a perilous perspective that causes the viewer to constantly doubt what they see.  Secondly, as communicators why wouldn’t we want to harness the new powers that could enhance our work?

Consider for example the current anxiety about fake news and the near hysteria emerging with the dawning recognition that “deepfakes” exist in our midst.  At this point neither technology nor human expertise can reliably and consistently identify deepfake imagery.  We are at the mercy of desktop technology that might be applied with integrity to edify and inform, or might be applied with mendacity to promote social forces that impact on societal peace, the environment, nuclear conflict and (if there could be anything more) more.  We have acquired the habit of reading digital images as though they were photographs, and that is a historical web that traps us in a binary response of belief or disbelief.  The consequences are dire.   Even as we seek to protect ourselves from possible deceit we insulate ourselves from the information that’s necessary to make sense of the world.   Inquiry and investigation slowly succumb to cynicism, disbelief and skepticism.

It’s a bind and apparently there is no technological solution.  But there is a cultural solution.  We need to agree that we’re no longer looking at photographs.  We need a new vocabulary of the image.

We could lose the fear of misinformation implicit in the current anxiety afflicting the photographic mindset.   We might embrace enhanced opportunity for truth to be told in digital allegory.  We might free ourselves from the tyranny of disinformation by empowering ourselves to tell deeper truths.  Photography might need to free itself from fact.   Plenty of artists whose work is rooted in documentary photographic practice have by embracing the opportunity of digital representation utterly released themselves from the constraints of photography.  It’s 40 years since David Hockney broke the photographic mould with his joiner photos and Peter Kennard shook us with his documentary collages, and now we can look to Clement Valla, Josh Begley, Trevor Paglen and many others.  Their work emerges from documentary. We think we know how to receive it. Yet it transcends the factual and temporal limitations of photography without deceit and without even requiring the re-education of the viewer.  They set a different frame and the willing viewer intuitively inhabits their world, stepping through disbelief into a universe of photographic truth beyond photography.

Until we reach a new understanding we are truly lost as visual communicators, and grasping the significance of our ignorance unfortunately doesn’t actually take us anywhere new because none of us individually can define the new commonalities of cultural exchange.   The only thing we can fairly do at this point is to acknowledge that we are no longer looking at nor talking about photography as we move through the deceptively familiar, yet radically different world of imagery

Meanwhile old-fashioned photography still exists in some niche areas.  It exists with rightful dignity in the history of imagery and as an artisanal practice of high contemporary value.  It is no longer the medium that most of us live with as creators using digital devices or as viewers using screens.  We have reached a point in digital communication where using the language of photography is tantamount to deceit.  The old magic is not the same as the new digital mystery.  By using the old language, we’re not helping ourselves understand. We need a new vocabulary

Without it I still don’t know what I’m looking at.

Stephen Mayes, April 2020