Photography a Critical Introduction, edited by Liz Wells, published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
The image on the front cover of this book was very appropriate for my experience when first reading this book: ‘Babel’ from Cockaign, by Gayle Chong Kwan.
The last listed book in my recommended reading list for the ‘Context and Narrative’ course to be read which completes my reading for both essential and recommended for the course. Phew!
I originally purchased and began reading this book for my ‘Art of Photography’ (AOP) course but I didn’t understand the relevance to my course and I also found it to be too heavy reading for me at that time and I only got half way through chapter one before putting it down. I was keen to read books themed closer to the topics covered in the syllabus and additional technical books on composition, lighting, exposure, etc to bring me up to speed with my basic photography skills. I felt that this book should have been listed in the essential reading list for my AOP course as none of the syllabus touched on critical theory and therefore wasn’t even appropriate for recommended reading. However, this book was listed as recommended reading for this current coarse of Context and Narrative and in my opinion this should in fact be listed as essential reading.
This book is definitely worth reading once the critical theory of art in photography needs to be explored and understood. There was much that linked to my current studying and I could see likely future links to my next courses, particularly chapter 4, ‘The subject as object: photography and the human body’ which discussed various forms of fetishism in art and explained what this word means in the art world. Not just sex and deviant behavior but also desire and even a form of addiction which can be exploited by advertising, etc.
I still found it a heavy book and it took almost three weeks for me to read, but thanks to all the other reading that I have now done and the clear link it had to my current studying I was able to relate to the subject matter. I am pleased that I have finally read this book and I realize that I made the right decision two years ago to put the book down as I would not have understood a word and the messages that are now useful would have been missed. I probably would not have thought to read it again; so missing a second chance to learn something from this book.
Walter Benjamin, One-way Street and other Writings, (2009) London: Penguin. ISBN:978-0-141-18947-5.
On the critique of violence, (1921) is an essay considering the use of violence as a form of law enforcement and justice. An interesting essay for studying documentary theory.
There is an essay on surrealism and an essay about a Czech writer that I had not heard of but who sounds interesting Franz Kafka. I shall look for examples of his work.
A collection of essays that include Brief History of Photography, (1931) that looks at the early development of photography and such influencing works as August Sanders.
Also included is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, (1936) Benjamin examines how photography has made the great art classics more available to be seen by the mass public but by doing so he considers that there value has diminished in virtue of the rarity for public access. He then goes on to look at cinema as a new art form and how this form of media is changing and influencing art both politically and culturally.
Notes of interest for, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)
Benjamin argues that recent technology has fundamentally changed the meaning of reproduction in art.
He argues that art has always been reproducible by limited technological means since the times of Ancient Greece by means of casting and embossing for bronzes, terracottas and coins. Then much later came printing.
Until the development of photography and gramophone the reproduction of most art forms could retain their genuineness through provenance.
However photography and the gramophone has fundamentally changed the meaning of reproduction of art as a whole.
A piece of art holds its status of genuineness through provenance and provenance is beyond technological reproduction.
Something reproduced by manual means still holds its genuineness (even when branded a forgery).
Something reproduced by modern technological means does not. For example a Brahms symphony reproduced in a concert hall 150 years after Brahms’ death still retains its genuineness. However, if recorded and then played back the genuineness. A painted copy (manual reproduction) of the Mona Lisa retains a genuineness. However, a photograph (technological reproduction) of the Mona Lisa does not.
With the new technological reproduction of photography and gramophone, the reproduced works of art has now a new meaning: one that can go anywhere and be enjoyed by anyone. A symphony concert can now be enjoyed in a living room or a priceless Rembrandt painting from the pages of a book.
New methods of technological reproduction has also provided new ways in which to experience beyond the range of our normal senses for example slow motion and macro-photography.
Although technological reproduction does not physically alter or effect the original, it does alter the original’s value. Its here and now is devalued.
The genuineness of a thing is the quintessence of everything about it since its creation that can be handed down, from its material duration to the historical witness duration to the historical witness that it bears. The latter (material duration and historical witness) being grounded in the former (the thing’s genuineness), what happens in the representation, where the former has been removed from human perception, is that the latter also starts to wobble. Nothing else, admittedly; however, what starts to wobble thus is the authority of the thing. (233).
The above passage suggests that when the genuineness has been removed the material duration and its historical witness becomes questionable.
‘We can encapsulate what stands out here by using the term ‘aura’. We can say: what shrinks in an age where the work of art can be reproduced by technological means is its aura.’ (233)
Reproductive technology, we might say in general terms, removes the thing reproduced from the realm of tradition. In making many copies of the reproduction, it substitutes for its unique incidence a multiplicity of incidences. And in allowing the reproduction to come closer to whatever situation the person apprehending it is in, it actualises what is reproduced. (233)
Art’s meaning alters over time.
Within major historical periods, along with changes in the overall mode of being of the human collective, there are also changes in the manner of its sense perception. (234). ‘A classical statue of Venus, for example, occupied a different traditional context for the Greeks, who made of it an object of worship, than for medieval clerics, who saw it as a threatening idol.’ (236)
‘Works of art are received and adopted with different points of emphasis, two of which stand out as poles of each other. In one case the emphasis is on the work’s cultic value; in the other, on its display value.’ (237)
Much wisdom had already been thrown away on deciding whether photography was an art (without asking the prior question: whether, with the invention of photography, the very nature of art had undergone a change), but before long the theoreticians of film were asking a similarly hasty question. (240)
The fact that the work of art can now be reproduced by technological means alters the relationship of the mass to art. From being very backward (faced with a Picasso, for instance), it has become highly progressive (given, say, Chaplin). Yet this progressive response is characterised by the fact that in it the pleasure of looking and experiencing is associated, directly and profoundly with the stance of passing an expert judgement. The link is an important social indicator. In fact, the more the social significance of an art diminishes, the greater the extent (as clearly turning out to be the case with painting) to which the critical and pleasure-seeking stances of the public diverge. (248-249)
Two very different essays , the first was made with the photographer W. Eugene Smith’s chronicling the life of a Country Doctor in the State of Colorado in the late 1940 over a period of three weeks for Life magazine. The images and accompanying text paints a portrait of a general practitioner dedicated to his work and his community with some dramatic images and some apparent good candid portraits. Smith claims that he began by taking pictures without film in order to relax his subjects and as they got used to his company he then started taking picture for real. However, he is also had no qualms about staging photographs in order to provide life magazine with the images required. Smith was also an outsider and although he spent several weeks with Dr. Ceriani the documentary element lacks a personal – emotional involvement type feeling to the pictures.
Bryony Campbell’s work on the other-hand seems to be electrically charged with raw emotional involvement. Campbell’s images clearly have not been staged and this honesty to her work produces such strong emotional feelings that they are almost palpable. Whilst Smith’s work make an interesting documentary, Campbell’s work touches her audience on a much more personal level. The sensitive subject matter she has chosen to document touches us all as it is a subject that we all have to face but all either don’t want to talk about or know how to talk about, Campbell’s essay gives people that opportunity. As it is about her and her family it is clearly a documentary from the inside and so instead of appearing to be intrusive or insensitive the work appears to be candid and honest.
Campbell describes her work of The Dad Project as an end without an end, this could refer to her spiritual belief but I suspect that it has more to do with that this project has become a part of her life and a part of her. She writes in her website blog that at the end of an interview at the BBC for the World Service the interviewer asked her, “Is it hard to talk about the experience and then just get on with a normal day? Do you feel that the project is stopping you from moving on?” Campbell reflects that the project has become part of her normal day and that it has helped her in her grieving process and as such does not feel the need to ‘move on’. One does not get over the loss of a loved one, one simply learns how to live with that loss and therefore in a sense we all experience at some-point an end without an end.