Fates and Choices
Edited by Laurine Heerema
Fate and Reality: How Photography Affects our Perception
A purpose of the camera's invention.
Imagination and photographic evidence are both complementary and contradicting inputs of historical events, told stories and the outer world’s realities. Can photography change the fate of reality by contradicting our imagination ability? Written incidents versus picturializing the incident's effects can divert the subject of reality’s fate. The photographer’s decision becomes the crux of canalizing the fate of reality.
Until the invention of the camera, painting was the favored technique used to record visions, landscapes, historical events and people. Even though the sole aim of painting was not to act as a documentation, thanks to the medium, the pre-camera era was pictorialized besides transcripted by writing. According to Vilém Flusser’s interpretation, the two biggest inventions of history are, firstly, the invention of linear writing, and secondly, the invention of technical image-making.
With the invention of photography, the purpose of painting –to record information visually– has been replaced by that of the camera device. This replacement of camera could initiate from a still life painter’s need of realistic reference or a historical incident’s reproduction for the collective consciousness, or the culture, to remember. Starting off from the invention, the camera has limited the artist’s, or, in this case, the photographer’s subjectivity on the image making. In a scenario such as Francesco Goya’s The Third of May could be photographed at the time of the event; not painted, the effectiveness, emotional intensity and its influence on history would undoubtedly be different. However, the question whether to improve or worsen these effects are unanswerable with predictions of technical image-making. In any case, painting versus photography raises questions about the artist’s subjectivity and recognition.
Figure 1: Goya, Third of May, 1808
Photographers are now entitled to the decision of capturing what is in front of the camera. Conversely, a painting could have embodied the artist’s imagination, a manipulation of the reality one sees and would like to portray. Throughout the history of image-making with a camera, the autonomy of the device versus the photographer’s decision making ability has been changed, developed and has birthed different possibilities of the camera’s usage. Ever since photography finally became an accepted art form, the photographer’s autonomy and decision-making on a photograph brought up new possibilities and discussions, such as abstract photography.
Photography changed the direction of written history’s fate
With the help of photography, the direction of written or spoken history has changed to a more telling and graphic version. Photographers have the potential to make decisions, in order to influence reality’s fate. If one decides to record a certain person in a specific situation, that person can become immortal. However, as Jean-Paul Sartre also states, despite the person depicted on the photographic image, existing in a certain incident, they may no longer be the unique subject of the history; instead, they become a function of transmitting a true and real experience for the future viewer (Flusser, 1984).
Where a collective history is read by another’s verbal or textual description of it, the learner is entitled to use their imagination to picture a historical event’s destructiveness, impact or value. However, with the addition of a photograph from the field, the text can lose its impact to the photograph’s efficiency in transmitting its true impact. In the case of the Vietnam War, comparing the written history and joining the text with the image of war-affected children, it is inevitable that photography has changed the fate and destiny, not only of written history, but of the collective knowledge about reality and tellings. When a photographic proof monopolizes the power of persuasion the collective knowledge of told history can change drastically to a personal awakening. Witnessing weighs on the scales alongside learned facts.
Figure 2: Nick Ut, The Terror of War, 1972
“What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.”
Considering the duality of photographic images, questions arise about the depiction of reality. Can photography’s crucial role of being proof of the real, be a delicate balance? Does it depict full reality objectively, or is the photographer a considerable factor in the decision-making of this reality?
Vilem Flusser’s philosophy maintains that the ‘apparatus’ of the camera is a tool that has its own ‘program’, taking precedence over photographer’s autonomy. Indeed, photographers are playing the game of operating a camera, but always strictly within the programmed rules of the apparatus (Flusser, 1984). Throughout the history of photography and the art of photography, this approach has been interrogated, experimented, yet also denied. Even though the photographer’s full autonomy is at great discussion: some photographers employ the camera as an ultimate decision maker, whereas others set their ambitions on manipulating the ‘apparatus’ principles of the camera. Those who refuse to mirror the view in front of the lens could grasp their imaginative visions onto the photographic image; Abstract Photography is one of the convenient practices born from this effort.
Is Abstract Photography an Autonomous Act?
Where many defend that abstraction via camera is not possible– since the camera always records a reality– many practice photography in a contrary way. According to Diarmuid Costello, abstraction is formed from levels, and he classifies the types and techniques of abstractions depending on these levels. In his case, abstraction – in an alternative description– means “the subject losing information”. This definition contains many explanations for photograph-making being a total act of abstraction. A person’s image occurring in a photographic paper is the first level of abstraction, since that person is losing the real proportional information; thus being detached from their reality, and being fit into a new reality, the photographic object, the first level of abstraction is achieved. Especially when the photograph is in black-and-white, the color information gets lost, which is the second level of abstraction within Costello’s definition. As the intensity of “forms becomes unidentifiable”, the level of abstraction increases, such as in Faux Abstraction to Concrete Abstraction. A further detailed approach and practice of abstract photography, coming into conflict with the de-facto ideas of abstraction via camera, is Gottfried Jäger’s studies on Concrete Abstraction.
Figure 3: Minor White, Opposed Directions (1949), a Faux Abstraction example
Figure 4: James Welling, Fluid Dynamics, G19BC, 2009-2012, a Concrete Abstraction example
Figure 5: Gottfried Jäger, Pinhole Structures, 1967, an example for Concrete Abstraction
At this stage of photography’s possibilities, there are many examples that attempt to change the destiny of a reality. Once photography serves as proof of full-on-reality and overwriting verbal history, in other instances, it performs the opposite act. A photographic image can misguide the observer on what happened in front of the lens, within abstraction or within the photographer’s interpretations. This dual property of image-making brings up questions on whether the camera is an autonomous device, or if the photographer themself is the autonomous one in the image making process. Being the question impossible with one satisfying answer, the decision-making could be done by the photographer. If the photographer wants to decide on reality’s fate, or not.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. 1980.
Costello, Diarmuid. “What Is Abstraction in Photography?” The British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 58, no. doi:10.1093/aesthj/ayy037, 2018.
Emiroglu, Aysel Idil. Understanding Abstract Photography and Film. Unpublished Dissertation, Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, 2022, pp. 1–36.
Flusser, Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 1984.
Jäger, Gottfried. “Concrete Photography: (In-Between) Light Image and Data Image.” Leonardo, vol. 51, no. 51, 2018.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. 1977.
Figure 1: https://rb.gy/9ajlck
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Figure 5: https://rb.gy/etc0z0