A postmodern documentary -The myth of objectivity

There is quite a bit of research and academic reading to complete in the first section of this module…and more to come by the looks of things. It is safe to say that some is much easier to read and digest on the first look than others. I have been asked to read two separate quotes, one from Allan Sekula and the other from André  Bazin, then compare their points of view and write a 250 word response, recording my own view on the issue of photographic objectivity. The basis of this exercise is to think about ‘the myth of objectivity’ and this myth has implications for documentary photographic practice. Objectivity meaning impartiality, absence of bias/prejudice, detachment, dispassion, and neutrality.

I find it difficult to evaluate a point of view, or an opinion, if looking at a single quote when removed from the entire essay, and therefore, possibly, taken out of context. I decided to read the essays they were individually taken from to gain a better understanding. As ever this is a double-edged sword; I learnt new things, but it was time consuming and involved sitting at my PC to get to grips with new terminology and look up various people who are referenced in the text.

The Ontology of the Photographic Image –  André Bazin

Firstly – ‘Ontology’- a set of concepts in a subject area, or domain, that shows their properties and relations between them; the nature of being; a study or concern about what kind of things exist. In relation to this essay I feel the third definition is what I need to be focused on.

My second port of call was looking up ‘plastic arts,’ may sound strange that in all my years of study I have never come across this term, but there you have it. So, for those also uninitiated, it is a term that is broadly applied to all visual arts to differentiate them from written arts, such as music and poetry. That was the title and first sentence sorted! It then got a little easier  (oh, apart from I had to look up who Sainte-Beuve was – literary critic of French literature – in the introductory blurb).

Bazin begins with the idea that the origin of visual arts was possibly religious, people believing that the continuance of an actual body, or representation of ensured they would continue to exist; therefore a very early introduction to the art of reality. Like Bazin I am therefore blaming the Egyptians…they obviously started all this! He summed it up by saying it was ‘the preservation of life by a representation of life.’ Over time this subtly changed; people no longer believed that the ‘representation’ of the thing was the thing itself and that, in the main, portraits and statues were made to remember people by and for the vanity of those wishing to be remembered. Bazin stated that ‘painting the whole world over…struck a varied balance between the symbolic and realism.’

This then shifted again, in about the 15th century, from ‘spiritual realities’ to the desire to be ‘as close to an imitation as possible.’ Taking it a step further is the 16th century Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I – an allegorical panel painting which reveal the queen surrounded by symbols of imperial majesty against a backdrop representing the defeat of the Spanish Armada – she stands with her hand on the globe and an open window behind her showing the sinking of the Armada, it is full of other signs and symbols of power as images became more and more politically motivated.

Then along came the camera obscura, which created the illusion of 3D space and perspective and threw the art world into turmoil…I mean do we stick to the spiritual reality or go with this new-fangled, psychological desire to ‘duplicate the world’?I love the fact Bazin writes that ‘perspective was the original sin of Western painting’! As photography developed the plastic arts no longer had to work as hard, no longer getting their knickers in a twist over making things look real, that it [photography] had once and for all somehow satisfied ‘our obsession with realism.’ Bazin quite firmly believed that photography wasn’t a physical process like painting, but captured the images by ‘ a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part’ making people really happy over how clever they were at capturing reality. Oh, and then came Picasso who took the textbook about realism, ripped it all up, danced over its grave and started the crisis all over again; painters said, righto we don’t need to worry about reality, photography does that for us and ‘the masses’ quite readily identified ‘resemblance …with photography and…the kind of painting which is related to photography.’

Bazin also comments that photography has ‘essentially [an] objective character.’ Then eventually, for those of you still with me, we get to the quote:

For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.

followed by a truncated version of:

In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space.

There were about 2 more pages of the essay which were just as interesting to read but to enable me to not make this post longer than necessary I shall stop my ramblings about Bazin here and move onto Sekula…

On the Invention of Photographic Meaning 1975 – Allan Sekula

….Allan, shakes head, oh Allan…you write about some really insightful things but seriously, I’d read more if it wasn’t such hard work – frowny face. The introduction states his writing was influenced by Barthes. Influenced by? I think he stole, swallowed then regurgitated his thesaurus! I printed out the entire 22 page document…how glad was I that the quote came on the third page? The first thing I learnt from this essay was that as much as we learn to translate and read the meaning of images we also have to learn to translate and understand essays like this! I don’t know how many times I had to read it before I could read through it fluently without pondering what it was talking about. I mean I could decode the words but know what they were telling me? Spleen vented I’ll get on… (though I may still mutter in my head as I continue).

In this essay Sekula investigates the ‘nature of photographic context and meaning’ and in doing so also considers the political implications and possible political uses of photography…brings up the old argument is it ‘a fine art,’ and the idea that certain ideologies could possibly impose ‘hidden interpretations on photographers and their subjects.’ There is more but I only read to the quote…

He opens his argument with the premise that the meaning, therefore understanding, of a photograph is linked to ‘cultural definition’ – we can only grasp its meaning and ‘read’ it if we understand the cultural references. We then move on through several paragraphs about ‘photographic discourse’ as being an ‘information exchange’ – basically a visual conversation. Yet we must accept that these conversations will be limited as they can be ‘tendentious’…runs to definition jargon buster….. tendentious – expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view, especially a controversial one…now understanding what THAT meant allowed me to understand the bits that went before and after so much more clearly!

Accepting this about an image, we have to consider that in order to get the message you need to be interested in it, consider where it is coming from – do we accept the message as ‘right’ because it is coming from the anonymous ‘them’ – is it going to be considered as ‘art’ or information in the press? The press is naturally biased and plays to public perception and the political message of the day. Added to the ‘tendentiousness’ of images we also have to think about the rhetoric attached – the fact they produce an effect or make a statement rather than illicit information.  Sekula tells us the image itself will be ‘incomplete’ in its message as it depends on added external information to be fully ‘readable,’ that is you need to know the context and cultural background. However, photographic literacy can be learnt, even if we are told that images can be ‘beyond speech’ or have ‘universal significance’ that photography is ‘a universal and independent language or sign system’ which is what Bazin appears to be arguing. Then we get the quote:

But if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.

PHEW…..now I understand where they are coming from I can comment on their view points.

As a quick aside I recently found this older, but relevant OCA post which made some good points related to the subject of objectivity.

As a reminder Bazin wrote:

For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.

In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space.

Whilst Sekula believes:

But if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.

Exercise: The Myth of Objectivity

As mentioned in the course notes Bazin is a prime example of the critics and practitioners who historically believed in ‘the objective authority of the photographic image’ – asserting the camera mechanically produces images without the intervention of human creativity and put simply, the image is the true representation of the subject. I am glad I read the entire article, as other commentators were critical of Bazin’s stance, and taking these quotes out of context strips away some of the other ideas, making his statements less assertive and less clear cut; Bazin does acknowledge the impact of the photographers’ personality – through selection and purpose. Further on he also states ‘photography can even surpass art in creative power’ when discussing Surrealism. I think he realises that there are different forms of photography: one that creates art and another used to ‘embalm time.’

Sekula’s writing on photography has a more modern approach and he questions the purported realism, political impact and use of photographs. He also separates high art from press images and argues that for photographs to have meaning one has to first understand their context, cultural references, intended audience and purpose; here we can return to Berger’s theory of ‘ambiguity’ (Berger& Mohr, 1995 p.91).

So in conclusion, taken together these two quotes ascertain that a photograph can prove the ‘being’ of an object but not always its meaning. One could also argue that a photograph also cannot demonstrate any link between multiple objects captured within a single frame leading to ambiguity and there no longer being ‘an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image’ if there ever was one in the first place. The audience can make it’s own narrative.

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