Photography at the Crossroads

_Note: This started as a post for 1/125, but it got rather rambly and personal, so I’m going to post it here, instead._

James Pomerantz, in his excellent blog, _A Photo Student_, recently posted the text of Berenice Abbott’s “Photography at the Crossroads.”

On the surface, “Photography at the Crossroads” is just another highly subjective declaration of what is and is not real photography, and as such, it would be entirely at home as a grumpy post on the “I Shoot Film” flickr group haranguing those who “spend too much time in the darkroom, with the result that creative camera work is seriously interfered with,” and bemoaning “the widespread publication of articles and books on How-To-Do-It” when “what is more important now is What-To-Do-With-It.”

Of course, anyone who is interested in photography and has spent more than five minutes on the internet has probably seen a half dozen semi-coherent declarations regarding what real photography is and how kids these days are doing it all wrong. Certainly I have, and it has made me very skeptical of anyone who claims to be able to know what “real photography” is all about.

However, while I would indeed by loathe to apply Abbott’s essay as the general rule in photography, there are some excellent insights there, and I heartily encourage everyone to read it — particularly in conjunction with some reading or listening on the historical photographers and movements she references, if folks aren’t already familiar. (I for one am kicking myself for not already being more familiar with Abbott, whom I really only know as one of the folks responsible for bringing Atget to a wider audience.)

I won’t try to summarize the essay (seriously: read it), but there are a couple of things I’d like to touch upon here:

I am surprised that Abbott repeatedly emphasizes the “creative” in photography, while simultaneously upholding realism as the standard of virtue. I have grown very weary of the term “creative,” both because it is so often used to refer to the exact opposite of creativity (e.g., new camera users asking how to achieve “creative colors,” etc.) and also because even when it is used correctly, it is necessarily congruent with what I (and I think Abbott as well) would consider the best use of photography.

What I mean is that the photographs in which one most strongly perceives the photographer as creator are not necessarily the best photographs; often, the best photographs are those in which the photographer produces a strong record of a particular moment, without trying to become the author of the scene.

I think — although perhaps I am mistaken — that Abbott would agree with this. Certainly she seems to say as much, and more eloquently:

> What we need is a return, on a mounting spiral of historic understanding, to the great tradition of realism. Since ultimately the photograph is a statement, a document of the now, a greater responsibility is put on us. Today, we are confronted with reality on the vastest scale mankind has known. Some people are still unaware that reality contains unparalleled beauties. The fantastic and unexpected, the ever-changing and renewing is nowhere so exemplified as in real life itself. Once we understand this, it exercises a dynamic compulsion on us, and a photo-document is born.

While obviously one creates a photograph, is the creation of such a “photo-document” really an act of creativity? it seems to me that a good photographer in this style has far, far more in common with a good editor than with a good creative artist. But perhaps I am missing something.

But what struck me most about Abbott’s essay is the following passage, and particularly the sentence to which I have added emphasis:

> To chart a course, one must have a direction. **In reality, the eye is no better than the philosophy behind it**. The photographer creates, evolves a better, more selective, more acute seeing eye by looking ever more sharply at what is going on in the world. Like every other means of expression, photography, if it is to be utterly honest and direct, should be related to the life of the times – the pulse of today. The photograph may be presented as finely and artistically as you will; but to merit serious consideration, must be directly connected with the world we live in.

This appeals greatly to me, because it gets at something that has been more or less on my mind since I first started using a camera for something other than taking pictures of my knitting. The use of the camera is, for me, intimately related to questions of phenomenology, and of course the photograph as document (and what it documents, what kind of information it contains and transmits) presents tremendous opportunities for epistemological questioning as well.

Of course, to say that the eye must be backed by a philosophy, and to say that a photograph must be connected to reality, is not really all that specific. “Reality” itself as an idea is rather uncertain and open to contestation, and all photography, at some level, is about reality or about the sense of reality — because the apparent or actual realism of almost any photograph is one of the defining traits of the medium, whether the photographer chooses to embrace that realism, or chooses to subvert it.

It is tempting to say that this is the state of photography now (blah blah postmodernism blah) as opposed to some other state of photography which pertained when Abbott wrote “Photography at the Crossroads,” but that’s not really true. Abbott first became involved with photography through Man Ray, after all(!), and in the world of philosophy, reality had become rather tenuous ground well before this.

Here’s another take on the question of photography’s relationship to reality, from around the same time as Abbott’s essay:

> ABSTRACTION in photography is to reach towards the non-objective without ever breaking the camera’s strongest point—the magic of its tether to visual reality.

That is from Minor White’s journals, written in 1950, and published in Peter Bunnell’s _Minor White: The Eye That Shapes_ (p. 27). I find this an interesting statement in part because White’s sequences seem to delight in flowing seamlessly between apparently straightforward realism and total abstractions which are difficult or impossible to identify as relating to some real subject.

I think White’s point is well taken, and I think it provides an excellent third position, as distinct either from realism per se or from pictorialism considered as a flight of fancy, or, as Abbott puts it, “imitating the unreal.” (Which, if you really think about it, is something of a brain-teaser.) I think in the case of the best uses of abstraction in photography, that _tension_ that arises with the stretching of that “tether” is a significant part of the power of the photograph.

As for myself, the notion of reality which I have always found most compelling is that put forward by Simone Weil in her _Lectures on Philosophy_. (Which are just the transcribed and published notes of one of her high school students.)

> There is nothing real whenever there is nothing unforeseen. In science, in reasoning, one sees in the problems one is dealing with only what one has put there oneself (hypotheses). If in actions there was nothing except what we ourselves suppose them to contain, nothing would ever get done, since there would be no snags. All sorts of accidents can occur between the time when I have seen what the problem is and the time when I have acted. Reality is defined by that. It is what is not contained in the problem as such; _reality is what method does not allow us to foresee_.

> Why is it that reality can only appear like this, in a negative sort of way? What marks off the “self” is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method; we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself to us.

Which, of course, is one of the reasons why I am so disenchanted with studio photography. But that is neither here nor there…

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments are closed.