Yesterday I served as photographer’s assistant for my wife, Katie, while she took photos of a colleague’s family. I’m very bad at this sort of thing and was quickly demoted to blowing soap bubbles to keep the toddler’s attention. Afterwards, Katie and I talked about how photogenic the whole family happened to be, which sounds like just a flippant compliment but turns out to be a genuine condition. My wife normally works as a fine arts photographer, but her subjects are usually people in their natural settings. Some people, she tells me, just don’t photograph well. No matter what you do with them, they simply can’t be made photogenic, which I suppose isn’t the worst condition in the world from which to suffer, but which might be frustrating if you’re that sort of person. (There’s a great Henry James story, “The Real Thing,” in which a painter drives himself to distraction trying to paint using a pair of new models, only to discover they simply can’t be turned into anything other than what they actually are. They are “the real thing,” and consequently can’t be “transformed” into anything else).
This conversation prompted us to explore other aspects of photography, particularly its history, its effect on the human experience, and especially its current state as an “art” form. I won’t belabor the history of photography, which is probably better learned from experts, cultural critics like Susan Sontag, Umberto Eco, Jean Baudrillard, Robert Venturi, or Frederic Jameson. In the most basic terms, though, photography seems to have been the first invention that caused humans to question the nature of reality. A photograph is a “real” rendering of reality. We know this if we compare a photograph to a painting. We know it as well because we use photos as “evidence” in trials. Photos prove what really happened. And yet they aren’t quite “real.” If I take a picture of my grandmother, I’m left with an accurate rendering of my grandmother’s image, but at the same time the picture is not my grandmother. It’s merely a visual representation – however precise – of my grandmother in a certain space at a certain instant in time. Photography then “copies” reality in some ghostly sense, in which the image is real and not real. Photography was followed, of course, by all sorts of other inventions designed to mimic human presence, to recreate “reality”: the telephone, the radio, moving pictures, the television, Skype…And we were left with this nagging anxiety about what constitutes “the real” (see The Matrix, The Truman Show, et.al.)
Photography’s effect was so powerful, in fact, that it changed the very nature of visual art. In the late 19th century, faced with the fact that this new invention could capture reality far better than any painter’s hand, art was forced to turn in new directions, to explore new aspects of its own qualities. For the first time non-representational art began to appear, as Picasso, Magritte, and others struggled with how to use paint other than as a transcriber of what their eyes literally saw.
Which brings us back to the present day, in which, as my wife intimately understands it, photography has become so common in the digital age – not just readily available but almost thrust upon us at every moment – that we begin to take it for granted. The multiplication of images threatens to devalue the thing itself, wiping out the very possibility that it might be considered art. The postmodernists, of course, suggested this would occur as a matter of course: ultimately the images multiply until they become the reality, and if images make reality, how can one then pluck out a piece of that reality and label it art? Like Duchamp’s Fountain, we say, “how can it be art? It is merely reality itself.”
A few years ago Katie worked as an assistant for the Magnum photographer Martin Parr when he was asked to photograph Atlanta (It turns out she’s much better at this job than me). While at a local fair, Parr was stopped by a family and asked to take their photo. As an artist, Parr isn’t especially interested in portrait photography, but he kindly, if amusedly, agreed to help. Using the family’s own camera, he snapped a couple of pictures, then handed the camera back to them. Flipping through the digital images, they were instantly puzzled: Parr had framed the shots so that some of their heads were cut off! Parr, obviously, had something very different in “frame” when he snapped the photos, but rather than realize they now had a famous photographer’s photos on their camera, they pointed out that he must not be much of a photographer if that was the best he could manage.
The situation feels very much like the one faced by late 19th century painters (one can easily imagine a family’s frustration at receiving the “family portrait” from Picasso) – though in this case photography’s problem doesn’t have to do with becoming obsolete so much as it has to do with – if you’ll pardon the pun – its overexposure as an art form. Parr’s decision to ignore the obvious in the frame offers one sort of response to this problem, drawing our attention away from what we normally privilege in a photo.
There is another effect of being awash in images though – one that has to do with changing our essential human behaviors. The postmodernists, in particular, talk about how exposure to so many images begins to shape our personalities. As an illustration, we watch so much television that eventually we begin to think our boyfriends should treat us the way Chandler treats Monica. Baudrillard went so far as to say that films create reality, using the film The China Syndrome, released just months before the first nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island, as his chief example. In his explanation, the fictional film shaped the way we responded to the actual event that followed it; in this sense, then, the film was more real than the “real” event.
Today these effects seem exponentially stronger. Young people not only mimic what they see – they are so constantly exposed to their own images that they begin to shape and reshape those image into exactly what they want to project. That awkward feeling some of us used to have when exposed to our own recorded selves has begun to disappear as teens use their many images like mirrors or electronic feedback loops, shaping themselves little by little until that image becomes what they desire. This isn’t an entirely new form of behavior – its prototype can be found in the acting community, where an actress must become aware of herself from an almost external perspective, not of who she is but of how she is perceived. The best actors have such a depth of understanding of how they appear to others they can re-shape themselves at will to fit a given role. In short, we are becoming a society of actors, plastic molds we use to create the person we want to be.
Finally, this leads back once more to the issue of photography’s role in all this simulation. How does a photographer, as artist, rise about this fray? Martin Parr offers one answer. Katie suggests another: a return to more primitive techniques: still photographs, black and white images, film rather than digital processing. Such changes would demand skills from the photographer, skills unnecessary today when anyone can take a “pretty” photo and touch it up with simple software on their iPhones. More importantly, though, reducing photography to its basics, stripping away for instance the color we’re used to seeing, arrests the eye, forces us to look at the thing in the picture rather than simply see it as another in a never-ending stream of images.
Thanks to my wife, Katie, for her insight into this subject. You can learn more about Katie’s work at
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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