Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Making the Scene

I'm still happily chewing on Scott McQuire's Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the Age of the Camera.

McQuire describes the scene of photography's popular emergence (~1888 with Eastman Kodak's first mass produced camera) as one which coincides (and colludes) with a privileging, across many fields (art, science, medicine), of a relatively new opposition: between reality and mimesis. In other words, prior to this period, and prior to the participation of photography (reality v. image of reality) and psychology (the mind v. our assessments of it) and science (the world v. our measurements of it) and etc., it might have been harder or less instinctual (less natural) to see the world as structuralist semiotics soon came to analyse it, viz. as a matrix of overlapping representations, each point in space a perspective, each experience measured in degrees of mediacy. Heidegger analyses this as the "conquest of the modern world for perspective" and perspectival forms of knowing. Jonathan Crary disputes the dates of this phenomenon, and thus photography's role in it. But whatever the date, McQuire insists on the importance of these continuities (not progressions) to the near-immediate popular uptake of camera technologies in the late 19th century. Cameras seemed to offer the ability to do something which was anyway very much in the popular consciousness: to make versions of the world.

Most histories of photography peddle the idea that photography arrived in these continuities as a kind of acme: the perfection of representation (and it is in this spirit that photography gets pitted victoriously against painting). McQuire argues that, on the contrary, photography (and other camera technologies) were the beginning of the end for the idea that representations were perfectable, i.e. that anything was precisely knowable. It is photography's almost-but-not-quite relationship to reality (a quality that most writers on photography describe as uncanny, including, prominently, Barthes and Sontag) that ultimately scuppers attempts to claim that meaning is fixable, knowable or perfectable at all. In being so close but yet so far, the very attempt to arrive becomes questionable. Maybe it's not possible after all.

And so, I wonder if this helps to understand something I've been hearing from photobloggers: their sense that photographs are not framed shards of reality but are instead products of an idiosyncratic and personal way of seeing. This project is founded on the idea that photographs are irreducibly personal, the product of a singular vision (and some say that better photographs are better precisely because the singularity of this vision shines forth clearly). Not that the idea of photography as itself perspectival, as one representation among many, is a new one. But photography's mechanistic qualities have never quite receded from view—it has always seemed especially cozy with reality, despite various attempts to recuperate it as art or artifice. But some of the descriptions I've heard of photography, weirdly and interestingly, are very close to mid-century descriptions of abstract expressionist painting (i.e. an expression of self through gesture and transferred emotion; but what is the mechanism of transfer for the self in or through photography? How does it arrive in the photo?).

I'm not saying that McQuire's history explains this (transformation or continuity or phenomenon or...). But he sets it up as noticeable, as a distinguishing contemporary feature of photography, and especially of online photography. Which in turn makes it possible to ask: what strains of contemporary thought (ways of knowing, shared desires, shared fears, shared delusions) is photography resonating with (constructively or destructively) that this new expressionist definition could come to exist, and to make sense? Why does it make sense to say this, at just this moment in time?
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