Wednesday, March 02, 2005

John Berger, "Understanding a Photograph"

In his essay "Understanding a Photograph"in Selected Essays and Articles: The Look of Things, 1972), Berger's polemics lead him to make some lopsided observations about photography. In order to drive the wedge between Art and Photography (two confusingly ambiguous categoricals that just can't seem to keep out of each other's way)—between Art which for Berger is defined by its inevitable tendency to become property, and photography which does not (yet) share this tendency (remember, he's writing in 1972)—Berger emphasises photography's automatism (its technicity) and its lack of composition. It is easy to register meaningful objections here: of course photographs are composed, of course they are more than a machine's product (for more on this point of view, track down Joel Snyder's and Neil Walsh Allen's essay "Photography, Vision, Represention”). But Berger's intention is to recuperate or rescue photography from the fate he has seen befall High Art: it's commodification. Which leads him to claim, via a comparative mode of analysis, that a photograph uniquely bears witness to a choice being made. And so photographs are characterised by time more than by form: it is not composition which makes a photograph a photograph (which makes it something we can differentiate from, say, a painting), but time, the extraction of a single moment from a related chain of moments. The photograph sits always within that chain of moments (witness the poignancy of photographs of the dead, of buildings no longer standing), yet, at the same time, indexes a process of extraction (witness the strange fascination and the complementary boredom of photos we find in some photoblogs, from people we don't know, whose lives we know not at all). A choice is also a record of all that was not chosen. Likewise, the photograph.

This philanthropic impulse—the attempt to rescue photographs from bad analyses—finds its historical shadow in Walter Benjamin's attempt to rescue art from aura and tradition, to rescue art for politics, to save it from rarefaction. In this, Benjamin sees himself as the assistant of processes of mechanical reproduction, which had already significantly begun this epochal political work. And so Berger posits, finally, that a photograph may be judged effective when the moment it records contains a quantum of truth which is generally applicable, which is as revealing about what is absent from the photograph as with what is present. It's easy to believe that Berger is talking here about any kind of photography, from snapshots to photographs which are regarded and traded as Art, although he never specifies. And I think his emphasis on choice is important for the way it retains a connection to the moment of making, if not quite to the maker (the quality of this connection seems to me to be one of the definining characteristics of photographs as compared to other kinds of images). But in an environment where so many photographic images can be found at any time, from so many locations, and so many image-makers, all collected online, it seems no longer relevant, germane, or even possible to rescue photographs from commodification through bold acts of definition (photographs are this, they are not that). Too late for that, and in any case, commodification's [not perils but] processes, while significant, have been far more promiscuous and multiple than either Berger or Benjamin could have predicted. If an effect of (what Berger might call) the commodification of the snapshot photo (on sites like flickr and snapfish and etc.) has been to foster their new spectacular publicity, then commodification is too poor a framework. Effects have outstripped causes, and we would be justified in breaking the causal chains that tie our answers to our framing questions.
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