Thursday, March 31, 2005

"The photographer who shows his works is acting improperly"

Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-brow Art, 1965, p. 71:

"The realization of the artistic intention is particularly difficult in photography, probably because, fundamentally, it is only with difficulty that photographic practice can escape the functions to which it owes its existence....

Almost always assuming social functions, conscious or unconscious, and intimately involved in family life, its values and rhythms, its reasons and its raison d'etre are borrowed from elsewhere. The traditional norms of the practice are imposed with greater force the more strongly the practice itself is imposed. So, all else being equal, subjects who do not take photographs much more often have an aesthetic attitude towards photography....

The photographer who shows his works is acting improperly, while the painter is not, because, not being a universal subject, the photographing subject cannot address the universality of viewers. If my feelings toward the child that I am photographing or towards the photograph of the child are not the same as those which I have towards the portrait of a child (either because it is my child or because it is my photograph), I cannot demand that anyone else look at this photograph as they would look at a portrait of a child, and I cannot forbid them, if they happen to look at it in this way, to find it devoid of interest."

Does flickr, then, offer the spectacle of a huge number of people engaging in what StefZ, speaking from the perspective of the viewer, yesterday called “voyeurism” and what Bourdieu, speaking from the perspective of the photographer, calls an “improper” act? In one sense, clearly it does not. For most people using Flickr, the point, precisely (or put mostly crassly), is to show one's works, photographic, cultural, artistic and etc. But what about for people who don't use Flickr? For people who aren't beguiled by the internet and its cultures? This isn't a point about the digital divide; rather, it's to suggest that Bourdieu's seemingly anachronistic point is more than just anachronistic. I think it shows how, within a setting like flickr, new practices of photography can obtain (in other words, photography can start to delaminate from some of its traditional "social functions") even while, outside of that setting, the kinds of social practices that Bourdieu sees as so pervasive and dominant (photography's traditional ties to family, to holidays, to the pose, etc.) still function as the lens through which contemporary practices are viewed, interpreted and criticised. Thus, I think a lot of people are confused by flickr's photographs of food, stick figures in peril, and transparent screens, as I think Bourdieu might have been.

Interesting to ask: what had to happen to get from Bourdieu's photographic milieu to our own? What technologies had to be invented? What practices fostered? With his ur-framework of social class, the thing I think that Bourdieu was unable to conceive was the idea that cultures which are distinct but mutually constitutive (which have to distinguish themselves from one another precisely because they are mutually constitutive) might nevertheless invite differentiated, or tailored modes of interpretation. Even though flickr's users have obvious relationships—photographically, culturally, historically—with flickr's non-users (because that's all there is in the world right now: users and non-users of flickr), I think they call for different responses. Bourdieu's intelligence, his ability to see distinct cultures (classes) within the same analytic framework, was also his blindspot (or, would be in the present day).

Thanks to StefZ for sparking this line of thought.
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