16 October 2005

Thinking with Photography, I

I endorse an instrumental view of photography. This raises the obvious question. If photography is an instrument, a tool, what do we use it for? To think. Too much commentary focuses (pun intended) on the way photography is used to affect or manipulate viewers' emotions (where these latter are erroneously assumed to be gerrymandered from the viewers' thought processes and judgement and reasoning). So on occasion I will post passages from philosophers and others who push in another direction. Here is one such passage:

"The world of a painting is not continuous with the world of its frame; at its frame a world finds its limits. We might say: A painting is a world: a photograph is of the world. What happens in a photograph is that it comes to an end. A photograph is cropped, not necessarily by a paper cutter or by masking but by the camera itself. The camera crops it by predetermining the amount of view it will accept; cutting, masking, enlarging, predetermine the amount after the fact. ... the camera, being finite, crops a portion from an indefinitely larger field; continuous portions of that field could be included in the photograph in fact taken; in principle it could all be taken. Hence objects in photographs that run past the edge do not feel cut; they are aimed at, shot, stopped live. When a photograph is cropped the rest of the world is cut out. The implied presence of the rest of the world, and its explicit rejection, are as essential in the experience of a photograph as what it explicitly presents. A camera is an opening in a box; that is the best emblem of the fact that a camera holding on an object is holding the rest of the world away. The camera has been praised for extending the senses; it may, as the world goes, deserve more praise for confining them, leaving room for thought."

From: Stanley Cavell. 1979. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. (Enlarged Edition). Harvard University Press. Page 24.

Of course, politics lurks here quite obviously - for if we can use photography to confine our senses, our perceptions, then it can be an extremely valuable tool for those who might well prefer to direct our attention here rather than there. See my earlier thoughts on "embeddedness."

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Blogger Ana said...

Hi Jim, I was re-reading your old post «Embeddedness...» yesterday and I'm discussing some ideas you developed (unfortunately in Portuguese) in my blog. A painting and a photography are not the same thing, of course, but many paintings had been «of the world » as well as photographs today. I think is the Eye that holds an object by leaving the world away, not the camera itself. Photography can be used as an instrument, like painting and engraving were used in the past...and they are more popular, but never innocent...Sometimes I think that social scientists and historians have much to learn about images, sometimes it seems to me that they talk about images as they just discovered something very important…Regards, I'll come back :-)

16 October, 2005 22:09  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Jim,

I just wanted to raise a possible criticism of the "instrumental view of photography" in order to get your further thoughts on this view: You claim to endorse a "instrumental view of photography", and you use the Cavell quote to highlight that. There seems to be two options on the table here: An instrumental view of photography and an instrumental view of the camera. The instrumental view of photography could either endorse that photography is for affecting the emotions of the viewer or for being a tool for thought (your option). Cavell (in the quote) explicitly endorses that the camera is an instrument, but, I am not sure that commits him to the "instrumental view of photography". I suggest that the following structure is implicit in "the instrumental view", whatever version one chooses: Sense impressions as input to the subject, the subject is then either reacting with emotions or starts thinking of these sense impressions. Hence, the picture is a instrument for starting a process in a viewer.

I am not sure that Cavell actually thinks this way, or anyway let me suggest that he isnt: You could argue that rather than being an instrument for thought photography itself is as much thought as sensing, or maybe better; photography shows the problem of sharply separating perception and thought, because the camera demonstrates the amount of thought in perception. I.e. the camera is an instrument, though not photography, because in the pictures thought and perception are revealed as belonging together. By being of the world the picture has a world I take to be implied by Cavell (what the photography rejects is as important as what it presents). This does not seem straightforward instrumental to me because thought is already there in the picture (what the photography rejects is as important as what it presents again). The picture shows you a world, by being of the world. The picture does not make you so much think as it makes you see the world differently. The photography is not an instrument, but present you a world, both by what it rejects and what it presents.

My apologies if this is obscure and not helpful at all.

18 October, 2005 19:02  

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