20 November 2005

"Well, What Is Photography?"

Urs Stahel is curator at the Fotomuseum Winterthur and delivered this lecture in 2003 on the tenth anniversary of the museum. The lecture is insightful in many ways. Here, though, I want to use it as an example of how discussion of photography too often goes awry, focusing on objects - on photographs - rather than on photography as a technology and the diverse activities and uses into which it enters.

How does Stahel answer the quetion in his title? In two ways, one helpful, the other not. His "first," "simple," "concise" reply to the question runs like this: "Photography is a device to record light, invented in the 19th Century (according to current research), that allows us to fix the perspective perception of the world in a manner construed since the Renaissance. Optics and chemistry go hand in hand to create a very efficient means of perception" (6).

This is a useful reply, focusing as it does on photography as a technology, an instrument for doing things. From there it is a short enough step to exploring the various uses to which photographic technology is put. But Stahel then feels the urge to "supplement" his initial reply and this is where things - quite literally - begin to overwhelm us. For Stahel is not merely supplementing his view, but changing the subject altogether, from photography to photographs. He is offering a second, much less useful answer to his question. Thus, he compiles a list: "Spatially speaking photographs are ..." and "Temporally speaking they are ..." and "Semiotically speaking photographs are ..." and "Speaking in terms of the theory of perception and epistemology photographs function as a reinforcement of vision" and, finally "speaking in terms of world view - photographs advance ..." (7-8, stress shifted). This list is (at best) a distraction. Fortunately, however, Stahel cannot sustain the impulse. He reverts to the more instrumental view from which he started. "Photography is an instrument for showing things. Most of all photography is probably an instrument for showing things, a device for displaying them" (8). And, once again, we can more easily ask what do we, or others, use photography for?

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