02 December 2006

Photography: A Very Short Introduction (2)

I posted a while back about this new book by Steve Edwards and wanted to come back to it having had a chance to actually read it more closely. Edwards does what I think is a wonderful job of subverting the dichotomies that animate too many critical assessments of photography. In particular he more or less thoroughly undermines the dichotomy between "art" and "documentary" modes of photographic practice. This may seem odd on first reading since he actually uses the distinction to structure the opening chapters of the book. His aim, though, seems to me to be to establish just how difficult it is in practice to draw the distinction in any wholly convincing way. Edwards generallly supports a view that I find compelling, namely that we are best off when we ask what use some distinction is. What is the point of drawing it? What are the consequences of doing so? And who exactly is doing the drawing?

Sometimes, of course, the answers to such questions will not be obvious. Indeed, we may use photography, or some interpretation of the enterprise, in conventional ways that make it difficult to ask, let alone answer them. And conventions often appear to simply be "natural," to reside in the make-up of things. Edwards is especially insightful on this. As he notes:

"At the heart of any criticisms of photographic realism is the idea that apparatus embodies conventions and assumptions about picturing. While the consequences of the staged, manipulated, or mocked up image are readily apparent, recognizing the deep conventions underpinning the apparatus can be less straightforward. However, these conventions are no less important for serious understanding of photographs; if anything, the relative invisibility of these determining assumptions makes them more worthy of attention and more insidious in their effects."

The "art" versus "documentary" dichotomy is an obvious example here. So too, as he points out, are assumptions about perspective and linearity, and natural vision and framing, and so forth. But there are other conventions underpinning photographic practice that he (unsurprisingly for an admittedly "very short" book) doesn't touch on namely aversions to aestheticizing pain and suffering, the more or less relentless pursuit of closeness, or focus on individuals. Each of these are entangled with the "picture" versus "document" dichotomy that Edwards works so hard to contextualize and thereby challenge.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post and commentary. And thanks for the heads-up on this book. I've posted a comment about this here.

04 December, 2006 12:55  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Nicholas, No problem. I think it is a nice little book. JJ

07 December, 2006 00:52  

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