27 November 2008

Before (and after) the photograph

Unreal Nature takes up ("Escaping Flatland") my words "straight record" to ponder and muse upon. As always, any pondering or musing from Unreal Nature sets me to pondering and musing in my turn.

In this case, the chain of thought starts from the posited premise that before photography "there was no such thing as a straight record" and considering the possibility that the advent of such a perceived straight record (she separates, as do I, that perception from the dubious suggestion that a photographic record is in any real sense actually "straight") has altered human understanding.

Now ... I do agree absolutely agree that there is no such thing as a straight record, and that photography has contributed to altered human perception of ourselves. I also believe, however, that it is the product of that alteration. Photography had been ready to happen for a long time – from Ptolemy's optics through Al Hazen's solar imaging and the cameras obscura/lucida to Schultz's jars of silver and chalk mixture – but only actually did so when the social effects of the industrial revolution made it necessary and inevitable. The visual path to that inevitability probably started with Albrecht Dürer, or thereabouts.

Where I differ is over the assumption that perception of a "straight record" began with the invention of photography. On the contrary, I would argue tentatively that photography could only inherit (not generate) a "straight record" mantle which already existed.

There are three ways in which the idea of a "straight record" can be viewed:

  • Being a straight record – which, as Unreal Nature and I agree, is objectively unsupportable.
  • Being intended as a straight record – which I, as a good Barthesian, hold to be unknowable but about which I nevertheless, as a human being, speculate.
  • Being accepted as a straight record – again unknowable, at least for anyone but myself, though the speculation can be better supported by collateral indicators.

In these times when metalanguage and metaknowledge are (to a partial and variable extent) components in mainstream popular culture, it is impossible to talk of blanket acceptance that anything is a straight record. That has more to do with increasing informational sophistication than with photography – the inheritance of Barthes, Derrida, Saussure et al rather than Daguerre, Fox Talbot or Niépce.

Nevertheless, some representations (whether visual, verbal, or any other modality) function as if they were straight records. This requires a consensus between presenter and receiver that the representation shall be regarded, for the occasion, to be both intended and accepted as a "straight record".

Photographs of bruises and wounds, presented as forensic evidence, are a clear example. Prosecution and defence my disagree on the meaning of such images but do not, generally speaking, dispute their status as straight record. Civil society in its present forms depends for its existence on that consensus, and so the consensus (however illusory) is maintained.

Reportage, despite its well documented and much discussed shortcomings, is also broadly accepted by consensus as at least tending to straight record. Again, society as we currently know it depends upon that consensus being maintained.

Because we humans are primarily visual creatures, nonvisual modalities are less protected from doubt. A witness statement about bruises and wounds observed, for example, is more searchingly tested in court than a photograph. The consensus nevertheless persists, albeit more provisionally. I am concerned here with the visual, however, so will leave other modalities aside.

Did the arrival of the photograph create, or even fundamentally change, this state of affairs? I can't know the answer to that, but I'm inclined to hypothesise that it did not.

Before the invention of photography, some drawings, paintings, engravings, other skill based mark making media, occupied the same consensual social evidence slot. We even recognise and validate this ourselves, today, by accepting the oils portrait as probably a likeness of the person portrayed. Even when academics suggest that a painting flatters its sitter, they are implicitly accepting that it thus deviates from, and undermines, a basic social function as straight record.

A well known illustration is the despatch by King Henry VIII of England of the painter Hans Holbein the younger to paint Anne of Cleves. Henry, who placed high value on beauty in a potential wife, was placing implicit (though subsequently doubted) faith in Holbein's image as a straight record of Anne's appearance. I see no difference, here, from our conventional attitude to the photograph.

Fox Talbot sought to develop his photographic process not because he believed that it would produce more faithful records of places visited than draughtsmanship, but because he personally lacked the necessary drawing skills.

Paul Delacroix's famous declaration, on seeing a Daguerreotype, that "from today, painting is dead" was based on a perception that photography would place in unskilled hands a mechanical means of achieving straight records which (in his perception) painting already sought to provide.

I can't know whether the cave painters of Lascaux, sixteen millennia ago, intended or accepted their paintings as straight records of the animals around them. By gut instinct, however, I am intuitively inclined to think that they did both.

The history of western art, at least, contains as one strand within it the history of attempts to improve on the consensually intended/perceived straight record. Albrecht Dürer was part of the 15th century CE confluence between mathematics and visual representation in improvement of that consensually intended/perceived straight record. Four hundred years later, photography was part of the confluence between industrialisation and visual representation in improvement of that consensually intended/perceived straight record.

What Julie Heyward does with photographic images is part of the parallel process which western art has always pursued. It seeks to free the available means of image production from the default consensually intended/perceived straight record. It does so in the noble cause of creating and expressing new ideas not containable by that intended/perceived record. The record itself has always been the default intention and perception – and photography did not change that.

Unreal Nature hypothesises that, in a parallel world where photography didn't get invented (or was suppressed), we would "communicate visually ... via maps and charts. Data pictures — which would have evolved beyond anything I’m capable of imagining." In many ways, we have gone that route too and are pursuing it still. In fact, it seems to me that this is the next, "post photographic", phase of the eternal drive towards an ever improving consensually intended/perceived "straight record". Look at computed axial tomography (aka CAT or CT scanning) for example.

Subsequent note (1/Dec/2008): Unreal Nature has since made the tongue in cheek comment, en passant, that a Steven Plinker cartoon "is not a straight record". Indeed it is not. It is a manifestation of another persistent but separate sociovisual strand over several centuries at least: the explicitly imaginative construct as commentary.

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