10 May 2009

And the signifieds butt heads with the signifiers...

Unreal Nature posts (here, and here, for example) raises once again the hardy perennials of "straight record" (which we are agreed is a nonexistent phantasm) and, more generally, the slippages of relation between signified and signifier.

I don't intend to go anywhere down that road, on this occasion. I mention it only because I have last night and today received an interesting illustration of the very different ways in which my "composition of mental objects", transcribed to page or screen, is reconstructed in the minds of my audience.

Six days ago, I took the photograph at the top left of this post. Because this has been a frenetically busy week I didn't send get around to out any of the week's Today pictures to its subscription list until, in a belated catch up, last night – hence the flow of responses now.

I won't trouble you with pointless (and inevitably unsuccessful) attempts to explain my own reasons for taking it, nor the composition of (my own) mental objects which it represents. I will, however, offer you the first three responses in the order I received them:

  1. Invisibility is a great disguise when attempting to climb the neighbor's garden patch fence.

  2. This one brings tears to my eyes – literally. Not that this photo has a grim message. It is a good shot, in fact.
    Back in the winter of 1941, there was a full page picture in a local newspaper that I will never, ever forget. It was [...] shot in Russia. It was Christmas Eve. With nothing but a barbed wire fence in the middle of a snow and ice covered field, a soldier [...] hung on that fence. I see that scene as though it were yesterday.
    Strange how the mind retrieves the past so quickly with a simple blue glove. I was a mere child in '41! The impact, indeed, must have been a powerful one to stay with me these hundred years.
    Tried to retrieve the photo [...] no luck. It may have been an AP or similar.

  3. 'Somebody Loves Me,
    I wonder who?'

I love getting these responses back from other minds, like postcards which offer me tantalising glimpses of the ways in which my own compositions of mental objects transmute as their imperfect photographic record crosses the frontiers into unattainably fabulous and distant other lands.




Addendum, a couple of hours later: a thread has been running for a while in Photo.net's Philosophy of Photography forum, some of which has touched on this topic. A contribution from Fred Goldsmith just came in, and is a good example; I quote only the most immediately relevant part of it here:

"On a recent photo of mine, a friend wrote that he found it evocative but couldn't put his finger on what it evoked. I've had that sort of experience with photographs. I think there's something beyond representation going on there. Listening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, I may sense fate knocking at the door, yet Beethoven may very well have heard a child bang on the table in four successive beats and been moved by that to crank out a tune. Though I may experience, even hear, fate, I don't think it would be fair to say that fate has been represented. A subject of a portrait and I, together, may come upon a certain pose that works. That pose may simply feel right at the moment, very often the more significant aspect of the process of making a photograph than the actual meaning of what is being done. Viewers may see elements of dance in that pose, may interpret it as an ominous pose or a sweet pose, etc. I may simply have responded to the visual ease of the pose or the intensity of it, I may have liked how a shadow got created by the arms and legs. The viewer is, of course, legitimately seeing and feeling what he is seeing and feeling. But, in this case, has dance or any of what the viewer interprets been represented? I think there is not necessarily, though there may often be, such a direct translation from photographer through photograph to viewer as the word "representation" suggests. Many photographs are effective because they are illusions, semblances rather than representations. The expressiveness of a certain type of photograph may be more significant than its representational meaning."


  • Post title taken from Joanna Newsome, The milk-eyed mender, "This side of the blue". 2004, Chicago: Drag City. DC263CD.

    And the signifieds butt heads with the signifiers
    And we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words
    While across the sky sheet the impossible birds
    In a steady, illiterate movement homewards