This Week in “Issues”: Photography

Now that the term is more than halfway over, it’s high time for another “Issues in Modern Culture” (that’s my MA program) update. After an intense five days immersed in James Joyce’s Ulysses, I looked forward to Friday’s seminar on photography.

Our primary reading was Susan Sontag’s iconic On Photography (1977) and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980). Both books made for enjoyable and thought provoking reading. Sontag’s is an incredibly detailed history of photography as she sees it, and is also strikingly modern in its discussion of what photography is and what photographs represent. I was also pleasantly surprised by the accessibility of Barthes; he’s notorious for his dense, quasi-philosophical literary criticism. 

The seminar turned out to be stimulating and rewarding. Our lecturer, GD, facilitated an interesting discussion of photography and had a slideshow of some of the photos Sontag and Barthes mention in their works, which he referred to periodically. At the beginning of the seminar, GD posed a couple of questions that we kept coming back to throughout the two hours:

  • How has digital photography “changed the game” since Sontag and Barthes wrote their books?
    • Does it change the way we experience photos?
    • Does it change our relationship to photos?
    • Does it undermine Sontag’s & Barthes’ points (since they were writing in the ’70s, the pre-digital age)?

These questions brought us a few times to the topic of social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram. Because digital photos are instantaneous — we can view and share them almost immediately after taking them — they have perhaps eliminated the need to wait for the “perfect moment” to take a picture. The instantaneous nature of digital photos also leads them to take on a more filmic quality. Sontag mentions that photos are taken to validate experience; this leads to a sort of voyeurism in the photographer (10*). Today, this voyeuristic tendency is taken further, as (digital) photos are shared on Facebook and Instagram, blurring the lines between private and public as we give others access to many parts of our lives and spend time assessing our friends’ lives via their photos.

Digital photography may also cause photography to be distinguished less as an art now, because today anyone can take photos (but not every person who takes photos is an artist). How, then, do we decide if photography is art? Sontag’s argument that photography “is a medium in which works of art…are made,” not art itself (148), may break down in the digital age because the medium is less specialized — there’s no film to carefully develop with special chemicals.

In a way, digital photography has made the medium even more democratic; we talked about how this could be good or bad. On the one hand, digital photography doesn’t respect the investment of of the photographer, like non-digital does. On the other hand, we can photograph anything and anyone can take photographs. But it also problematizes the relationship between the image itself and what Barthes calls the “referent” — the subject of the photo.

We finished the seminar by focusing on two photos — a Winogrand and a Sander — and musing on how to write about photographs. Do we analyze them as texts? Do we read in social context? Do we read them subjectively? There are myriad ways in which we could write about a photograph: its composition, framing, intent (posed/staged vs. candid/natural), angles, spaces, symmetry/asymmetry…The list goes on.

Other topics we touched on in the seminar were the natural surrealism of photography, the theatrical nature of photography (as Barthes argues), the simultaneous passivity and aggressiveness of photography, and photography’s realism. It was a fascinating discussion and left me with a lot to think about.

What’s your take? How do you think digital photography affect our experience of and relationship to photographs today? Post your thoughts in a comment, below.

*Page numbers from Susan Sontag. On Photography. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc, 1977.

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