The photographic viewing of the empirical landscape as a condition for its visual recomposition.
Written by Panagiotis Gouliaris
The photographic image is the chemical imprint of a detached framed view of the real world. Its capacity to be composed exclusively with actual visual information, being the crystallization of a time-space instant, initially created the illusion that photography could function as a tool of recording-possessing the world, as a means of indexing and archiving it.
However, while the photographic frame, as a two-dimensional depiction of the world, is presented as being more objective than the painter’s canvas, it has gradually become apparent that this sense of objectivity is misleading. The medium itself, as cultural receptor, incorporates in its structure interpretation parameters which undermine the neutral and faithful representation of the real world. Besides, even the most direct process of structuring it and assigning meaning to it is performed by the human brain, yet again in interpretation terms.
Therefore, an additional, in this case photographic, interposition between the self and the world, widens the gap between an ideally objective viewing of the world and the understanding of the world through its photographic trace.
All that is included in the visual field of the photographic lens is necessarily recorded and assimilated within an already coded system of representation. Recording the empirical landscape means a huge volume of uncontrollable information. This compulsory impression of the scene allows the insignificant to coexist with the significant. The random is recorded at the same time as the foreseeable, irrevocably and quite often regardless of what the photographer may desire.
There is nothing that is photographed because it is significant in itself. The photograph is taken as a whole by the photographer, who absorbs the real visual field as a single state. He does not capture his frame as a sum of individual components but as a structural whole.
The photograph results from the exclusion of the unwanted elements of the visual. But this selection cannot be made with analytical thinking, due to the complexity of the existing information. Therefore, when the photographer is looking, either directly or through the camera’s viewfinder, he is not seeing a subject, but an arrangement of many elements placed within a frame. Unable to fully control all their information, he maintains an experimental relationship with the medium. It is more that he senses the unseen photographic substance of the visual than that he actually sees it.
The photographic impression is a perspectival representation, thus dragging along all the conventions applying to rendering a three-dimensional object in two dimensions. This means that it presupposes that when the viewer sees the representation field he can perform all the necessary deductions in order to mentally reconstruct the represented. But this process, to the extent it needs to be performed individually by each viewer, strips the photographic impression of its functional independence, leaving the last word to the viewer.
On the other hand, the capacity of the frame to isolate objects from their time and space distorts their true meaning, assigning them a different meaning with each viewing. Forcing the eye on a given and irrevocable scene does not imply a constant meaning of the image. By contrast, it isolates the image from the environment that gives the image meaning, redefining it in accordance with the data of each viewing.
So, although taken from reality, it ends up completely detached from it.
The capacity of photographic technology to assume the non-neutral role of interpretation is greatly enhanced when its user does not aim at being objective.
The viewer sees what was in front of the photographer, but what was in front of the photographer strangely knows that it was not exactly like that nor will it ever be.
The value of a photograph is assessed largely based on its clarity and the interest of the information it is capable of providing as an allegory. Its reading establishes a transcendental relationship between signifier and signified, with significance being connected to form without being completely submerged into it. The image is not perceived as solely signifying itself. It is always viewed as a signifier of a certain thing which, however, the image is not. The readability of the image itself is a result of the readability of its intention or function. Its aesthetic rating will be higher the more adequately the signifier expresses the signified. However, it includes the expectation of an imaginary title which the viewer composes in his mind. This expectation serves a declaratory role with regard to the signified intention, allowing to draw conclusions on the degree to which the realisation is in accordance with the expressed ambition, whether it adequately implies or, preferably, whether it represents this intention.
The entry of photography in human visual systems introduced new unexpected parameters into vision, breaking down the visual habits that were in effect up until then. One could claim that it brought back into the forefront the optical illusions people had when they first saw the world through representation. However, photography in particular, just like impressionist painting, while pushing people away from their habits it calls them at the same time to withdraw into themselves in order to compose a personal impression. This is the first indication that the transfer from the painter’s studio to the street implies the transfer from a creative state in which memory is the function that actively evokes the past to a state in which memory is automatically activated, as an associative reaction to an external stimulus. In short, a switch from voluntary to involuntary memory.
The photographic camera does not have any memory and, in this respect, it does not provide a convenient continuity of things. The photographic trace, this ideal memory aid, signifies –upon its creation, upon causing this temporal discontinuity– the death of memory. Between the there and then and the here and now there is a continuity crisis photography fails to deal with. The past is a past made of moments with no chronological order. There is no constant temporal axis on which to seek these images in their respective time positions. Due to this absence of chronological sequence-continuity, photography has a strangely open relationship with the present. Photography perpetuates memory but has no recollection and this is the reason why, in a way, it is always new and intact.
Photography, this framing condition, has to do with transferring the frame from the representation surface to the human eye, to the view-finder. Mallarmé states the example of a man forming a frame with his hands. The eye-frame of the photograph is an act of isolation, deciding what to include and what to leave out, in a way the representation field is not. In painting, the frame itself is not an instrument of visual control. In photography, the eye-frame is not the only thing that makes the photographic camera an optical addition. It also causes procedures of reframing, either as part of the creation of a contact sheet either inside the dark room. According to Mallarmé, this gives the frame the charm of an imaginative boundary.
By adopting the eye-frame of the photographer, the impressionist painter puts in his disposal a choice which seemed to be a special privilege of photography: the frame that generates composition or, in other words, the frame that records the compositional impulse. But the fact that structural elements can be found in a painting or a photograph does not mean that the said painting or photograph are simply a compositional product. For example, the structural set-up of photographs by Bresson, Kertész or Winogrand reconstructs the real after having deconstructed it.
In addition, with its finalised printed version, photography has an irrefutable frame. A frame which suggests that the composition of the image was done in relation to this framed reality, within these fixed boundaries and in accordance with the requirements of such a constructed and clearly outlined demarcation. Therefore, the composition is put forward as something that has stabilised, as something that needs to be located and not generated. This way the viewer manages to feed back to the image part of the artistic intention that seemed to be missing from the function of the eye-frame. While in photography these two types of frame can be separated into the moment of taking and the moment of printing, in impressionist painting it should be considered that these frames are combined into a single sum of actions, the painting process.
The representational world and, in particular, the world of artistic photographic control, this tombstone of the real, lies at the edges of what exists. It lies between shadow and light; between what is captured -abstraction- and what is perceived, the readable, the visual. It lies between the real and the unreal; between the territory of the direct experience and the mental territory. It is presented as a transparent –thus pure– world, and as reassuring, in the sense of ensuring balance between the mental and the social, the external and the internal, the needs and the desires. With the justification even that it is unique, that it provides a newly discovered means of discussion, systematic language, rational thought. The photographically reconstructed world claims its probably rightful position as a potentially real and more significant world, which implies the further compromise of the empirical world.