18 December 2006

Photography, Shmotography (Part Three)

In two (count ‘em: one, two) previous posts, I wrote about the decline of the story through our society’s increasing reliance on images.

In my work on the public history class’ Museum London exhibit (plug-plug, wink-wink, Jeremy), questions like “did people want to document their lives for the same reasons that we do today?,” or “has the desire to record events changed over time?” popped into my head frequently. As I always try to do with my students, this thinking led me to the present day. This thinking prompted me to question why it is that we, today, want to document our lives so heavily. As I wrote in my museum text, cameras are everywhere. Everywhere!

I hesitate to think that the ubiquity of the camera is because we are a completely narcissistic society, but sometimes I have to wonder. I am not harping on the fact that we document everything (not yet, anyway), just wondering from where it stems.

I concur that photography, in the words of Nancy Martha West, “functions as its own language, with its own codes, rhetoric, agency, and reading practices separate from those of written language.” [1]

I also concur with West when she states that in spite of the language of photography that has evolved over the years, photography cannot adequately document our lives enough to supplant our memories. West posits that Kodak advertising in the early decades of the twentieth century planted the idea in the minds of the public that their memories were in danger of escaping them, and that Kodak was there to save the day. Thus, people began to rely on photographs and photography as a means of documenting the past. This practice, argues West, is partially to blame for the resultant erosion of the practice of telling stories through words.

While photography rose in prominence after the advent of the camera, writing, speaking, and telling stories as means of communicating our stories did not all of a sudden disappear from the landscape. After all, I am writing this blog. My point is that the ability to tell stories, and the skills involved in telling those stories has, in many cases, been largely superceded by the preference to tell stories through pictures. And I am just as guilty of this as the next person.

When I used to visit my grandmother before she passed away, I always made her pull out her family photo album. Whenever I return from a trip somewhere, or if visiting with people I have not seen in some time, I refer to pictures. I even have a flickr account (don’t judge me!), where people can go to see what pictures I think are interesting or worthy of publishing. When my fiancée and I were first getting together, one way we tried to tell each other our life stories was by flipping through our photo albums and picture boxes, a practice that many people, I am sure, also do.

The thing is, when I interact with people and show them my pictures, or ask them to show me theirs, I always make sure to try to tell or get the story behind each picture. Every time I was at my grandmother’s house, I made sure to get at least one story out of her that I had not ever heard before. Sometimes I got the same story, but with a new twist, which was okay. It’s not that she was without her wits, but that talking about a particular person or event, in different ways and at different times, aroused different thoughts for her, as it does for me, and I suppose for you, too, dear reader. That just demonstrates the flexibility of memory.

But you cannot get that from pictures; you can only get the same picture, time and again. It is the people telling the story behind the picture that bring the picture to life. Now, if I ever get a chance to see my grandmother’s photo album again, I will be able relate some of her stories to the people around me who care to listen.

Which is why I have a problem with things like flickr. The only story you get is that told by the picture. People like Bill Turkel will tell you that now, with the wonders of the internet and Web 2.0, there is all sorts of metadata than can be embedded in the pictures that can tell you quite a lot more about the photo. And who knows, perhaps some day we will be able to attach a digital file to the photograph that will tell the viewer the story behind it, via the microchip implanted in that viewer’s brain.

And therein, once again, lies the problem. For me. In this semi-science fiction scenario I just made up, the human interaction is non-existent. It is just computer to brain.

I suppose the overarching gist of this three-part post, then, is not so much about photography, but how we communicate with one another. I know that I should not be too critical about photography, as it allows us a bit of a glimpse into the past. Albeit a brief, passing moment that we try to freeze into perpetuity.

Plus, I have some very close friends and family members who are extremely passionate about photography, and if I ever expect to get some nice prints from them, I had best stop bad-mouthing their passion.

I will conclude this by requesting that all those out there trying to enlighten us as to how to read photographs keep working at it; you have a lot of work ahead of you. Because for every thousand words a picture tells, there are another billion waiting to be told and heard.


[1] Nancy Martha West, Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 166.

1 comment:

Marco said...


I read your three article opus on photography. It was no great surprise that the most interesting content was the images of Donna and yourself. That's saying something.

I think you'd be foolish to suggest that a photograph is a poor historical document. You'd only have to look at The FSA, Eugene Atget's work in Paris, Sander's 'Man of the 20th Century', or Riis' photos of poverty to see its importance.

These are all old examples (relative to the age of photography). Consider Winogrand's documentary of city life, or Burtynsky's recent 'Manufactured Landscape' series. How will these be viewed in 50 years? Probably as valuable historical records.

A good photograph can stand perfectly on it's own, unaccompanied by words. Think of some of the images that came out of Vietnam, or Tiananmen Square, or Kent State University, or the Apollo moon missions. Consider the reportage done by Magnum photographers in Sarajevo and Rwanda. The list goes on and on. These images contain information that an essay would not be able to convey. These images don't need to be translated into another language, or scaled down to fit in a magazine article. They're perfectly accessable to just about everyone (save the blind).

Don't get me wrong - I don't think everything can be distilled into a two dimensional 4x6" image. Of course not. I find reportage is done best when images are married with an essay. But I wouldn't say one is stronger than the other. Words and images are a perfect compliment to one another. By coupling them together, we can heighten the overall sense of understanding.

I can read all I want about Paris in the 1920's, but when I look at Atget's images of the city, I have added another dimension of content. One that I would not be able to access any other way.

As an aside, I think the true strength in photography is its artistic side, as opposed to the documentary side. But that would be another topic altogether.

I'll leave it at that.