Three quotes on photography

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by · · Posted in: musings · theory

Making photographs has to be, then, a personal matter; when it is not, the results are not persuasive. Only the artist's presence in the work can convince us that its affirmation resulted from and has been tested by human experience. Without the photographer in the photograph the view is no more compelling than the product of some anonymous record camera, a machine perhaps capable of happy accident but not of response to form.

Adams allows for the happy accident of the machine, which opens the possibility that you might be confronted one day by an excellent photograph made without human intent. Perhaps you would find a very lucky shot from a traffic or security camera or one of the thousands of webcams streaming constant images to the internet. It further opens the possibility that you may one day find yourself in front of two photographs that are identical except for the single difference that one is made by a machine and the other by a person. Robert's argument would suggest then that the only way to determine which image was persuasive would be to know beforehand which was made by the person. It is an absurd reduction that would force you to judge two identical images in completely different ways based on information not found in either image—the images could be identical, but only one could be persuasive according to Robert Adams.

Compare Adams' identification with the photographer to Roland Barthes' identification with the text at the expense of the author:

The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the 'human person.' It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the 'person' of the author. The author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs. The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire's work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh's his madness, Tchaikovsky's his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author 'confiding' in us. … To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyché, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is 'explained'— victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic…

Here is an image created ten years ago this week, about the same time as the terrestrial version at the top of the post. It was made by a machine, although you can't say it was without human intent. The intent, passion, genius, and immense effort behind the creation of this image is pretty obvious.

Nasa Voyager image of earth
Image of Earth (the little dot lower-right of center) from the Voyager I spacecraft.

But in another sense it is 'some anonymous record'—you can't really say it is a response to form. Nevertheless it is persuasive and moving for all sorts of reasons none of which have anything to do with the artist's presence. Carl Sagan explained why he was moved by the image:

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.