I identified 4 relevant themes
Documentary photographs are both traces of what they are of and also picture some of their causes. The optico-chemical process, or more recently, the optico-electronic process leads to changes which are in some sense a trace of the causal process, just as a footprint in the flowerbed, no matter how legible it is, is a trace of an intruder. Photographs are traces of what they are of, and this makes them a special kind of evidence, potentially, different in kind from most other forms of pictures (though some like hand prints on a paleolithic cave wall combine trace and pictorial elements).
Photographs are also pictures. In documentary photography there is an understanding that we are not being deliberately mislead about key factors of the relationship between a photograph as a trace and a photograph as a picture. In the terms used by the philosopher C.S. Peirce, photographs are indexical signs (because they are traces) and also iconic signs (because they picture things). In pictorial photography (as for example in a ‘photograph of’ an angel, or one of Jeff Wall’s composite images), the causal process by which the image was made does not determine the subject matter – we are interested in what the image looks to be of rather than how it was actually made (such photographs often play on the tacit presumed veracity of documentary photography, often with some irony).
Some analytic philosophers have argued that the causal relationship between what a photograph is of and the finished image allows us quite literally to see through photographs into the past. Kendall Walton thinks this. Listen to an interview with Kendall Walton on Photography. I think this goes too far.
In the Time, Conflict, Photography exhibition, as well as combining trace and image, some of the images are actually and self-consciously of traces left by people and by armaments – traces of traces as it werel.
The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in his book Being and Nothingness (and also in his fascinating The Imaginary), discussed absence. Sartre was trying to give a phenomenological account of consciousness, one that focuses on what it is like and gives a rich description that somehow captures the essence of phenomena. He imagines going to meet his friend Pierre at a café, but Pierre is not there. Wherever he looks, Pierre isn’t. The lack or absence that he experiences is part of his experience of the café. It is true that there is no rhinoceros in the café, but he doesn’t experience that as a lack of a rhinoceros. Pierre’s absence, in contrast, ‘haunts’ the café. This isn’t something that features in his retinal image. But our experience of the world is not like watching flickering images on the back of our own eyeballs. It involves a richer sense not only of what is before us, but also what is not before us, which we experience as absence.
This notion of absence is particularly relevant to interpreting images in the exhibition because throughout there is an absence of people, an absence of the very events we presume to have caused the traces that have been photographed. In most cases experiencing the photographs appropriately involves going beyond the visually given in this way.
‘Synecdoche’ is a literary term. It involves taking a part for the whole. So, for example, when someone refers to ‘head of cattle’ they don’t just mean the heads – it’s a way of referring to the whole beast. When someone says ‘There’s more to seeing than meets the eye’ they don’t just mean one eye. Visual synecdoche is the act of presenting a part but as a way of referring to a larger whole. We discussed this in relation to Don McCullin’s famous photograph of a shell-shocked solider (taken in Vietnam in 1968). Don McCullin talks about how he came to take the photograph in the audio here (he apparently never blinked in all the time McCullin photographed him - 5 frames). McCullin describes it as 'a silent protest about the futility of war'. Although the photograph itself is literally only of, say, 1/100 second, it refers to much more than this. It is a visual synecdoche, for amongst other things, the wider experience of US soldiers in Vietnam, horror in battle, and so on. In a sense through presenting this one split second of one person’s life, McCullin has given us the equivalent of the Unknown Soldier, a solider who is buried to stand in for all the other unknown soldiers. Photographs in their causal relationship to what they are of have something akin to a literal meaning. Synechdoche is one way that they go beyond the straightforward ‘of-ness’ and become pictures with wider significance.
Implicature is a notion introduced by the philosopher H.P. Grice. Implication is what follows logically.
All women are mortal
Simone de Beauvoir is a woman
Therefore Simone de Beauvoir is mortal
In the above syllogism, the conclusion follows logically from the premises (i.e. if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true). In other words, the premises imply the conclusion.
In ordinary conversation much of our understanding comes from implicature not implication. So, for example, if I say
‘She got married and had children’, this sentence doesn’t actually tell you the order in which these events occurred – she could have had the children first. Conventions about how we use English, however, lead most people to understand this as meaning she had children after getting married.
‘Are you coming for the drinks in the Members Room provided on this course?’ and you reply ‘I have to get up early tomorrow.’ you haven’t said that you aren’t coming for the drink, but that is what most listeners would understand as your meaning. This is another example of implicature, and comes from a range of conventions, expectations, and shared understandings.
Photographs (and other pictures) have implicatures – meanings which we can reasonably glean from them set up by contexts and expectations. In the Time, Conflict, Photography exhibition, the meanings of some of the images require specific information about the events associated with a particular place photographed some specified time after the events have taken place.
In the exhibition we concentrated on relatively few images, including Simon Norfolk’s Afghanistan series from Chrontopia (read Julian Stallabrass's essay on Norfolk's Chronotopia here), photograms of weeds from Hiroshima, and the images from the series Shot at Dawn in the final room of the exhibition taken by Chloe Dewe Mathews at the sights where 99 years earlier First World War deserters had been shot at dawn. Watch a video of Chloe Dewe Mathews discussing this work (with transcript).
Next week we will be returning to this exhibition, considering the claim that Susan Sontag made in On Photography that photographs can’t take a moral stance because they are