Notes from Session 3 of The Image and the Body in Life and Death (Tate Modern, ticket holders only).
We focused on Susan Sontag's scepticism about documentary photography in her book On Photography, and in particular the idea that photographs can't communicate what she calls moral knowledge. (If you have access via a library to Oxford journals you can read an article I wrote on this topic 'Photographic Communication' British Journal of Aesthetics, 1988 here).
In the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition we tested her ideas against a range of works, all of which involved a moral stance on events in war.
Notes from Session 4
The theme of this week's session was realisms in pictorial representation.
The word 'realism' is used in many different ways. Sometimes it refers to a specific movement in art, particularly the nineteenth century movement exemplified by Gustave Courbet (described, for example in Lina Nochlin's book Realism); at other times it is used to describe images which are especially convincing as depcitions of real places or things (even when those things aren't real) - in other words, it can used to refer to a general style (or group of styles) of depiction.
Some features shared by many so-called 'realistic' styles of depiction in painting include
- Inclusion of incidental (and apparently unchosen detail)
- Apparent verisimilitude (even to the point of trompe l'oeil - there are some great examples of trompe l'oeil painting here - most of which work partly because of viewer expectations)
- Fine detail
- Imitiation of photographic cropping etc.
Photography is often taken as a touchstone of realism. Yet a number of writers have argued that photographic realism gets its force from more than its attention to detail and inclusion of the incidental. Photographic realism is often thought of as the product of automatism, which is alleged to make it more objective (the lack of complex intentional control over the picture-making process - in the sense that photography is subtractive where painting additive) combined with the distinctive optico-chemical (or, these days, optico-digital) causal link back to subject matter, the fact that photographs aren't just pictures, but are simultaneously traces, and as such can yield special kinds of evidence if enough about the circumstances in which the images were taken is known (we can decide a 1oo metre sprint using a photofinish - no painter, however quick with the brush, could purport to give such objective evidence about who crossed the line first). Even if a photograph is blurred an indistinct, it is more 'realistic' than a painting because it is (in C.S. Peirce's terms) an indexical sign, as well as an iconic one, for its subject matter. (For more on C.S. Peirce's division of signs into Index, Icon, and Symbol, see these notes). A death mask or hand print might achieve this sort of direct link with reality, but most paintings cannot.
Some writers have gone even further. The contemporary analytic philosopher Kendall Walton (his webpage has some downloadable pdfs) has even gone so far as to claim - counterintuitively - that we can quite literally see through photographs - they are transparent. We see through glass, or via mirror reflections, and would see if we looked at miniature cameras as a kind of prosthetic eye, why then not say that we see via the direct causal chain that links a photograph with its object. I look at a photograph of my now dead grandfather, on this view, and quite literally see him. Photographs allow us, on Walton's view, to see into the past. And that is what gives them their distinctive quality as a type of picture. (There are plenty of philsoophers who disagree with this view...).
We also thought about the nature of a mental image in contrast with direct perception. Sartre's thoughts about the experience of looking at a picture and the way we are taken beyond what is given are relevant. As a phenomenologist, Sartre was very interested in giving an accurate and detailed account of what experience is actually like, what, in this case, it feels like to imagine something that isn't present, or to look at a photograph of a friend. This interrogation of his own experience was at the heart of Sartre's existentialism, and, when successful, is what makes it so appealing (unlike, in my view, the prickly abstractions and re-using of Hegelian and Heideggerian jargon, which make his writing so hard to follow for the uninitiated - and probably for the initiated too). But it would be wrong to see Sartre as obsessed with introspection: for him consciousness is smeared across the world - when we think, we always think about something (this is the special meaning of 'intentionality' in this context - thoughts are intentional means thoughts are always directed at something beyond them), and our consciousness is filled with the world, not with a little internal picture gallery representing the world.
For 17th and 18th century thinkers like Locke and Hume, experience creates images which we somehow view internally. Sartre rejects this model completely. Even when we experience a physical representation, such as a photograph of a friend, our experience isn't straightforwardly of that depiction.
For Sartre, the act of experiencing a depiction is that of animating an analgon (a representation). If I look at a photograph of Pierre, after a while I no longer experience the photograph as a physical object, but am carried beyond the physical object the photograph - my conscious experience isn't of a photograph, but of Pierre, and not just Pierre snapped for 1/100th of a second, but Pierre himself. He is experienced as absent, though.
In the gallery in Tate Modern we spent time scrutinising the paintings in Realisms (Level 2 West), thinking about the various rhetorical and technical ways in which a sense of realism was communicated.
If you are interested in the notion of imagination (in the sense of forming mental images, and their relation to the world), I recommend Colin McGinn's excellent book Mindsight.