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volume 9
february 2007

On seeing


  Reflections on looking through a lens
by Hans Durrer
  Our human disposition, strengthened by a positivistic world view, has made us all subject to the primacy of vision. So, we tend to believe that what a photograph shows us, must inevitably be true. But, as Hans Durrer argues, the medium has its own reality.
1 Right: Woman, visiting an election meeting at Bouira, Algiers 1995. Photo: Michael von Graffenried

Reflections and recognitions. "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak" (Berger, 1972: 7). To be able to see, we have to open our eyes. Photographs, often, are eye-openers: they can make us aware of things overlooked, they can point at situations, or objects, we might otherwise have missed.

"We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice" (Berger, 1972: 8). This choice, however, is not always a conscious act. Most of what we do we do out of habit and without being aware that we are, almost constantly, making choices.

  Yet to photograph is, mostly, to make a conscious choice. Selecting objects, choosing position and light, are factors one is well advised to reflect upon before taking a picture. To make a choice is essentially a creative act. The pictures we are presented with show scenes which the photographers wanted to record, to document, to let us look at.
  "Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights. This is true even in the most casual family snapshot. The photographer's way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject" (Berger, 1972: 10).
  Whether photographs are taken, made, or shot, the moment the finger triggers the click, "a certificate of presence" (Barthes, 1984: 87) is being created.
  "A photograph always, for the split second, brings to a standstill the passing of time and thus makes us aware of our own mortality — for we have been allowed to see time" (Aumont, 1997: 123).
  Photographs are reflections of how photographers have decided to look at the world. Their vision, inevitably, is always subjective, yet what is photographed is not invented, it is authentic, it has been right before their very eyes.
  "The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been. This distinction is decisive. In front of a photograph, our consciousness does not necessarily take the nostalgic path of memory (how many photographs are outside of individual time?) but for every photograph existing in the world, the path of certainty: The Photograph's essence is to ratify what it represents" (Barthes, 1984: 85).
  Photography is, as Cartier-Bresson (1968: np) states ... "at one and the same time the recognition of a fact in a fraction of a second and the rigorous arrangement of the forms visually perceived which give to that fact expression and significance."
2 Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. Photographs, by giving expression to a fact, give it significance, and in doing so, make the ordinary often look extraordinary. For we only see when we pay attention; and only when we focus will we be able to notice the magic that surrounds us.
  Pictures make one see. Not necessarily what the person taking them has seen but what (s)he wanted us to look at. "Look! look there!" we exclaim when we want to direct someone's attention, and this is precisely what the photograph does — pointing a finger, giving a direction; we are given the chance to look at the world through another person's eyes.
  Yet what the photographer sees and what the camera records is not always the same. As the photographer Henry Callahan once noted: "A photograph is able to capture a moment people can't always see with their eyes" (cited in: McQuire, 1998: 107). As Fox Talbot (cited in: Newhall, 1994: 246) had already elaborated in The pencil of nature: "... it frequently happens, moreover — and this is one of the charms of photography — that the operator himself discovers on examination, perhaps long afterwards, that he had depicted many things he had no notion of at the time. Sometimes inscriptions and dates are found upon the buildings, or printed placards most irrelevant, are discovered upon their walls ..."
  One of the more spectacular discoveries was made in 1971, in Sydney, Australia, when John Gilpin, an amateur photographer, who had hoped to catch a DC-8 on take off but because his view was blocked, only caught it at 200ft. "He did not see the stowaway boy of 14 falling to his death as the jet's wheel housing was opened — but it was on the film when Gilpin developed it" (Evans, 1997: 4).
  A photograph is often a personal statement — it tells us what a particular person deemed worth recording and preserving. Predictably, ten photographers will shoot ten different versions of the same event. Nevertheless, a picture of a pencil will remain a picture of a pencil, regardless of the perspective.
  Yet photos, inevitably, take on lives of their own. The picture of a pencil might cause numerous readings, depending on one's background, and on the context in which it is displayed. What, however, makes it unique is the fact that what had been photographed had been there — there had been some thing, an object, that was physically there at the moment the picture was taken. It is in this sense that photographs are real. In the words of Susan Sontag (1978: 5):
  "A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what's in the picture."
3 Right: Funeral of President Mohammed Boudiaf, Algiers 1992. Photo: Michael von Graffenried

Captions and conditions. "I see only what I know," Goethe said (cited in: Koner in Smith Schuneman, 1974: 60), which is, precisely, why photographs need to be explained.

  When The Independent (1999, December 11, p.3) published an article about the bombing of the Chechen capital Grozny by the Russian army it was accompanied by several photos, one of which showed a sad and disoriented old man. The reader learned that the people still remaining in Grozny had been given an ultimatum to leave the town. For a number of them, however, leaving was not an option, for they were blind — as was this man in the photo. Learning about his condition changed the view of the observer dramatically: what seconds ago was the portrait of a sad, old man was all of a sudden the face of a blind old man without hope of escaping his predicament.
  In his Ways of seeing John Berger (1972: 27-28) shows us a painting by Van Gogh. We are told that we are looking at a cornfield with birds flying out of it. And this is what we see: a cornfield with birds flying out of it. Then Berger makes us turn the page. We see the same painting. The caption says: "This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself." All of a sudden we look at the very same picture with very different eyes: our consciousness has been altered — and so has our view.
  The aphorism "One picture is worth ten thousand words" (Barnard, 1927: np) is only true when we understand that we have to read the picture to know what we are shown. Phillip Knightley (2000: 227) remarked that Robert Capa's famous photograph of the Spanish Civil War — a Republican militiaman falling to the ground after being shot — "does not tell us anything as a picture". Its meaning, he argued, resulted largely from its caption, which read: "Robert Capa's camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Cordoba." Had the caption read "A militiaman slips and falls while training for action", the impact of the picture would certainly not have been the same.
  In 1931, Walter Benjamin (1980: 215) stated in his A short history of photography: "The camera will become smaller and smaller, more and more prepared to grasp fleeting, secret images whose shock will bring the mechanism of association in the viewer to a complete halt. At this point captions must begin to function, captions which understand the photography which turns all the relations of life into literature, and without which all photographic construction must remain bound in coincidences."
  Undeniably, captions are crucial, and, often, they are necessary. "The basic unit of photojournalism", says Wilson Hicks of Life (cited in: Evans, 1997: 255), "is one picture with words." For we want to know what we are looking at; and, furthermore, our curiosity demands information that a picture alone often cannot provide. As Harold Evans (1997) elaborates:
  "The wordless picture story may have an aesthetic rigour but words can enhance both emotional and cognitive values: They are not competitive; they are complementary. They identify people and places, the first essential. They explain relationships. They fix the time. They may elaborate on what's happening. They can point to an elusive detail. They can attempt to counter our irritating perversity in each drawing different, even contradictory, meanings from the same image. They can confirm mood. And with a single photograph only words can explain how the event occurred or what its effect might be."
  Clearly, captions can also be used manipulatively. They are, and, occasionally, they lead viewers on to quite unexpected readings. The captions of a German hobby-photographer — who achieved some notoriety some years ago for having had his picture taken with prominent persons — read, for example, like "should you have wondered who the guy next to me is, it is the Pope."
  A great photograph, however, does not solely depend on the ability of the person behind the lens, a great photograph is often nothing but a stroke of luck: to be there at the right time and to have the camera ready. Some impressive pictures have been shot without looking through the viewer. Michael von Graffenried, for instance, a Swiss photographer based in Paris, took remarkable photos of everyday life in Algeria, a country torn by civil strife, by using a camera with a 150 degree panoramic lens "that enabled him to shoot from the waist level to avoid drawing attention to himself" (Time, 1999, April 19). As strange as it may seem — to shoot without looking through the viewer is not at all uncommon for professional photographers.
4 Reworking the image. It is of significance that "the decisive moment" (Cartier-Bresson, cited in: Janson, 1986: 770) might be chosen by the person behind the lens, but that the actual recording is done by the camera. The distinction is crucial — as the Tages-Anzeiger (2000, January 12) aptly remarked: "Zeugen sind keine Kameras" (Witnesses are no cameras) read the headline, commenting on the reliability of eye-witnesses. It is not the person, it is the camera we trust.
  Yet this is about to change, or so it seems, for digital imaging allows the manipulation of pictures without leaving a trace. So far there has always been a negative as proof that an event had been witnessed; in digital photography, however, there is no longer any negative, and no more evidence of an event having taken place. As Vandome (1999: 10) explains:
  "Once the photograph is taken, all similarity between traditional and digital photography ceases. A film image can be developed into a hard copy and that's pretty much it really. A digital image on the other hand can be transferred into a computer and, with the right software, numerous improvements can be made. Colours can be increased or decreased, unwanted objects can be removed (including spots, wrinkles and the dreaded red-eye), new items can be inserted and special effects can be applied."
  Photographs, it must be stressed, have always been subjected to manipulation, be it that objects had been rearranged or negatives been tampered with. So far the altering of images is nothing new. However what is new is that there is no more telling if a photo is an original or not. Does it matter? As always, it depends. In advertising, for instance, there would be no problem, since nobody believes that it has anything to do with truth. In documentary, however, it matters considerably, for documentary is ultimately about trust.
  We live in times where looks and appearances are everything. Increasingly, for the sake of effect, highly respected journalistic publications alter photographs. Probably the most famous case was the modification of the 1982 National Geographic cover of the pyramids of Giza: "... a horizontal photograph was made into a vertical image suitable for the cover by electronically moving one pyramid closer to the other (Ritchin, 1990: 16-7). The Geographic's editor did not see this modification as falsification, "but merely the establishment of a new point of view by the retroactive repositioning of the photographer a few feet to one side" (Ritchin, 1990: 17). Yet this is taking things too lightly. As Peter Howe of Life illustrates:
  "If you've got a photographer who is sending you a series of electronic impulses which as photo editor you bring up on the screen of your electronic workstation, and it is showing a massacre in Burma — there is absolutely no way you know whether that massacre took place (cited in: Ritchin, 1990: 23).
  It is not without irony that the more technology advances, the less we can trust what it delivers. Yet we need to have trust, which is why, ultimately, the trustworthiness of an image will have to depend on the credibility of the photographer. On the other hand, it is a phenomenon of our media age that despite the fact that we are much too worldly to believe easily what the media tells us, to a large extent, we nevertheless base our view of the world on it (Luhmann, 1996: 9-10). Likewise, we readily acknowledge that photographs can lie, yet we are not really prepared to give up believing that they do not.
  Thus, what is at stake here is an attitude. The fact that one has the ability to alter an image without leaving a trace does not necessarily imply that one should do so. What one should do depends on what one thinks photography is — and should be — all about. It should be, this dissertation claims, about the camera as the witness of events, it should be about making us aware of the the world we are living in. This, of course, excludes the arranging of objects for the sake of effect. "We work in terms of reality, not of fiction, and must therefore 'discover', not fabricate", as Cartier-Bresson (1968: np) says.
5 Right: Women returning home after their Friday's prayers, Algiers. Photo: Michael von Graffenried

Rearranged reality. In 1991, the National Press Photographers Association (of the United States), deeply worried about a technology that made alterations of images virtually undetectable, adopted a statement of principle that read:

  "As journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public" (cited in: Brower, 1998).
  However, the digitalists look at it from a different angle; for them the possibilities that the new technology offers are deeply intriguing. They do not see "camera images as 'sun pictures' and ... 'impressed by nature's hand'" (Jeffrey, 1981: 10), as photos in their early days were called, but as pixels that can be controlled. History, it seems, has come full circle. For some of the early photographers, i.e., Julia Margaret Cameron, or Oscar Rejlander, record making was not enough — they wanted to be artists, like the painters (Jeffrey, 1981: 48). The same applies to the digitalists — they want to be creators. As Brower (1998) has it : "Digital photography now allows photographers complete freedom to rearrange reality according to their whims. This is what painters do."
  Clearly, there are photographers who qualify as artists, yet this has less to do with their aspirations than with the mastery in using their tool — the camera, that is. It is the mastery a warrior has to have — to be fully present and ready for whatever will occur. Such presence, combined with good instincts, good taste and a sense of geometry translates into what is called the (good) eye. As the art critic Brian Sewell elaborates: "The (good) eye is indefinable but those who have it know so and know it to be the instrument through which informed intuition works" (cited in: Shakespeare, 2000: 92).
  Seen from a distance, everything looks different. And it sometimes happens that later generations declare certain photographs as art that are not necessarily masterful yet have exposed — at times deliberately, as with the ones by Lee Friedlander — new ways of seeing.
  Moreover: "The camera was invented and found its footing in an era in which positivism held sway" (McQuire, 1998: 33). Subjectivity was seen as suspicious and untrustworthy, a human defect the infallible machine was to correct. "Unstinting, methodical, uniform, durable, ever alert, incapable of being swayed by emotion or passion, the machine was invested as a paragon of Victorian values" (McQuire, 1998: 35).
  Positivism, according to John Berger, proposed that "when something is visible, it is a fact, and that facts contain the only truth" (cited in: McQuire, 1998). No wonder then that "the camera, which combined the primacy of vision with the promise of automatism, held pride of place in this universe" (McQuire, 1998).

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  2007 © Hans Durrer / 2007 © Soundscapes