Chapter 1: Looking and Taking

The Nature of Seeing

In order to understand the nature of reality and representation in images with themes of sexuality or the intolerable, it is first necessary to develop an understanding of how we perceive the world with our own eyes, and how photographs fit in to this visual system.  It is only after our relationship to photographic images is established that we can understand the specific problems that these particular types of images present us with.

Despite its relative modernity (compared to, for instance, painting or literature), the field of photography has a rich foundation of theory and philosophy, which in turn provides us with a toolkit for understanding photographic images.  Due to both its history and its visual nature, many of these theories and philosophies have been inherited from more established mediums. In a recent lecture for The Photographers’ Gallery titled Four Polemics on Photographic Theory (2011), however, David Bate—an author, photographer, and an editor of the Photographies journal— proposes that strict photographic theory is a misnomer, and that what we refer to as photographic theory is in reality an amalgamation of various other art theories which we combine and use to discuss the nature of representation in photography.

Whilst Bate may have been indulging in a little sensationalism for the purpose of entertainment (photographic theory was of course discussed at length during the lecture), it is true that many of the most useful resources on the nature of looking at photographs were written not by photographers, but by philosophers, language theorists, and art critics and historians.  These are appropriately established sources of visual theory because, as art critic and historian James Elkins states, “artists have been making exact statements about the ways the world appears since long before vision was ever an academic field” (1996, p.13).  This should not be surprising, as the act of looking is a constant in the lives of every seeing person, and is an interdisciplinary process that concerns every producer of visual material; only a subset of these theories are unique to the field of photography, but certain misconceptions about seeing must be addressed before any meaningful discussion can begin.

Elkins illustrates the scale of these misconceptions in the introduction to The Object Stares Back:

Seeing does not interfere with the world or take anything from it, and it does not hurt or damage anything.  Seeing is detached and efficient and rational.  Unlike the stomach or the heart, eyes are our own to command: they obey every desire and thought.  Each one of those ideas is completely wrong. […] Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer.

Elkins, 1996, pp.11-12.

Elkins then proceeds to pose a convincing argument for vision and seeing as an interactive, mutually transformative process.  In the chapter Just Looking, he argues that the concept of the observer and the observed being separate entities is mistaken – and, indeed, that the phrase ‘just looking’ is nonsensical.  He analogises the act of looking to the act of hunting; this analogy for the active seeking-out of spectacles will be familiar to students of the visual arts.  However, Elkins extends this common wisdom: he proposes that it may be more accurate to say that the object seeks out the viewer, and that in practice it is often the case that an object will ‘catch’ our attention without us actively seeking it.  Borrowing from the fields of linguistics and semiology, it can be said that usually these ‘eye-catching’ elements are cultural, historical, or spatial signs, having unique significance to individual observers.

Reality as a Personal Experience

The effect of this phenomenon is that each person effectively nurtures differing experiences of reality.  Humans have been primed by evolution to notice and react to certain stimuli, in order to avoid danger or to seek out food or kinsmen – this is a commonly stated reasoning for the fact that humans often see ‘faces’ in inanimate objects, or mistake sounds such as wind for human voices.  It is a phenomenon explicit enough for James Elkins to dedicate an entire chapter to in The Object Stares Back (‘Seeing Bodies’, 1997, pp.125-159). However, even these instinctual, universal experiences are framed by past personal experience, the viewer’s environment, and social and historical context.

Knoxville, Tennessee by Lee Friedlander
Fig. 1 (Knoxville, Tennessee by Lee Friedlander)

Lee Friedlander’s photograph Knoxville, Tennessee is a good example of this, uncomplicated by additional themes of sexuality or the intolerable.  An attentive viewer will notice that the street sign and cloud are amusingly positioned as such that they can be interpreted to represent a cloud-shape formed ice-cream atop a street-sign cone.  This interpretation relies on the viewer’s prior knowledge of this particular form of ice-cream—without which this interpretation breaks down—and this knowledge transforms the cloud and stop sign to signify something altogether different to what these components may otherwise signify in isolation.  Furthermore, the image then becomes a part of the viewer’s personal experience and perspective, informing his or her future encounters: the viewer may notice similar spectacles in his or her everyday life, or may search for further witticisms within Friedlander’s works.

Whilst it may initially take the viewer some time to notice (or be informed of) this illusion, once it is noticed, the perception of the stop sign as an ice-cream becomes more or less permanent in the viewer’s repertoire of experiences, and may be drawn on when interpreting similar images in the future.  This is broadly desirable, as increased perceptibility of abstract meaning will aid the viewer in their interpretation and understanding of other photographs, improving his visual comprehension.

Duck-Rabbit Illusion
Fig. 3 (Duck-Rabbit Illusion)

This isn’t to say that the popular interpretation of Knoxville, Tennessee will not develop or change over time with different viewers and in different contexts.  A study on the effect of motivational expectancy on perception, centred around the famous ‘duck-rabbit’ image (FIG), demonstrated that test subjects of all ages were substantially more likely to perceive the image as that of a rabbit on Easter Day, whereas the same study conducted in October revealed that the majority of viewers perceived the image as that of a duck, demonstrating the significance of context for interpretation (Brugger and Brugger, 1993)1.

The duck-rabbit image is a simple line-drawn illustration which is reasonably unambiguously either a rabbit or a bird; were this experiment to be conducted using a photograph the results would likely be far more complex, with variations of interpretation varying as wildly as the cultures and personal experiences of the test subjects; objects within the frame would alternately ‘catch’ the eye of some viewers whilst the same elements would be signally invisible to others.

This is the nature of the photograph: never a straightforward representation, but a complex artefact of variable interpretation determined by individual experience, culture, context, sequence, circumstance, method and quality of reproduction, and the availability of statements of intent.  Furthermore, these same variables guide the actions of photographer, consciously or unconsciously influencing what is included in (or omitted from) the frame.  Additionally, a photograph (as a document that is relatively automated in its production) may contain unintentional subjects or elements invisible to the photographer at time of exposure that add additional and unintended shades of meaning and interpretation for the viewer, leading us to a potential paradox: the seemingly objective nature of the camera (as a recording device that neither discriminates nor embellishes) creates an image that, due to unintentional internal and external elements, potentially provides more scope for subjective interpretation.

Applying Semiotic Theory

David Bate, who previously suggested that ‘photographic theory’ was a misnomer, later asserts that the literary theorist, philosopher, and semiologist Roland Barthes created a formative work of photographic theory in Camera Lucida (Bate, 2011).  Barthes was strongly influenced by the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, who today is widely recognised as the father of semiology.  Saussure described semiology as “a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life” (1986, p.15) and, although originally used by Saussure as a foundation from which to build linguistic theories, semiology has become an important tool through which photographic and psychological theories and concepts can be explained.

Written shortly after the passing of Barthes’s mother, Camera Lucida addresses variance between interpretations; Barthes calls the ‘obvious’ interpretation of the photograph the studium, which he distinguishes from the punctum—a detail which immediately resonates with the viewer for reasons that may not be understood.

“Certain details may ‘prick’ me.  If they do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally […] Hence the detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful.”

Barthes, 1980, p.47.

For Barthes, it is the small details which ‘catch’ his attention and draw him into an image, and he suggests that images that try to force meaning or rhetorical contrasts within the frame end up being irrelevant and uncommunicative, having no effect other than ‘perhaps one of irritation’ (1980, p.47).  It is pertinent to note that Barthes considers the presence of a punctum to manifest itself as a symbolic ‘prick’—a physical sensation generally associated with discomfort.  He reflects on how, when faced with an image of two physically disabled children, all he can see is ‘the little boy’s huge Danton collar, the girl’s finger bandage’ (1980, p.51), considering whether this makes him a ‘child’ or a ‘maniac’, and how he ‘dismisses all knowledge, all culture’ and states that his vision is a product of his own vision, unaffected by the vision of others.  This influences the way that the photograph is interpreted in a manner that is unique to the viewer, as the punctum of an image may be different—or absent—for other observers.

It is easy to empathise with Barthes’ perspective: our attentions are ‘caught’ by certain items within photographs—details that are often inconsequential, or redundant.  We look at photographs for pleasure and in search of meaning, attempting to immerse ourselves in them, and out of the various elements of the image distinct details seem to ‘reveal’ themselves to the viewer and draw him in.  It is often these details that stimulate our interests in looking at photographs for pleasure; we are, to use Elkins’ analogy, “like fish who like to swim in waters full of hooks.” (1997, p.20).  It is the very subtlety of these elements which appeals to the viewer, forging a personal and unique relationship between viewer and image.

Barthes describes photographs without a punctum as engendering merely a ‘sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest’ of something that you might consider ‘all right’ (1980, p.27).  If it is the punctum that draws us to photographs, then it would appear that Barthes is suggesting that photographs lacking a punctum for a viewer, communicating studium alone, should not be able to form a strong-enough connection with the viewer for it to have a lasting effect.  He asserts that the studium of a photograph is always coded (and therefore disposed for decoding in terms of the sign and the signified), whereas the punctum is not – and that the ability to decode a punctum automatically removes the power of the image to ‘prick’ the viewer (1980, p.51).

These statements do not seem to be universally evident when they are applied to the types of images that this essay attempts to explore.  Does the anguish of a Chinese woman who is in the process of dismemberment in front of a crowd of onlookers (discussed in chapter three) fail to forge any lasting, meaningful impression upon a viewer who cannot find a necessarily unexplainable link between their own experiences and what is depicted in the photograph?  Or is the presence of a punctum in images of disfigured faces a due to a universal, biological human reaction?  Or, is it that the content of the studium in these cases negates the need for a punctum?

Barthes penned the ideas in 1980, the year of his own untimely death, with the tragic consequence that he was unable to further develop his theories regarding punctum and studium—terms that only entered mainstream use for discussing photographic interpretation after Camera Lucida was published.  Despite its prominence in the fields of photographic and art theory, Barthes final work has been challenged on numerous levels by successive theorists and philosophers.

Jacques Ranciere, a contemporary philosopher, argues in The Future of the Image that Barthes arbitrarily separates the functions within the aesthetic image which allow it to gravitate between a decodable sign and “senseless naked presence” (2009, p.15):

In order to preserve for photography the purity of an affect unsullied by any signification offered up to the semiologist or any artifice of art, Barthes erases the very genealogy of the that was.  By projecting the immediacy [of the punctum] on to the process of mechanical imprinting, he dispels all the mediations between the reality of mechanical imprinting and the reality of the affect that make this affect open to being experienced, named, expressed.

Ranciere, 2009, p.15.

To give this statement context, it should be noted that The Future of the Image is an argument for an inescapable unification between politics and art, and argues for the acceptance of images and reality as intertwined systems—a system in which “there is no longer any reality, but only images”, and, conversely, that “there are no more images but only a reality incessantly representing itself to itself” (2009, p.1).  As such, it functions as a contemporary evaluation of concepts popularised by Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation, published in 19812, and will be discussed further in Chapter 3.

Ranciere effectively rejects the significance of the theories of studium and punctum in photographs on the grounds that fixating on an element which ‘pricks’ you undermines the more significant factor of the genealogy of the photograph, and its status as a document of the ‘that was’.  After all, photographs are considered (both socially and legally) as historical documents, and yet also can be considered as works of art both in themselves (from a ‘dumb art’ perspective), and in the history of the relationships between three things: the images of art, the social forms of imagery, and the theoretic procedures of criticism of imagery (2009, p.15).  He later asserts that:

Extracts from novels of poems, or the titles of films and books, frequently create connections that confer meaning on the images, or rather make the assembled visual fragments ‘images’ – that is, relations between a visibility and a signification.

Ranciere, 2009, p.33.

Thus, external contexts ‘create’ an image.  Cultural documents such as books and films certainly do have a transformative effect on the way that we view images, and changes in context alone can (and frequently do) completely transform the ‘signification’ (to use Saussure’s language of semiology), or interpretation, of what we believe we are seeing.  However, these effects are not exclusive to physical objects and contexts—they also play off of our preconceptions and assumptions.  This poses a problem when looking at photographs with historical or ‘charged’ significances, as both cultural documents and common preconceptions and assumptions (and, therefore, experiences of reality) can shift dramatically not only over time and across cultures, but may also be further influenced generally by the context in which the photograph is received by the contemporary viewer.

Art critic and historian John Berger states this as a common problem regarding interpreting historical artworks practically as an opening statement in his seminal work Ways of Seeing:

Many of these assumptions no longer accord with the world as it is.  (The world-as-it-is is more than pure objective fact, it includes consciousness.)  Out of true with the present, these assumptions obscure the past.  They mystify rather than clarify.  The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognised for exactly what it is.

John Berger, 2008, p.4.

Berger’s argument that photographs obscure rather than clarify may seem counterintuitive on the surface, but when framed by the works of other visual theorists (Elkins and Ranciere in particular), and especially considering the types of photograph that this essay explores, it transpires that this is in fact the nearest we can come to a satisfactory conclusion.

Although Ways of Seeing largely deals with historically significant paintings, the concepts discussed translate well to photography.  The painter starts with a blank canvas and adds what he sees fit; the photographer starts with a world composed of too much, and can capture no more than a tiny fragment.

In practice, neither photography nor any other traditional form of art can objectively represent reality, because—as the aforementioned theories have illustrated—reality is also subjective, and therefore precludes objective documentation.  These theories deal with the nature of seeing in general; the following two chapters deal with how specific themes can further distort our interpretations and understandings.