Michael Maranda



“as if through a glass”
Michael Maranda
originally published in Blackflash 16:1 (August 1998)

Many of us were first faced with digital imagery in 1982 when National Geographic published a “photograph” of the pyramids of Giza. The source photograph was digitally tweaked to fit all the pyramids into the vertical format of the cover. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a photograph. It read like a photograph. It appeared to tell the truth about the scene so photographed — a scene that, if we accept that a photograph is a manifestation of its subject, does not exist. And on this point, because it was disclosed that the image had been altered, it caused a controversy about the ethics of publishing digitally altered photographs. To understand this controversy requires returning to some basic considerations of traditional photography itself.

It has been many years since I first read Roland Barthes’ “Rhetoric of the Image.” As a result of this encounter, I still get an uneasy feeling when I look at a photograph.1 Intellectually I know that a photograph is only some chemical stains on a piece of paper but I can’t shake the feeling that I am seeing through it to something else — or (more accurately) to sometime else. I think I understand what is happening when I do that.

When, over thirty years ago, John Szarkowski was laying the groundwork for his understanding of photographs, he offered two distinct modes of reading — we could think of the photograph as either window or mirror.2 Barthes (and I have to remind myself that we was writing before Szarkowski) offers a more persuasive alternative which subsumes these two modes. This third option could be summarised as the photograph as projection screen. We bring to the image all our preconceptions, all our ideological baggage, and invest the image with the meaning that best suits a combination of the photographer’s intentions in making the image and our own intentions in viewing it. If those intentions are of an objective bent we seem to see through the image and if they are of a more subjective suasion we see reflected back an interpretation — attributable to ourselves or the photographer. In either case, the amount of transparency implied in an image is function not of the photographer’s machinations but the viewer’s position.

This manner of understanding the function of the photographic image is, at the same time, at odds with the experience of (casually) viewing a photograph — especially those cast in the two most rhetorically persuasive of genres, the snapshot and the documentary — as well as explanatory of this mode. It seems we cannot understand something about the world through a photograph as we can only understand the photograph through the world we are already in.

If my intention is to avoid all the implications of understanding photography as a transparent medium, then intentions might not be the best thing to bring into play — especially this early into the game — but it is intentions that are central to my argument. If, as a critic, I wish to convince you of the plausibility of my reading of a work I can (and perhaps must) use (illicit) appeals to the “intentions” of the artist as part of my strategy. I will be successful in this gambit only if the intentions that I draw out are those which appear to be those of the artist as expressed in the work.3 Whether these described intentions have anything to do with the “actual” intentions of the artist is irrelevant — one has only to think through the assimilation of documentary work such as Salgado into “fine art” venues to see how this functions. The uncanny successes of such appeals are due to these ascriptions of intention as being merely another manner of describing the work — a rather extended argument of saying, “it is what it is.” This illusory tautology, a rather difficult one to dispel, is rhetorically very effective. (Ironically, if the transparency of the photograph is tied to this tautology, what it “is” is what it is not, and we are left with the formulation, “it is what it isn’t.”)

Integral to the (rhetoric of the) invocation of these phantasmal intentions is the contextualisation of the work to the moment of creation. Thus, to borrow from Borges, Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote is a different novel than the one written by Cervantes — even though the words used are identical.4 And yet, if these intentions are phantasmal — an aspect present only in the interpretation of the work — then one could ask if such a distinction between the two Don Quixotes is valid? Would I not have to argue that in recalling the originally context of the work, what is recalled is itself to be found only in the present context of the critique — as fictional as the intentions which are conjured — and that thus the two novels are identical?

Well, yes, and no. Part of what we bring to works is a pre-existing framework that allows us to recognize them as art works, as photographs, as novels, and that also allows us to interpret them.5 Part of the pre-existing framework for Menard’s Don Quixote (if it really existed) is a belief that Menard wrote it in the twentieth century, and that we should thus approach it with different considerations in mind — considerations that are present before the work is read — otherwise, when reading it we could only be reading Cervantes. Nevertheless, even though Menard does not exist, and thus did not write anything, we can read Menard’s Don Quixote.

In the case of the photograph, there are social conventions which will identify genres and captions or titles that direct a reading, but most importantly there is a pre-existent method of reading them which entails thinking of them as transparent. This method is embedded in the language that surrounds photography — even when we doubt the transparency of the medium we still “take” photographs, we refer not to them but to their content (“This is the hotel we stayed at in Paris”), and most of all we believe that they are different from other types of images. Any particular photograph does not (I might even be tempted to say cannot) tell a truth — the medium itself, however, says “the truth!”6 Even when the object which we recognise as a photograph — isn’t. Knowing the “codes” allows one to fake a photograph (and here I am referring not to misleading photographs but to photorealist paintings which are usually without interest until their specific fiction is exposed). Whether we place the intentions in the artist or in the critic (or in the viewer as critic) the choice of the medium of photography (whether it is actually used or not) invokes all the social conventions that surround the epistemological value of the photograph. So why should digital imagery make me uncomfortable?

If the notion of photographic transparency was not so embedded in our reading of photographs, the accusations of fraud that were directed towards National Geographic would have seemed nonsensical. That this image was on the cover of a journal dedicated to a direct uncompromising link between image and subject was key in the controversy. Had this image been published as the cover of an art or design journal, I imagine it would not have caused the furor that it did. The general trend is to view the digital image with suspicion, as if the manner of making it is essentially duplicitous.

It is this suspicion that makes me nervous about digital imagery, not the ontological difference between the two types of images. After all, the traditional photographic image has as much capability of misleading the viewer. One only has to look to the 1972 Naional Geographic’s own photo-essay on the Tasaday (the stone age tribe that wasn’t); to fashion photography (which has been airbrushing imperfections away for decades); or to Alexander Gardner’s photographs from the American Civil War, where the same lifeless body becomes alternately a Fallen [Union] Sharpshooter and a Slain Rebel Sharpshooter — to point to some obvious examples.

The fallout of the distrust that surrounds digital technologies seems to have the rather unfortunate effect of allowing a backslide into the magical realism of the silver print — bolstering the questionable fidelity of the analog photograph. The irony is that if we recognize an image as a traditional photograph (whether it be a painting, a silver print, or a high-quality digital creation) it will be read with the trust that that medium inspires. If we recognise it as a digital fabrication, whether it be one or not, we won’t. The photograph appears only in the eye of the beholder.

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1. Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image,” in Image Music Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), pp. 32-51. I would like my reader not to consider the use of the term “rhetoric” as derogatory or equivalent to sophistry. Rather, rhetoric should be understood in the sense of argument — more precisely, the structure of an argument (its form) which carries most (if not all) of the ideological baggage. All social statements are rhetorically (and, thus, ideologically) constructed.

2. John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966).

3. See Kendall Walton, “Style and the Products and Processes of Art,” in The Concept of Style (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp. 72-103.

4. Example from Walton. See Jorge Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” in Ficciones (New York: Grove Press, 1962).

5. On this, see Walton, “Categories of Art,” in Joseph Margolis, ed., Philosophy looks at the Arts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), pp. 53-79, and Gerard Genette, Fiction and Diction, Catherine Porter, trans., (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), esp. p. 79.

6. I would refer the reader to the following sources: Esther Parada, “C/Overt Ideology: Two Images of Revolution,” pp. 221-260. and Martha Rosler, “in, around, and after thoughts (on documentary photography).” pp. 303-342, both in Richard Bolton, ed., The Contest of Meaning (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989). Also useful is Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Dell, 1973); Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); and Jonathan Crary, Technologies of the Observer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990).