“as if through a glass”
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
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.
* * *
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.
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