The increasingly mediatised culture we live in today has lead us to be dominated by and dependent upon the production and consumption of images. Notions of objectivity and empiricism in the photographic have long since disappeared, but we still locate our sense of ‘the real’ in images. This dissertation will use many theories and ideas that discuss the role of photography, postmodernism and ‘the real’ within today’s culture. It will start with a discussion of the reasoning for the initial shift back towards the real. This shift mainly stemmed from postmodernism and the media. Postmodernism dealt with the idea of never ending reference and the fear about postmodern culture was that this never ending reference meant that all grip on reality had disappeared. There was a wish to return to something more stable and basic: ‘the real’? Due to advances in technology and developments in photography, the new fast changing everyday image led to our relationships and emotions becoming mediatised. We re-live events and experiences through images, which leads to a loss of the real. We remember the image rather than the event. Photographers started to try and return to the purely descriptive photography from the times before the mass referencing of postmodernism. This dissertation will look at how some of these photographers attempted to represent the real and also at how a few decided to play around with the representation of the real. Ansel Adams, for example, believed in simply trying to create a true representation of the landscape he was photographing. He attempted to show scenery at its most natural and realistic, with no visual manipulation or artifice. Andreas Gursky on the other hand began with this view but soon started changing this representation with digital editing so that it was no longer a true representation. Some photographers began attempting to create purely descriptive photography but could not escape referencing earlier work. Justin Partyka’s work The East Anglians, for example cannot be described as anything else but descriptive photography. However, his reference to Robert Frank’s The Americans in his title, had led him to fall into the postmodernism trap. Can you provide an account without analysis when it comes to photography?
This leads onto the main question posed in this dissertation: can we ever (re)find the real? Some would say that even photos that appear to be descriptive cannot escape being subjected to analysis and placed within a context of viewing. Due to postmodernism, we are constantly searching for meaning and analysis in images. Maybe they can never be void of reference and construction? Maybe images can never provide the clear, stable version of reality that we want from them? This constant analysis of images has exhausted our trust and interest in the photograph; there was a need to create images different from the ones we see every day in the media in order to re-find our trust in the image as truth and as art. Older, slower technologies began to re-emerge. The single image produced from these methods of working could bring back the processes of our memory that have been complicated due to the sheer amount of information we get from other technologies. There are a number of strands of photography that are concerned with the notion of re-finding the real. What do these methods of photographing have in common? Do any of these strands achieve the ‘stable and basic’ feeling of certainty that the real exists? Andy Grundberg’s phrase ‘the crisis of the real’ is apt in explaining the context of ‘the real’ within the photographic; the word ‘crisis’ inferring both an intense difficulty and a point of departure; a need for immediate change. Defining or attempting to name this period of change is not important, what is important is what it means for photographic practice. Will we continue to be consumed by images, or is there a future beyond the cycle of referencing left by postmodernism?Â Can we ever (re)find authenticity, originality and a true form of photography that can direct us to the real?
Chapter 1: What caused people to want to return to the real?
There are many factors which eventually led to people wanting to return to the ‘real’ values that were present in art and culture before postmodernism. This chapter will look at what some of these factors are and how they led to the return of the real. It will first deal with postmodernism and how the never ending referencing that was introduced during this time affected photography as an art form, and how the loss of the real that we experienced during the postmodernist era led to a wish to return to something more stable and basic. It will also look at the advances in technology and video that came about at this time, and how these advances changed photographic culture.Â It will also explore how our experiences, events, and even our emotions, both on an individual and public scale are heavily mediated, and how as a result of this, it is claimed we have lost any relation to the real.
The original shift towards the real came about due to postmodernism. This new form of art focussed on bringing together elements from existing culture, and never making anything new. This new way of working led to photography being used more and more in art. Before, photography had merely been a method of recording and was used mainly in science. Anytime it had been used in art it was considered undeserving and not a true art form.Â However, the rise of postmodernism meant that artists were looking for more ways to express themselves. Photography began to be used more and more, and it was becoming a more widely recognised and accepted form of art. As people were using it more and more, new developments in photographic technology were emerging. These new technologies meant that photography became more widely available, and many people who were not considered artists began using it.
Photography was now used extensively in art, and in the new postmodern culture. Postmodernism discarded the idea of finding something new and original and instead focussed on recombining elements from existing culture. Nothing new was being created which soon meant that art had become exhausted. The postmodern culture played ‘with signs of never ending reference, where the more you played the less anyone seemed to know what reality it was touching’ (Bate, 2004a: 31) and we had ‘lost touch with what we thought reality to be’ (Bate, 2004a: 31). The constant referencing and re-referencing had led to us being absorbed in representation. We no longer knew what reality was, and what it was not. We were lost. ‘The fear about postmodern culture was that there was no longer any anchor to reality at all, and that ‘reality’ had disappeared into an endless chain of other representations’ (Bate, 2004a: 31). This never ending reference meant that all grip on reality had disappeared. There was a wish to return to something more stable and basic. There was a need for change, for something new to emerge from the endless trail of reference. In this culture, in which reality was discarded in favour of mass intertextual referencing, there was a desire to return to reality. As David Bate says, there was a, ‘wish for a grittier, ‘closer to reality’ relation through realism’ (Bate, 2004a: 35). Many people wanted a ‘return to the values of modernism (the straight and pure photograph) to contemporary art photography, this is a return to description, originality and actuality â€“ precisely all the things that were strongly rejected by postmodernism’ (Bate, 2004a: 33).
There were many developments in technology that caused the downfall of postmodernism, along with the introduction of video. Photography was once the only way of ‘stopping time’, whereas now a freeze frame can come from any number of sources. Photographs began to be made by pulling them out of existing images; they were now selected from video and film. ‘What had once been the sole privilege and product of the photograph is now equally likely to be the result of a cinema or video ‘freeze-frame” (Bate, 2004b: 34). The development of video was leading to photography becoming redundant.Â Photography and video was also now becoming more readily available. Due to new appliances such as DVD players and VCR’s, anyone could now create a freeze frame from a video. Even ‘cinematic blockbusters can be stilled on domestic appliance devices like DVD and video machines’ (Bate, 2004b: 34). Victor Burgin discussed the advances in film and video in his essay Possessive, Pensive and Possessed. The introduction of VCRs, DVD players, and eventually video editing software on personal computers, meant that ‘the order of narrative could now be routinely countermanded’ (Burgin, 2007: 198) by the audience whenever they wished. This changed photography, as instead of photographs being of an actual event, they were now selections from the way the event had already been interpreted. Newspapers and news channels were no longer using photographers to capture the perfect picture; they were using video and selecting the image from the video. This enabled the news channels to pick the exact expression or look they required to give a biased representation of the person or thing. They could now create a completely false demonstration and force a public collective opinion. David Bate talks about these freeze-frame images in his article After Thought, Part II. He says,
‘The possibility of choosing the ‘right moment’ in such instances is still dependent uponÂ a person knowing when to push the button, but this is now in the hands of someone selecting a still from an already produced moving image. The selected ‘decisive’ moment is chosen from a film or video stream rather than ‘reality’ itself. Whereas a photograph was supposed to be a ‘rectangle ripped out of time’ as John Berger had once dramatically put it, today it is more often via the computer that a print is pulled out of some existing image bank’.
(Bate, 2004a: 34)
Images used to be representations of actual lived events â€“ now these images we see in news and the media are much more likely to be representations from the way the event has already been represented. Video had stolen what makes photography special â€“ the decisive moment. Therefore the specificity and specialness of photography had to find itself in some other attribute of photography.
New developments in digital imagery mean that we can now see results instantly; there is no waiting in a lab or until the end of your holiday to see your photographs. Advances in technology, such as mobile phones, email, etc. now allow us to see and share images in a fraction of a second. The person sending these images and the person receiving them can now send and expect results instantly. ‘Yet despite the idea that these mobile technologies bring us all closer to each other, we are caught up in a contradiction, since they increasingly mediatise our relationships to one another’ (Bate, 2004b: 35).Â We no longer talk to each other and see each other face to face; we instead communicate through email, mobile text messaging and social networking sites, where we never actually see the other person we are communicating with. This has lead to a loss of the real. As David Bate said, ‘To look at something it has to be kept at a distance’ (Bate, 2004b: 35).
Because of the loss of the real that we experienced during the postmodernist era there is a wish to return to something more stable and basic. New art is now made up of redundant processes that are often older and slower, which makes this new art form different from the images we see in everyday media culture.
‘If analogue photography is becoming technologically redundant or residual to news and advertising industries, the consequences for art are different. New art is often borne of redundant industrial processes, usually older and slower, by finding a new use and aesthetic within the arts and which comes out of its marking a difference from image uses in everyday media culture’.
(Bate, 2004b: 40)
Artists were leaving these new fast technologies that were used in the media in favour of older slower ones. These old, redundant methods were considered more real. The traditional, slower, apparently simpler methods seemed to be more linked to the real as they are different from the images in the media.
Some people have called this change and shift in the way that photographs are being constructed a shift towards ‘the real’ values that were present in modernism, before the rise of postmodernism. As Susan Sontag says, ‘The cult of the future (of faster and faster seeing) alternates with the wish to return to a more artisanal, purer past â€“ when images still had a handmade quality, an aura’ (Sontag, 1977: 221). But, Hal Foster feels that we have not left postmodernism completely, it has just become normalised. The consequence of this is that we change the way we want reality to be constructed. Hal Foster feels that simply, ‘postmodernism became dÃ©modÃ¨’ (Foster, 1996: 206).
Due to the media, we have become inundated with images and photographs in our everyday life, to the extent that images have become our reality. We no longer separate images from real life, and the two have become blurred. In his book, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord talks about how developments in photography and the proliferation of mass media images have contributed to what Debord called the society of the spectacle. In the spectacular world, images and representations become our reality â€“ everything exists as and for images. Where images refer to one another endlessly, originality and authenticity are abolished. We become consumed by images and messages. Experience, events, and even our emotions, both on an individual and public scale are heavily mediated. As a result of this, it is claimed we have lost any relation to the real; ‘The spectacle has now spread itself to the point where it now permeates all reality.’ (Debord, 1990: 9)
Our real-life experiences become repressed and events take place in a mediated, pseudo-reality. We can no longer distinguish between real memories, and mediated memories. Victor Burgin explores this in his essay Possessive, Pensive and Possessed. He describes a study done in 1977 where people were interviewed about their past experiences. There were a few people in the study who believed that media events or films were in fact their own memories. People became confused and mixed personal history with scenes from films or media productions. As Burgin says, ”I saw at the cinema’ would simply become ‘I saw” (Burgin, 2007: 200). Burgin explains how these people were remembering scenes from a film instead of real life, and called these memories ‘screen memories;Â ‘A ‘screen memory’ is one which comes to mind in the place of, and in order to conceal, an associated but repressed memory’ (Burgin, 2007: 201). People were remembering images and scenes from films and the media that were similar to their real memories, but were less painful as there were not actual lived recollections. People were using these to cover up and replace genuine, traumatic memories.
In the past, events happened but people just didn’t know about them as there was no media. It rarely went beyond those involved. Now because of media we all know about every event, and add these events to our memories, even though we have not actually physically experienced them. We forget our real experiences and replace them with things from the media. Thomas De Zengotita, in his book, Mediated; How the media shape the world around us, describes how our reaction to big events such as the 9/11 disaster is to experience and re-live them through images. He calls this bubble of mediated representations ‘the blob’. In the world of ‘the blob’, momentous catastrophes such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks are almost poignant enough to burst the bubble, ‘something like that â€“ will feel as if it might be sharp enough, as if it might pierce the membrane and slice the pulp’ (De Zengotita, 2007: 27). However, not surprisingly, our reaction to such events is to experience and re-live it through images, adding it to our bank of mediated events.Â In other words, they become part of the spectacle.
Chapter 2: Realism in Landscape Photography
This chapter is going to explore how photographers attempt to represent the real, and if you can create a purely descriptive photograph. It will discuss photographers that try to represent the real, and also photographers that play around with the representation of the real, to create something completely different. I will specifically be looking at landscape photography, as this is the area of photography were photographers have really attempted to create authentic representations of the real, to show the landscape. It is also the area of photography that I am particularly interested in.
To attempt to show the real in landscape photography, you need to show the scenery at its most natural and realistic, with no visual manipulation or artifice. There is also the argument that no message, meaning or reference may be conveyed at all. Considering it is the view of some people that photographs are analysed and given meaning as soon as they are viewed, is this possible?
In this chapter, select works of four photographers will be looked at. It will consider how each photographer has attempted to show the real, either as an exact representation, or by manipulating the representation to give it a different meaning, and will discuss whether they have managed this. The photographers that are going to be observed are Ansel Adams, Andreas Gursky, Doug Aitken and Justin Partyka.
Ansel Adams is an environmentalist and photographer who makes landscape photographs to essentially document and record the beauty of nature. Adam’s love of nature began when he was a child, after having problems fitting in at school and eventually being home taught. He would go for hikes through nature, and this is where his fascination with nature was set in motion.
Adams began his photographic career by using the Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie his parents had given him to record his travels through the Yosemite Valley. He soon joined the Sierra club, and held his first solo exhibition at the club’s headquarters in 1928. The work created by Adams is done using a large format camera, so as to capture as much detail as possible. The image I will be looking at is called Mt. Clarence King, Pool, Kings Canyon National Park, California (1925).
It is a landscape image taken in Kings Canyon National Park in 1925. The image is a black and white image, of a scene, with large mountains in the background and a pool in the foreground. There is a lot of gravelly earth around the pool and some trees and bushes between the mountains and pool. This image is an authentic representation of the landscape, and is not trying to be anything else. Adams wanted to purely represent the landscape, and this is what he has done. ‘Adams began to pursue “straight photography,” in which the clarity of the lens was emphasized, and the final print gave no appearance of being manipulated in the camera or the darkroom’ (www.anseladams.com, 2009). Adams only ever tried to create accurate representations of the landscape.Â However, you could argue that the fact that he works in black and white indicates that this image is not a true representation, as the world is not in black and white. This non use of colour is therefore a message, rendering the images more than pure description.
Andreas Gursky is one of the rare photographers who began attempting to create vast, clear representations of the real, but then moved on to openly digitally manipulating his images. I will be looking at some of his work pre 1990’s, as this is before he started to digitally manipulate his images.
Gursky was trained and influenced by Hilla and Bernd Becher, who are known for their straight, scientific style of systematically cataloguing industrial machinery and architecture. This may be compared to the similar methodical approach that Gursky has to his own work. Gursky generally photographs landscape in large colour format (although a lot of his work is urban landscape, both interior and exterior). The image I will be examining is Fishermen, MÃ¼lheim a.d. Ruhr, taken in 1989.
This is a landscape image of Gursky’s taken in 1989. It is of a river running through the city of MÃ¼lheim. The river is wide and flat, with trees covering both banks. You can just make out a few small groups of fishermen on the banks of the river, and a bridge in the distance. This is before he used any digital manipulation, and was purely trying to represent the real. Gursky has not attempted to conceal or change anything in this image to give it a meaning or a reference. He has named the image what it is, Fishermen, MÃ¼lheim a.d. Ruhr, which is simply what is it, fishermen on a river in MÃ¼lheim, so has not tried to imply meaning through the name of the image. This image is meant to be purely descriptive, and a genuine representation of the real.
Other photographers and writers have agreed with this, for example David Bate says
‘What Gursky and Evans both share (with different techniques of course) is an ‘awesome’ description. The effects of these anecdotal descriptions is primarily to evince reality through the photographic instant of ‘here it is’ and ‘this is how it is’. The picture throws at the audience a defiant description where the accumulation of anecdotal detail actually inhibits the communication of a specific message’.
(Bate, 2004a; pg 33)
Bate’s view is that the vast amount of detail in the image actually inhibits a message being conveyed by the image. He feels Gursky’s plan is to be as authentically descriptive as possible â€“ ‘this is how it is’ â€“ and not to hide or imply any other meaning or reference. This may have been Gursky’s plan, to attempt to create a pure representation of the real, but this does not change how we view images. We still attempt to create a meaning for ourselves, as we no longer feel that sheer description is enough. There must be a referent, a meaning behind the image, and we are constantly looking for it. Gursky was attempting to create a purely descriptive photograph, but we do not see it like that because of the way we now look at and interpret images.
Doug Aitken works with a range of material, including photography, sculpture, films, sound, single and multichannel video works and instillations. This essay, however, will just be looking at his photography. Rather than purely representing the real in his images, Aitken plays around with the representation of the image so they are descriptive photographs, but the way they are put together adds a message and reference.
Aitken lives and works in Los Angeles, and is one of many new artists to work with the medium of film. Film is Aitken’s main medium for his art work although he does work with still images from time to time. The image I am going to be looking at is called New Opposition III.
This is an image made up of four different images. Separately, the images could be considered as descriptive attempts at representing the real. However, the way that Aitken puts them together changes this. If viewed on their own, they would be seen as purely descriptive, ‘real’ images of landscape. But the way they have been put together suggests something else. They become more like a narrative, showing different places at different times, together; ‘I wanted to find a way to blend together different moments in time, different spaces and different locations’ (Aitken, : 62). Aitken feels that the images would not work on their own and rely on each other to create their meaning. On their own, they would be nothing. He says ‘The photographs do not work as self-sufficient one-off frames but rely on each other for meaning. The optical tricks that the landscape form when placed together give the impression to the viewer that they are either falling into the centre of the earth or are on top of it looking down as if from the apex of a pyramid’ (Aitken, :62). The way the images are placed together is obviously very important to the meaning that Aitken is trying to provide.
Aitken is using ‘real’ images in his work, but playing around with the representation so that they are no longer considered real. He purposefully adds a meaning and a message to his images, rather than leaving it to the viewers’ imagination. This is different from somebody like Gursky, who does not give a message, as the image is just supposed to be an authentic representation. Any meaning given to Gursky’s images is given by the viewer, in contrast to Aitken’s images where the meaning is given for you. Viewers are now so used to images having a meaning, and that meaning being told to them, that they now look for a meaning in everything.
Justin Partyka is a photographer whose work explores the importance of place, culture and identity, and the roles that tradition and landscape play in these themes. He is currently working on three long term projects; The East Anglians, The Carnivalesque of CÃ¡diz, and Saskatchewan. The project I will be concentrating on is The East Anglians.
The work, The East Anglians, is a collection of documentary photographs of rural life in East Anglia. Partyka attempts to create ‘real’ images, in a documentary style. His photographs are often very ‘straight’ with no messages or signs. The image I am looking at is one from the East Anglians series, but the title is unknown.
This image is of an old barn in East Anglia. As the image is untitled, it suggests that Partyka did not want to imply any meaning at all, not even naming the place or image. The barn is quite old and rusty, and appears to be in a state of disrepair. There is a lot of grass in the foreground in front of the barn, and fields behind it. The photograph is an attempt at a ‘real’ representation of the scene. However, Partyka has called this series of photographs, The East Anglians. This is a quite obvious reference to Robert Frank’s, The Americans. Although Partyka has created purely descriptive images, he has referenced other work in his title. Partyka’s work, although essentially descriptive, cannot deny the presence of such referencing. What we have here is an image that is subjective in narrative, with referencing to earlier photography, and yet undoubtedly descriptive. ‘I see photography as very much a ‘descriptive’ mediumâ€¦ but obviously this description is an edited one based on the choices made by the photographer in where they point the camera and when they press the shutter’ (Partyka, 2009). Partyka has acknowledged that his photographs are descriptive, and that photography is a descriptive medium, but can a photograph ever be a pure representation of the real? As Partyka says, the description of an image is based on the photographer’s choice of where to point the camera and when to press the shutter, which immediately adds reference to the image. We can’t help but look at what a photograph means. Photographs are placed in a context of viewing, and are subjected to analysis and interpretation at the very instance of looking. So, although Partyka has undoubtedly created very descriptive images, the referencing in his title, and the fact that images are analysed as soon as they are placed in a context of viewing, means his photographs are no longer purely descriptive.
Can we ever have an account without analysis? It seems that we cannot. Even photographs that are meant to be purely descriptive are analysed and given meaning and reference as soon as they are placed within a context of viewing. This is similar to the Observer Effect popular in current interpretations of Quantum Mechanics.Â This theory puts forward the postulate that by merely observing an object, the very nature of the object itself is changed: ‘One of the most bizarre premises of quantum theory, which has long fascinated philosophers and physicists alike, states that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality’ (www.sciencedaily.com, 1998). Could it therefore be said that an image may remain purely descriptive as long as it is never viewed, and therefore never interpreted and given meaning? Possibly, but then we also have to discuss whether a photograph is made more than a pure representation when it is taken. When a photographer decides where to point their camera, when to press the shutter, what to cut out of the image and what to include, it could be said that in that instant the photographer is not making an exact representation of reality, but an edited one. Therefore, it could also be said that we can never provide a purely descriptive representation of the real through photography.
Chapter 3: Can we ever get back to the real?
This brings us to the question; can we ever get back to the real? Were we even there in the first place?Â Does descriptive realism actually exist in photography? This chapter will look at the theories and ideas of many photography theorists, as well as my own, and will attempt to answer these questions, and others. It will use work from various photographers, as well as several essays and books to endeavour to explore the notions of the real in relation to photography and contemporary culture, and to investigate if we can find, or re-find the real.
Does descriptive realism exist? We can’t help but look at what the photograph signifies and means. Even photographs that appear to be descriptive cannot escape being subjected to analysis and placed within a context of viewing. Everything in an image is symbolic once we begin to interpret it, and this begins at the very instance of looking. This is, as Roland Barthes says, ‘great scorn for the ‘realists’ who do not see that the photograph is always coded’ (Barthes, 2000: 88). Photographs can never be void of theoretical underpinnings, and any photographs that do appear to be purely ‘realistic’ only do so in accord to what we expect a descriptive or realistic image to be like. Debord explains this perfectly in his discussion of theory; ‘what is so droll, however, is that all the books which do analyse this phenomenon, usually to deplore it, cannot but join the spectacle if they’re to get attention’ (Debord, 1990: 5).
Evidently we continue to encounter an endless cycle of referencing, which cannot be traced simply to the accepted beginnings of postmodernism. Photographs are analysed as soon as they are viewed. Perhaps they never were, and never will be void of reference and construction? Maybe they can never provide the clear, stable version of reality that we want from them?
Conceptual photography attempts to show the truth by highlighting this dilemma. It attempts to parody the common notions of indexicality and truth in photographic representations, and in doing so, reveals this as the real. In their essay From Presence to Performative: Re-thinking Photographic Indexicality, David Green and Joanna Lowry look at notions of indexicality and truth in photographic representations. They discuss how photographs are indexical not just because light is recorded in an instant on a piece of photosensitive film, but also, because they were taken: ‘the very act of photography, as a kind of performative gesture which points to an event in the world, as a form of designation that draws reality into the image field, is thus itself a form of indexicality’. (Green and Lowry, 2003: 48). They discuss how conceptual photography attempts to parody the common notions of indexicality and truth in photographic representations, and in doing so, reveal this as the real: ‘[conceptual photographs] point to the real while reminding us that photography can never represent it’ (Green and Lowry, 200