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An image created by light falling on a light-sensitive surface, usually photographic film or an electronic imager.

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Thinking About Photographs: Vincent, Susan Sontag and Me

  • Nov 12, 2009
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I always think photographs abominable and I don't like to have them around, particularly not those of persons I know and love.-Vincent van Gogh, "Letter of September 19th, 1889," The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

"Due to the physical action of light and the chemical action of development," writes Susan Sontag, "there is a tangible link between what was photographed, through the developing process to the gaze of the viewer. It is a process involving something that has been, due to the photograph as an object, due to the action of light, due to radiations that ultimately touch me and due to the photograph being something for the gaze, the visual memory, of the viewer. The photograph of a missing being touches me like the delayed rays of a star." -Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977.
At the age of sixty-five I now possess a dozen albums of photographs of various sizes and shapes. They could represent a significant aspect of any autobiography, any memoir, I might want to write. This essay, this part of a chapter of what is now a 2500 page,five volume, memoir, tries to put all these photographs in perspective, tries to provide readers with my personal hermeneutics of the visual, at least that part of the visual that got packaged into these twelve albums in a culture which gives hegemony to the visual. More generally, too, I provide here in this part of my memoir a fragmented, an episodic, examination of the phenomenon of seeing. What the famous Italian film director Federico Fellini said about film could also apply to my photographs. "My films are not for understanding," said Fellini, "They are for seeing." This essay, though, is about understanding. For the artist at the AAForum I hope I provide some useful, some interesting, comments here.

The French sociologist and philosopher, often abused, often amused, often confused(or so it seems to many a student who has had to study his writings in the last 30 years)--one, Jean Baudrillard, said that "no matter which photographic technique is used, there is always one thing, and one thing only, that remains: the light. Photography is the writing of light and this light is the very imagination of the image. Baudrillard sees his photographs as making the world a little more enigmatic and unintelligible, as exposing the very unreality of the world of appearances. Any photograph is never of any "real" world, but rather, it is a record of the momentary appearances behind which the real hides. To him, the world is essentially illusion.
I certainly sense this as I look back over nearly 100 years of photographs in my dozen albums, photographs of family and friends going back to 1908. Our contemporary culture of digitization and image-glut actually shrivels the ethical force of photographs of whatever type intended to elicit compassion, sensitivity or the milk of human kindness. Many, I now, would not agree with this statement, but I think the statement offers some truth even to those who are inclined to disagree with it on an initial inspection. In an age in which spectacle has usurped the place of reality in many situations, photographic images of course still have the power to evoke shock and sentiment.

Photographs, so this argument runs, are the fragmentary emanations of reality, the punctual and discrete renderings of truth, rather than the uniform grammar of a consistently unfolding tale. I would hesitate, then, to draw on my collection of photographs, however numerous, however bright and shiny, colourful and clear, as evidence of the unfolding tale of my life and its tangential connections with the lady down the street, my mother or girl friend, or even that wondrous scene over there in those paintings. All of those portrayals of reality--relay and transmit diffuse assemblages of affect, without necessarily appealing to the coherent, narrative understanding of an interpretive, rational consciousness. Now that is an interesting point of view, but what does it actually mean?

The photographic frame is not just a visual image awaiting its interpretation; it is itself actively interpreting, even forcibly making a statement. Sontag wrote that where "narratives make us understand, photographs do something else. They haunt us." Our age, she goes on, is one in which "to remember is more and more not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture." Given the sheer sweep of the visual image in contemporary culture and politics, I struggle to come to terms with the nature of memorialisation in all its forms effected by photographs. I ponder as to what is the kind of affect relayed by photographic images as discrete and punctual fragments of reality. What, I ask myself, is the semiological universe that is being called into play by such dissociated transmissions of affectivity in all these photos.

The culture of 'image-glut' gives us a harried and in fact beleaguered document of reality. I am on my guard that these words of mine do not turn into something that is little more than a frustrated rant against the inhuman multiplication not just of images, but of the sacrilegious settings in which we see them. The place of the image in an era of information-overload, and the capacity of the image in such a landscape to infinitely, and perhaps "irrationally," multiply its significations in relation to continuously mobile variations gives me cause to ponder. To photograph is to frame and to frame is to exclude. My dozen volumes of photos have indeed excluded most of my life.
This would be true a fortiori of the effigy. Of all the religious and artistic treasures which a visitor may see at Westminster Abbey, the collection of eighteen funeral effigies in the Museum which I saw in London recently is perhaps the most intriguing. Carved in wood or in wax, these full-sized representations of kings, queens and distinguished public figures, many of them in their own clothes and with their own accoutrements, constitute a gallery of astonishingly life-like portraits stretching over more than four centuries of British history. Can only the dead astonish us by seeming "life-like"? Is there something lifelike in this memoir of mine? Perhaps even the living can induce the uncanny effect of an effigy from time to time—but in print. Modern celebrities, of course, do this all the time and a whole industry has been created to cater to these ‘life-like’ forms and antics. We see them day in and day out if we look at TV, magazines, indeed, any of the print and electronic media. It is hard to escape them if we wanted to, of course, we could limit our contact with them.

The subject is interesting but I will leave it here for this my first posting under "photography."-Ron Price, Tasmania, Australia

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November 13, 2009
I have found Sontag's perspectives on photography fascinating... and the sentiment that you state: To photograph is to frame and to frame is to exclude. Interesting... From a preservation perspective, interpretation is very important aspect in the act of organizing, retaining these photographic and artistic expressions. I've been reading about this lately. A photo of a car on an abandoned highway ... seems like that ... just a car. But with additional historical insight, knowing this particular car just happens to be one of the first cars to ever drive off Ford's factory now elevates the meaning of this image a bit... Framed within that historical context, this photographic image excludes from other snapshots of automobiles. So if this is your "first posting" ... I assume there will be more? I enjoyed reading your review very much.
November 13, 2009
Thanks, maromatic; due to your encouragement I will post more on the subject of photography.-Ron Price in Tasmania
November 13, 2009
CHAPTER SIX of my memoirs: PREFATORY PAGES ON PHOTOGRAPHS PHOTOGRAPHS: 1908-1953 I always think photographs abominable and I don't like to have them around particularly not those of persons I know and love.-Vincent van Gogh, Letter, September 19th, 1889.

In the collection of some forty photographs for the years 1908 to 1953, fifteen of which are friends of my mother and people I do not know, there are some twenty-five photographs of my mother and her family. They provide something of a pictorial backdrop for the transition period from my grandfather's story, A.J. Cornfield, which ended in 1900 and which is found in another place and my own pioneering story for the Canadian Bahá'í community which begins in 1962 but which I take back in a preliminary account, a preamble of sorts, to 1944 the year of my birth and to 1844, in yet another place to give a perspective that goes back to the start of this Baha'i Era, BE. It is a pictorial backdrop which both reveals and conceals, which both heightens the expression of my family's life and paralyzes by fact.

These photos both pass and fail in their mnemonic function. They are both mobilization of memory in the service of my life and framers, fixers and freezers of the objects as the objects float free of their context. Here collage replaces narrative as mechanism for understanding or, perhaps more accurately, images serve as memory's only tool for a period of time largely lost and even mostly never found and certainly beyond any public history except, of course, the history I give it in my memoir, my life-narrative. These photos, as one analyst of the photographic process and its art, enable me "to negotiate" my "displacement from the past. They are nostalgic items coloured with pensiveness, each with a point that pierces our vision."

As I gaze on these photos I indulge myself in a "sentimental yearning for an irrecoverable past." These photographs are traces of moments in life, traces captured by cameras, the cameras that existed in the first half of the 20th century. The photograph has mechanically repeated for me what could never have been repeated in day-to-day existence except in some sense of familiarity of the ordinarily ordinary that everydayness which is the life of us all. The photograph has mechanically recreated something of a lost, a long-gone world in my consanguineal family.

When the first photograph in my collection was taken in 1908, to make several parenthetical but quite personal and meaningful remarks, the Baha'i Faith had been in Canada for ten years. 'Abdu'l-Baha would arrive just a few miles away four years later when His train stopped in Hamilton in 1912. These photographs preserve my family life as far back as 1908 through their simple representation of family life, my family's life. They allow me to relate to people who are now dead and environments which have been completely transformed in my time. My autobiography, thusfar, provides no photographs and these opening remarks in this chapter says a few things about why. The first photo in my collection was taken in 1907/8 when my mother was three or four, when her brother, Harold, was perhaps one and her sister, Florence, six or seven. My father at this same time was eighteen and he had just arrived from Wales in Des Moines Iowa, but no pictures of him from this period are available; in fact no pictures of my father exist before 1944. I've often wondered if this was because he belonged to a secret service organization and would never talk about it in the years I was growing up. My mother is in fifteen of the photos and all of the others in this sub-set of twenty-five photographs, are of her family. I have tried to put together something of the story of my family in the years 1900 to 1944. This is enough for now....more later if desired by readers at this site.-Ron
About the reviewer
RonPrice ()
Ranked #549
This full frontal facial photo was taken in 2004 when I was 60. The photo was taken in Hobart Tasmania. With its light and shadow, its light side and its dark side, it is an appropriate photo to symbolize … more
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A photograph (often shortened to photo) is an image created by light falling on a light-sensitive surface, usually photographic film or an electronic imager such as a CCD or a CMOS chip. Most photographs are created using a camera, which uses a lens to focus the scene's visible wavelengths of light into a reproduction of what the human eye would see. The process and practice of creating photographs is called photography. The word "photograph" was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on the Greek φῶς (phos) "light" and γραφή (graphê) "representation by means of lines" or "drawing", together meaning "drawing with light".
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