Time and Evolution of Photography
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 200, March 2017
The photographs I am showing this month are from a growing body of work on the way we interact with culture. I think these images are pertinent to the article because they show people engaging with artworks and monuments that span time. It is the exchange of energy here that excites me – how can the work of a human hand millennia in the past still speak so clearly to people of today?
Have you ever wondered about strange anomalies of time? I was born 24 years after the end of the second world war and a mere 50 years after the (official) end of the First World War. The distance between the end of World War II and my birth is the equivalent to the time between 1991 and now. To me this seems a conceptually much shorter space of time than the distance between World War II and man landing on the Moon.
If you look at the photographs of Nan Goldin, in particular Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC (1991) you will see a picture that features the faces and attitudes of people you might know and see now. The marginal visible details may be a little dated but, essentially, the vernacular of this image speaks of the modern era. You may feel a slight sense of nostalgia but one feels that the picture more or less represents the time we live in.
Now go to Google and type “photographs in 1945”. The top search return is ‘Berlin pictures show the red Army rampaging through German capital’. This is a fascinating juxtaposition of images taken in 1945 set against pictures taken today in exactly the same locations showing starkly contrasting scenes; the one side is war and mayhem , the other shows contemporary, mundane modernity. The contrast between these pictures underlines the juddering temporal contradictions only photography can provide.
Look at any of the photographs from 1945 listed on Google and it feels like looking into another universe. It is not just that the pictures are black and white and grainy – it is as if there was an entirely different attitude at play in the capture of them. For example look at the famous Eisenstaedt shot of the sailor ’embracing’ a nurse. Examine, not the couple, but all that is going on around them. The people at the edge of the frame are dressed in either the military uniform of the era or ‘civvies’ each manifesting the uniformity of style that we associate with the age. There seems, to our 21st century eyes, an ‘unknowingness’ in the relationship between the photograph and the people featured in it. The relationship of this photograph to that which it depicts has a perceptible simplicity – a sense that the condition of ‘the photograph’ was still what it had been since 1826 when the oldest known camera photographic print, Niepcé’s ‘the View from the Window at Le Gras’ was taken. That is to say that each photograph is nothing more or less than the simple record of an event.
The existential conditions of a photograph in the pre-digital age allowed it to be seen as a statement of fact, or, evidence of a truth. This ‘relationship’ with photography, did not seek meaning beyond the borders. Perhaps another way of looking at this is to imagine holding a print in your hands. To a pre-modernist the total value of the image is found within the borders and in the scene or events shown. There is also an acceptance of the truth of the image. By contrast a post-modernist will hold that same print and will wonder at what happened beyond the frame – a necessary response in order to make full, contextual sense of the scene as depicted in the ‘live image area’. This more deconstructive approach might be called the ‘evolution of photographic consciousness’. Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, John Berger, even Warhol, have all played very important roles as commenters on the photographic image leading to to the more ‘granular’ way in which we now read photographic imagery.
Because lens based photography was introduced to us by wealthy white men in Western Europe the photograph automatically had the weight of truth and reliability about it. Well-off men gave the world a reflection of itself and the world accepted this new mechanical vision as the truth. Where all other representations of life were made by the interpretive human hand and eye here was a device that couldn’t but tell the truth. Since the explosion of digital photography and the ensuing democracy of camera-phones we have unconsciously adjusted our relationship with the photographic image. We do not take for granted that it is immutably honest. Photography is now so much part of us and so it reflects the way we relate to the world. We tacitly understand that the sense of our ability to truthfully understand the world is just as unreliable as that of a photographic image purports to show.
We know that ‘truth’ cannot be taken for granted. This is a great change from our relationship in 1945 with the medium. And this is not because photography has been shown to lie (although it has) but because we don’t need to trust in our own judgement as we used to. We are more comfortable in the knowledge that we cannot know what is empirically true and apply this new understanding, tacitly, to photography.
It is as if the photograph is now a contingent thing existing and serving only as a clue to another less settled truth. To lament the evolution of photographic consciousness is simply irrelevant. Photography and humanity are enjoying a symbiotic development – the one informs the other – indeed the one must live for the other. Photography is adapting to the most fundamental areas of human experience. Photography is now in the neurones and in the interstices of our brains. The photographic image is now our true sixth sense.
When I look at Nan Goldin’s 1991 picture of two tired people in the back of a taxi I’m aware of the different status of the photographic image only 25 years ago. It was the beginning of a transitional phase for photography; from artefact to ‘universal clue’. Twenty five years ago the photograph was a fact – an avatar for a reality otherwise unknowable. Today the photographic image is so intrinsically part of us that it’s implicit truth is as mutable as the reliability of our own subjective view of the world. There is one aspect, however, that time cannot change; as we gaze into the eyes of people staring out at us who are now long dead, the photograph provides an instant connection that brings the past and the future together – a photograph of the past is a photograph of the future, is a photograph of the present.
Next month I will be looking at the pros and cons of being an invisible collector of souls or the work of the unseen documentary photographer and the ethical questions this kind of photography poses.