Really Real?

Informing Contexts

My response to my Module 2, week 2 at Falmouth University

The quote attributed to Robert Frank succinctly grabs the issue and out the real dilemma embracing the process of capture “I am always looking outside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is constantly changing.” He has an apparent desire and ambition to look, to see, to snare the truth, but doubting its veracity due to change.  The brevity of his statement allows one to ponder the ‘out there’, it could include politics, environment, time, emotion, memory and context.  Inner and outer factors drive change.

We can endeavour to imagine the ambitions and yearnings of the pioneers of the early 19th Century who strove to create a solution to the great challenge, how to make a machine that saw what they saw and made it permanent. In 1824, Niépce put lithographic stones, coated with bitumen, at the back of a camera obscura and obtained for the first time ever a fixed image of a landscape. He used very long exposure times and trialled numerous chemical processes to ‘develop’ the image.  Then the big day in January 1839 the first photograph of the moon was taken by Louis Daguerre and in a swift act of personal and global generosity in August of the same year the French government gives Daguerre a pension and gifts the daguerreotype “for the whole world”. The image world was born. Thus we find that landscape and an object in space were recorded in scratchy pebbles and copper plate. Were these the truth, or objects that contained the truth, or decorated impressions? With the euphoria of image capture the critique of the nature of image making commenced

The centuries old tradition of posh portraits, the wealthy commissioning, the hierarchies of society were beginning to break down and change.  They could record what they saw, replacing the artist with the clever glass, wood and copper chemical magical, repeatable combination.

Rather fascinatingly, the revolution of photographical technique spread rapidly as an American pioneer, Samuel F. B. Morse (1791- 1872) applied his artistic, political and technolicla abilities as an early adopter, having studied in the USA, England and travelling to France not only moved to painting to photographing back in the US, he also enabled the first eponymous code to be electrically transmitted with the famous message ‘What hath God wrought?’ from Washington to Baltimore where it was decoded on May 24, 1844. So, signalling systems that enabled people to communicate over distances were created just 5 years after the birth of the photo machine. Code had the potential to be an exact copy from the source.  Morse would, we can summise, be the first to advocate a source image being received as a replica; in the most prosaic way, he was not that far from that. In 2017 14 trillion photos will be taken and multiplied by coded, digital bits.

So, we have had the tools for the act of acquisition for 178 years.  But what are we acquiring?

Sontag (1978: p154-155. On Photography. London. Penguin) incisively proposes that “Images are indeed able to usurp reality because first of all a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), and interpretation of the real” she goes on to apply a word which is the most emphatic “it is also a trace, something directly stencil of the real, like a footprint or a death mask”. The trace is a marking the course of something, the shape, its form, even its texture. The trace of the real is more subtle than Frank’s seeking a form of truth.  The expectation that we hold of a trace is not a facsimile, but an outline, an echo, a representation.  To be of something, but not everything. More than a painting, but less than being there.  It is the image not the imaged.

The very act of capture, that moment of freezing, of making still, placing light on the sensor or film is a highly complex mixture of the seen and the conceit.  It is the evidence of something but not everything. The camera is simply the tool that is used to define an edge; to exclude, to include. To compress perspective, to stare towards or shy away from light.  That image is instantly historic; subjects move, age, fall away, loose the gaze, disappear, like clouds; look now, never, in that formation, to be repeated.  The capture is an act of ethical challenge, not in fact about honesty or dishonesty but a decision as to how much to dial in, to control, to show.  It is not binary.