Palm Water. Photo by David Beatty

Palm Water. Photo by David Beatty

Harar, Ethiopia 1995. Photo by David Beatty

Harar, Ethiopia 1995. Photo by David Beatty

On Photography - Revisiting Susan Sontag

The photographs above illustrate two very different but complementary ways in which photography works as a discipline to nurture the art of seeing or perception.

The first black and white image is a picture of water patterns reflecting light with the intrusion on the left of palm fronds. It is a moment in which the act of photography arose perhaps out of a period of contemplation of this phenomenon, of being drawn deeply into the experience of light and shadow, the water's restlessness paradoxically having a calming effect on mind and body. It is an image that came out of a contemplative experience, and as a picture it is an object that can be contemplated even though it is 'abstracted' from the experience of motion, the living chiaroscuro of the play of light and shadow, into a still image which exists in its own right.

The second image is an example of a fleeting moment snatched out of time: an example of Cartier-Bresson's 'decisive moment'. The exact placement of the figures in the street in Harar, their odd postures or gestures, existed only for that moment - a moment before and a moment after a quite different arrangement would have occurred, perhaps without the unsettling sense the image conveys that causes us to question what we are seeing, what is going on here. The capture of this image required an acute alertness or attentiveness leading up to this moment before its capture. Later it becomes as a photograph an object of contemplation that raises more questions than it answers, allowing the viewer to bring their own experience or imagination to the way they contemplate these figures in that moment in a street in a distant country.

Photography then is a mindful activity that focuses our awareness, as both photographer and viewer, on the art of seeing, on both contemplating and questioning our relationship to the world we live in.

During one of several existential crises experienced from my late teens into my early twenties at some point I was saved by photography. My interest in images of the world had begun early in my life when I was given an odd binocular-shaped viewer into which you inserted a circular disc of double transparent images that produced a 3D effect when you looked through it holding it up to the light. From this 3D viewer, which showed spectacular images of snowcapped mountains, forests, and proud pictures of the Canadian mounted police shot against an impossibly blue sky, which my father often brought back from Canada, to the pictorial essays in National Geographic my visual sense had been stimulated by the photographic image. I was given my first camera, a Kodak box camera, at around the age of eight. I began to look at the world through a frame, to capture faces and objects in black and white, then later in colour prints and eventually with colour slides that could be projected.

      My subject matter was initially very conventional: family members, the dog, holiday scenes and places visited, an inventory of occasions that were dutifully collected in albums and captioned with the year and the date. From an early age then I began to collect the world as images, especially images of natural beauty, each one unrepeatable. And perhaps the growing popularity of the amateur camera added to the sense of time speeding up, as though without this photographic record the past might cease to exist at all as the pace of change seemed to accelerate towards a future fictionalized and popularized then as the Space Age. But the things of beauty stood out as reminders of another time, a time of rhythmic, cyclical patterns, an aesthetic that resisted that growing sense of irreversible change, of time speeding up.

      Like language that converted the world of primary experience into a world of representations, the camera converted the flow of experience into discrete images, frozen moments seemingly abstracted from the passage of time, yet which ironically only intensified one’s awareness of a world of accelerating change. But the growing fascination was less to do with creating an inventory of occasions increasingly suffused with nostalgia as the years passed, but rather with an attempt to grasp the world, to hold on to moments that were fleetingly imbued with meaning, to artificially connect with the being of someone or something that seemed always to be slipping away, to be just out of reach, moments that always seemed on the verge of vanishing at the very instant they seemed possessed of significance.

      The attraction of cinema, my other love, was that it communicated directly with the primary realm of the emotional cognitive, that it somehow bypassed the more cerebral realm of the intellect that the written word had to address to reach the realm of feeling, and in that sense film, projected in the darkness of a cinema, was oneiric. It was like dreaming while being awake. Yet it was composed of thousands of frozen images strung together at twenty-four frames a second that gave the illusion of movement, the illusion of life. Yet for a considerable percentage of the total running time of the film there was nothing at all on the screen, though the eye could not register the blank spaces between frames, and the mind found it hard to grasp the idea of this invisible gap, this darkness, that lay at the heart of this apparently seamless narrative.

      The illusion of film depended upon the suspension of disbelief, and on the compression of real time, hours, days, weeks, even years, into ninety minutes or so of celluloid time, and of space to the one dimensional plane of the cinema screen.

      Yet the belief in the reality of what we call ordinary life was not unlike the belief in the film narrative that absorbed you for 100 or more minutes. For it too was in part illusory, dependent on a given conditioned framework, a ‘mis-en-scene’ directed by a hidden manipulator, like the mysterious figure pulling the levers in the opening sequence of David Lynch’s cult film Eraserhead. A great shock, resulting in a loss of belief in your conditioned reality, could be like that moment in Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona when the frame freezes and the heat of the projector light burns through the celluloid frame into a blank white flickering light, burning through the illusion film had created. The disintegration of the socially constructed world could result in breakdown, or breakthrough, a blinding shock of white light, the nothingness of nothing. Thus Film, Photography and Existentialism became interwoven in my quest for reality.

      From the power of the camera simply to record something for posterity against the rapidly changing world of industrial society, there was the added powerful attraction of the quest for the unexpected, the unique fleeting moment, the unanticipated gesture, the candid expression of emotion, snatched from the flux of the world.

      Powered by this deep instinct to find and capture such fleeting instants, where a unique conjunction of events collided as light and shadow, form and expression, the photographer becomes a kind of predator, a hunter not of prey to kill, but of images to shoot. The very language of photography was that of someone armed with a weapon, not to dispose of things or people, but to acquire them in pictorial form. In our culture there is an unconscious use of inherently violent language that is largely unexamined that describes activities the participants hardly regard as in any way violent. 

      Indigenous people first exposed to photography considered the resulting image to be a form of theft, a method of stealing their soul. People who are photographed can never see themselves the way the camera sees them, so you could say that it is a kind of theft, a violation of their person, a way of possessing them symbolically. A remote traditional culture invaded by the camera is a world appropriated as images: images of a people, their customs, attire, rituals, festivals, or simply their physical features, a self-enclosed world which the invasion of cameras will alter irrevocably as surely as time itself as it appropriates pictures of them, while bringing with it the means of destroying the very value of that which the photographer set out to find and record by hastening its disappearance.

      The invention of photography roughly coincided with the age of late imperialism, the camera following the gun to record both the victim and the victor, the latter triumphant, the former rendered as an object of curiosity, of exploitation. Susan Sontag has written that by turning people into objects the camera is a sublimation of the gun, and that to photograph them is essentially to commit a sublimated murder – ‘a soft murder, appropriate to a sad and frightened time.’ It seemed as if underlying the popularity of photography as a métier, and its humanistic justification as an aid to tolerance, understanding, and human self-interpretation there lay a less altruistic, and less articulated because deeply disturbing, anxiety about the world.

      And yet, while there is undoubtedly a predatory aspect to the occupation it is tempered ironically by the requirement of openness to what is present, a different mode of consciousness from that focused exclusively on pursuit. In a strange way both are required to lead to that ‘decisive moment’ celebrated by Cartier Bresson. To be open to the accidental moment paradoxically requires a certain mental preparation akin to a Zen practitioner’s mindfulness. The perfect condition has something of a controlled accident: that a certain amount of conscious preparation has to prime the mind to be sufficiently attendant upon the stream of events unfolding in several directions and planes for one to be alert to that precise moment when a single captured frame snatches a moment of significance out of the seemingly nebulous stream of events.

      There was something essentially mysterious to that unique moment of mutually reciprocal exchange, where in an unselfconscious way I felt I was immersed in the flow of reality in the Taoist sense. In the days of film, when often on a distant assignment there was a considerable time between shooting and developing before one could see the results, I used to spend hours poring over contact sheets searching for that telling image, and I discovered something strange. The images I remembered photographing and looked forward to after processing quite often only disappointed, whereas there were a few images I could not remember taking that seemed far more interesting, as though those moments, a few frames, had slipped by conscious awareness, bypassing memory’s recording mechanism. These ‘discoveries’ on the contact sheet surprised me, as if in the very forgetting they now seemed imbued with ‘newness’. On reflection this strange discovery of the capture of ‘unremembered’ moments seemed illustrations of the Taoist notion of wei-wu-wei, the action of non-action. In this state you are one with the action, and therefore there is no residue of a sense of agency separate from the act, and thus perhaps no memory trace. But moments only give glimpses into the stream of life. In the final analysis understanding, or so we believe, only comes from finding the links that connect the moments. Historical consciousness prefers narrative, the defining Western orientation. From an Eastern perspective history is the perpetuation of illusion, and is linked to karma, fate, destiny, and is generated by a dualistic consciousness. Only the non-dual awareness of Tao can perceive reality, the action of non-action that frees the mind from conflict. In the midst of change there is a quiet centre that does not change. This, say the Taoists, is the way of the flourishing of the ten thousand things.

      Whilst there may well have been occasions when such awareness was operative whilst capturing images it would take a much deeper understanding and practice to establish such awareness from which to live one’s life. For the most part the drive to record moments, so they could be contemplated later in the ‘future’ as a reminiscence of the ‘past’, the anxiety behind the need to capture a memorable occasion or incident arises from our very inability to fully experience the present. It is still part of the future oriented time-driven consciousness of modernity.

      The frozen moment of a photograph subtracts the flow of ‘before’ and ‘after’ that moment, and invites only speculation. At the same time the accurate depiction of reality the camera records gives the image an authority a painting lacks. It lends weight to the overwhelming burden of the contingent, as opposed to nurturing a deeper understanding that, since Plato, has always implied that the world should not be accepted as it looks or appears. Photography confronts us with the implacable concreteness of the world, but at the same time atomizes it into framed segments and discrete moments, both those choices reflecting aspects of an enframing consciousness that is limited, that hides more than it discloses. ‘A photograph is a secret about a secret,’ Diane Arbus once commented. ‘The more it tells you, the less you know.’

      As the industrial age appeared to accelerate time by the pace of change, the rapidly altering urban landscapes, the proliferation of technology and the increasing speed of modes of transport from ships, to cars, to trains, to planes, the same technology perfected the ability to capture microseconds of time through increasingly fractional shutter speeds. Moments barely registered by the eye in real life, and some actually invisible to normal modes of perception, could now be captured, and contemplated at leisure: a bullet at the moment it shatters a sheet of glass, the tongue of a frog as it snatches an insect out of midair. The normal view of reality is subverted, objectified, bracketed from the narrative of lived time.

      The objectification of how we relate to the world moves from the public arena into our own bodies with the increasing use of medical images: x-rays, thermal imaging, MRI scanners, fibre optic lenses probing into the depths of your body. These enhance the possibilities of accurate diagnosis, but they alter our perspective, they ‘disenchant’ our phenomenological experience, and the continuous presentation of ourselves as photographs, or medical images, and by analyzing our ‘performance’ in ‘objective’ graphs, digitalized computations of one kind or another, against which the experiential sense we have of ourselves is now measured, all this subtly transforms the way we relate to everything. But it becomes so established, so taken for granted, that we no longer see that the alteration has happened, and we take our current experience which includes the objectifying ‘spin’ to be reality itself, even though we are now de-centred, alienated from our embodied anchoring in a felt lived reality where the testimony of the senses is now distorted by ‘virtual’ reality images that present us from a viewpoint outside of us.

      In this way you become split into an enhanced observing entity, rather than a whole person with a felt embodied sense of imbalance that needs to be addressed holistically, and this only exacerbates the fear that is now the outcome of this  ‘objective’ awareness of the symptoms of a possibly life-threatening condition.*

      The camera placed between you and the world is a product of this objectifying distance, and yet you seek ways of using it to close that gap, to restore a connection through an image that communicates a unique moment, to recreate the illusion of presence through the aesthetic of composition, colour, tone, shape, and form. Art seeks to redress the balance, to counteract the objectifying force of the scientific disengagement from lived experience that gave rise to the invention of the camera as an ‘artificial eye.’ Perhaps photography is the quintessential modern art of our time, embodying the self-contradictions inherent in modernity. It is a product of the fragmenting power of the objective gaze that seeks to overcome this distancing by subverting the remorseless march of segmented time by celebrating the instant, an interruption of continuity that consecrates the present, that reveals by negating time, the shutter blade that divides ‘before’ from ‘after’ with an iconic instant. And yet this instant is suspended above a void, a disembodied image whose interruption of time’s flow is the antithesis of the timeless awareness the Tao aims at, that manifests as an embodied openness to the whole of reality in the present.

      Nowhere is this contradiction more exposed than in war photography, a genre that, as the horrors of the twentieth century multiplied, has become an industry in itself. Here photography as a medium seeks to give itself ‘depth’ by claiming its faithful depiction of reality grants it a unique mission to expose the world’s heart of darkness in all its tragic and bloody drama. By its ceaseless multiplication of images of violence, horror and brutality to expose a world of often unimaginable barbarity, the sheer surfeit of published images can come to numb our response, until they only rarely pierce our complacency, more often de-sensitizing the viewer, and often the photographer too, who, to capture such moments must disengage himself from the mutual reciprocity at the core of humanity, must separate herself instrumentally from the actual events she witnesses and captures in order to open us to compassion, or to rouse us to act against the perpetrators.

      The objectification inherent in the process can be reductive, reducing the other not only to a single dimension, the plane of the negative or print, but also to a single sense, that of sight, leaving out the embodied totality of smell, voice, touch, or the depth of presence implicit in the body’s motion, the music of gesture. Yet there is an insistent belief, for instance in portrait photography, that by freezing moments from the flow of time, by the probing search through the lens, the process would yield up the revealing portrait by bringing to the surface, on the landscape of the face, something otherwise hidden by the socially constructed persona, and that by this process the true person would become known to you. Even an experienced and celebrated photographer such as Richard Avedon could declare, ‘The pictures have a reality for me that the people don’t. It is through the photographs that I know them.’ This is quite contrary to the observation of Marcel Proust, author of that celebrated series of novels In Search of Lost Time, that nothing could substitute for memory when standing before ‘photographs of a being before which one recalls less of that being than by merely thinking of him or her.’

      Is it not so that we often judge photographs by how accurately they reflect the personality, which assumes we know something about them already? Yet can the photograph penetrate beyond the personality, beyond the surface illusion that arises from the very nature of images themselves? It may appear to be a hopeless quest deriving from the self-contradictory belief that technology can be used to overcome the divisions it perpetuates and from which it arose, that the instrumentalism that denies intimacy can be used to restore an illusion of intimacy.

      And yet there are it seems exceptional discoveries, as Roland Barthes revealed in his book on photography, Camera Lucida. Following his mother’s death he was sorting through boxes of old photographs of her, trying to find an image in which he could discover the ‘essence of her identity’, but in none of which he could find this elusive quality. Until he discovered what he was looking for in the most unexpected image: a photograph of his mother aged five posing next to her seven year old brother standing on a small wooden bridge in a conservatory in 1898, ‘the brother and sister united, as I knew, by the discord of their parents, who were soon to divorce…side by side, alone, under the palms of the Winter Garden.’

      Here in the oldest photograph of his mother as a child he sees the essence of the person he loved: ‘In this little girl’s image I saw the kindness which had formed her being immediately and forever, without her having inherited it from anyone; how could this kindness have proceeded from the imperfect parents who had loved her so badly…..Her kindness belonged to no system, or at least it was located at the limit of a morality (evangelical, for instance); I could not define it better than by this feature (among others): that during the whole of our life together, she never made a single “observation”……But my grief wanted a just image, an image which would be both justice and accuracy – justesse: just an image, but a just image.’ Yet, though he reflects on numerous photographs that mean something to him, which are reproduced in the book, this photo of his mother that means the most to him is not included. It remains invisible, for nobody else could possibly share the insight it vouchsafed. Photography, the most public of media, can yet contain the most private of meanings, can immortalize in one exceptional moment some abiding quality that resurfaces through layers of intimate memories to become the defining image in memoriam.

      Over time my relationship to photography became conflictual, almost a love-hate relationship, something which owing to the predominance in me of a visual aesthetic I was told I had a gift for, having a natural flair for composition and an appreciation for the qualities of light. My difficult relationship with this instrument, this dark chamber that captured images of the world, both connected me to the world in a new way while it simultaneously fractured my relationship to that world. The multi-sensory participation in the world was replaced by the tyranny of sight. The modern world itself seemed increasingly dependent on a proliferation of imagery of all kinds, as though humanity now lived in a reified world that only mirrored its own obsessions. Photography has become one of the principal tools for the commodification of everything, including nature.

      Yet when I first took up photography it had an aura of glamour about it, and the photographer stood out as someone who believed that the instrument through which he or she established a relationship with the world somehow licensed a perpetual process of transgression. The photographer either appeared very visibly as a self-acknowledged subversive, one whose images challenged current fashions, demolished certain clichés, and so ushered in a new way of seeing, as in fashion photography with the iconoclastic street-wise approach of a David Bailey, or the shock tactics of Guy Bourdin, or else invisibly as a candid self-effacing observer melting into crowds, prowling the environment at home or abroad to bring back searing images of deprivation, poverty, or violence, bizarre rituals or festivals, in the documentary tradition. Either way the photographer was deemed to be a revolutionary with a camera instead of a gun, somehow holding a mirror up to society, and thereby changing the way we regarded each other and the world.

      An industrial product of modernity, photography celebrated the self-contradictions inherent in the age: in its ability to immortalize the instant, it was critical of linear time that emphasizes the future and thereby sacrifices the present to a chimerical utopia beyond the horizon. And at the same time by the multiplication of images of the world it made me more conscious of the passage of time, and the accelerating speed with which things change, as landscapes, customs, architecture, technology or fashions more and more became an inventory of things vanishing from the world. While its very nature undermined utopia as the end-point of progress, it became the main method of documenting an increasing dystopia. There was an inevitable reciprocal relationship between the medium and the age that produced it in order to document it, an age of unprecedented change. The speed of life and the speed of change required ever more instantaneous techniques of snatching year by year images of a mutating world as they surfaced out of modernity’s obsession with novelty and vanished almost as quickly into history’s growing image bank.

      For a photographer Susan Sontag’s essay On Photography is both disturbing and illuminating. Capitalism, she claims, requires a culture that produces a proliferation of images to serve its purposes, as part of the anaesthetic of spectacle, ‘bread and circuses’, and as a method of surveillance: propaganda and policing. Yet many photographers align themselves with the more radical spectrum of critiques of capitalism, by obsessively documenting the repeated catastrophes of a culture committed to imposing its artificial one-dimensional world at the expense of marginalized groups and a burgeoning underclass, those victims of the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, and those impoverished disenfranchised casualties of the wars fought in its name. The more benign uses of photography, exposing humanitarian or environmental atrocities, highlighting poverty, the horrors of war, the artificial and dehumanizing aspects of industrial culture, even these have in some sense become co-opted into the mainstream machinery of image production and consumption. Since Plato, Sontag remarks, questions of truth and reality have turned on the meaning of images, and the distinction between originals and copies. In a world where we are daily bombarded by images it is harder to reflect on experience, to distinguish the actual from the image of the real. We consume images of life rather than life itself. But then life is not supposed to be consumed, but to be lived. To sustain the artificial world of capitalism requires the endless production and consumption of images, where consumer choice gives the illusion of freedom whilst narrowing free political choice. The acquisitiveness of the camera for more images reflects a more general acquisitiveness that characterizes the culture. The proliferation of images lends reality to a world essentially illusory, for it is driven by a desire for a ‘future’ nobody can see, a future that has no face, and which is everywhere except here and now. Sontag suggests that photography has inverted the Platonic distinction between the real and the illusory shadow of the real: ‘the force of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right….a potent means for turning the tables on reality – for turning it – reality - into shadow. Images are more real than anyone could have supposed.’

      And yet this ‘reality’ of images, which substitutes for life, is also a kind of death, according to Barthes: ‘All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know that they are agents of Death. This is the way in which our time assumes Death: with the denying alibi of the distractedly “alive”, of which the Photographer is in a sense the professional…..For Death must be somewhere in society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death….a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print.’ And yet it is what he calls a flat Death. ‘A paradox: the same century invented History and Photography. But History is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a pure intellectual discourse which abolishes mythic Time; and the Photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony; so that everything, today, prepares our race for this impotence: to be no longer able to conceive duration, affectively or symbolically: the age of the Photograph is also the age of revolutions, contestations, assassinations, explosions, in short, of impatiences, of everything which denies ripening.’*

      Photography exhibits a kind of self-devouring process as everything is photographed, recorded, stored while the world appears more and more depleted, becoming a vast one-dimensional memory bank as the diversity of the real world succumbs to a hegemonic conformity, as though the sheer benumbing quantification of imagery denudes the world of its former felt qualities. And today everyone is now a photographer with a Smartphone and social media is inundated with a mind-boggling proliferation of 'Selfies'. Is this the final 'self' commodification of a narcissistic consumer culture?

      The frenzy with which we devour images, the potentially inexhaustible consumption of images – does this process perhaps render us indifferent to the actual, numb our responses to the real, until finally the world becomes only the sum total of its images, an archive of instants defying the transiency of experienced life that lends pathos to reality, gives meaning to suffering, and by sharpening our awareness restores us to direct contact with the depth of things, the unfolding interconnectedness of life, reversing the entropic pull to sameness, the flat-lining of experience that hides our anguish behind a surfeit of images: on the one hand the world’s recorded pain, and on the other its illusory pleasures.

      Perhaps, in the camera obscura of the heart, a question arises as to the exact nature of photography: to what extent is our view of reality conditioned by photography, and to what extent does the way we use photography effectively to question that reality depend also upon immersing ourselves from time to time in the depths of our nature and the natural world without depending on artificial means that screen out our primordial relations to things, to others, and to nature itself?

c David Beatty 2015