This Blog is about my learning how to see through the medium of film photography.
It is a a journal for my own benefit as I come to learn traditional photography skills and come to think more about the nature of photography. I voice doubts and failures as well as celebrating the minor successes on the way.
I don’t much mind if it remains unread by others.
But what is photography? And what indeed is ‘Seeing’?
Photography relies on degrees of direct perception. 1 Firstly, we see something, call it ‘it’! Then we start to think: we conceptualise what we see; we categorise ‘it’ as an object, we inwardly name ‘it’ as a type of object; and so on. In assuming an identity it is no longer an ‘it’. It becomes a ‘point of view’, tangled up with memories and emotions, coloured by preconceptions.
Then, if we are of a mind to, we can bracket out our thoughts and see it again, not as an object but as a complex of shapes, lines, tones and textures: another ‘it’, different to the original as it now bears some imprint of mind.
The object then coexists as an object of direct perception and as an object of conceptual mind, as a specific thing and as a more general form. As Robert Adams once said ‘… photography, more than any other art-form, is tied to the specific..’ 2 It is the tension between these two forces that photography explores. It is this tension that great photographers exploit well. It is this tension that makes photography such a delightful phenomenological tool, open to all. 3
But why film photography?
However that does not mean that you cannot imbue a picture with artistic intent. The choices of film, composition, development, printing and presentation all work together to give a unique expression, ranging from ‘straight’ photography through expressive imagery to surrealism. 6 This uniqueness is why I pursue film photography. Each picture is one of a kind, impossible to exactly reproduce when printed chemically.
The same cannot be so readily said for digital pictures. Digital code works the same way every time you run it. Predictability is its strength. Fiction is but a few key-strokes away with the help of editing software. In a sense therefore, digital pictures are disposable, for an exact copy can always be made. 7 Much like most man-made objects in today’s world. The digital process is designed to iron out errors – to make the production of a photograph an easy affair. In my opinion, this runs counter to the trial and error and struggle that is necessary for personal learning and growth.
Film photography places emphasis squarely on an uncertain process – from moment to moment, from frustration to frustration. Frustrations are very important. As John Ruskin recognized, they open up a path to creativity.
This blog is not a diatribe against the Digital. I simply state my preferences and leave it there without further argument. Actually, I’m not the purist the forgoing would suggest. A combination of analogue and digital provides new possibilities, a new syntax. After all, combining an uncertain process to a certain process still gives a process open to serendipity.
This blog, ‘Silver and Light’, records my (necessarily) faltering efforts and frustrations at learning the art of Seeing through the craft of film photography.
- Philosophers know this as part of a philosophical tradition known as ‘direct realism’. A good number of philosophers (Kant, McDowell et al) argue that unmediated perception, (i.e. perception that is not shaped by conceptual thought) is not possible. I disagree. At first flush perception is free from attachment. It becomes entwined with conception and social form when we bring a perceived object into thought and language. The extent to which perception and conception are intertwined is a complicated affair ↩
- ‘Beauty in Photography’ by Robert Adams; Aperture Press; 1996. ↩
- This is what I think Edward Weston was driving at when he said:
To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravity before going for a walk. ↩
- à la Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. ↩
- This needs qualification. It is easy to manipulate a digital photograph so that it records a fiction. It is also possible to manipulate a film photograph in terms of its expressive qualities for example, or by superimposing two negatives together under the enlarger. However film photography does not lend itself easily to recording fictions. ↩
- My personal preference is for the straight photograph, a species that seems to be in decline ↩
- Plato might have appreciated this! ↩