6

Photography as a cultural critique

From ‘unconcerned’ photographs to concerned photographers

ONE of Man Ray’s experiments with photography involved taking what he termed ‘unconcerned’ photographs. He would use the camera to take pictures by chance, with little or no regard for subject or composition. By introducing this random element into his photography he allowed the camera to document whatever happened to be in front of the lens at the moment he happened to press the shutter. At another extreme of photographic practice, we can find photographers who have consciously used the camera not to reflect the world, but have made a conscious effort to produce images that will change it.

According to the British Journal of Photography (February 1992:16), Tom Stoddard’s picture of an ‘emaciated, Belsen-like Romanian orphan’ led to £40,000 worth of donations to relief charities within 24 hours of publication. Later, this figure was to rise to £70,000.

In Chapter 4 we considered Frith’s mid-nineteenth-century standpoint where he had proposed that the truth of photography would, through its own intrinsic properties, have the power to change or influence people’s moral standpoints and tastes. However, some photographers have made it their business to pursue the conscious use of photography with the aim of changing views and opinions—sometimes with the ultimate intention of changing the world in which we live. This is one step removed from Frith’s notion of the replication of perfection, in that we are not necessarily looking for inherent characteristics of the medium as such which operate as agents of change. For example, in 1924, Moholy-Nagy had pointed out how the general cultural climate, combined with photographic representation, offered new viewpoints and consequently new ways of visualising and documenting the world: 1

In the age of balloons and airplanes, architecture can be viewed not only in front and from the sides, but also from above. So the bird’s-eye view, and its opposites, the worm’s- and the fish’s-eye views become a daily experience.

(Moholy-Nagy, 1924)

Similar notions were expressed in the work of Alexander Rodchenko, who believed he could find a new aesthetic through his photography that was appropriate to the new social order of post-revolutionary Russia (see p. 59 of this volume). This Formalist

-135-

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The Photography Handbook
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Acknowledgements ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Historical Outline of Photographic Representation 12
  • 2 - Pre-Production 36
  • 3 - The Photographic Image 68
  • 4 - Post-Production 89
  • 5 - The Documentary Photograph 118
  • 6 - Photography as a Cultural Critique 135
  • 7 - Characteristics of Digital Photography 151
  • 8 - Conclusion 173
  • Notes 176
  • Glossary 179
  • Bibliography 183
  • Index 191
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