Frederick Evans: Photography as Mediation

Article excerpt


I would like to begin with two definitions of photography. The first belongs to Georges Potonni[acute{e}]e, to his Histoire de la d[acute{e}]couverte de la photographie (1925):

Photography is the art of making permanent the images perceived in the camera obscura, by means other than those of manual drawing. It was invented by the Frenchman Nic[acute{e}]phore Niepce in the year 1822. [1]

The second belongs to L[acute{a}]szl[acute{o}] Moholy-Nagy:

As a matter of fact, the main instrument of the photographic process is not the camera but the photosensitive layer; the specific rules and methods of photography accord with how this layer responds to lighting effects produced by different materials according to their light or dark, smooth or rough characteristics ('Fotografie ist Lichtgestaltung', Bauhaus, ii/1 (1928)). [2]

The widely divergent implications of these two views are only too apparent. Potonni[acute{e}]e looks upon photography as the consummation of the development of the camera obscura -- that is to say, the photograph is (a) a branch of exact drawing, (b) concerned with the fixing of images and is thus (c) already devoted to the iconic. Moholy-Nagy, on the other hand, sees the camera itself as already an excess, a superfluity. Photography is about capturing light reflected off objects. It is, therefore, not a branch of drawing, nor even of art: it is a making manifest of the physics of the world and tells us about the creation of volumes and appearances. The miracle of photography lies not in its iconicity, but in its indexicality. In Potonni[acute{e}]e's version, one might argue that efficiency in the use of photographic techniques is of paramount importance and that the photographer is the artist of those techniques. In the Moholy-Nagy version, one might at first think that neither the camera, nor the operator, is of the slightest importance. One of the 'embarrassments' for Roland Barthes, a commentator of Moholy-Nagy's persuasion, more or less, is satisfactorily to explain to himself why he should illustrate his argument with photographs by great photographers. In fact, he does not explain it: instead he tells us that photography is ontologically an activity for amateurs; he tells us of his dislike of photographers who exploit photographic techniques for artful ends; and he tells us about punctum, the chance detail which epitomizes the contingency of the photograph, the detail which, as it were, consecrates the photograph's acute time-boundness, a factor which dictates that, in the camera, 'the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation'. [3]

It is usual to trace this revival of the 'primitive' version of photography to the photogram, to the celebrations of translucent objects, of the calligraphy of shadow, and of the transformative processes of light in the negative-positive process, in the photography of the 1920s: Constructivism, Surrealism, the Bauhaus. Moholy-Nagy, no less than Walter Benjamin, wastes no opportunity to regret the years photography spent in the wild goose chase of art imitation. [4] But this history is too simple. The crucial date for the sea-change in the perception of photography and its relationship with art occurs in the 1870s and 1880s. In the conflictual shift between the allegorical realism of Henry Peach Robinson and the atmospheric documentariness of P. H. Emerson, we also witness a shift of emphasis from a photography which sought to base itself on rules of composition, on the aesthetics of the image itself, and in particular on the work of John Burnet, whose A Practical Treatise on Painting had first appeared in 1827, to a photography which sought to base itself on the relatively new science of optics, on the experiential physiology of perception, and more particularly on the work of scientists such as Herman Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-94), the inventor of the opthalmoscope, whose three-volume Handbook of Physiological Optics was published between 1856 and 1867. …