Consider Bourdieu’s statement that
“in conferring upon photography a guarantee of realism, society is merely confirming itself the tautological certainty that an image of the real which is true to its representation of objectivity is really objective”
What do I think this statement means?
Do I agree with it, and if not, why not?
Society ‘believes’ in the reality, the apparent truth, of photographic images. It’s hard not to because photographs, despite being flat (or perhaps because), ‘look’ so much like reality, according to how we have been conditioned to see. Bourdieu is saying photographs appear like true life because photography is a product of society’s ‘way of seeing’. Our way of seeing is part of our cultural interface and not something we can separate from all that easily, if at all.
We believe in photography as a truthful objective recorder of life despite the fact that most of us, including non-photographers, hear stories for instance about Photoshopped images all the time. (There is too much emphasis on the ‘evils’ of Photoshop. Photographers and artists have been successfully altering images since photography’s birth. Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void is an old example of an image that played with society’s trust in photographic images. Prior to that painters painted in the style of the epoch in which they existed – elongating necks, clearing skin, flattering kings and queens throughout art’s history.)
Despite a long habit of people pointing out that photography cannot be trusted, society continues to confer on photographs ‘a guarantee of realism’ (Bourdieu, 1969). We do so because photographs reinforce our perception of reality due to the way we interact with them. We don’t interact in the same way with ballet for example. Things get more messy with soap-operas.
But as Bourdieu points out early in his essay “photography captures an aspect of reality which is only ever the result of arbitrary selection, and consequently, of transcription” (Bourdieu, 1965) Like any artistic expression, photography is an interpretation of reality, regardless of clever montage created with old or new technologies. But it’s hard for our human, fallible brains to recognise and keep hold of these facts. It’s what makes photography so powerful.
People interested in making propaganda, or as John Berger calls it, publicity, have made great use of photography’s power of persuasion from the very early days. Bourdieu states that this is because photography “(from its origin) [it] has been assigned social uses that are held to be ‘realistic’ and ‘objective’”. (Bourdieu, 1965)
This is not entirely true. In fact, Pictorialism is a clear example of photographers doing the opposite, trying to emulate expressive paintings by creating painterly textures, moods and lighting in their photographs. It is true, of course, there are many examples of photography being used to record life for scientific purposes, most famously, Muybridge’s horses, but interpretation even there is unavoidable. After I went to the Drawn By Light exhibition last year, I wrote: “And I was …()… fascinated by the photographs of psychiatric patients by Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond who was one of the first to use photography to document science in this way – although it has to be said the portraits are very much an expression of the photographer and his time rather than merely documentation.” In any case, it is a mistake to see science as entirely objective and authoritative. (Reading through various opposing child-rearing methodologies has proven to me that you can prove whatever you want to with the right data and a well thought out argument.) Photography has been assigned uses that appear to be objective, but it has in fact been used both artistically and scientifically since its inception. The artistic style of Pictorialism was dismissed, thought to be a sign of a lack of confidence by photographers and within photography in the 1920/30s. But even the highly focused and stark style of the f.64 club is dependent on interpretation and promotes a specific, consciously chosen way of ‘seeing’, expression rendered in a certain way. And many of the habits of Pictorialism seem to have made a comeback due to the ease with which we can add effects digitally, although one could argue a snobbishness surrounds some photography being made to look ‘different’ as opposed to an ‘unadulterated’ photograph, especially where technology is used. Such work might be considered ‘ersatz’.
Photography has “presented itself with all the appearance of a ‘symbolic communication without syntax’” (Bourdieu, 1965). This is something to ponder quite seriously. As human beings continue to evolve, why are we currently communicating more and more with images rather than words and syntax? “We are all photographers now” is a sentence I have read repeatedly in various articles about photography and the Internet. Why are we all communicating with a language which, without the shape and form of spoken or written words, taps into our base, pre-conscious, pre-history selves?
And as far as the Internet goes; we have created a vast, digital-realization of the super-brain organism. And the Internet is awash with images. The Spectacle, described by the Situationists, “is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”. (Debord, 1967). The Internet is The Spectacle digitised.
I have watched a lot of videos on YouTube about The Situationists over the last few days and also read some of (but not all quite yet) The Society of the Spectacle. I LOVE the ideas and would dearly like to see a copy of Guy Debord’s Mémoires and wonder what those people would have made of the present state of the world. Everything I’ve come across so far seems incredibly prescient and accurate in relation to today. But as I absorb the ideas I keep thinking about chickens and eggs.
Which comes first? The images or the society? They are borne out of each-other and feed into each-other. And the continuous back and forth flow between the two become self-prophesising.
We Westerners do indeed have a history of seeing in a certain way, that leads us to making photographs which reflect and project back that way of seeing. And which reinforces the way we see. The “tautological certainty that an image of the real … is really objective” suggests that Bourdieu believes society thinks that photographs tell the ‘honest truth’. In fact, individuals know that photographs don’t always (if ever) tell the honest truth. However, so much of photography, especially vernacular and advertising, looks so much like reality that we believe in the images even when we know intellectually, they have been manipulated in some way. That manipulation may be digital, as in when a female model is made to look younger. Or it may have been produced for commercial purposes, such as an advert with a family looking like they’re having the best time ever driving along the motorway, because the makers want us to think the car they’re in has the ability to transform life, filling it with fun, love and happiness. Or the manipulation could be the conscious or unconscious choice of images posted by a friend on FB or Instagram, chosen specifically to make his/her friends (and perhaps the poster too) think that their life is one long, happy, marvellous existence, because that is what the ‘publicists’ tell us life should be like. “The image is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image” (Debord, 1967). Capital can be many things, as systemised by Bourdieu, and the images of accumulated capital reinforce the belief systems we buy into, perhaps even increasing the value of the capital over time. All of which continue to serve in the reinforcing and mirroring and projection – which I have described above.
When society looks at such photographs, individuals within that society, even though they know there may be some falsehoods, want to believe in the ‘reality’ represented. So they do. Society then internalises the message communicated and projects it out again, so that when society looks at the image, it can say to itself – yes; that is the reality; I am part of the reality. This is what the tautology in Bourdieu’s sentence refers to.
Photographic images are part of reality ‘represented’. Not because they were used in scientific purposes originally, and so are attached to supposed truthful, authoritative occupations. But rather because to be human requires a system of mediation, which can only ever be represented, between the organic data inside each of us and the everyday business of existing. Photographic images are a part of the language of the post-industrial cultural interface. Part of the illusion of self. And other. (Baggini, 2011) We have little choice but to believe in most, if not all, aspects of the reality of that interface.
Bourdieu, P. (1965). The Social Defenition of Photography. In J. Evans. & S. Hall (Ed.), Visual Culture: A Reader. Sage & Open University. 1999.
Debord, G. (1967). Society of the Spectacle . Paris. In G. Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Int. T. Cooper 1977, Trans. Black & Red). Bread & Circuses Publishing.
Baggini, J (2011). The Ego Trick. Grant Publications. Grant. 2011.