Notes: What Photography Is, James Elkins, 2011

In preparation for A5:

I go back to James Elkins’ book all the time. I read it when I started with the OCA and found it it frustrating at times because he seems so deliberately contentious. I was also horrified by the violence in the final section, however, I now have more of an idea about why he was exploring that subject.

The other night when I watched the recently aired BBC documentary about John Berger I was pleased to hear him explain that he was told he couldn’t forgo the words, ‘may’ and ‘might’ and ‘possibly’ during preparation for Ways of Seeing (BBC, 2016). He disagreed and said he would insist on being emphatic because that is the way to engage people. (I like that way of writing/speaking although I imagine one must earn he right to do so to get away with it). If they they didn’t like what he said, he told us, they would be more likely to think – or words to that affect. Elkins too has written his book in this way.  In fact, he is deliberately provocative, and admits his dismissal of nearly all photographic genres would irritate almost everyone. Well, it has worked insofar as engaging me goes because I have thought about his book a great deal since reading it.

Elkins very last words in the book are:

“I have tried to write a sterile book, with a minimum of interruptions from pathos, art, memory, loss, or nostalgia, because that is what I think photography is.”

In many ways it’s hard to argue with that. Photography is representation of life without the life. Photography is sterile. Especially digital where no chemical reaction was required to make the picture. The type of photography Elkins’ tells us he values most seems to embrace a sense of visual sterility – such as Thomas Demand’s work.He says he finds the work of Sally Mann and Joel-Peter Witkins, for example, ‘too precious’ (2011; Loc 1265). Their images are filled with efforts, it seems, at making something sterile seem less so. (scratches, mistakes, agedness, burns etc.)

What I have been thinking about lately is how photography is different to other forms of representation, i.e. painting, drawing, sketching. It is a direct record of something the photographer’s ‘organic functioning brain’ has witnessed; light patterns decoded by the eye, understood by the mind, recorded internally, and stored if not consciously then unconsciously. Prior to photography there was no way to do that. Which is what, I think Elkins is saying, we should value about it, rather than cling to the desire to make pictures look like something they are not. (OCA tutor Jesse Alexander said something very similar at one of the regular Thames Valley meetings.)

I really need to re-read Elkins book as I think it will tie in with some aspects of what I may be looking at in A5.

I think this sterility is connected to an unzipping of our internal lives via smart phones in some way …

(Note for me - look at page 121 - formal analysis)

Elkins, J. (2011). What photography is. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.

BBC iPlayer. (2016). John Berger: The Art of Looking. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Nov. 2016].


2 thoughts on “Notes: What Photography Is, James Elkins, 2011

  1. I agree about one-sidedness and how provocative this can be – it has to be done in such a way though not to completely alienate a reader but get them to think. At least Elkins warns people in advance.
    I mused for a while after reading your sentence about internal lives, smart phones and sterility. What percentage of internal life shared means that a person doesn’t have one because it’s all externalised, plus is ‘internal life’ narrowed in scope and expression because it has to fit in a smart phone?

    Liked by 2 people

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