“It’s just a photograph”
This was my argument when suggesting to our lecturer today, Mark Ingham, that some of Roland Barthes theories on photography were ‘wishy washy’. Barthes talks about ‘photographs being invisible’ and ‘the subject experiencing death when the photo is captured’, both I can understand, and I follow where he is coming from, but from reading just the extract given to us before the lecture, I felt that Barthes’ was conceptualising something that wasn’t there to be conceptualised.
I do not disagree with Barthes points at all, and I find them all really interesting, however there were some, like those examples given, that I questioned before the lecture started.
In response to this I was advised to read the whole book; the introductory pages propose these theories, but do not go into enough depth for me. Perhaps this is what Barthes intended when writing it, as I have definitely been enticed to read the rest of ‘Camera Lucida‘ to answer the questions I have.
Ingham started the lecture getting us to discuss our responses to several photographic portraits, asking us to make guesses about what was happening in them or why they were set up in that way.
The one I took notice of most was David Burnett‘s photograph, captioned “After camping out for days, tourists look up into the sky as Apollo 11 rocketed into space.”.
This was one of the only photos in which I was able to guess what was happening; purely due to the 60s clothing, and the facial expressions of the people looking into the sky, conveying a sense of awe.
Ingham questioned that if the caption to the photo instead said “After camping out for days, tourists look up into the sky as three rare birds fly past.”, would we still believe it?
This goes back to Barthes point about photographs never having any more meaning than what you can see; it is only when you have secondary knowledge that you can distinguish from the content. I found it ridiculous and unbelievable that these people would be looking at rare birds, but this is only because I had previous knowledge which led me to guess it was not that. To others in the class, who had not guessed the actual context of the photo, this was totally believable and if Ingham had told us that instead of telling us it was in fact the Apollo 11 launch, I’m sure no one would have questioned it.
Going back 130 years from this Burnett photograph, 1839 is the year photography is regarded to have commenced…
Yes, the first photograph was supposedly taken previous to this, in 1826/1827, but there were so many problems with photography back then, in terms of long exposure times and difficulties fixing the image. So, on the 25th of January, 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot presented his results from negative/positive processing to the Royal Institution in London, calling the process ‘photogenic drawing’, and photography as we know it today resulted from this.
The lecture then skipped forward to the Victorian era, and Ingham showed us an image of this:
My first guess was some sort of tripod, something to hold a camera. Other guesses in the class were fire tongs, lantern holder, etc etc.
We were all shocked to find out that it was actually a device to keep people in the same position whilst having their photo taken.
Keeping the same pose for so long proved hard when we tried to pull the same facial expression for just one minute. Some were better than others… I spent the whole minute laughing.
We then realised why Victorians are so famous for not smiling in photos; it took so long for the photograph to be captured, that it was impossible to keep any facial expression other than a straight face.
The lecture then got slightly more morbid as we were shown a series of photos of Victorian children, seemingly fine, but actually dead and posed to look alive for photographs, as a form of remembrance. This was a concept we all struggled with in the class, questioning why this was acceptable and why the Victorians were normalising death this way. However when more thought is put into the issue, you realise that photographs were not something easily obtained for those without a financial and social status, so photographing children alive would be very rare, as most families would wait until they are fully grown. Yet if their child has died, then this new concept of photography is a perfect way for them to keep a memory of the deceased.
More information on this Victorian tradition here: http://listverse.com/2012/10/24/memento-mori-victorian-death-photos/
Looking back, this is thankfully something that no longer has to occur in our society as photographs are so easily obtained. So easy in fact that there are now trends in photography, which almost everyone is involved in… A lecture on photography in 2015 of course couldn’t go without mentioning the ‘selfie’.
The first selfie?
In this self portrait, you can see that Robert Cornelius has scratched out the camera he used when taking a photo of his reflection in October/November 1939. On the back of this photograph it reads “The first light picture ever taken”.
Today the selfie is everywhere, and as hinted upon in my last blog post, one of the most famous of recent selfies was read into today in the lecture. We looked at Obama, Cameron and Thorning-Schmidt’s selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Selfies seem to have become so common and a part of ordinary life that even government officials lose sense; we discussed how inappropriate and disrespectful this was, and it looks like Michelle agrees.
After the selfie…
The thing that I was most interested by in this lecture, and in Barthes’ work, also relates to the selfie. It is the concept of who you are conveying in a photo of yourself; whether you realise it or not, you will always pose when you know there is a camera on you. We all tried to take a selfie in the lecture without posing but it was literally impossible, we could act natural, but it was still acting, not being.
Even if you forget the camera is there, you still have to press the button with your finger, and as soon as you do that, you go back to posing. When it is not a self portrait, Barthes argues that there are four versions of yourself, intersecting at once. You as you think you are, you as you want others to think you are, you as the photographer thinks you are, and the you the photographer wants to exhibit. Regardless, the image is never of YOU, it is of the body you are making for yourself; as soon as you pose, you are transforming yourself into the photo, before it has even been taken.
That’s Not Me
& not mentioned in lecture but I saw it today and thought it was cool: