Melting the Material World
by Mark Johnstone
I“We are less convinced by what we hear than by what we see.” – Herodotus; Histories I
It is a good thing that the fears of photography held by various primitive tribes and cultures are unfounded. If the camera eye could deplete or capture the spirit of its subject, the world would have long ago been sucked dry. Objects would cease to exist, and the world would be drained of all meaning. Photographs fill the space of our lives and the defined meaning of any image is tenuous, at best. What have photographs told us about the world, or what do they tell us about life today?
Meaning is not reflexively moored to specific objects, for there is a difference between an object and a picture of it. Decoding photographs remains a misunderstood — and pivotal - operation for the average person. The confusion has long been a part of popular culture: "I have something better than the facts," said Jimmy Stewart, as a reporter trying to prove a man's innocence (CallNorthside 777, 1948), "I have a photograph!"
Photography created a new set of social, political, philosophical and psychological ramifications for consideration of the world. Mechanization and industrialization, at the beginning of the 19th century, turned out a diversity of new production techniques and objects, shifting the economic order of the world. These shifts brought about equally profound changes in existing political and social structures. In the past 200 years, to oversimplify grossly, through the phenomenon of manufacturing (the creation, design, construction and marketing of products), the production of objects has formed a world-wide basis for social and economic development. Products are embellished with seemingly infinite physical characteristics of function and appearance. The codification of knowledge has been directed into the production of things. An object can be improved in design or function, mass-produced and constructed less expensively, or slyly marketed. Products can be made to assume various forms which will satisfy vastly dissimilar tastes.
The most common form of object in today's world is the image. Photography has quietly created an environment affecting us on many levels, yet the rise of an image culture has been so encompassing that the average person rarely thinks about it.
II "What's wrong with illusions?" "'You'll find out some day." - Carole Lombard asking Cary Grant (In Name Only 1939)
Daguerre’s announcement of a new method to mirror reality did not magically restructure the world in 1839. The change may have begun with Galileo’s first rudimentary investigations of the heavens (1609-l619), which were an effort to understand, and thereby master, the limits of the natural world. The advent of the telescope and microscope in Holland, in the 16th and 17th centuries, also expanded the way nature was considered and viewed. The subsequent shifts in thinking which developed from this period can be traced through the accomplishments of the educated class during the Ages of Enlightenment and Reason. But neither Daguerre’s announcement and the fact of photography, or manufacturing, can fully explain the changes in social structure or the intellectual climate of a given period.
Photography, as a medium of expression and communication, foreshadowed the Information Age of the mid-twentieth century. It disrupted the traditional hierarchy of information as it was controlled and dispersed by the “learned" classes. In 1860 the carte-de-visite of a famous personage could be placed next tothe images of one’s own family. The functional change wrought by mass media communications (magazines, radio, and later television) was fundamental. By 1960 any television personality could occupy a position of attention equal to any world leader. Soupy Sales and John F. Kennedy were made partners in the vast embracing world of modern image transmission. The populations watching television in the 1950’s were subject to a fractured sense of hierarchical values. The growth of a technological society not only changed the home place, but also the workplace, as it increased the shift of employment from factory to office. By 1965, everyone had access to a copy of the office document. Information, even the most unimportant bit, became part of the common currency of day-to-day functions. It was no longer particularly significant what purpose this information served: quantity of data became a symbol of power. The positions of respect which had previously been the goals of a technocratic bourgeoisie were replaced with lifestyles acquired through power. “Status” became the defining standard of social structure.
How existence is perpetuated within identified social structures canbe understood in terms of sensorial habituation. Our ancestors developed senses crucial to survival and, like their modern day counterparts, had a physical dependency on visual stimuli. Visual patterns are interpreted through a complex cognitive system including: anthropological, sociological and psycho-physical functions. Information was originally augmented with an increased auditory and tactile sensitivity, whereas modern man grapples with imagery on increased intellectual terms. Modern culture can be divided into two leading components: image “constructors” and image “consumers.” The image constructors include all media, and the consumers are all of us.
Technique is a major component of creative effort and is regulated by the procedures inscribed in the equipment. The technical characteristics of each medium have determined the ratio of creators to consumers. A recognition of the dynamic between the two areas is crucial to an understanding of how visual information functions in a community. Painting has relatively few creators and many consumers. Photography has a more balanced ratio, except in areas of image transmission, such as mass media magazines, film or television. One seeks to separate and define, at least for the purposes of art, two factors of image creation: the creative effort and the symbolic content of the work. One might also seek to assess, for the purposes of writing about art, the effect of the work on public thinking and behavior.
The still image remains the most basic piece of information to be examined. In a gallery, for example, a viewer has the ability to identify the role of the artist (image creator) and may be able to separate functionally the processes of creation and consumption. Productions of a complicated technical nature make the basic process of definition and deconstruction more difficult. As Diane Arbus pointed out:
It’s always seemed to me that photography tends lo deal with fads whereas film lends to deal with fiction. The best example I know is when you go so the movies and you see two people in bed, you’re willing to put aside the fact that you perfectly well know that there was a director and a cameraman and assorted lighting people all in that same room and the two people in bed weren’t really alone. But when you look at a photograph you can never put that aside.1
Images as in advertising can become more important than the product they represent. Newscasters today are selected for their appeal as models, rather than journalists, and news becomes escapist entertainment. The schism of modern visual consciousness lies in a conflict between the symbolic significance of images, and their increasing emptiness in public venues.
III "I don't have a photograph, but you can have my footprints. They are upstairs in my socks.” — Groucho Marx (A Nigt at the Opera, 1935)
It is problematic to isolate still photography as the dominant cultural message carrier in the age of telecommunications and information. Still photography comprises such a small part of electronic or cinematic imagery that it is only proper to examine all photographically generated imagery. The largest, and by implication the most dominant, portion of this imagery is not produced by the art world. We live in America in an age when there is a historification of the present The United States, a mere 25 years ago, experienced via television and news reports the drive to place a man on the moon. Now, through written narrative and filmic reconstruction, a new generation knows that period in dramatic and fictionalized terms. Television “docu-dramas” blend fact and fabrication and the dividing line between the two becomes indistinguishable. In The Right Stuff (I983) actual documentary footage was combined with dramatic recreation and it is difficult - if not impossible - to delineate between the two modes. The sensorial environment created by television and film has so overwhelmed the viewing population that it is natural to expect the mode of communication to be superficial and entertaining. There is little, if any,. attempt by the average viewer to cope with what may lie beyond immediate appearances.
Theatre productions, until the twentieth century, rarely deconstructed the space of a stage. The traditional use of theatrical stage space was translated into early cinema which, through the history of devices such as the diorama, constructed a perceptual experience for viewers. Cinema introduced sophisticated visual and optical techniques of foreshortening, crosscut, montage, editing, fade-in, dropout, enlargement and close-ups which dramatically alter the content, not just the presentation, of subject matter. Television places an emphasis on the detail, because a panorama or overview is not sufficiently dramatic or detailed on a small screen. These alterations create a different sense of how life and interpersonal relationships occur in the world. Many of these visual devices are now applicable to still photographs in ways that the viewing public can understand, but still does not think about.
The incorporation of photographic imagery into our lives may be considered from a slightly different perspective. Family snapshots, over the past 80 years, have become a reference for preserving personal experience and heritage by recording holidays, birthdays, and special occasions. Photographs often form one part of a person’s memory.One grows up with snapshots as mnemonic devices which can be embellished with oral accounts. Today, virtually anyone with these surrogate records of personal heritage will probably have difficulty separating what is lived experience (subjective memory) from the fact of a snapshot, or be able to identify exactly the embellishments woven into the image by the picture making ritual. Picture '"inflation'' produces images more specialized, intimate and precious than life itself. What can be more confusing for today’s children growing up with videotape documentation of their lives from birth? How is acquired (lived) information to be separated from reconstructed information? Transformed information which in many instances, is more vivid and dramatic than memory! A mind must be educationally sensitized to make the proper distinctions between what is experienced and remembered, and what is learned and acquired.
A fundamental difference in imagery today, compared to 45 years ago, may be considered in relation to audile cues. One hears a particular piece of music and is likely to associate it with a time and place which have personal meaning. Music videos have a greater sensory impact than most live events, and a viewer’s link to “lived” experience becomes secondary. Will today’s impressionable youth recognize music from their early years as stimuli to formative or meaningful experiences, or as a video with dancing performers?
As abstract and queer object properties become more important, we may expect language to develop with deep structures to reflect the worlds which we discover and create: worlds which so far as we know are uniquely human. We are being cut off from the biological past which moulded the eyes and the brains and the speech of our ancestors. The Intelligent Eye is for the first time confronted with an essentially unpredictable future, whose present objective hypotheses are bound to fail. As we create so must we adapt to what we have created: the danger is that we may create a world beyond the restraints of our intelligence: a world we cannot see.2
IV “News is TV, entertainment is TV. Hell, life is TV.” – Jane Wenner (founder and editor of Rolling Stone)3
The photographers born between 145 and 1960 experienced a fundamental shift in the information supplied to them during their developmental years, from radio and printed magazines to television. The predominant evolutionary trend of world culture, over the past twenty-five years, points to an elevation of the eye over all other human senses. “Seeing is believing,” and visual verification has become the measuring stick for most day-to-day information.
The functional analysis of photographic imagery exists as a crucial component of space exploration today. These transpersonal images (created through the efforts of many people and advanced technology) fit into the network of communications media, and service the desires of an eager spectator public. Scientific inquiry, through the marvels of modern technology, creates views which appear “realistic,” “truthful” or “factual.”4
The technology of digital image processing was recently used by art historians to mix colors which purportedly matched the originals, during the restoration of Leonardo dad Vinci’s painting, The Last Summer (1495-97). Computers were also used to judge the relative accuracy of perspective in Carpaccio’s painting, Legend of the True Cross: The Healing of the Demoniac (1495). Verification was established, through an analysis of his rendering of the Rialto Bridge, that Carpaccio painted “things as he saw them.” The concluding inference was that his descriptions of Venetian life in the painting should be accepted as being “accurate” and “true.” The use of computers for investigations of science or art is interesting, but is presently limited to the formal properties of an image. A far greater issue exists in those ethical questions surrounding the alterations of news photographs routinely released by the wire services, such as the Associated Press. Alterations are not identified, and the public is largely unaware that such manipulations even take place.5 It may be recognized that the media controlled by other governments engage in this practice, but we remain unaware when similar occurrences exist in our own news services.
There exists a potential for directing basic computer operations to the research and analysis of photographs. Indices are needed for framing information in a meaningful fashion. For example, if the works of Diane Arbus were to be catalogued, classified and compared to all the photographs appearing on the first page of the New York Times between 140 and 1970, it might be argued that her work not only marked the development of a unique artistic temperament, but also reflected a state of mind reinforced through the mass media predilection for certain types of people, during that period. Computers are an invaluable boon to such a cross-checking and cataloging tasks.
The incorporation of movement into an evolutionary development of vision, through cinema and television, is part of the natural progression of visual sensorial habituation. Yet single still images continue to abound. Why?
…when photographers begin to conceive their art as the making of visual networks, constellations, sequences, etc., they move from a conception of “art” narrowly defined by aesthetic concerns to a conception of “art” as a form of investigation and a form of cultural communication. In this broader conception, familiar distinctions – as between “art” and “science” – cease to be sharp; and art itself becomes a science-like activity, an orderly inquiry that requires imagination and discipline in equal portions. The work produced under such a conception lies primarily in the deployment of ideas in networks, where meaning is produced by interactions among images, in the context of expectation entertained by viewers.6
The photograph comes into existence through a specific set of actions, but the traditional methods of examination and evaluation are cumbersome and occasionally faulty. The advent of new imagine technologies is altering the way the world exists. The technological solution to all developments, in the past 200 years, has been innovation. The answers lie not only in the machines or generated data, but the incisive and expansive concepts applied to them.
V “We must change our romantic attitude towards the rules, too, and recognize them not as an imposition but as a biologically and culturally agreed upon code of communication, and constitution, the foundation of our freedom.” – Frederick Turner
A historification of the present is a deadly serious issue in educational and intellectual terms. When actors and actresses are accepted for the knowledge and authority they represent in Hollywood productions, a fundamental shift has occurred in the hierarchical order of information. The US Congressional hearings of early 1985 provide an excellent example of this change. Sissy Spacek, Jane Fonda and Sally Fields testified during the hearings on the plight of the American farmer, after having starred the previous year in movies depicting the current economic struggles of farm life.
A disturbing trend in contemporary journalism can be found in the success of the Gannett newspaper publication, USA Today. It characterizes itself as a form of the “new journalism of hope,” as contrasted with a prevailing “journalism of despair,” and is a “quick read” modeled after television. Gannett, in fact, even modeled the machines selling the papers after television sets. The editors have made astute strategic moves in shaping the paper’s format. Stories are abbreviated into short digestible nuggets, less than 1500 words , and pages are filled with dashes of color, graphs and charts. The editors have observed, for example, that sports fans don’t want to read stories recounting the games, they only want the statistics – and that is what fills the sports pages.8 In a larger sense this is precisely what any sport has become – a game of statistics. Statistics and lists are a guiding criteria for American culture because they represent compressed information – and time means money. But lists and tables of statistics lack he necessary supplemental information that allows for the establishment of meaning. Generalities are created to assess individual accomplishments, perhaps due to the laborious task of creating fresh insights.
Encyclopedias were the 19th century form of gather ides and facts, and today the computer provides similar services, but with greater capabilities of indexing and cross-checking information. Society, as an organism, has developed a central nervous system of information. But as matter and energy have degraded, so too has information. The word “imagination” stems from the visual image, but is now applied to all forms of conjectural thought, visual or otherwise. Despite inexact usage and skewed definitions, words will remain as our most basic and immediate (perhaps even effective) way of grappling with ideas.
Symbolism is becoming a more dominant characteristic of social existence, as everyone can “create,” or be “creative.” When creative multiplicity can partially compensate for a relative deficiency in image quality (look to the history of the snapshot, or the evolution of television), the factor of technological innovation has been acknowledged for its broad social impact.
Our rational knowledge of the world, as promulgated by photography, has not led to a greater freedom. The struggle for status has supplanted the needs of survival. Self-identity has become intertwined with the identity of mass society, as values are arbitrarily apprehended from mass media. We have witnessed a melting of the material world. This is an age of needs, when the means must be found to identify the meaning of the images affecting our lives. It is not an insurmountable task, but one necessitating new forms of education. Only by such innovations will images cease to sway us in the involuntary ways, and allow us to control some portion of our destiny.
The author wishes to thank Paul Lamprinos, a mathematician and imaginative thinker, whose discussions and writing have helped guel and defince many of these concepts over the past six years.
1. Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus (Millerton, N.Y., Aperture, 1972), p. 6
2. R. L. Gregory, The Intelligent Eye, (New York, McGraw Hill, 1970), p. 166.
3. New York Magazine, May 13, 1985, p. 22.
4. Mark Johnstone, “Photography, Computers and the Man in the Stands,” Photo-Communique (Fall 1984), pp. 30-36, and the reference o Harry C. Andrews, “Digital Image Processing,” Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering Spectrum, April 1979, pp. 38-49.
5. Howard Bossen, “Zone IV,” Studies in Visual Communication (Summer 1985), pp. 22-32.
6. Leroy Searle, “Idea Networks,” Radical Rational Space Time (Seattle: University of Wash., Henry Art Gallery, 1983), p.9.
7. Frederick Turner, “Escaping Modernism,” Harpers, November, 1984, p. 52.
8. Tom McNichol and Margaret Carlson, “Al Neuharth’s Technicolor Baby, Part II.” Columbia Journalism Review Volume IV (May/June 1985), pp. 44-48.Mark Johnstone is a Los Angeles based photographer and writer whose articles have been published in American and European journals devoted to photography and art.